Why did God, in the Scriptures, distinguish between clean and unclean meats—the animals people may or may not eat? Is there more to the story? Can we find a health connection?
The specific reason God gave the Israelites for forbidding them to eat any unclean animals or even touching their carcasses was to "be holy, for I am holy" (Leviticus 11:44-45). Here God does not distinguish between clean and unclean animals specifically for health's sake.
However, the larger context of Leviticus and Deuteronomy includes many issues of health and hygiene. The four chapters of Leviticus that follow the listing of clean and unclean meats deal with precautions after childbirth and the means to identify and eliminate the spread of communicable diseases. So the distinctions between clean and unclean meats appear in a context of health and well-being.
Are distinctions between clean and unclean meats a matter of health? Did God reveal them as health guidelines for the ancient Israelites and, by extension, for people today? Can consuming animals classified as unclean bring immediate or long-term harm to our health?
Scholars offer their view
Many factors such as diet, genetic makeup, environment, exercise and good and bad habits affect our health. However, theological as well as medical researchers have recognized the benefits of following the health laws of Scripture.
Commenting on Leviticus 11-15, The Expositor's Bible Commentary states: "In general it can be said that the laws protected Israel from bad diet, dangerous vermin, and communicable diseases. Only in recent days have better laws of health been possible with the advance of medicine. These were rule-of-thumb laws that God gave in his wisdom to a people who could not know the reason for the provision...
"The Hebrew was not only to avoid eating unclean animals; he was not to touch their dead carcasses. Thus the laws automatically helped control vermin. Common unclean animals would be spiders, flies, bugs, rats, and mice. A dead rat in a Hebrew house was not overlooked. It was carefully taken out and buried. In an effort to avoid such problems, the Hebrew housewife would normally keep a clean house...
"It is, of course, true that some cultures have adopted similar rules out of sad experience. The [Old Testament] did not get its taboos from surrounding cultures, but some other cultures in later times adopted by experience some of these taboos...The laws were wonderfully fashioned by God for the general health of the nation" (R. Laird Harris, Vol. 2, 1990, p. 569).
Theology professor Roland Harrison writes: "The classification of animal species into clean and unclean categories (Leviticus 11:1-47) is significant because, being part of the Pentateuchal medical code, it constituted the basis of dietary regulations that are still adhered to by orthodox Jews and by those Gentiles who are concerned with maintaining good physical health.
"This categorizing is also important in view of the fact that it is unique in the annals of Near Eastern literature because its emphasis is not so much upon the avoidance of magical practices associated with certain animal species as upon the positive delineation of dietary principles intended to insure the physical well-being of the individual and the nation alike through a consistent [preventative] approach" (Introduction to the Old Testament, 1999, p. 603).
Doctors offer their view
Do the health laws of the Bible have a foundation in medical fact? S.I. McMillen, M.D., and David E. Stern, M.D., summarize their view of the laws God revealed to the Israelites: "For centuries epidemics had killed thousands of Egyptians and Hebrews. Ancient treatments rarely helped. Often the 'cure' was worse than the diseases. Yet here [Exodus 15:26] God made a fantastic promise—freedom from diseases.
"God then gave Moses many health rules, filling a whole section of the Bible...Moses recorded hundreds of health regulations but not a single current medical misconception.
"Thousands have died through the centuries, however, because doctors ignored the biblical rules. Finally, when doctors read and tried these guidelines, they quickly discovered how to prevent the spread of epidemics. Thus Moses could be called the father of modern infection control. Even today we are still benefiting from God's 3,500-year-old instructions" (None of These Diseases: The Bible's Health Secrets for the 21st Century, 2000, p. 11).
Rex Russell, M.D., adds: "As we look at modern science and nutrition, we will find that...there is an amazing overlap between God's original laws of clean and unclean and solid hygienic principles...Scripture and medical research agree that modern lifestyles lived without reference to God's laws and design shorten life and hasten death" (What the Bible Says About Healthy Living, 1999, pp. 14, 16).
Nutritionist David Meinz says that, even though we may not understand all aspects of the biblical dietary laws, we would be wise to follow them.
"Much of the wisdom revealed in the Bible now makes sense to us from our modern perspective," he says, "but should that mean we won't consider the areas that haven't yet been scientifically proven?
"We've only discovered that animal fat is bad for us in the last 50 years. To the Christian a century ago, the directive in Leviticus 3:17 to avoid animal fat made no sense at all. Yet it's clear to us today. What if there's something in lobster that's harmful to our health? What if we don't discover what it is until 50 years from now? Do we require scientific proof before we give the Bible the benefit of the doubt?" (Eating by the Book, 1999, p. 226).
Reginald Cherry, M.D., comments on why medical doctors and researchers have come to agree with the Bible's instruction not to eat fat.
"Why is this prohibition against fat so important for us?" he asks. "Over 53 percent of people in large industrialized countries die of heart disease. Heart disease is most commonly caused by fat deposits that build up in the arteries, often beginning in the teenage years" (The Bible Cure, 1998, p. 34, large-print edition).
Cultural taboos or divine revelation?
If some of the Bible's dietary regulations have been shown to offer proven health benefits, what might that tell us about its other instructions? Dr. Cherry continues: "...The Old Testament...overflows with many revelations from God about hygiene, healthy foods, and the...prevention of diseases. As a medical doctor specializing in preventative medicine, I find the Old [Testament] fascinating and intriguing. Throughout its ancient Hebrew text, one finds many unveiled secrets and mysteries concerning what we should eat, how to avoid contaminated and diseased objects, and what natural substances can be used to effect healing...
"The Hebrews did not seek to know more about anatomy, science, or the natural order as did their counterparts in the ancient civilizations of Egypt, Mesopotamia, or Greece. Quite the contrary. Anything that might be uncovered in the ancient Hebrew texts of the Bible had to come to them through divine, supernatural knowledge revealed by God. So what we shall unearth from the Old [Testament] does not arise from human speculations on health and medicine but rather from God's particular Word to us about his pathway of healing for us—His creation. As Creator, God knows more about our bodies, His creation, than we could ever discover either through philosophy or science...
"The lists of clean and unclean animals in Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14 have a significance often ignored. Far from being a catalog of food taboos based on fad or fancy, these lists emphasize a fact not discovered until late in the last century [the 1800s] and still not generally known: Animals carry diseases dangerous to man" (pp. 27, 30, 39).
Health risk to humans?
Dr. Russell asks, "What is so good about 'clean' meats, and what is so bad about 'unclean' meats?" He goes on to explain that "the flesh of clean animals such as beef, and fish that have scales and fins, is ideal for the health of humans—just as we would expect from the hand of a loving Creator...Many land animals God designed for food provide an additional benefit in that they generally eat grasses and grains that were also designed for food" (Russell, pp. 73-74).
In contrast, David Meinz summarizes the potential health risk of eating creatures the Bible classifies as unclean. "Almost all of the creatures on the unclean list are scavengers," he notes. "In many cases they don't hunt for their own food; they eat the dead and decaying matter of our environment. A catfish does that at the bottom of a pond; lobsters and shrimp do it in the ocean. A pig will eat anything. Vultures, almost by definition, are known for their scavenger habits" (Meinz, p. 225).
Dr. Russell notes that "an animal doesn't have to be a scavenger to be unclean. Horses and rabbits, for example, are unclean because they do not have split hooves. Although they are considered to be good food in some countries, studies have shown that horse meat often contains viruses and parasites. Rabbits, as innocent as they appear, are the cause of tularemia (an infectious disease) in humans.
"One reason for God's rule forbidding pork is that the digestive system of a pig is completely different from that of a cow. It is similar to ours, in that the stomach is very acidic. Pigs are gluttonous, never knowing when to stop eating. Their stomach acids become diluted because of the volume of food, allowing all kinds of vermin to pass through this protective barrier. Parasites, bacteria, viruses and toxins can pass into the pig's flesh because of over-eating. These toxins and infectious agents can be passed on to humans when they eat a pig's flesh" (Russell, p. 76-77).
Don Colbert, M.D., adds: "Besides being gluttons, swine are also extremely filthy animals. They will eat garbage, feces, and even decaying flesh. All that is eaten usually becomes part of the pig's own flesh...Aside from the diseases routinely carried by swine, pork is also a very fatty meat. The toxins in pork are held especially in the fat, which is not isolated from the meat as can be the case in lean beef, but rather, it is dispersed throughout the meat" (What Would Jesus Eat?, 2002, pp. 49-50).
Poison on a plate?
Dr. Russell's supporting evidence for his views isn't for the faint of heart. He writes: "In the United States, three of the six most common food-borne parasitic diseases of humans are associated with pork consumption. These include toxoplasmosis, taeniasis or cysticercosis (caused by the pork tapeworm Taenia solium) and trichinellosis...
"It has long been recognized that the meat of shellfish—shrimp, crabs, lobsters, etc.—is especially dangerous. Many illnesses, including instant paralysis, devastate some people every day as a result of eating shellfish.
"The largest cholera outbreak in the United States occurred in Louisiana from August through October 1986. (The symptoms of cholera are explosive diarrhea, leading to rapid dehydration, unconsciousness, hypotension and death.) What did the stricken people eat? The incriminating meals were found to include rice noodles with shrimp, pork, vegetables, mussel soup, pig blood coagulated with vinegar, and salty brine shrimp with mixed vegetables.
"Shellfish can be placed in a body of water that is contaminated with cholera bacteria, and they will purify the water. Shrimp, oysters, crab, scallops and mussels are particularly efficient at this. They filter large volumes of water every day. Sewage laden with chemicals, toxins and harmful bacteria, parasites and viruses become concentrated in those shellfish. The cause of cholera outbreaks in several areas has been traced to contaminated shrimp, crab, oysters and clams.
"Reading all this, you might not be surprised to learn that the state Legislature of California proposed a law requiring the food industry to label shellfish with a message warning: 'This food may be dangerous to your health.' Why? In a single year, 50 deaths and many hospitalizations were found to have been caused by eating shellfish" (Russell, pp. 78-79).
What purpose do they serve?
If such creatures weren't designed to be eaten, why did God create them? Dr. Russell explains: "For one thing, they serve a useful role just cleaning up the place. Many unclean animals, however, notably pigs and shellfish, are unhealthy because their diet consists of society's disease-laden refuse.
"Pigs have eaten Philadelphia's garbage and sewage for more than 100 years, saving the city $3 million a year in landfill costs. This is a wise use of hogs. They are designed to clean our environment.
"Even when stacked in cages, piglets thrive on offal when only the pig in the top cage receives food. Farmers have increased their profits by feeding free raw sewage to pigs. Chicken farmers often keep a hog so they can dispose of dead chickens without having to bury them" (Russell, p. 81).
Some species of fish and shellfish perform a similar role in the water. Dr. Russell notes that "among commonly eaten fish, catfish...always show the highest levels of contamination in chemically polluted water. After chemical spills, local fishermen are warned not to eat catfish" (ibid.).
Even commercially raised catfish are a potential health risk, he notes. "Consumer Reports tested fish bought in multiple markets in the United States. Fish are considered spoiled when bacteria counts are greater than 10 million per gram of flesh. Nearly all catfish had counts that went off the scale at 27 million per gram, even when properly prepared" (ibid.).
Dr. Russell's conclusion? "Although swine help clean the earth, and shellfish and catfish are ideally designed to purify the water, we don't want to eat what they clean up!" (ibid.)
In light of such seldom-publicized facts, we can better understand and appreciate God's words through Moses: "Observe and obey all these words which I command you, that it may go well with you and your children after you forever, when you do what is good and right in the sight of the Lord your God" (Deuteronomy 12:28).
May we all be careful to "discern between the unclean and the clean" (Ezekiel 44:23).