An ancient source of wisdom, supported by findings in science and medicine, says we need to change our habits and rethink what we consider to be “food.”
For many, the dietary laws in Leviticus are among the Bible’s most puzzling instructions. These laws have for millennia set those who follow them apart from the wider world, and in doing so have been a cause for controversy. Why did God prohibit people from eating certain foods? Should you follow those same instructions today?
Over the centuries, critics have regarded the Levitical dietary guidelines as arbitrary and irrational, originating in primitive superstitions rather than coming from God. Yet many others—especially those who have experienced the benefit of those laws—consider them wise and reasonable, as one would expect laws given by God to be.
Whatever detractors may claim, God proclaimed that His laws are for our good, prolonging our lives (Deuteronomy 5:29, 33; 10:13). His dietary ordinances were not arbitrary; their purpose was to benefit us. That being so, why would God later inspire New Testament scriptures that seem to do away with them? Would an all-wise Creator contradict Himself?
If you have ever pondered such questions, you should look into the subject to determine the truth for yourself. Almighty God challenges you to “prove all things; hold fast that which is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21, KJV). The answers could change your life and benefit your health!
The Bible reveals several important reasons for its dietary laws. In Exodus, we learn that God chose the nation of Israel for a special purpose (Exodus 19:5–6). God designed the dietary laws to make the Israelites distinct from other nations, but why? God told Moses, “I am the Lord your God, who has separated you from the peoples. You shall therefore distinguish between clean animals and unclean.… And you shall be holy to Me, for I the Lord am holy, and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be Mine” (Leviticus 20:24–26). God chose Israel to become a model nation—a light and example to the world of right and wrong, holy and profane (Deuteronomy 4:6–8).
God did this in part so other peoples could see the results of His laws and seek Him for the wonderful benefits of His righteous ways. “My son, do not forget my law, but let your heart keep my commands; for length of days and long life and peace they will add to you” (Proverbs 3:1–2). Increased longevity and improved health would be just two of the benefits of following Israel’s example (Deuteronomy 4:40; 7:12–15)!
God also intended the dietary laws to promote wise and efficient use of the environment. The instructions about “clean” and “unclean” foods are important in fulfilling God’s command for mankind to “tend and keep” the earth (Genesis 1:28; 2:15). To understand these laws fully, we must see them in the context of God’s purpose for all humanity.
Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14 contain most of the biblical dietary laws. They give specific information summarized in simple principles. As one commentary observed, “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 Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 1990, vol. 2, p. 569). Today, however, modern science reveals how practical and important these laws really are.
Beginning in Leviticus 11:1–3, we read, “These are the animals which you may eat among all the animals that are on the earth… whatever divides the hoof, having cloven hooves and chewing the cud.” This describes plant-eating mammals (herbivores) having split hooves and specialized digestive tracts, which are classified as ruminants.
Ruminants have four-chambered stomachs that convert grasses inedible to humans and other animals into nutritious protein products—meat and milk. Examples of such clean animals include cattle, sheep, goats, deer, bison, moose, antelope, gazelles, caribou, and giraffes. These are all herbivores that graze on grasses and other plants.
These guidelines sensibly manage the environment. Rangelands and savannas cover vast areas of the globe, and are often called marginal lands because they lack adequate rainfall for crops like corn or wheat. “Ruminants have served and will continue to serve a valuable role in sustainable agricultural systems. They are particularly useful in converting vast renewable resources from rangeland, pasture, and crop residues or other by-products into food edible for humans. With ruminants, land that is too poor or too erodable to cultivate becomes productive” (J. L. Beckett and J. W. Oltjen, “Role of ruminant livestock in sustainable agricultural systems,” Journal of Animal Science, vol. 74, no. 6, 1996, p. 1406). Grass-fed animals also produce meat with a lower fat content than that produced by grain-fed animals—providing a known health benefit. Raising meat animals on grass and other plants is also cheaper.
God designed these “clean” animals to produce nutritious food in an economical and ecologically sound manner. These were benefits He wanted His model nation to show the world—and He imparted these guidelines to Israel long before the sciences of ecology, economics, and nutrition arose.
The dietary laws also, for logical reasons, prohibit the eating of carnivorous animals. God created clean animals to provide food and by-products for human use. He created animals unsuitable for human consumption for other purposes. Carnivores, as beasts of prey, play an important role in culling other animal populations. For example, wolves and mountain lions, which feed on deer, control the growth and health of deer herds by removing old, sick, or infirm animals. That is one reason for not eating carnivores; they may eat sick animals and pass diseases to humans.
The Bible specifically calls pigs or swine unclean—unsuitable for human food (Leviticus 11:7–8; Deuteronomy 14:8). While some theologians do not understand why God would discriminate against pork, others find many logical reasons related to ecology, economics, nutrition, and public health.
In the wild, swine are often nocturnal animals that root for food. Their nighttime feeding habits should have kept them away from humans. However, people for centuries have used domestic pigs as scavengers around settlements. Having an omnivorous animal around that can rapidly gain weight eating any kind of garbage, waste, or carrion—and can be slaughtered later for food—seems like a good arrangement to many societies. But is it?
Today, “corn and soybean crops are good news for hog producers as these two grains remain the main ingredients in pig diets” (Kevin Schulz, “Cheap corn, soybeans play well into hogs’ needs,” NationalHogFarmer.com, 2016). However, as non-ruminants with digestive tracts similar to that of humans, pigs are unable to survive on grasses. This makes them ecological competitors with humans for grains like wheat, corn, and barley. In America, farmers feed about 20 percent of harvested corn to hogs. This is an unwise use of resources as the world’s population continues to press our capacity to produce food. This is another potential reason why God does not want us to eat pigs: Perhaps He foresaw that great herds of hogs would take precious grain out of the mouths of poor people!
One of the major diseases swine and other unclean animals transmit is trichinosis. It results from a small parasitic roundworm that infects the muscle tissue of animals and humans (Richard Pearson, MD, “Trichinosis,” MerckManuals.com, 2018). We should note, however, that many carnivorous and omnivorous animals carry the parasite Trichinella spiralis, and “infections can result from eating pork… wild boar, bear, or walrus” (ibid.). The list could also include squirrels, rats, cats, dogs, rabbits, foxes, horses, and marine mammals (Eugene Nester et al., Microbiology, 1995, p. 768; “Trichinosis-Fact Sheet,” Connecticut State Department of Public Health, 2019). It is neither accident nor coincidence that God’s divine dietary laws prohibit the use of these animals for food.
Tapeworms are another serious health problem that can arise from eating pork. With reference to pork tapeworm disease, “the highest prevalence rates are seen in countries where pork is a major part of the diet, such as Mexico, Latin America, Spain, Portugal, Africa, India, Southeast Asia, and China” (Ellen Jo Baron et al., Medical Microbiology, 1994, p. 887).
Although the advice often given for avoiding parasitic infections from pork and other unclean animals is to cook the meat adequately, the most effective way to avoid these diseases is to avoid eating unclean animals! God instructed Moses and the Israelites in this wisdom 3,500 years ago. If people applied the biblical dietary code today, the global burden of parasitic disease could fall dramatically within a generation!
The second major set of divine dietary instructions concerns aquatic creatures. “These you may eat of all that are in the water: whatever in the water has fins and scales, whether in the seas or in the rivers—that you may eat… Whatever in the water does not have fins and scales—that shall be an abomination to you” (Leviticus 11:9, 12).
There are numerous—and sometimes fanciful—reasons given for these guidelines. While some Bible scholars recognize that eating unclean organisms can be harmful, others suggest that organisms without fins and scales were abhorrent to eat simply because they resembled snakes. Scientific discoveries, however, reveal the detailed wisdom and benefits of God’s plain instructions about appropriate food.
Biblically “clean” fish generally swim freely in bodies of water. Most “unclean” fish are either bottom dwellers or predatory scavengers. The Bible’s guidelines protect against consuming fish whose bodies produce poisonous substances. A U.S. Army survival manual comments, “Most poisonous fish have many similar physical characteristics. Generally they are odd-shaped—box-like or almost round—and have hard skin (often covered with bony plates or spines), tiny mouths, small gills, and small or absent belly fins” (John Boswell, U.S. Armed Forces Survival Guide, 2007, p. 244). Many sea creatures listed as venomous do not have true scales (Roger Caras, Venomous Animals of the World, 1974, p. 103).
Biblical guidelines point people to the safest kinds of fish to eat. However, even clean fish require adequate cooking. Raw or undercooked fish can transmit several kinds of parasitic tapeworms and flukes (Jacquelyn and Laura Black, Microbiology, 1993, p. 624).
Biblical dietary laws also forbid consumption of shellfish, which lack both fins and scales. But why are lobsters, crabs, crayfish, and shrimp—considered delicacies in many parts of the world—prohibited? The answer lies in understanding the natural role God designed such creatures to play.
Lobsters “are marine and benthic (bottom-dwelling), and most are nocturnal. Lobsters scavenge for dead animals but also eat live fish, small mollusks and other bottom-dwelling invertebrates, and seaweed” (“Lobster,” Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2018).
Crabs are garbage scavengers that eat almost anything—especially dead fish. Common shrimp live by day in the mud or sandy bottoms of bays and estuaries all over the world. At night, they act as predatory scavengers and are “bottom dwelling detritus feeders [eating dead and decaying matter]” (Keith Banister and Andrew Cambell, The Encyclopedia of Aquatic Life, 1988, p. 235).
God created these organisms to be the “cleanup crew” for lakes, rivers, beaches, bays, and oceans. He did not intend human beings to eat them. That is also why consuming raw, pickled, or undercooked crabs, crayfish, snails, or shrimp puts people at risk of parasitic infections like liver flukes, which infect up to 80 percent of some rural populations in Southeast Asia (Black, Microbiology, p. 624).
Why did God create clams, oysters, mussels, and scallops, but label them unfit for human consumption? These creatures perform specialized roles in lakes, streams, and coastal areas. As stationary filter-feeding mollusks, they “burrow in muddy sediments at depths of 10 to more than 7,000 metres (33 to 23,000 feet) and consume microorganisms and loose organic material (detritus)” (“Mollusk,” Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2019). Filter-feeding organisms are the “vacuum cleaners” for aquatic environments, purifying the water.
Once you understand why God created shellfish, the reason they are unclean should be obvious. If you would not eat the contents of your vacuum cleaner bag, furnace filter, or septic tank, neither would you want to eat shellfish! “Shellfish concentrate bacteria as they filter several liters of water per hour. Ingestion by humans of these seafoods (uncooked or superficially cooked) may cause typhoid fever or other salmonellosis” (J. P. Cabral, “Water Microbiology. Bacterial Pathogens and Water,” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, vol. 7, no. 10, 2010, pp. 3657–3703).
How serious is the threat of disease? The U.S. Food and Drug Administration reports that “molluscan shellfish—oysters, clams, mussels, and scallops—cause over 100,000 illnesses annually” (“Food Safety: Federal Oversight of Shellfish Safety Needs Improvement ,” GAO-01-072, July 9, 2001, p. 1). Outbreaks of cholera, typhoid, hepatitis A, Norwalk virus, salmonella, and paralytic shellfish poisoning are just some of the health problems frequently linked to eating these mollusks. Health experts such as those at the Mayo Clinic commonly advise that people with compromised or vulnerable immune systems—particularly pregnant women—should “skip uncooked fish and shellfish” (“Pregnancy and fish: What’s Safe to Eat?,” MayoClinic.com, June 17, 2016). Diners who understand and follow the biblical dietary laws will automatically avoid all these problems—and more!
The final groups of organisms covered by the biblical code are birds, insects, and reptiles. Most excluded fowl are either birds of prey or scavengers like vultures and seagulls (Leviticus 11:13–19). Carnivorous birds are important in controlling various animal populations. Consumption of the flesh and blood of their prey—carrion—make these birds potential agents for transmitting disease. Predatory fish-eating birds also tend to accumulate high levels of toxic chemicals in their bodies.
Reptiles, too, are among the animals listed as unclean (Leviticus 11:29–30; 42–43). Regarding insects, only those from the locust/grasshopper family—long a valued food source in the Middle East—are permitted to be used for food (vv. 21–23).
The biblical dietary laws are simple, rational, practical, and profound. Long before human beings knew the details of microorganisms, parasites, or global ecology, God revealed powerful principles that would protect the environment, provide safe and healthful food, and prevent the spread of disease among those who follow these instructions.
Many writers and external sources have acknowledged the intent and benefits of these guidelines. Experts have observed that “most of the laws can be clearly seen to tend toward hygiene and public health,” and “the laws were wonderfully fashioned by God for the general health of the nation” (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, pp. 529, 569).
However, if these laws are so logical and beneficial, how did the idea arise that they were abolished? Why do some claim the Bible supports this notion? We find the answer in interpretations that people read into scriptures found in Mark 7 and Acts 10. Studying the “evidence” is instructive.
In Mark 7, the Pharisees ask Jesus why His disciples ate without washing their hands according to Pharisaical traditions. Christ derides the Pharisees as hypocrites (vv. 5–13), but many have misunderstood what follows. It is important to recognize that some Bible translations add their own words to Mark 7:19—words Jesus did not speak and not found in the Greek text—incorrectly suggesting that Jesus did away with the dietary laws. Christ’s point was that ingesting dirt does not spiritually defile a person since it does not enter the “heart” to influence attitudes. The dirt passes through the digestive tract and leaves the body. This chapter is not discussing dietary laws—nor is Matthew 15:10–20, which describes the same event. Read these scriptures in several different translations, and you can see this for yourself.
God gave Peter a vision, recounted in Acts 10, to help him understand God’s plans for the growth of the Church. Peter saw a group of unclean animals and was told three times to eat. Each time he adamantly declined because he believed it was wrong (vv. 13–16). Now, remember, this was the Peter who supposedly heard Jesus abolish the dietary laws in Mark 7, the Peter Christ trained for three-and-one-half years—yet he was still under the clear impression that eating unclean meats was wrong! He puzzled over the meaning of the vision (Acts 10:17) until three Gentile men visited him with a request to hear the Gospel explained (vv. 21–27). Normally, Peter would not have associated with men from outside of the covenant community, because the Jews considered the Gentiles “unclean.”
When Peter pieced this little puzzle together he concluded, “God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean” (v. 28). He perceived God’s true intent. Christians were to preach the Gospel to the Gentiles, who were to join the Church on equal footing with Christians of Jewish descent. Peter did not conclude in this chapter, or anywhere else in the New Testament, that God wanted the dietary laws abolished. The so-called evidence is simply not there! Neither Jesus Christ nor Peter abolished these God-given guidelines.
If the evidence for Christ and the Apostles abolishing the dietary laws is so weak—in fact, is nonexistent—where did this idea originate? The clues are in the social, political, and religious factors that influenced church doctrines of the second century ad.
Though the destruction of the Second Temple in 70ad—less than 40 years after Christ’s death and resurrection—had put an end to many long-practiced Jewish customs and religious strictures, Christ’s earliest disciples continued to observe laws and practices their Savior kept, recognizing them as timeless teachings of the Bible (cf. Luke 4:16; Edward Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, 1952, pp. 129–131). However, as more Gentiles came into the Church, Christians began to contend with strong anti-Jewish feelings that surged through the Roman Empire at that time. Because of the attacks and ridicule heaped on Jewish customs by Latin and Greek authors, “many Christians severed their ties with Judaism” (Samuele Bacchiocchi, From Sabbath to Sunday, 1977, p. 185).
Many professing Christians attempted to radically differentiate themselves from anything that appeared to be Jewish. They wanted to appear as distinct and separate from the Jews. In their attempts to create a new identity, they began to substitute new customs—many borrowed from the surrounding pagan culture—to replace the original, biblical, so-called “Jewish” practices (Will Durant, Caesar and Christ, 1944, p. 595). Examples of this include replacing the Sabbath with Sunday, the biblical holy days with pagan holidays, and God’s dietary laws with local food preferences.
One of the saddest consequences of mankind’s widespread rejection of God’s dietary laws has been that millions of people have suffered and died of diseases contracted by eating what God never intended for food.
The Bible states that Satan deceives the whole world (Revelation 12:9). This deception has included the belief that theological, rational, and beneficial instructions about diet, which God gave to Israel so it could become a model nation for the rest of the world, are no longer valid.
This situation, however, will soon change. When Jesus Christ returns, there will be a “restoration of all things” (Acts 3:20–21), including the dietary laws found in the Bible. Prophecies in Isaiah 65:1–10 and 66:15–20 reveal that humanity’s Savior will correct mistaken notions that He or anyone else did away with these beneficial laws. All people then will learn why God established His laws, and will be able to experience the benefits of living in harmony with these divinely inspired principles (Isaiah 2:2–3). The Bible indicates that when this restoration occurs, it will last for as long as God’s Kingdom lasts—forever (9:6–7)!
The good news is that you do not have to wait for Jesus’ Second Coming to begin following the instructions of your Creator. You can start today—and you should! Individuals whose minds God has opened to the real meaning of the Scriptures can benefit now, and will soon have the opportunity to share these life-preserving principles with all humanity (Isaiah 30:20–21).
Those who develop a working knowledge of the applications and benefits of God’s way of life will reign with Jesus Christ in the Kingdom of God on this earth (Revelation 11:15; Daniel 2:44; 7:27). The dietary laws are part of God’s plan for wellbeing. They still apply today, and they will be fundamental to healthful living in tomorrow’s world.