For me (once again) the initial challenge in reading this passage is simply to overcome the impression that God is more than a little bit strange! I mean, what’s wrong with a hoopoe (Lev 11:19)? OK, so I don’t even know what a hoopoe is… but the question remains: what are these chapters really about?!
Let’s start with what’s plain from the text: eating or even touching certain animals will make you unclean. It’s bad to be unclean. having an infectious skin disease makes you unclean. In most cases, when something unclean touches something else that thing becomes unclean too. In many cases, nightfall is able to undo uncleaness. Childbirth makes a woman unclean. Giving birth to a daughter makes a woman unclean for twice as long as giving birth to a son. As well as butchering skills, priests were required to know a good deal about dermatological conditions. Mildew makes stuff unclean.
So what could it all mean? One thing is clear, God’s people must be “clean” and so avoid anything that is “unclean”. Uncleanness is easily transferred from one object or person to another and so any unclean object must be avoided or destroyed and any unclean person must be removed from the camp. It seems likely that all these laws served a dual purpose. Firstly, it was a way of maintaining the health of God’s people. However the far bigger issue is that God is holy and his people must also be holy (Lev. 11:44-45). In order to be holy, they have to be “clean”, hence all the regulations.
Whatever we don’t understand about these chapters, I find Jesus’ words in Mark 7:15-23 comforting…
Nothing outside a man can make him ‘unclean’ by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of a man that makes him ‘unclean.'” After he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about this parable. “Are you so dull?” he asked. “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a man from the outside can make him ‘unclean’? For it doesn’t go into his heart but into his stomach, and then out of his body.” (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods “clean.”) He went on: “What comes out of a man is what makes him ‘unclean.’ For from within, out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and make a man ‘unclean.'”
I find this comforting because it clearly means that the regulations in Leviticus don’t apply anymore. But they’re challenging words too. Because they remind me that what comes out of me – out of my heart – is what God really cares about.
Praise God that in Christ, my heart has been washed clean – permanently. Evil still comes out, and I need to repent of it, but I am in Christ and so his righteousness has been reckoned to my account.
If you wanna investigate this sort of stuff further, check out Acts 10 and Hebrews 9 & 10…