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Clean and Unclean is different from Holy and not Holy. Cleanliness is the measure of suitability of something to be in the presence of God. Holiness is the measure of the presence of God itself. Something can be “clean” and “common,” not necessarily “holy.” If something is “unclean” then it is needs to be made “clean,” and then, it can be “holy.” The state of cleanliness is the suitability of something to be in the presence of God. To be “unclean” does not necessarily mean someone has sinned or committed immorality. It is a ritual status, not a moral status.
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At the beginning of the world, Adam and Eve were vegetarians. After the Flood, God allows Noah to eat any kind of animal (except flesh with the blood in it – Gen. 9:3-4; “Only you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood.” Jesus supersedes this injunction with His Body and Blood in the Eucharist). Now, here in the Mosaic epoch, God further restricts what animals are to be eaten and not eaten. The so-called “food laws” tells the Israelites what are “clean” animals that you can eat, and “unclean” animals that you cannot eat. God then tells Moses which animals are clean and which are not clean. The first category is the ruminants, or beasts of the field, such as cows and sheep. There are three conditions to eat of a ruminant. Those are: it has hooves, it is cloven-footed, and it chews cud. If it does not meet all three requirements, then it is unclean. Unclean ruminants include: the camel, the badger, the hare, the pig (which is one of the most well-known and most identifiable “non-kosher” Jewish foods, ie, no pork or pork products). One of the archeological indicators of Israelite settlements was the distinct lack of swine or pig bones found. Then come the water animals, which must have fins and scales to be clean. Any water creatures that lack fins and scales are deemed unclean and they may not eat them (“is loathsome for you”). Next, are the birds and creatures of the air. Basically, the birds of prey that eat dead flesh are considered unclean, such as the eagle, vulture, osprey, crows, gulls, hawks, owls, buzzards, storks, and bats, etc. Next, are the unclean flying insects, only the grasshopper, locust or cricket is acceptable. John the Baptist lived in the wilderness and ate locusts (Mt. 3:4) Finally, “all creatures that swarm on the ground are loathsome and shall not be eaten.” (Lev. 11:41)
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There are five or six main explanations for the food laws. None are comprehensive or totally persuasive in and of themselves. It is probably a combination of these reasons that God issues the food laws. (1) Hygenic theory. This is theory that these unlcean animals are bad for humans and not healthy, such as pork for spreading trichinosis. This theory is popular today, although is probably not very consistent. Every species if not properly cooked could contain parasites. (2) The Aesthetic theory: the animals are unclean because they’re repugnant to humans. By way of analogy, if it is repugnant to humans it is probably repugnant to their deity. If it can be sacrificed and offered on our table, it can probably be offered to the deity. If it is not on our table, then it cannot be food for God either. (3) Ethical theory: God restricted eating animals as a means for the Israelites to grow in self-control and limit their violence and shedding of blood. (4) Anatomical theory: This suggests that these animals represent “anomalies” within their species. They’re misfits, and as outliers, they are unclean. Any animals that lack the specifications of their category or are a “mixing” of categories or species are deemed unclean. (5) Cultural theory: There is a cultural aspect to this as well. The Israelites are culturally, as a people in a particular place and time, repulsed by certain animals and practices. This is incorporated into some of their food laws.
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This is probably the most persuasive and logical of all the explanations. Animals deemed unclean were associated with pagan rituals and sacrifices. They were prominent in pagan cults and the most common animals sacrificed in pagan rituals (ie, the pig in Canaanite sacrifices). Thus, a prohibition of killing and sacrificing certain animals would be a means to separate Israel out from the surrounding pagan populations. A way of being “set apart” and holy, as much of Leviticus is concerned about the distinctiveness of Yahweh and His people, the Israelites. On the other hand, acceptable animals to sacrifice, such as the bull and the ram, are representation of Egyptian gods like the bull-god Apis and the cow-god Hathor. Yahweh commanding the Israelites to sacrifice bulls and rams is a means to distance the Israelites from the pagan idolatry that they were immersed in for 400 years in Egypt. It is an attempt to de-Egyptianize the Israelites. In a broader sense, it is an attempt to de-Canaanize and de-paganize the Israelites through regular, and daily, sacrifice of pagan-gods. Similar prohibitions found in Leviticus against offering honey, and boiling a kid in his mother’s milk, ritual shavings and mutilations were all about distancing the Israelites from pagan practices. The food laws are another aspect of being distinctive, set apart, and holy.
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Ritual purity is not about sin. It is about fitness to occupy sacred space. A sin offering is about “decontamination” or “purification,” not sin. A guilt offering is about making reparation. For example, Mary making an offering after the birth of Jesus is not about sin, but about becoming ritually pure. Something or someone becoming ritually impure has to do with (1) coming into contact with death; or (2) a loss of “life.” These issues stem around: childbirth, leprosy, emission of semen, menstruation, and marital intercourse (loss of semen). These focus on the loss of “life fluids,” such as blood, water and semen. These are fluids that produce life. To lose life, is to be less than “whole.” God did not make us originally to not be whole, but to be whole and complete. God is wholeness and completeness. Thus, if someone loses their life fluid by one means or another, that renders them not whole, or in Levitical terms, ritually unclean, impure. Sexual activity and the loss of bodily fluids then renders one ritually impure. Having a baby, or menstruation and the loss of blood, also renders one ritually impure. This is not about sin, but about fitness for sacred space. Anything outside of the “normative, creation natural order” renders one ritually impure. A person must be “whole” to enter into the perfection of the sacred space of the Tabernacle. The Tabernacle is the new Eden. It is the perfection that God originally intended in the Garden of Eden. It is God’s dwelling place. God is perfection, and wholeness, and life itself. For one to enter His space, one must be whole and in an “ideal form” of wholeness and completeness. To have lost “life” fluids or to have touched death, is to be less than fully whole and fully full of life, or in a word, imperfect.
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Skin diseases and leprosy also render an individual ritually impure and unfit to enter the sacred space of the Tabernacle. General skin ailments, not just Hansen’s disease (ie, leprosy), renders one ritually impure. There is no sin in skin disease, but one is not “whole,” as God had originally designed humanity. Something in the body is amiss. It is not as the original creation order. God is not admonishing against any particular sin, but teaching an object lesson about the perfection of God. The Tabernacle is the new Garden of Eden; a place of perfection, and a place for man to be like God had originally intended; whole and complete; full of life, not death.
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Leviticus repeatedly tells the Israelites to purify people and places by using “cedar wood, scarlet yarn, and hyssop.” This purification and atonement is reminiscent of the wood of the Cross; scarlet yarn hearkens to red blood of Christ; and the hyssop branch that they used to annoint the Passover lamb’s blood to the door and the hyssop branch to give Jesus a taste of the “4th cup” of wine, or vinegar, on the Cross before He died. In short, these have connotations of Jesus’ Cross. We are made clean through the Cross of Christ.
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Through the purity laws, God is reminded His people that He is perfect and holy. He is set apart, distinct. In contrast, humanity is imperfect. God is wholeness, completeness, perfection, and life itself. The ritual purity reminds humanity of reverence to creation-order, and reverence for life itself. We are less than perfect, but should reverence the normative life as designed by the Creator. The Tabernacle is not a place for incompleteness, death, less than ideal form or imperfection. It is a place for the otherness of Yahweh. Man can prove his loyalty to Yahweh by adhering to His ritual purity regulations. God comes to dwell with man again in the new perfect location of the Tabernacle, the new Eden.