Recently, we considered what makes a person “clean” or “unclean” in Mark 7:14-23. While these terms are not part of the everyday language that most of us traffic in, you have probably have heard of Jewish people refusing to eat things like pork or non-kosher food. The refusal to eat certain foods is rooted in the notion of certain foods being “unclean” while other foods are deemed “clean.” The designation between the two types of food is found in the book of Leviticus.
In Mark 7:1-13, the disciples of Jesus were accused of being unclean by the religious leaders due to not washing their hands according to the tradition of the elders. Jesus takes this opportunity to correct the religious leaders for turning “good things” (washing hands prior to eating) into “God things” – a standard from God that all truly “spiritual” Jews would obey. Jesus turns the tables on the Pharisees and Scribes and their leveraging of God to manipulate the people by pointing out their blatant disregarding of the Law to “honor your Father and your Mother” (the 5th Commandment, see Exodus 20:12) through the vow of “Corban” (Mark 7:11). Corban was a vow in which a person would dedicate one’s possessions to the Temple after his death. In the meantime, the person taking this vow would be permitted to have the full use of those possessions (home, land, animals, etc.) while he lived. Upon death, the religious leaders would sell his assets and then use the proceeds for the Temple. However, there were apparently times in which a son made this vow and then his parents had a need or, possibly, become destitute. The financial provision of the son would be the difference between his parents having a home or living on the streets. However, since the son had taken Corban vow, he could not help his parents since his possessions were no longer his but had been “given to God.” Whether this was an excuse by an unloving, unsupportive son or a prohibition enforced by the religious leader against the son who sincerely wanted to help his parents; the end result was that the “tradition of men” was being used to “leave” or abandon “the commandment of God” (Mark 7:8). The leaders who were responsible for teaching the Laws of God were actually leveraging their self-imposed traditions which would, in turn, lead to actually “rejecting the commandment of God” (Mark 7:9). In the end, the religious hierarchy would benefit, the people would suffer and God was made to look like a money-grubbing, heartless Deity.
Jesus was disgusted at their “spiritual” leadership and took this opportunity to extend the conversation into another realm in which the Pharisees and Scribes had warped the thinking of the people; the intention of the Law as it related to defilement (Mark 7:14-23).
To be defiled was to be unclean. When someone says the word, “unclean,” I get a mental picture of a child who needs a bath. When a Jewish person heard the word, “unclean” they would picture a person who had done something that had made them unable to approach God until he or she would become ceremonially clean. Being unclean was not a result of committing a sin – these would be handled within the sacrificial system, it was merely becoming unclean due to either eating or touching something that had been designated by God to be unclean. But why would God choose certain things to be unclean?
The list of these various unclean items can be found in Leviticus, chapters 11-15 and chapters 18-20. It is clearly evident that God chose specific things to be designated as unclean given that the listings are not random nor are they without order. For example, Leviticus 11 is divided into six sections, each introduced by the term “this” (2, 9, 29, 46) or “these” (13, 24) and the six sections may be divided into two major categories – the clean and unclean animals (11:1–23) as well as the issue of pollution by contamination (11:24–47). In other words, it is not merely a list of stuff God randomly chooses. Leviticus reads like a legal brief or contractual agreement with specific terms. But, again, why do these specific items make someone unclean?
It’s All About Relationship
When God saved His people from the corruption of Egypt, they were made free to be His people, called to model His character and priorities. While their identity as His chosen people (Deut. 7:6) had been established through the Abrahamic Covenant (Genesis 15:12-21; 17:1-14), they needed to be reminded that they were still very different from Him in two significant ways: First, He is the Almighty, Creator God and, second, He is Holy. While God had already exhibited His right to the claim of being the Almighty Sovereign who created the world by defeating the “god-man” of Egypt as well as the various “gods” of Egypt in the plagues, He would now reveal His moral standards in the Ten Commandments. The response of Israel toward the Lord was simple: Trust God-given He is the Almighty Creator, and obey God according to the Ten Commandments. It is on these principles that the Lord established the Mosaic Covenant with the people of Israel (see Exodus 24:4-8). When we hear the word “Law” we often think merely of the Ten Commandments and rightly so given that they are at the epicenter of the Mosaic Covenant (The Ten Commandments were given by God directly to Moses on Mount Sinai while the remainder of the Laws are given through Moses to the people after Sinai). However, God’s character – as Almighty Creator and Holy God, is also reflected in the in the Law and help us understand the reason for the designations of clean and unclean things.
God as Almighty Creator
When God created the world, He did so in a way that reveals Himself in a particular way. Like a great painter being recognized due to the style of the brushstrokes employed, so God reveals a signature pattern that undergirds the creation story in Genesis 1 that will also reflexively shape the Law as it relates to “clean” and “unclean.” We see the brushstrokes of God in creation when He creates something from nothing (Genesis1:1) then shapes order out of disorder (Gen. 1:2). The Creator then separates light from darkness, the lower atmosphere from the upper atmosphere, evening from the morning, and the land from the sea (Gen. 1:3-10). The artistry of the Creator goes even further in creating plants and trees of the ground that have life within themselves to reproduce after their same kind (Gen. 1:11-12). The progression nature of what was created resulted in God pronouncing what He had done as being “good” (Gen. 1:12c).
Did you notice the brushstrokes of the Creator? The progression within the created order moves from nothing to something, from chaos to order, to separating land and space to support various types of living creatures and, then, provides the capacity to give life in order to both sustain and expand the creation within the parameters of what we call, “nature.” In short, God established an ordered beauty within the apparent complexity of what He created that was reflective of both His power and personality. However, when Adam and Eve were deceived there was a disruption in this ordered beauty. The result of this rebellion was that Adam and Eve – as caretakers of this creation, chose to distinguish themselves as being outside His submissive creation in an attempt become their own sovereign. The result was that God levied a curse on the serpent, and hardship on both the woman and the man to exert His claim as the one true Sovereign (see Gen 3:14-19).
So How Does this Relate to Food being Clean or Unclean?
The curse aimed at the serpent would indirectly be associated with creatures that crawl on the ground and, therefore, that would now render certain animals (depending on their relationship to the ground) as unclean or unsuitable to serve as food (Lev. 11:41-45).
For example, animals that have no hooves but walk in direct contact with the ground are considered unclean according to Leviticus 11:27. However, animals that part the hoof and chew their cud are considered clean (Lev. 11:3). It seems that the cloven hoof represents a greater separation from the ground and the chewing of the cud suggests a greater separation in taking in the food gathered from the ground. Animals with “real” legs functioning in a familiar way are considered clean but all the other types of animals and insects that crawl on the ground are considered unclean. The theme seems to extend into the creatures in the sea. For example, fish with scales that swim in the water possessing fins are unlike unclean sea creatures that dwell on the “ground” or are considered “bottom feeders” like shrimp. The ordinary function of the particular animal as it related to the ground seems to be a mark of distinction between it being clean or unclean.
Was it Sinful for Israel to Eat Shrimp?
Again, a violation of the Laws relating to “clean and unclean” are not sinful in and of themselves but served as a type of echo or symbolic reminder of the penalty incurred for seeking to throw off the rule of God as the Almighty Creator. To come into God’s presence in a condition of being unclean would be sinful given God is Holy (part 2 will address this more fully). While there certainly were ancillary benefits for these dietary restrictions, not the least is limiting the influence of gentile nations or the benefits for a healthier life (see Deut. 7:15), it seems that the primary reason for the Laws of defilement are more directly related to the curse brought about by the rebellion of Adam and Eve. In a symbolic, shadowy way, life was created and sustained by God but when that paradigm was rejected, God seemingly renders certain creatures as unclean in order to provide a reminder that He is the Sovereign Creator and they are to submit to His will. The clean vs. unclear observance serves as a regular reminder of this new Creator/creature reality and provides a discontinuity within their experience moving forward. Understandably, this distinction between what can and cannot be touched or eaten would certainly provide a wonderful opportunity for parents to explain to their children a practical example of what happens when they fail to trust God as the Sovereign Creator.
Is It Wrong to Eat Unclean Food Now?
No. In Mark 7:18-19, Jesus declared all foods to now be clean.
And he said to them, “Then are you also without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, 19 since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.)
The Laws of defilement were created to serve as an echo to the effects of sin for rejecting God as the Almighty Creator. Now that Jesus has arrived, there is no need to be reminded of the Almighty Creator because He has come to them in the person of Jesus! It could be said that the arrival of Jesus as a human is the pinnacle, the apex of the most creative thing the Almighty has ever done!
Although Jewish believers would continue to reject foods that were designated as unclean, it is incredible to consider that God would eventually use this imagery – of clean and unclean food, to prepare Peter for the inclusion of Gentiles into the faith (see Acts 11:1-18). It’s incredible to see how our Lord continues to demonstrate that He is the creative Sovereign!
In part 2 we will consider the how the Laws of defilement relate to God being Holy and the ultimate penalty for disobedience – death itself.