Leviticus 11 – Clean and Unclean Animals


Leviticus 11


The Lord gives laws to the people through Moses and Aaron about which animals are “clean” (that is, lawful for eating) and which are “unclean” (not to be eaten).


This chapter establishes dietary laws for the Israelites, specifying which animals can be eaten by them and which cannot be eaten. It is difficult to discern the reasoning behind the distinctions. For instance, clean land animals are those that have divided hoofs, chew the cud, and are cleft-footed. Any animal that meets only two of these three criteria is unclean (11:1-8). Scholars speculate that in the priestly mind-set, animals of each distinct group (land animals, fish, birds, insects) must exhibit certain characteristics emblematic of that group. For instance, a fish must have fins and scales in order to be “clean.” Those water animals that do not have fins and scales (like crustaceans) are “unclean” (that is, they do not fit within their category) and are therefore unlawful to be eaten (11:9-12).

These laws illustrate the priestly concern with boundaries and distinctions, particularly between “clean” and “unclean” (see Genesis 1, Leviticus 10:10). In a similar vein, the Israelites are forbidden to sow their fields with two kinds of seed, or to wear garments made with two kinds of material, or to allow any of their animals to breed with a different species (19:19). This priestly concern with boundaries is present throughout the book, so that holiness might be maintained in the sanctuary and in the people.

Observant Jews still follow the dietary laws set out in Leviticus and in other parts of the Pentateuch. Christians do not follow these laws, pointing to Acts 10, the story of Peter and Cornelius, where God instructs Peter in a vision to eat unclean animals. Jesus says, in Matthew 15:11: “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.”