The Dietary Laws of Israel

Why did God command the Israelites to eat some animals and not others? Was it for health reasons or for purely symbolic reasons? Within this article I shall be considering the issue of the dietary laws, with the aim of better understanding God’s rationale in giving them.

Health or Sacrifice?

To begin with, let’s consider the popular notion that the dietary laws were given for health purposes. I believe that this notion is mistaken, for a number of reasons. For starters, the dietary laws only concerned meat and meat formed a relatively small part of the ancient diet.[1] Secondly, in contrast to other laws such as the Sabbath commandment, the dietary laws did not apply to Gentiles living within the land – only to the Jews as a unique people. Thirdly, the dietary laws ceased with the coming of Christ (eg. Colossians 2:16), but this would have made no sense if they were based upon an ongoing practical principle such as good diet.

But perhaps most significantly of all, the distinction between clean and unclean animals existed long before these laws were given, long before Israel was even founded as a nation. Back in the time of Noah, we see the instruction to take only a pair of every unclean animal, but seven (or seven pairs) of every clean animal onto the ark (Genesis 7:2). This was so that Noah could offer sacrifices of clean animals to God after the flood (Genesis 8:20). Before being a dietary distinction then, the clean/unclean distinction had to do with sacrifice. By eating only clean animals, Israel was eating only the meat that God ate on the altar.

Diet and Holiness

To understand better though why God designated some animals as clean and others as unclean, we need to gain a better understanding of Leviticus 11, the passage in which the relevant laws are recorded. As noted by Mary Douglas,[2] the chapter is framed by an inclusio in the use of the Hebrew verb ‘alah’, which means “to bring up”. The first use of the term in verse 3 is in describing one of the key criteria which makes a land animal clean, namely that it must “bring up” the cud, that is, to re-digest its food a second time.[3]

The second use of the term is at the end of the chapter, and is framed as a rationale for the entire chapter: “For I am the Lord who brought you up out of the land of Egypt to be your God. You shall therefore be holy, for I am holy.” (v45). Note how holiness is defined here in terms of being separated from something. Israel is holy precisely because she has been separated and brought up out from the land of Egypt.

How does this principle relate to the dietary laws? Upon close inspection, all of them appear to reflect this principle. A land animal is considered clean if it fulfils two criteria (v2-8). It must ‘bring up’ the cud, distinguishing itself from its food more sharply than other animals which simply swallow their food once and it becomes part of themselves. It must also have a split hoof, a more fully-fledged hoof which separates and distinguishes the animal from the ground upon which it stands (and also by definition, a hoof which is itself separated into two parts).

A similar observation can be made with regard to the other classes of creatures considered in the chapter. Sea creatures are clean if they are covered in fins and scales, creating a barrier between them and their watery environment (v9-12). Birds[4] are clean if they are not carnivorous, separated in diet from the rest of the animal kingdom (v13-19). Winged insects are clean if they have jointed legs, lifting them up and separating them from the ground upon which they walk (v20-23).

Symbolic Separation

So then, the Israelite diet was intended to reflect their separation from the nations, their holiness. As re-iterated later on in Leviticus:

“You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you. You shall not walk in their statutes. You shall follow my rules and keep my statutes and walk in them. I am the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 18:3-4)

Israel was to be a people set apart for God, and this meant living lives worthy of such a status. It meant reflecting the holiness of God in their actions, being holy as God is holy. And this is represented in the food that they were to eat. They were a set-apart people and their diet was to reflect this symbolically.

[1] Until recently, for the vast majority of people, meat was a luxury to be enjoyed only on special occasions. Modern industrial farming has completely changed this, and now the majority of people in western nations eat meat all the time.

[2] From her fascinating work, “Leviticus as Literature”. Mary Douglas is writing as a cultural anthropologist and so is sometimes able to notice things which other commentators miss.

[3] Some of the listed animals don’t actually bring up the cud, but they make a similar motion with their mouths and so appear to be chewing cud. The dietary laws are symbolic; they are only concerned with appearance.

[4] The Hebrew term actually means something like “winged creatures” and includes bats. The ancient Hebrews classified living things differently than we do today.

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