A close-up photo captures the intricate patterns on a snail's shell, inviting contemplation on the mysterious beauty of God's creation, including seemingly unclean animals.

Why Did God Create Unclean Animals?

For centuries, people have wondered why certain animals are considered ‘unclean’ according to biblical texts. If God created all creatures, why designate some as unacceptable for consumption or sacrifice? This is a complex theological question with roots in ancient history.

In this comprehensive article, we will examine the possible reasons behind God’s classification of certain animals as unclean.

If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer to your question: God likely designated certain animals as unclean for the ancient Israelites in order to set them apart from neighboring groups, encourage good hygiene practices, and establish guidelines that reflected their spiritual beliefs about purity and holiness.

But the ultimate reasons are not definitively stated in scripture.

Background on Clean and Unclean Animals in the Bible

Definition of clean and unclean animals

In the Old Testament, God gives instructions to the Israelites about which animals are “clean” and which are “unclean.” Clean animals are those that the Israelites are permitted to eat, while unclean animals are forbidden. Some key principles:

  • Clean land animals must chew their cud and have split hooves (e.g., cows, sheep, goats). Unclean land animals do not meet both criteria (e.g., pigs, rabbits, camels).
  • Clean fish must have fins and scales. Shellfish and eel are unclean.
  • Clean birds include certain types like doves, quail, and chickens. Birds of prey and scavengers are unclean (e.g., vultures, eagles, ravens).

There are also detailed rules about avoiding contact with carcasses of unclean animals and their skins, fat, and bones. Touching them could make a person ceremonially unclean.

Old Testament origins of the distinctions

The categories of clean and unclean animals originate in the Old Testament books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy. Scholars generally agree this was part of the Jewish dietary code. By only eating clean animals, the Israelites set themselves apart from neighboring groups who did not follow these food restrictions.

The earliest Biblical mention of clean/unclean animals is after the Flood, when Noah takes pairs of every kind of animal onto the ark (Genesis 7:2). Next, the rules appear as part of the Mosaic Law for Israel. Leviticus 11 provides an extensive list of clean and unclean animals.

And Deuteronomy 14 summarizes the key principles.

There has been much speculation about the logic behind the distinctions. Some propose they are about health – avoiding foods more likely to carry disease. Others connect them to avoiding animals with pagan religious symbolism.

But the Biblical text itself emphasizes the purpose was to make Israel holy and distinct for God.

Clean/unclean animals in New Testament times

During the time of Jesus in the 1st century AD, Jewish people continued to follow the Old Testament food laws. Many features of the temple and priestly system were designed around remaining ritually pure by avoiding unclean things.

In the Gospels, Jesus criticizes the Pharisees for focusing obsessively on minor rules while neglecting more important spiritual matters (Matthew 23:23-24). He declares all foods clean (Mark 7:19). This paved the way for the dietary restrictions to be set aside in Christianity.

In a vision, the apostle Peter is commanded to eat formerly unclean animals and told, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean” (Acts 10:15). Later, Paul teaches that Christians are free to eat any kind of food (Romans 14:14).

With this Biblical background, the New Testament church did not require observing the Old Testament dietary code.

Possible Reasons God Distinguished Between Clean and Unclean Animals

To set Israelites apart from other cultures

God’s designation of certain animals as “clean” and others as “unclean” served to set the Israelites apart from the surrounding nations. The dietary restrictions acted as a barrier to assimilation, reminding the Israelites that they were a holy nation called to be distinct and set apart for God’s purposes (Leviticus 20:24-26).

This distinction was intended to preserve their religious and ethical identity in a pagan cultural context.

For reasons of health and hygiene

Many scholars believe the clean/unclean distinction had health and hygiene implications. For example, pigs, shellfish and other unclean animals are more likely to harbor parasites and disease. By avoiding these food sources, the ancient Israelites would have enjoyed greater wellbeing and avoid sickness that plagued other societies.

Modern science affirms that several characteristics of unclean animals do indeed pose health risks.

To develop a sense of obedience and self-discipline

Obeying the detailed legal code regarding clean and unclean animals instilled habits of obedience and self-control among the Israelites. Though they may not have understood all the reasons behind the regulations, submission to God’s commands cultivated virtues of faith and self-discipline.

Adhering to the demanding food laws meant exercising care and conscious thought about even mundane daily decisions like meals. In this way, God taught his people to live intentionally within prescribed boundaries.

To establish categories of purity and holiness

The designation of clean and unclean animals ingrained a mentality oriented around ritual purity, cleanliness and holiness. The laws created a binary worldview centered on categories of pure/impure and clean/unclean.

Things pronounced “clean” were acceptable for ritual purposes and closeness with God. That which was unclean or impure must be kept at a distance from holy spaces and sacred rituals. By structuring much of life around these polarities, the food laws reminded ancient Israelites to vigilantly maintain both physical cleanliness and spiritual purity before God.

Interpretations and Controversies About Unclean Animals

Jewish perspectives on the purpose of the laws

The Jewish laws regarding clean and unclean animals have been discussed and debated for centuries. Here are some of the common interpretations within Judaism:

  • The laws serve as a test of obedience to God. By following these sometimes puzzling laws, Jews demonstrate their commitment to God’s commandments.
  • The laws are intended to teach reverence for life. Since the laws restrict people’s freedom to eat whatever animals they choose, they encourage respect for animal life.
  • The laws remind Jews of their unique status as God’s chosen people. By eating different foods than neighboring peoples, Jews maintain their cultural identity.
  • The laws have health benefits. While perhaps not their primary purpose, the clean/unclean distinctions did serve to protect Jewish people from disease and toxicity.

Christian disagreements over clean/unclean distinctions

Among Christians, there are divergent views on whether the Old Testament laws about clean and unclean foods still apply:

  • Some believe Jesus “declared all foods clean” (Mark 7:19), freeing Christians from these dietary restrictions.
  • Others think God’s standards of holy living are unchanging, and Christians should continue to observe the biblical categories.
  • Some say the clean/unclean laws had spiritual symbolism about separation from sin that remains relevant.
  • Others view the distinctions as an outdated ritual law that applied only to ancient Israel.

This issue has caused much debate over the centuries. Historic divisions exist between churches that reject the laws as non-binding (Lutherans, Catholics) and those that retain some adherence (Seventh-Day Adventists, Messianic Jews).

Difficult passages and ambiguities in categorization

While the Bible provides extensive lists of clean and unclean animals (Leviticus 11, Deuteronomy 14), some uncertainties and ambiguities remain:

  • A few animals like the hyrax (rock badger) and hare are not easily classified because their zoological identity is unclear.
  • Insects present a classification challenge. Destructive locusts are approved for food (Leviticus 11:22) while other insects are prohibited.
  • Some “unclean” animals like horses and camels are not denounced for food but used in other approved ways.
  • Birds are categorized very generally as either “clean” or “unclean” with no specifics given for identification.

These issues resulted in extensive rabbinic debates and rulings to fill in the gaps. Modern zoological discoveries about species have also forced re-evaluation of traditional interpretations in some cases. So while God’s standards remain fixed, their application has required ongoing clarification.

Modern Applications and Relevance

– Do the categories still apply today?

The classifications of clean and unclean animals given in the Old Testament still provide wisdom and benefits for us today, though they do not legally apply. Here are some ways the principles behind these laws can guide healthy living:

  • Avoiding pork and shellfish can prevent foodborne illnesses – These meats are high-risk foods for parasites and bacterial contamination if not properly cooked or handled.
  • Categorizing animals pushed Israel to live uniquely – The distinction kept Israel separate from pagan nations who freely ate all meats. We too should live counterculturally.
  • Some animals reflect spiritual symbols – For example, pigs are known as unclean animals, like how we can be spiritually “unclean” in sin.

Though Christians are free to eat all kinds of meat today (Mark 7:19), we can still glean wisdom from the biblical categories God gave His people long ago.

– Lessons for healthy living and obedience

God intended many health benefits in forbidding certain meats. Pigs, shellfish, and other animals are high-risk for carrying parasites, bacteria, and toxins if not properly handled. God graciously guided His people toward the safest foods.

But beyond just health, distinguishing clean and unclean animals taught Israel obedience and self-control. They had to go against mainstream culture and deny their appetite to faithfully follow God’s commands. Saying “no” to unclean foods set them apart for divine purposes.

For Christians today, these laws remind us our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). Choosing healthy foods and practicing moderation and self-discipline honors the Lord. Obeying biblical wisdom, though not commanded, still pleases God.

– Symbolism regarding spiritual purity

Clean and unclean animals became symbols for righteousness and sin. Sheep were “clean” and depicted purity, like believers belonging to Christ’s flock. Pigs rolled in mud and ate refuse, picturing how sin makes people “unclean” and separates them from God.

This imagery appears throughout the Bible. In a vision, unclean animals represented Gentile nations needing God’s light (Acts 10:9-16). Prodigal sons who repented were joyfully welcomed home, unlike the elder brothers who self-righteously stayed “clean” (Luke 15:11-32).

While we are not under Old Testament food laws, these symbols still illustrate spiritual lessons. We are called to pursue holiness by coming to Jesus, the Lamb of God, for cleansing from sin. What amazing grace!


The distinction between clean and unclean animals remains a complex biblical issue with many layers of history, culture, health considerations and theology. While the ultimate reasons behind God’s categorization are not definitive, examining the possibilities provides insight into ancient Israelite society and scriptural principles.

Most importantly, these ancient guidelines remind us of the holiness God desires His people to pursue, and provide lessons applicable even today about living in ways that honor Him.

Similar Posts