God reveals which animals - including fish and birds - are suitable and unsuitable for human consumption in Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14. Although the lists aren't exhaustive, He reveals guidelines for recognizing animals that are acceptable for food.
God states that cud-chewing animals with split hooves can be eaten (Leviticus:11:3; Deuteronomy:14:6). These specifically include the cattle, sheep, goat, deer and gazelle families (Deuteronomy:14:4-5)
He also lists such animals as camels, rabbits and pigs as being unclean, or unfit to eat (Leviticus:11:4-8)
He later lists such "creeping things" as moles, mice and lizards as unfit to eat (Leviticus:11:29-31)
He as well as four-footed animals with paws (cats, dogs, bears, lions, tigers, etc.) as unclean (Leviticus:11:27).
He tells us that salt and freshwater fish with fins and scales may be eaten (Leviticus:11:9-12)
but water creatures without those characteristics (catfish, lobsters, crabs, shrimp, mussels, clams, oysters, squid, octopi, etc.) should not be eaten.
God also lists birds and other flying creatures that are unclean for consumption (Leviticus:11:13-19)
He identifies carrion eaters and birds of prey as unclean, plus ostriches, storks, herons and bats.
Birds such as chickens, turkeys and pheasants are not on the unclean list and therefore can be eaten. Insects, with the exception of locusts, crickets and grasshoppers, are listed as unclean (Leviticus:11:20-23)
Why does God identify some animals as suitable for human consumption and others as unsuitable? God didn't give laws to arbitrarily assert control over people. He gave His laws (including those of which meats are clean or unclean) "that it might be well" with those who seek to obey Him (Deuteronomy:5:29).
Although God did not reveal the specific reasons some animals may be eaten and others must be avoided, we can make generalized conclusions based on the animals included in the two categories.
In listing the animals that should not be eaten, God forbids the consumption of scavengers and carrion eaters, which devour other animals for their food.
Animals such as pigs, bears, vultures and raptors can eat (and thrive) on decaying flesh. Predatory animals such as wolves, lions, leopards and cheetahs most often prey on the weakest (and at times the diseased) in animal herds.
When it comes to sea creatures, bottom dwellers such as lobsters and crabs scavenge for dead animals on the sea floor. Shellfish such as oysters, clams and mussels similarly consume decaying organic matter that sinks to the sea floor, including sewage.
A common denominator of many of the animals God designates as unclean is that they routinely eat flesh that would sicken or kill human beings. When we eat such animals we partake of a food chain that includes things harmful to people.
As nutritionist David Meinz observes: "Could it be that God, in His wisdom, created certain creatures whose sole purpose is to clean up after the others? Their entire 'calling' may be to act exclusively as the sanitation workers of our ecology. God may simply be telling us that it's better for us believers not to consume the meat of these trash collectors" ( Eating by the Book, 1999, p. 225).
The following list, based on Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14, identifies many of the animals God designates as clean and unclean. The list uses their common names.
Mammals That Chew the Cud and Part the Hoof
Antelope, Bison (buffalo), Caribou, Cattle (beef, veal), Deer (venison), Elk, Gazelle, Giraffe, Goat, Hart, Ibex, Moose, Ox, Reindeer, Sheep (lamb, mutton)
Fish With Fins and Scales
Anchovy, Barracuda, Bass, Black pomfret (or monchong), Bluefish, Bluegill, Carp, Cod, Crappie, Drum, Flounder, Grouper, Grunt, Haddock, Hake, Halibut, Hardhead, Herring (or alewife), Kingfish, Mackerel (or corbia), Mahimahi (or dorado, dolphinfish [not]), Minnow, Mullet, Perch (or bream), Pike (or pickerel or jack), Pollack (or pollock or Boston bluefish), Rockfish, Salmon, Sardine (or pilchard), Shad, Silver hake (or whiting), Smelt (or frost fish or ice fish), Snapper (or ebu, jobfish, lehi, onaga, opakapaka or uku), Sole, Steelhead, Sucker, Sunfish, Tarpon, Trout (or weakfish), Tuna (or ahi, aku, albacore, bonito, or tombo), Turbot (except European turbot), Whitefish
Birds With Clean Characteristics
Chicken, Dove, Duck, Goose, Grouse, Guinea fowl, Partridge, Peafowl, Pheasant, Pigeon, Prairie chicken, Ptarmigan, Quail, Sagehen, Sparrow (and other songbirds), Swan*, Teal, Turkey
* In the King James Version, Leviticus:11:18 and Deuteronomy:14:16 list "swan" among unclean birds. However, this seems to be a mistranslation. The original word apparently refers to a kind of owl and is so translated in most modern Bible versions.
Types of locusts that may include crickets and grasshoppers
Animals With Unclean Characteristics
Boar, Peccary, Pig (hog, bacon, ham, lard, pork, most sausage and pepperoni)
Coyote, Dog, Fox, Hyena, Jackal, Wolf
Cat, Cheetah, Leopard, Lion, Panther, Tiger
Donkey (ass), Horse, Mule, Onager, Zebra (quagga)
Armadillo, Badger, Bat, Bear, Beaver, Camel, Elephant, Gorilla Groundhog, Hippopotamus, Kangaroo, Llama (alpaca, vicuña), Mole, Monkey, Mouse, Muskrat, Opossum, Porcupine, Rabbit (hare), Raccoon, Rat, Rhinoceros, Skunk, Slug, Snail (escargot), Squirrel, Wallaby, Weasel, Wolverine, Worm, All insects except some in the locust family
Marine Animals Without Fins and Scales
Bullhead, Catfish, Eel, European Turbot, Marlin, Paddlefish, Shark, Stickleback, Squid, Sturgeon (includes most caviar), Swordfish
Abalone, Clam, Conch, Crab, Crayfish (crawfish, crawdad), Lobster, Mussel, Oyster, Scallop, Shrimp (prawn)
Cuttlefish, Jellyfish, Limpet, Octopus, Squid (calamari)
Dolphin, Otter, Porpoise, Seal, Walrus, Whale
Birds of Prey, Scavengers and Others
Albatross, Bittern, Buzzard, Condor, Coot, Cormorant, Crane, Crow, Cuckoo, Eagle, Flamingo Grebe, Grosbeak, Gull, Hawk, Heron, Kite, Lapwing, Loon, Magpie, Osprey, Ostrich, Owl, Parrot, Pelican, Penguin, Plover, Rail, Raven, Roadrunner, Sandpiper, Seagull, Stork, Swallow, Swift, Vulture, Water hen, Woodpecker
Alligator, Caiman, Crocodile, Lizard, Snake, Turtle
Blindworm, Frog, Newt, Salamander, Toad
Not Only a Matter of Diet
From cover to cover, from Genesis to Revelation, nowhere in the Bible do we find an example of a servant of God or follower of Jesus Christ eating the flesh of an unclean animal.
If at any time the distinctions between clean and unclean meats had ceased to exist, shouldn't that have been made clear in the Bible through the example of God's servants?
On the contrary, well into the time of the early Church we find Christ's followers scrupulously avoiding eating animal flesh that God had revealed as being unclean (Acts:10:14; 11:8). Prophecies of the time of the end make the same distinctions (Revelation:18:2; Isaiah:66:15-17
But there's more to the matter than diet. A thorough study of the Bible helps us understand other dimensions to the significance of the distinctions between clean and unclean meats.
God's Word describes the flesh of unclean animals as an "abomination" (Leviticus:11:10-13, 20, 23, 41-42) and "detestable" (Deuteronomy:14:3)—and in that light we are warned against consuming such meat (Leviticus:11:43). Strong language, but the lesson is that we need to accept all aspects of the Bible, including the basic food laws in Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14.
In instituting the sacrificial system for ancient Israel, God commanded many specific sacrifices involving animals. Nowhere, however, does He command or allow the sacrifice of an unclean animal, nor is there a record of any of God's servants ever sacrificing such an animal to Him. Such a sacrifice would have joined the holy with that which God had designated unclean and defiled. It would have been simply unthinkable to a true servant of God because it would have been an affront to the Creator Himself.
A Matter of Health?
Do science and medicine help us better understand why the Bible designates some animals as unfit for human consumption?
Why did God, in the Scriptures, distinguish between clean and unclean meats—the animals people may or may not eat? Is there more to the story? Can we find a health connection?
The specific reason God gave the Israelites for forbidding them to eat any unclean animals or even touching their carcasses was to "be holy, for I am holy" (Leviticus:11:44-45
Here God does not distinguish between clean and unclean animals specifically for health's sake.
However, the larger context of Leviticus and Deuteronomy includes many issues of health and hygiene. The four chapters of Leviticus that follow the listing of clean and unclean meats deal with precautions after childbirth and the means to identify and eliminate the spread of communicable diseases. So the distinctions between clean and unclean meats appear in a context of health and well-being.
Are distinctions between clean and unclean meats a matter of health? Did God reveal them as health guidelines for the ancient Israelites and, by extension, for people today? Can consuming animals classified as unclean bring immediate or long-term harm to our health?
Scholars offer their view
Many factors such as diet, genetic makeup, environment, exercise and good and bad habits affect our health. However, theological as well as medical researchers have recognized the benefits of following the health laws of Scripture.
Commenting on Leviticus 11-15, The Expositor's Bible Commentary states: "In general it can be said that the laws protected Israel from bad diet, dangerous vermin, and communicable diseases. Only in recent days have better laws of health been possible with the advance of medicine. These were rule-of-thumb laws that God gave in his wisdom to a people who could not know the reason for the provision...
"The Hebrew was not only to avoid eating unclean animals; he was not to touch their dead carcasses. Thus the laws automatically helped control vermin. Common unclean animals would be spiders, flies, bugs, rats, and mice. A dead rat in a Hebrew house was not overlooked. It was carefully taken out and buried. In an effort to avoid such problems, the Hebrew housewife would normally keep a clean house...
"It is, of course, true that some cultures have adopted similar rules out of sad experience. The [Old] did not get its taboos from surrounding cultures, but some other cultures in later times adopted by experience some of these taboos...The laws were wonderfully fashioned by God for the general health of the nation" (R. Laird Harris, Vol. 2, 1990, p. 569).
Theology professor Roland Harrison writes: "The classification of animal species into clean and unclean categories (Lev:11:1-47) is significant because, being part of the Pentateuchal medical code, it constituted the basis of dietary regulations that are still adhered to by orthodox Jews and by those Gentiles who are concerned with maintaining goodphysical health.
"This categorizing is also important in view of the fact that it is unique in the annals of Near Eastern literature because its emphasis is not so much upon the avoidance of magical practices associated with certain animal species as upon the positive delineation of dietary principles intended to insure the physical well-being of the individual and the nation alike through a consistent [preventative] approach" ( Introduction to the Old Testament, 1999, p. 603).
Doctors offer their view
Do the health laws of the Bible have a foundation in medical fact? S.I. McMillen, M.D., and David E. Stern, M.D., summarize their view of the laws God revealed to the Israelites: "For centuries epidemics had killed thousands of Egyptians and Hebrews. Ancient treatments rarely helped. Often the 'cure' was worse than the diseases. Yet here [Exodus:15:26] God made a fantastic promise—freedom from diseases.
"God then gave Moses many health rules, filling a whole section of the Bible...Moses recorded hundreds of health regulations but not a single current medical misconception.
"Thousands have died through the centuries, however, because doctors ignored the biblical rules. Finally, when doctors read and tried these guidelines, they quickly discovered how to prevent the spread of epidemics. Thus Moses could be called the father of modern infection control. Even today we are still benefiting from God's 3,500-year-old instructions" ( None of These Diseases: The Bible's Health Secrets for the 21st Century, 2000, p. 11).
Rex Russell, M.D., adds: "As we look at modern science and nutrition, we will find that...there is an amazing overlap between God's original laws of clean and unclean and solid hygienic principles...Scripture and medical research agree that modern lifestyles lived without reference to God's laws and design shorten life and hasten death" ( What the Bible Says About Healthy Living, 1999, pp. 14, 16).
Nutritionist David Meinz says that, even though we may not understand all aspects of the biblical dietary laws, we would be wise to follow them.
"Much of the wisdom revealed in the Bible now makes sense to us from our modern perspective," he says, "but should that mean we won't consider the areas that haven't yet been scientifically proven?
"We've only discovered that animal fat is bad for us in the last 50 years. To the Christian a century ago, the directive in Leviticus:3:17 to avoid animal fat made no sense at all. Yet it's clear to us today. What if there's something in lobster that's harmful to our health? What if we don't discover what it is until 50 years from now? Do we require scientific proof before we give the Bible the benefit of the doubt?" ( Eating by the Book, 1999, p. 226).
Reginald Cherry, M.D., comments on why medical doctors and researchers have come to agree with the Bible's instruction not to eat fat.
"Why is this prohibition against fat so important for us?" he asks. "Over 53 percent of people in large industrialized countries die of heart disease. Heart disease is most commonly caused by fat deposits that build up in the arteries, often beginning in the teenage years" ( The Bible Cure, 1998, p. 34, large-print edition).
Cultural taboos or divine revelation?
If some of the Bible's dietary regulations have been shown to offer proven health benefits, what might that tell us about its other instructions? Dr. Cherry continues: "...The Old Testament...overflows with many revelations from God about hygiene, healthy foods, and the...prevention of diseases. As a medical doctor specializing in preventative medicine, I find the Old [Testament] fascinating and intriguing. Throughout its ancient Hebrew text, one finds many unveiled secrets and mysteries concerning what we should eat, how to avoid contaminated and diseased objects, and what natural substances can be used to effect healing...
"The Hebrews did not seek to know more about anatomy, science, or the natural order as did their counterparts in the ancient civilizations of Egypt, Mesopotamia, or Greece. Quite the contrary. Anything that might be uncovered in the ancient Hebrew texts of the Bible had to come to them through divine, supernatural knowledge revealed by God. So what we shall unearth from the Old [Testament] does not arise from human speculations on health and medicine but rather from God's particular Word to us about his pathway of healing for us—His creation. As Creator, God knows more about our bodies, His creation, than we could ever discover either through philosophy or science...
"The lists of clean and unclean animals in Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14 have a significance often ignored. Far from being a catalog of food taboos based on fad or fancy, these lists emphasize a fact not discovered until late in the last century [the] and still not generally known: Animals carry diseases dangerous to man" (pp. 27, 30, 39).
Health risk to humans?
Dr. Russell asks, "What is so good about 'clean' meats, and what is so bad about 'unclean' meats?" He goes on to explain that "the flesh of clean animals such as beef, and fish that have scales and fins, is ideal for the health of humans—just as we would expect from the hand of a loving Creator...Many land animals God designed for food provide an additional benefit in that they generally eat grasses and grains that were also designed for food" (Russell, pp. 73-74).
In contrast, David Meinz summarizes the potential health risk of eating creatures the Bible classifies as unclean. "Almost all of the creatures on the unclean list are scavengers," he notes. "In many cases they don't hunt for their own food; they eat the dead and decaying matter of our environment. A catfish does that at the bottom of a pond; lobsters and shrimp do it in the ocean. A pig will eat anything. Vultures, almost by definition, are known for their scavenger habits" (Meinz, p. 225).
Dr. Russell notes that "an animal doesn't have to be a scavenger to be unclean. Horses and rabbits, for example, are unclean because they do not have split hooves. Although they are considered to be good food in some countries, studies have shown that horse meat often contains viruses and parasites. Rabbits, as innocent as they appear, are the cause of tularemia (an infectious disease) in humans.
"One reason for God's rule forbidding pork is that the digestive system of a pig is completely different from that of a cow. It is similar to ours, in that the stomach is very acidic. Pigs are gluttonous, never knowing when to stop eating. Their stomach acids become diluted because of the volume of food, allowing all kinds of vermin to pass through this protective barrier. Parasites, bacteria, viruses and toxins can pass into the pig's flesh because of over-eating. These toxins and infectious agents can be passed on to humans when they eat a pig's flesh" (Russell, p. 76-77).
Don Colbert, M.D., adds: "Besides being gluttons, swine are also extremely filthy animals. They will eat garbage, feces, and even decaying flesh. All that is eaten usually becomes part of the pig's own flesh...Aside from the diseases routinely carried by swine, pork is also a very fatty meat. The toxins in pork are held especially in the fat, which is not isolated from the meat as can be the case in lean beef, but rather, it is dispersed throughout the meat" ( What Would Jesus Eat?, 2002, pp. 49-50).
Poison on a plate?
Dr. Russell's supporting evidence for his views isn't for the faint of heart. He writes: "In the United States, three of the six most common food-borne parasitic diseases of humans are associated with pork consumption. These include toxoplasmosis, taeniasis or cysticercosis (caused by the pork tapeworm Taenia solium) and trichinellosis...
"It has long been recognized that the meat of shellfish—shrimp, crabs, lobsters, etc.—is especially dangerous. Many illnesses, including instant paralysis, devastate some people every day as a result of eating shellfish.
"The largest cholera outbreak in the United States occurred in Louisiana from August through October 1986. (The symptoms of cholera are explosive diarrhea, leading to rapid dehydration, unconsciousness, hypotension and death.) What did the stricken people eat? The incriminating meals were found to include rice noodles with shrimp, pork, vegetables, mussel soup, pig blood coagulated with vinegar, and salty brine shrimp with mixed vegetables.
"Shellfish can be placed in a body of water that is contaminated with cholera bacteria, and they will purify the water. Shrimp, oysters, crab, scallops and mussels are particularly efficient at this. They filter large volumes of water every day. Sewage laden with chemicals, toxins and harmful bacteria, parasites and viruses become concentrated in those shellfish. The cause of cholera outbreaks in several areas has been traced to contaminated shrimp, crab, oysters and clams.
"Reading all this, you might not be surprised to learn that the state Legislature of California proposed a law requiring the food industry to label shellfish with a message warning: 'This food may be dangerous to your health.' Why? In a single year, 50 deaths and many hospitalizations were found to have been caused by eating shellfish" (Russell, pp. 78-79).
What purpose do they serve?
If such creatures weren't designed to be eaten, why did God create them? Dr. Russell explains: "For one thing, they serve a useful role just cleaning up the place. Many unclean animals, however, notably pigs and shellfish, are unhealthy because their diet consists of society's disease-laden refuse.
"Pigs have eaten Philadelphia's garbage and sewage for more than 100 years, saving the city $3 million a year in landfill costs. This is a wise use of hogs. They are designed to clean our environment.
"Even when stacked in cages, piglets thrive on offal when only the pig in the top cage receives food. Farmers have increased their profits by feeding free raw sewage to pigs. Chicken farmers often keep a hog so they can dispose of dead chickens without having to bury them" (Russell, p. 81).
Some species of fish and shellfish perform a similar role in the water. Dr. Russell notes that "among commonly eaten fish, catfish...always show the highest levels of contamination in chemically polluted water. After chemical spills, local fishermen are warned not to eat catfish" (ibid.).
Even commercially raised catfish are a potential health risk, he notes. "Consumer Reports tested fish bought in multiple markets in the United States. Fish are considered spoiled when bacteria counts are greater than 10 million per gram of flesh. Nearly all catfish had counts that went off the scale at 27 million per gram, even when properly prepared" (ibid.).
Dr. Russell's conclusion? "Although swine help clean the earth, and shellfish and catfish are ideally designed to purify the water, we don't want to eat what they clean up!" (ibid.)
In light of such seldom-publicized facts, we can better understand and appreciate God's words through Moses: "Observe and obey all these words which I command you, that it may go well with you and your children after you forever, when you do what is good and right in the sight of the Lord your God" (Deuteronomy:12:28).
May we all be careful to "discern between the unclean and the clean" (Ezekiel:44:23).
[Last edited Oct 30, 2014 00:56:59]