Read the Passage (NRSV)    Find more resources related to this passage  Print

Deuteronomy 14:2-21 – Clean and Unclean Animals


The dietary laws of Deuteronomy demonstrate Israel to be a holy people.


Modern readers find the dietary regulations in this chapter puzzling. Several explanations have been offered, but each has proven unsatisfactory:

1. Health and hygiene. Some foods, undercooked pork and shellfish for example, can cause illness or allergic reactions.

  • But there is no appeal to health in connection with the food laws.
  • Different ancient peoples consider different animals to be unclean.
  • Many of the animals on the forbidden list are not harmful (camels, rabbits).
  • In New Testament times, these food laws were abolished, yet there had been no advances in medical science.

2. Religious associations. Some of these animals were considered to be gods in non-Israelite religion or were used in sacrifice to other gods.

  • But Israel, generally, sacrificed the same animals as its neighbors.
  • The bull was the primary religious animal in Canaan, Egypt, and Israel.

3. Carnivores. The birds listed as unclean are probably carrion-eaters (who eat flesh with its blood in it, forbidden in Genesis 9:4-5; Leviticus 11:39), and none of the acceptable animals are carnivores.

  • But why are sheep acceptable and not swine? Or rabbits?

Our passage, the structure of which helps to clarify some of these aspects, may be diagrammed as follows:

A Holiness rationale: "you are a people holy to the LORD your God" (v. 2)
B "You shall not eat any abhorrent thing" (v. 3)
1. Animals on the land (vv. 4-8)
2. Animals in the sea (vv. 9-10)
3. Animals in the sky (vv. 11-20)
B′ "You shall not eat anything that dies of itself" (v. 21a)
A′ Holiness rationale: "you are a people holy to the LORD your God" (v. 21b)

The concentric arrangement provides two clues useful for understanding the confusing matter of clean and unclean animals: First is the recognition that the regulations for clean and unclean animals are framed by a holiness rationale that declares Israel is "a holy people" (vv. 1-2; 21b). Thus the regulations deal with the relationship between the people and the Lord their God. Second, the animals thus framed are dealt with according to their sphere of activity (land, sea, or sky).

Recently, it has been suggested that the animal world is divided into three spheres: those that walk on the land, swim in the sea, and fly in the air (Genesis 1:20-30). Each sphere has an associated mode of locomotion to which "clean" animals conform: land animals have hooves with which to run; sea creatures have fins and scales with which to swim; and birds have two wings with which to fly and two feet for walking. Those creatures that do not conform confuse their category and are, therefore, "unclean": animals that chew the cud, but have no cloven hooves (camels); fish without fins and/or scales (sharks); insects that fly but have many legs. Thus, "clean" and "unclean" are unfortunate terms; originally, the words have nothing to do with hygiene. It must always be remembered that in the Priestly account of creation all that God created was "good" (Genesis 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31). "Good" creatures, however, can be inappropriate for food, depending upon how well they conform to their category. Therefore, it might be better to speak of "conforming" and "nonconforming" to one's category (and therefore, edible or inedible). Furthermore, the framing material suggests that, for the authors, the animal world is ordered much as the human world with striking correspondences: sacrificial animals (clean, domesticated animals) correspond to the priests; clean but non-sacrificial animals (for example, deer, which are not domesticated) correspond to the people of Israel; and unclean animals correspond to the Gentiles. When Israel eats according to these rules, they proclaim their relationship to their God.

Deuteronomy 14:2-21

2For you are a people holy to the Lord your God; it is you the Lord has chosen out of all the peoples on earth to be his people, his treasured possession.

Clean and Unclean Foods

You shall not eat any abhorrent thing. 4These are the animals you may eat: the ox, the sheep, the goat, 5the deer, the gazelle, the roebuck, the wild goat, the ibex, the antelope, and the mountain-sheep. 6Any animal that divides the hoof and has the hoof cloven in two, and chews the cud, among the animals, you may eat. 7Yet of those that chew the cud or have the hoof cloven you shall not eat these: the camel, the hare, and the rock-badger, because they chew the cud but do not divide the hoof; they are unclean for you. 8And the pig, because it divides the hoof but does not chew the cud, is unclean for you. You shall not eat their meat, and you shall not touch their carcasses.

Of all that live in water you may eat these: whatever has fins and scales you may eat. 10And whatever does not have fins and scales you shall not eat; it is unclean for you.

11 You may eat any clean birds. 12But these are the ones that you shall not eat: the eagle, the vulture, the osprey, 13the buzzard, the kite of any kind; 14every raven of any kind; 15the ostrich, the nighthawk, the seagull, the hawk of any kind; 16the little owl and the great owl, the water-hen 17and the desert-owl,* the carrion vulture and the cormorant, 18the stork, the heron of any kind; the hoopoe and the bat.* 19And all winged insects are unclean for you; they shall not be eaten. 20You may eat any clean winged creature.

21 You shall not eat anything that dies of itself; you may give it to aliens residing in your towns for them to eat, or you may sell it to a foreigner. For you are a people holy to the Lord your God.

You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.

Related Passages