The Distinction Between Clean and Unclean Animals

Making a distinction between clean and unclean animals, insofar as using their flesh for food is concerned, has long been a well-known practice among Jews. It has a place, too, among the beliefs of Seventh-day Adventists.

-Research Consultant, General Conference at the time this article was written

Making a distinction between clean and unclean animals, insofar as using their flesh for food is concerned, has long been a well-known practice among Jews. It plays a part in their kosher dietary today. During the centuries this custom has excited considerable curiosity among other peoples, leading them to inquire about it. It has a place, too, in the dietary of Seventh-day Adventists.

When, how, and why did this distinction between clean and unclean animals originate?

Two important facts need to be taken into consideration in seeking the answer to this question. They are these:

No Need for Distinction

First, there was no need for such a law when Adam and Eve were created and while they maintained their primitive innocence and holiness. When He created man, "God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat. And to every beast of the earth, and to every fowl of the air, and to every thing that creepeth upon the earth, wherein there is life, I have given every green herb for meat: and it was so" (Gen. 1:29, 30).

Thus the Creator's original plan for man and animals was that they should subsist upon a vegetarian diet. "One animal was not to destroy another animal for food."— ELLEN G. WHITE, Counsels on Diet and Foods, p. 396.

Second, in the better world to come there will be no carnivores among men and animals. Hence there will be no need for the law making a distinction between clean and unclean animals insofar as diet is concerned, for men and animals will not devour one another then. Concerning that future age, the Lord has said:

"Behold, I create new heavens and a new earth: and the former shall not be remembered, nor come into mind" (Isa. 65:17). "The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, and the lion shall eat straw like the bullock: and dust shall be the serpent's meat. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain, saith the Lord" (verse 25).

Again: "The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fading together; and a little child shall lead them. And the cow and the bear shall feed; their young ones shall lie down together: and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. And the sucking child shall play on the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the cockatrice' den. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain: for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea" (Isa. 11: 6-9).

It is obvious, therefore, that laws making a distinction between clean and unclean animals, and the use of the flesh of animals as food for human beings were introduced after man began to sin. Futhermore, they will cease after mankind has stopped sinning. Both man and animals were vegetarians originally, and both will be vegetarians ultimately.

Permission to eat the flesh of animals was first given to man by the Lord soon after Noah and his family left the ark in which they survived the Deluge. Then they were told: "Every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you; even as the green herb have I given you all things. But flesh with the life thereof, which is the blood thereof, shall ye not eat" (Gen. 9:3, 4).

From that passage of Scripture we gather two important facts: (1) that during the first 1,650 years (approximately) of human history man had no. permission from the Lord to eat the flesh of animals; and (2) the ban against the use of blood as food was given to all mankind (see also Acts 15:19, 20, 29). Noah and his family were the whole human race and the fore bears of all men born from that time to the present. That instruction was given nearly a thousand years before it was embodied in the Mosaic code given to Israel.

However, prior to the Flood and before man was given permission to add the flesh of animals to his diet, the law making a distinction between clean and unclean animals was in vogue. In giving Noah instructions concerning the building of the ark, the Lord said to him:

"Of every clean beast thou shalt take to thee by sevens, the male and his female: and of beasts that are not clean by two, the male and his female" (Gen. 7:2).

And the record states: "Of clean beasts, and of beasts that are not clean, and of fowls, and of every thing that creepeth upon the earth, there went in two and two unto Noah into the ark, the male and the female, as God had commanded Noah" (verses 8, 9).

Noah Knew

There is not the slightest intimation in the record to show that the Lord had to tell Noah how to distinguish between clean and unclean animals. It appears that he already knew the difference. We are told that when he and his family left the ark after the Flood, "Noah builded an altar unto the Lord; and took of every clean beast, and of every clean fowl, and offered burnt offerings on the altar" (Gen. 8:20).

Why should any distinction be made between clean and unclean animals prior to man's receiving permission from the Lord to eat the flesh of animals? The statement in Genesis 8:20, just quoted, provides the answer to this query. Soon after man began to sin, the sacred system of offering animals as sacrifices to symbolize and illustrate God's plan for providing pardon for penitent sinners by means of an atonement made by the shedding of blood—the death—of the sacrificial victim was introduced. "The soul that sinneth, it shall die" (Eze. 18:4, 20). "The wages of sin is death" (Rom. 6:23). The plan of God for the atonement of sin was that the death penalty deserved by the repentant sinner should be borne symbolically by the innocent sacrificial animal in order to make his reconciliation with God possible. (See Isa. 53:5-12; John 1:29, 36; 1 Peter 1:18-20.) .

Related to Sacrifices

Thus, as we consider what is said or implied concerning the offering of sacrifices in Genesis 3:21; 4:1-7; 8:20, it is evident that the sacred law making a distinction between clean and unclean animals was originally given as a regulation for the sacrificial service. It banned the use of certain animals and fowls as sacrifices to God. The offering of dogs, snakes, vultures, lions, pigs, eagles, et cetera, as burnt offerings or sin offerings in religious devotion to the Maker of heaven and earth was deemed improper and inappropriate. Hence we read:

"Only clean and precious animals, those which would best symbolize Christ, were accepted as offerings to God. The filthy swine, the devouring lion, and beasts of like character which subsist on animal food, were not to be brought."—ELLEN G. WHITE, "Sacrificial Offerings," in Signs of the Times, July 15, 1880, p. 313.

A careful examination of all that is writ ten in the Bible concerning the sacrificial service from Adam to Moses, including the book of Job, reveals no mention of any of the faithful of patriarchal times as having offered any of the unclean animals or fowls as sacrifices to the Lord.

Sacrificial Law Extended to Dietary Practices

It appears, also, that when the Lord gave man permission to eat the flesh of animals (Gen. 9:3, 4), the sacred law making a distinction between the clean and the unclean animals for sacrificial purposes was extended to the use of animal flesh for food by man. A careful examination of all that the Scriptures record concerning the dietary practices of the faithful from Noah to Moses reveals no instance of their using the flesh of any unclean animals or fowls as food. Seventh-day Adventist teaching on this point has been expressed by Ellen G. White in comment on Genesis 9:3, 4, as follows:

"Previous to this time God had given man no permission to eat animal food. Every living substance upon the face of the earth upon which man could subsist had been destroyed, therefore God gave Noah permission to eat of the clean beasts which he had taken with him into the ark."— Spiritual Gifts, vol. 3, p. 76.

According to the Bible account of the Deluge, "the waters prevailed exceedingly upon the earth; and all the high hills, that were under the whole heaven, were covered. Fifteen cubits, upward did the waters prevail; and the mountains were covered" (Gen. 7:19, 20). Thus when Noah and his family left the ark a year and ten days after the Flood burst upon the world (Gen. 7:11, 24; 8:3-14), they found ruin and desolation everywhere. Their store of foodstuffs in the ark must have been greatly diminished, and doubtless was insufficient to meet all their needs until crops could be grown to amply supply all their wants. The green herb had been added to man's original diet after he sinned, at which time the fruit of the tree of life was removed from his dietary (Gen. 3:18, 22-24). Flesh food was an added supplement to man's diet, particularly under conditions prevailing in the world after the Flood.

Why More Clean Than Unclean?

One apparent reason for taking more clean than unclean animals and fowls into the ark was, in addition to the necessity of preserving some of these creatures for the reproduction and preservation of each species, the need of Noah and his family for some to slay as sacrificial offerings to the Lord (Gen. 8:20) and some to kill for food (Gen. 9:3, 4). Unclean animals were not used for either sacrifices or food, before or after the Flood.

The Lord said concerning the first man called a "Hebrew" in the Bible (Gen. 14: 13): "Abraham obeyed my voice, and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws" (Gen. 26:5). In the light of what is said about the animals he sacrificed as offerings to God, and concerning those which he used for food, we may well believe that the body of sacred laws so faithfully obeyed by Abraham included the one which made a distinction between clean and unclean animals. At any rate, the evidence brought forth in this article shows that that law is more ancient than the Jewish people.

(To be continued)

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-Research Consultant, General Conference at the time this article was written

January 1968

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