Deuteronomy 14:2-21 – Clean and Unclean Animals


Deuteronomy 14:2-21


The dietary laws of Deuteronomy demonstrate Israel to be a holy people.


Modern readers find the dietary regulations in this chapter puzzling. Several explanations have been offered, but each has proven unsatisfactory:

1. Health and hygiene. Some foods, undercooked pork and shellfish for example, can cause illness or allergic reactions.

  • But there is no appeal to health in connection with the food laws.
  • Different ancient peoples consider different animals to be unclean.
  • Many of the animals on the forbidden list are not harmful (camels, rabbits).
  • In New Testament times, these food laws were abolished, yet there had been no advances in medical science.

2. Religious associations. Some of these animals were considered to be gods in non-Israelite religion or were used in sacrifice to other gods.

  • But Israel, generally, sacrificed the same animals as its neighbors.
  • The bull was the primary religious animal in Canaan, Egypt, and Israel.

3. Carnivores. The birds listed as unclean are probably carrion-eaters (who eat flesh with its blood in it, forbidden in Genesis 9:4-5; Leviticus 11:39), and none of the acceptable animals are carnivores.

  • But why are sheep acceptable and not swine? Or rabbits?

Our passage, the structure of which helps to clarify some of these aspects, may be diagrammed as follows:

A Holiness rationale: “you are a people holy to the LORD your God” (v. 2)
B “You shall not eat any abhorrent thing” (v. 3)
1. Animals on the land (vv. 4-8)
2. Animals in the sea (vv. 9-10)
3. Animals in the sky (vv. 11-20)
B′ “You shall not eat anything that dies of itself” (v. 21a)
A′ Holiness rationale: “you are a people holy to the LORD your God” (v. 21b)

The concentric arrangement provides two clues useful for understanding the confusing matter of clean and unclean animals: First is the recognition that the regulations for clean and unclean animals are framed by a holiness rationale that declares Israel is “a holy people” (vv. 1-2; 21b). Thus the regulations deal with the relationship between the people and the Lord their God. Second, the animals thus framed are dealt with according to their sphere of activity (land, sea, or sky).

Recently, it has been suggested that the animal world is divided into three spheres: those that walk on the land, swim in the sea, and fly in the air (Genesis 1:20-30). Each sphere has an associated mode of locomotion to which “clean” animals conform: land animals have hooves with which to run; sea creatures have fins and scales with which to swim; and birds have two wings with which to fly and two feet for walking. Those creatures that do not conform confuse their category and are, therefore, “unclean”: animals that chew the cud, but have no cloven hooves (camels); water creatures without fins and/or scales (shellfish, aquatic mammals); insects that fly but have many legs. 

“Clean” and “unclean” are unfortunate terms; originally, the words had nothing to do with hygiene, but with permissibility. It must always be remembered that in the Priestly account of creation all that God created was “good” (Genesis 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31). “Good” creatures, however, can be inappropriate for food, depending upon how well they conform to their category. Therefore, it might be better to speak of “conforming” and “nonconforming” to one’s category (and therefore, edible or inedible). Furthermore, the framing material suggests that, for the authors, the animal world is ordered much as the human world with striking correspondences: sacrificial animals (clean, domesticated animals) correspond to the priests; clean but non-sacrificial animals (for example, deer, which are not domesticated) correspond to the people of Israel; and unclean animals correspond to the Gentiles. When Israel eats according to these rules, they proclaim their relationship to their God.