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Why does the Bible call some foods “clean” and some foods “un-clean”?


Why does the Bible call some foods “clean” and some foods “un-clean”? If some meat is “unclean,” why do people keep eating it, even though the Bible specifically forbids it?

Steve Answers:

The reason the Bible calls some foods “clean” and some “unclean” is that that’s what they are. I’m not referring to dirt that can be washed off of meat; I’m talking about what’s in it. It doesn’t take a particularly bright person to realize that animals that eat garbage for food are probably not going to be a good source of food for humans.

In the Garden of Eden God’s original diet for humans was fruits and grains and veggies (see Genesis 1:29). Some people follow that same diet today, still believing it to be the best for humans.

Actually, our bodies aren’t made to be carnivorous (our teeth, digestive system, etc.). And eating meat is a poor use of the environment, because you can feed many more people with the vegetation from a piece of land than from animals that eat tons of vegetation before they are slaughtered.

The passage frequently noted for dietary guidance is Leviticus 11. The quick summary is that “clean” animals on land need to have a split hoof and chew the cud. For example, a cow is clean while a pig is unclean. “Clean” animals in the water need to have both fins and scales. For example, salmon is clean and shrimp is unclean.

But here’s the part that most Christians overlook today. Have you heard of the word “kosher”? One of its meanings is meat without blood. Note what God said after the Flood: “I have given them [all the wild animals] to you for food, just as I have given you grain and vegetables. But you must never eat any meat that still has the lifeblood in it” (Genesis 9:3, 4, NLT).1

Right after the Flood there were no grains, vegetables, or fruits ready to be harvested. So it’s not surprising that God gave people permission to eat animals at that time. But why no blood? Nutritionists have pointed out that blood carries disease. So eating diseased animal blood increases people’s risk of getting disease.

By asking His people to sacrifice animals, God showed His people that blood is equated with life—it symbolizes the life of the animal. Priests sprinkled animal blood on the altar at the sanctuary in place of human blood. This act signified that Jesus’ blood would someday take the place of our blood in atoning for our sins.

Blood has a major symbolic meaning. Don’t take the symbol of your salvation and eat it! This is why God told Noah not to eat meat with blood in it.

Some say that since Jesus has already died, it no longer matters if we eat blood. But after Jesus returned to heaven, the apostles made decisions at the Jerusalem Council about which Jewish customs to drop. They decided that eating meat with blood in it was something that should still be prohibited (see Acts 15:20, 29). For some reason Christians don’t bother with this anymore, but Jews still do.

There are those who want to eat any kind of meat.  Such people highlight the verse in Genesis 9:2, which says “all the animals of the earth” (NLT). And verse 3 indicates that they are given to Noah for food. Does this mean that eating unclean meats was OK right after the Flood, but was later prohibited when Moses gave the Levitical laws to the Israelites?

In Genesis 7:2 God told Noah to take into the ark seven pairs of every kind of clean animal “for eating and for sacrifice” (NLT), but only one pair of every unclean animal. The unclean animals weren’t sacrificed or eaten. If they had been, they would’ve become extinct, because there was only one pair.

There’s one other biblical passage that some like to cite when it comes to eating unclean meat. It’s found in Acts 10. Peter received a vision of unclean animals let down from heaven, then a voice said to Peter, “‘Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.’ ‘Surely not, Lord!’ Peter replied. ‘I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.’ The voice spoke to him a second time, ‘Do not call anything impure that God has made clean’” (Acts 10:13-15, NIV).2

That’s all some people need to feel free to eat any kind of meat, clean or unclean. If they would just read a few more verses in the same chapter, they would come across this statement from Peter to the Gentile named Cornelius and to his  entourage: “You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile. But God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without raising any objection” (Acts 10:28, 29, NIV).

Peter clearly said that the vision was about unclean animals symbolizing unclean people, Gentiles. And that he was no longer to think of Gentiles as being unclean. The vision wasn’t about food at all—it was about people!
Later Peter wrote: “You must be holy in everything you do, just as God who chose you is holy” (1 Peter 1:15, NLT). Because: “God paid a ransom to save you from the empty life you inherited from your ancestors. And the ransom he paid was not mere gold or silver. It was the precious blood of Christ” (1 Peter 1:18, 19, NLT).

Why do people keep eating stuff the Bible specifically forbids? Perhaps they don’t know the Bible forbids it. Maybe they don’t think what the Bible says applies to Christians, just as Christians don’t sacrifice lambs anymore. Or maybe they don’t want to change something they’re doing. That’s true for more than just eating forbidden meat! Even vegetarians struggle with that!

I’ve got a question for you: Why do you still do things that God doesn’t want you to do?

1Scripture quotations marked NLT are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.
2Texts credited to NIV are from the Holy Bible, New International Version. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

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