Clean and Unclean Meats: Does God's Word Draw a Distinction?

Many people have misconceptions about the biblical teaching on clean and unclean meats. What does Scripture really reveal on this subject?

God gave all of His laws for good reasons. They teach us His standards—how to distinguish right from wrong, good from evil, beneficial from harmful. They teach us to distinguish the holy—that which God sets apart—from the common and ordinary. They define the way we, too, are to be holy, set apart for God's purposes.

As we apply the biblical laws in our lives, they encourage us to think differently, to think more like God. They alter our perceptions. For example, keeping God's Sabbath days changes the way we think about and use our time. His laws of tithing, concerning portions of our income, alter our perception and use of our physical resources.

In the same way, God's laws concerning meats that are appropriate or inappropriate for human consumption—referred to as "clean" and "unclean" in the Scriptures—change our perspective regarding many things we eat.

God expects spiritual leaders to teach His people to distinguish between biblically right and wrong behavior. He says, through the prophet Ezekiel: "They shall teach My people the difference between the holy and the unholy, and cause them to discern between the unclean and the clean" (Ezekiel 44:23, emphasis added throughout).

Even though some of God's laws may appear unusual on the surface, and we may not immediately grasp their full purpose, they help us to avoid physical troubles and, more importantly, moral and spiritual infection. The Word of God provides a pattern for physically, spiritually and morally healthy living. God gives His principles of health and cleanliness for our good, in this life as well as the one to come (1 Timothy 4:8).

One reason for our existence is to learn to base our lives on the words of God (Matthew 4:4; Luke 4:4; Deuteronomy 8:3). God's Word —the Bible—encompasses all aspects of our lives, including what we eat. Often people don't realize that God made distinctions that reveal which meats are appropriate for human beings to eat. Some believe these distinctions no longer apply. But, rather than relying on human opinion, let's consider these matters in the light of the Bible.

Popular ideas about distinctions

Since many people enjoy eating pork (ham, bacon, sausage, etc.) and experience no immediate adverse effects, some have looked for scientific reasons that God may have had in mind when He told the ancient Israelites not to eat pork (Leviticus 11:7; Deuteronomy 14:8). One theory is that God forbade the eating of pork so that the Israelites would not catch certain diseases, such as trichinosis, that pigs can carry. After all, the Israelites did not own refrigerators, and researchers had not yet warned people to thoroughly cook pork to kill any potential disease-carrying organisms.

Since modern research has apparently solved these problems of disease, and we rarely hear of parasites passing to people through under-cooked meat, many people assume eating pork is now acceptable to God. Since many people eat pork all their lives and live to a ripe old age, the average person—if he thinks about it at all—assumes eating pork has little or no effect on health or longevity.

Research has convinced some doctors and nutritionists, however, to recommend that some of their patients avoid pork and shellfish (another category of biblically unclean food) in their diets; they understand that some people do not properly digest these meats. So some will acknowledge that avoidance of certain meats makes sense for people with particular health problems, but not as a rule for everyone.

Most religious teachers have adopted a perspective that parallels this scientific reasoning. Theologians have assumed that the laws of clean and unclean meats originated under the Old Covenant with ancient Israel and came to an end with the establishment of the New Covenant. Thus they believe many laws from the Old Testament are no longer applicable to Christians.

Many think Paul confirmed this approach when he said, "I know and am convinced by the Lord Jesus that there is nothing unclean of itself; but to him who considers anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean" (Romans 14:14).

This reasoning places God in the role of master physician in the Old Testament and Jesus Christ in the role of liberator from God's law in the New Testament. If we assume that God was simply looking out for the health of the ancient Israelites, the Bible's lists of clean and unclean animals become only primitive health issues for which modern, enlightened, liberated mankind no longer has need. The popular reasoning is that Christ understood this and gave His followers the freedom to decide for themselves in such matters. Some believe God will honor any decision we make for ourselves regarding such things.

This popular view is taught by most churches. But the crucial question remains: Does it accurately reflect biblical teaching?

God's view is different

God made mankind in His own image (Genesis 1:26-27). In doing so He gave men and women the ability to reason. Though a wonderful gift, our thinking ability is not infallible. When ancient Israel's reasoning went awry, God said, "Come now, and let us reason together" (Isaiah 1:18).

But Scripture also records God telling us: "'My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways,' says the LORD. 'For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts'" (Isaiah 55:8-9).

So God, not man, is the authority on our conduct (Proverbs 14:12), including deciding that of what foods we may or may not eat.

In addition, the great prophet Jeremiah candidly admitted, "O LORD, I know the way of man is not in himself; it is not in man who walks to direct his own steps" (Jeremiah 10:23).

In light of these Bible verses, we need to carefully examine the matter of clean and unclean meats. We need to be sure we understand God's perspective instead of relying exclusively on our own reasoning.

The origin of the distinctions

The first biblical account noting distinctions between clean and unclean animals documents events that occurred long before the Exodus. Almost 1,000 years before God made a covenant with the nation of Israel, in fact centuries before there even was an Israel, He told Noah to take into the ark unclean animals by twos and the clean ones by sevens (Genesis 6:19; 7:2).

God did not tell Noah in this account that He was, for the first time, making a distinction between clean and unclean animals. God simply said, "Of every clean animal you shall take seven pairs, males and their mates, and of every animal that is not clean, two, a male and its mate" (Genesis 7:2, New Jewish Publication Society).

God did not have to define for Noah the meaning of clean and unclean. Noah understood God's instruction and what was required of him, and he obeyed. To comprehend what God meant by these terms, we must go to other chapters of the Bible—Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14.

The account in Genesis about Noah shows that the distinction between clean and unclean animals existed early in history, long before God ratified His covenant with Israel. Thus the Bible itself clearly shows that the popular idea that the cleanness and uncleanness of animals originated in the Old Covenant is incorrect. Since these distinctions existed long before the Israelite sacrificial system and Levitical priesthood, it does not follow that they would cease with a change in the sacrificial system or the priesthood. As we will see, the Bible teaches that the distinction between clean and unclean has never been rescinded and that the distinction continues to exist for good reasons.

Another flaw in some people's understanding is that God's law did not exist until the specific time of its first mention in the Bible. This misconception leads to the equally flawed belief that the only laws applicable to New Covenant Christians are those restated in the New Testament after Christ's crucifixion. Jesus Himself dismissed this reasoning as false (Matthew 5:17-19). Although such assumptions about when God's law came into effect lack biblical proof, they do raise an important issue for us to consider—the continuity of God's law.

The nature of God's law

Some people reason that God allowed Adam and Eve to eat any animal but changed the rules for Noah. Or they argue that Noah could eat any kind of animal flesh because God had revealed no specific instructions that expressly forbade him from doing so.

Such reasoning is inherently flawed. It overlooks the permanent nature of the spiritual principles that form the basis for the instruction God has given to mankind.

God bases His instructions to people on spiritual principles that have always existed. Just as God is eternal (Deuteronomy 33:27; Psalm 90:2), so are the principles that reflect His eternal character and nature (Malachi 3:6; Hebrews 13:8). God's law is based on His unchanging character, not dependent on events and attitudes prevalent in human history.

The Bible, from beginning to end, is a book about law. However, it is not written as a purely legal book. The Hebrew word for law ( torah ) encompasses direction and instruction, concepts much broader than a mere legal code. God's law existed before the Bible was written down. As Paul noted, "the law is spiritual" (Romans 7:14).

The Bible is a book about relationships —specifically how people in the past related to God and, based on their experiences, how we should relate to Him. God's law—His direction and instruction for people—provides the guidelines for developing a relationship with Him that leads to eternal life (John 17:2-3).

Through time, as our relationship with God develops, we learn more about what He expects of us—the thoughts and actions acceptable under His law—and begin thinking and doing those things (Matthew 7:21; John 14:15; Revelation 14:12).

When we understand the spiritual principles that stand as the basis for God's law, we don't look for loopholes in His law to avoid doing what He commands. When we enjoy a loving relationship with Him, we keep His commandments (1 John 5:2). As the apostle John tells us: "For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments. And His commandments are not burdensome" (verse 3). All God's commandments exist for our benefit.

Did something in the law change?

Let's note an additional consideration regarding the nature of God's law. Some will argue that all of God's law is temporary because of obvious changes since Old Testament times concerning the laws of sacrifice and circumcision. This argument is rooted in confusion over how these changes came about.

The Bible notes that some of this confusion stems from differences in ministries or administrations. Paul, who wrote of God's "spiritual" law (Romans 7:14), also wrote of "differences of administrations, but the same Lord" (1 Corinthians 12:5, King James Version). Paul also wrote of the differences between the Old Covenant ministry, or administration, compared with that of the New (2 Corinthians 3).

Administrative changes, however, are not to be confused with God's law itself, which Jesus clearly said continues to exist and apply today (Matthew 5:18). God has allowed and, in some cases, directed adjustments in administrative applications of God's law. In every instance Scripture spells out such administrative changes. We find no administrative change in the New Testament regarding clean and unclean meats.

Codifying previously revealed laws

God's laws existed long before Moses and the Israelites came on the scene. For example, God says of Abraham, who lived several centuries before the Israelites left Egypt, that he "obeyed My voice and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes, and My laws" (Genesis 26:5).

When God began to work with ancient Israel, He was not formulating and announcing His law for the first time; He was restating it for a group of people that had spent several generations as slaves in Egypt (Exodus 12:41). Under those circumstances these people probably had not remembered God's law, much less obeyed it. Thus God spent ample time systematically revealing His laws for the new nation.

Before the Israelites left Egypt and arrived at Mount Sinai, God began instructing them about His festivals (Exodus 5:1; 12:1-51). As they journeyed to Sinai, God instructed them to rest on His weekly Sabbath day (Exodus 16:23), reinforcing that command by miraculously sending a larger portion of manna, a special food to be gathered up from the ground, on the sixth day of the week and none at all on the seventh (verses 25-29). When some Israelites ignored God's instruction and looked for manna on the Sabbath, God rebuked them: "How long do you refuse to keep My commandments and My laws?" (verse 28).

These events took place before God revealed the observance of His Sabbath as one of the Ten Commandments when the Israelites came to the Wilderness of Sinai (Exodus 19:1). There God spoke the Ten Commandments from Mount Sinai (Exodus 20). Then God gave His judgments—rulings on practical ways for the Israelites to apply His law—and further instructions regarding the weekly Sabbath and His festivals (Exodus 21-23). If His people would obey, God promised to bless them physically by taking away sickness and providing them security within their new land (Exodus 23:25-33).

The purpose of the distinction

In Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14 we find lists of clean and unclean animals. The first listing was given for the benefit of the generation that had escaped from Egyptian slavery. In Deuteronomy God reemphasized this instruction for the next generation as it was about to claim its new territory in the Promised Land.

The two chapters give the same reason for God's instruction on clean and unclean meats. In Leviticus 11 God says that to "be holy" one must avoid the unclean. In Deuteronomy 14 Israel was told not to eat "any detestable thing" (verse 3), "for you are a holy people to the LORD your God" (verses 2, 21). To be holy means to be set apart by God.

The specific purpose God gave for avoiding unclean meats is holiness. God wants us to be holy. Since we belong to Him and He purchased us with Christ's blood, He does not want us to contaminate ourselves through any kind of physical or spiritual defilement (1 Corinthians 6:15-20). In God's sight refraining from eating unclean animals is an identifying sign of the holiness of those God has set apart through a relationship with Him.

Those who honor God should reflect holiness in their thoughts and actions. God requires holy conduct, a way of life distinctly different from that of the rest of the world. Holiness in conduct is based in attitudes toward God, others and self that result in actions that avoid causing pain and build lasting beneficial relationships. Of course, being holy means much more than merely avoiding unclean meats. Christ spoke of the "weightier matters of the law," such as judgment, mercy and faith (Matthew 23:23).

God gave His laws to physical people who suffer the consequences when they do not follow those laws. Breaking His law against adultery, for example, can destroy a marriage and family. Deuteronomy 28 records numerous calamities that befell the Israelites when they failed to obey the laws of God. But He said he would establish them as a holy people if they would keep His commandments (verse 9).

God's continuing desire for His people to be holy has remained constant. As Paul said, "He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love" (Ephesians 1:4).

The apostle Peter admonished Christians to live "as obedient children, not conforming yourselves to the former lusts, as in your ignorance; but as He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, because it is written, 'Be holy, for I am holy'" (1 Peter 1:14-16).

Of course, Peter had in mind a far wider range of godly behavior than merely refraining from unclean meats. So did Paul when he reminded the Corinthians of God's instruction: "Come out from among them and be separate, says the Lord. Do not touch what is unclean, and I will receive you. I will be a Father to you, and you shall be My sons and daughters, says the LORD Almighty" (2 Corinthians 6:17-18).

Change in administration

When Jesus came to earth to die for mankind's sins and become our High Priest, His ministry replaced the Levitical priesthood, which had functioned from the time of Moses (Hebrews 7:11-14). Jesus is our "guarantee of a better covenant" (verse 22, New Revised Standard Version), called the "new covenant" (Hebrews 8:8, 13).

Christ's ministry does not void God's law. Instead, God writes that law on the heart of those who accept this covenant so that it becomes a part of their mind and way of thinking (verse 10). Remember, Jesus said He didn't come to abolish the law (Matthew 5:17-19). The New Covenant, of which Jesus is our High Priest, contains "better promises" (Hebrews 8:6), not better law. The better promises include eternal life as well as the promise of God's Spirit, which empowers us to live according to God's laws (Romans 8:4).

Notice Paul's summing up of this principle: "But now having been set free from sin, and having become slaves of God, you have your fruit to holiness, and the end, everlasting life. For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Romans 6:22-23). A Christian will make every effort to adhere to all of God's instruction and live a holy way of life.

When God made the administrative change from the Levitical priesthood to the ministry of Jesus Christ, the laws and administrative principles that pertained only to the Levites no longer applied in the same way. As Hebrews 7:12puts it: "For the priesthood being changed, of necessity there is also a change of the law." The law—specifically the law concerning who served as God's prieshood (verses 13-14)—was changed, not rendered invalid. The change in the priesthood did not negate the laws and principles God gave for our spiritual and physical benefit.

The enduring practice of the apostles and early Church was to continue to follow the distinctions God gave regarding clean and unclean meats (Acts 10:14).

Some people suppose this was merely a case of culture or tradition. Yet, concerning prophetic fulfillments yet to occur, the Bible speaks of unclean animals (Revelation 18:2) and punishment of those who disobey Him in this matter (Isaiah 66:15-17). The Bible continues to show obedience to the laws of clean and unclean food as an identifying characteristic of God's people.

Being different from the rest of society by following God's law is no cause for embarrassment. Peter writes of God's called-out people that "you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light" (1 Peter 2:9). God describes His chosen people as called to holiness. This includes the matter of clean and unclean meats.

However, Christians should always use wisdom and discretion in how they reveal practices involving the avoidance of unclean meats to family and friends. They should not try to push God's laws on adults who are responsible for making their own decisions in such matters. Paul advises: "Be wise in your dealings with outsiders, but use your opportunities to the full. Let your words always be gracious...Learn how best to respond to each person you meet" (Colossians 4:4-6, Revised English Bible).

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