READ: Leviticus 11-12
THINK: Clean and unclean. That’s the big idea in these chapters. But what is it all about, and why in the world does God set up this dichotomy? And why does he choose the animals that he does to be clean or unclean? These are great questions. I’m so glad I asked them. And the answers, I think, are simpler than we might expect yet very challenging at the same time.
There are a number of different theories out there about why God chose the animals he did to be on the lists of “Clean” or “Unclean.” Some believe that it had to do with pagan religious practices – that God wanted to draw a clear line between his people and those who worshipped pagan gods and often sacrificed pigs in the process. But the pagans sacrificed bulls too and God declared those clean. Still others want to point to biological and community health reasons for God’s decree. They point out that animals on the unclean list were inherently more disease-ridden and likely to be harmful to people in an era without refrigeration or modern amenities. There are 2 reasons I don’t think this is it: 1. The ancient Israelites didn’t. For them, when God revealed this and for centuries afterward, it never had anything to do with public health. They never thought that was the point and so I doubt it is. And 2. God declared all animals clean to Peter in the book of Acts. Believe or not, the refrigerator still hadn’t been invented in 40 AD.
I think, in this case, the explanation that is simplest is actually the truest and best: God chose what animals were clean and unclean for reasons that we don’t understand even in the slightest. But why he did it that way was not the “why” that mattered. Not at all. For the ancient Israelites it was less about wondering what God’s logic was. After all, he’s God so who could ever know it? The “why” that mattered was: why is God setting up this system? And the answer is that it was about recognizing that God had called them to be set apart.
See, being set apart from the surrounding world is what this system and God’s laws are ultimately all about. God is holy. We are called to be holy. But being holy, as sinful and fallen human beings, requires a great deal of purpose and intentionality on our part. It doesn’t just happen. So, God set up a system of what animals were clean and unclean and what practices made a person unclean in order to help the Israelites actively pursue being set apart from the sinfulness of the world around them for him. In verses 44 and 45 of chapter 11 he repeats the phrase – driving home its critical importance – that his people are to be holy as he is holy. And the laws about clean and unclean food help them understand how intentional they must be in the process in order for that to happen. And the laws about the uncleanliness of childbirth serve as an incredibly powerful reminder that we are born unclean. Because of the sinful condition of our race, we’re born unholy and cut off from God and there’s nothing we can do to bridge that gap on our own.
The food laws and birth laws no longer apply to God’s people today. God communicated this clearly to Peter in Acts 10. But God’s call upon us to be holy as he is holy is not one bit less critical and applicable and important. We are designed to be set apart from the world around us. We are called to be counter-cultural. We are called to be dedicated and sold out for God in the midst of a world that may not understand all the reasons why we live as we do. Too often our lives look the same as the lives of the people around us. And our Christianity amounts to nothing more than cognitive assent to a few propositional truths that fail to affect our behavior in any discernable manner. But we are called to be disciples – to be ones whose lives are lived in the shape of Jesus’ life. Holy. Set apart. Clean. Lives like that have an impact – they make the world thirsty for what we’ve got!
So how can we do it? Here’s a really corny suggestion from this passage: mimic the clean animals. Clean land animals had to both chew the cud and have split hooves. We can “chew the cud” by meditating on God’s words – not inhaling it quickly to get it over with but taking out time to learn and apply it. We can have “split hooves” by being in the world but not of it – a part of this world but with affections that don’t seek the things of this world but instead passionately diverge from the world and seek Jesus. Do both and you’ll experience God more powerfully as you pursue holiness and cleanliness which is, at it’s heart, all about the ability to connect to our Creator in the way that he created us for.
PRAY: Thank God for bridging the gap for us and allowing us to connect to him. Confess the worldly things that have stolen your heart away from him lately, and ask him to help you push those aside and pursue holiness and relationship with him with passion.