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What are the animals considered clean and unclean in the Old Testament?

clean and unclean animals

The first reference to clean and unclean animals appears in the account of the flood (Genesis 7:1—8:22) when God instructs Noah to take on the ark seven pairs of every type of clean animal and one pair of each kind of unclean animal. In Leviticus 11:1–47 (see also Leviticus 22:4–5; Deuteronomy 14:1–21), God establishes a distinct set of laws for the people of Israel concerning clean and unclean animals, primarily for dietary and ceremonial guidance. Only clean animals were approved for eating as food (Leviticus 20:25–26), for dedicating to the Lord (Exodus 13:1–2), and for offering in Israel’s sacrificial system (Leviticus 1:1–2; 27:9–13).

Land animals (Leviticus 11:1–8; 26–30; Deuteronomy 14:6–8) that had completely split or “cleft” hooves and chewed the cud were considered clean and suitable for eating. Any land animals that did not meet this rule were unclean and unsuitable for eating. If an animal only met one stipulation of the requirement, it was considered unclean. For example, “the camel, though it chews the cud, does not have a divided hoof” and was ceremonially unclean (Leviticus 11:4).

Aquatic animals such as fish had to have both fins and scales to be deemed clean and used for food. All types of shellfish were classified as unclean and not suitable for eating (Leviticus 11:9–12).

Birds or “winged” animals (Leviticus 11:13–19; Deuteronomy 14:11–20) were part of the Israelite diet. Birds of prey and scavengers prone to carry and transmit diseases were unclean. Winged insects that creep along the ground were unclean and forbidden to eat (Leviticus 11:20, 23); however, those that had jointed legs to jump were considered clean and permitted for food (Leviticus 11:21–22).

Examples of clean animals listed in the Old Testament:

• Land animals – cattle, sheep, goats, ox, deer, gazelle, addax, and antelope
• Aquatic animals – fish with fins and scales
• Birds – doves, pigeons, fowl, and most flying birds
• Insects – locusts, crickets, grasshoppers

Examples of unclean animals specified in the Bible:

• Land animals – camels, pigs, hyrax, rabbits, mole rats, weasels, mice, ferrets, and other small animals that scurry along the ground
• Aquatic animals – crab, shrimp, oysters, lobster, catfish, whales, and sharks
• Birds – birds of prey, ostriches, vultures, kites, falcons, ravens, owls, seagulls, pelicans, swans, hawks, cormorants, storks, herons, and bats
• Insects – winged insects that walk on the ground
• All Reptiles – snakes, lizards, geckos, chameleons, tortoises, alligators, and crocodiles; also, snails and other creatures that slither along on their bellies and animals with many feet

Touching a dead animal, regardless of the creature’s living classification as clean or unclean, made a person ceremonially unclean (Leviticus 11:24–25; 31–47). Exodus 23:19, 34:26, and Deuteronomy 14:2 prohibit God’s people from boiling a young goat in its mother’s milk. The rule was likely established because of a Canaanite practice of cooking a kid goat in its mother’s milk as part of a magic ritual. This dietary law formed the basis for many of the Jewish kosher laws developed later.

Much scholarly debate has gone into the question of why God declared some animals clean and others unclean. Some believe it was to avoid pagan practices and set Israel apart as holy in matters of food and worship. Others emphasize the health and hygiene benefits of these regulations. All of these concerns were likely in God’s heart when He established the laws regarding clean and unclean animals. If the Hebrew people followed the Lord’s guidelines, they could anticipate blessings of good physical health while promoting holiness and spiritual well-being within the community of believers.

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What are the animals considered clean and unclean in the Old Testament?
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This page last updated: January 11, 2024