Unclean Meats for Food?

Notwithstanding thou mayest kill and eat flesh in all thy gates, whatsoever thy soul lusteth after, according to the blessing of the Lord thy God which he hath given thee: the unclean and the clean may eat thereof, as of the roebuck, and as of the hart.

Deuteronomy 12:15 (KJV)

The unclean and the clean may eat thereof – whoa whoa whoa… is God suggesting that we might be able to eat unclean meats? Anything that we desire?? And it is a blessing of the Lord our God??? If we take this verse out of context, it sure appears that way.

If something seems off in Scripture based on even the most rudimentary understanding of ancient Israel traditions and commandments from God, then we need to stop and rethink what we read. Don’t ever assume that reading the text from a 21st century Christian view is accurate or even reasonable. It is not.

But looking at the two words; clean and unclean, still don’t really help us understand what’s going on. “Clean” in Hebrew is (טָהוֹר) taor which is used to identify clean animals as in Genesis 7:2, and it is used to identify ritually pure or unblemished clean animals as in Leviticus 10:10. The word “unclean” is (טָמֵא) tame which also identifies unclean food as in Leviticus 11:6, and is used for ritually impure or blemished clean animals again in Leviticus 10:10.

Looking at this verse, our first instinct may be to use it as support for eating swine. We may justify our disobedience by claiming to have support even in the Old Testament. But we’d be doing it wrong. Because just 2 chapters later, God outlines the clean and unclean animals, fish, and birds that God Himself considers food for humans. Eating anything else besides what God Himself allowed is ungodly and rebellionism against His teachings.

So let us consider commentary from those who studied the text for centuries. God’s own people, Jewish sages.

Rashi comments on this that the Torah does not speak about animals raised for food, but about animals raised to be offered as a sacrifice on the altar. What the Torah actually comes to approve here is the killing for food of animals raised for a holy purpose. According to Rashi, based on Sifri, the Torah speaks here of an animal that had been raised by its owner to be offered as a sacrifice. Before it could be sacrificed however, it developed a blemish that disqualified it as the sacrifice it had been intended for. This animal may now be slaughtered and its meat be eaten, though its wool may not be shorn nor may it not be milked for its milk to be drunk. The word: רק, “only, except,” is the hint of what is the true meaning of the verse. An animal destined [too son Ed.] as a sacrifice, when disqualified through a permanent blemish, may be used by its owner secularly only as food, but not for any other mundane purpose. However, if it had been shorn by someone other than the owner, the wool is not subject to any restrictions just because it had originally grown on the back of an animal that had been sanctified. The subject and its ramifications are discussed in the Talmud tractate Meilah folio 12. [Since, unfortunately for the last 2000 years this subject is not of practical significance, I have not given some more details mentioned in the Talmud there. Ed.]


And Rashi’s own words…

About what is Scripture here speaking? If you say that it speaks about בשר תאוה (flesh eaten for satisfying the appetite — an ordinary meal of meat and not a sacrificial meal) and that this verse is intended to permit it to them without offering the fat portions on the altar, behold, it states in another passage (v. 20) “When the Lord thy God shall enlarge thy boundary … and thou shalt say, I will eat flesh, [because thy soul longeth to eat flesh; thou mayest eat flesh in every longing of thy soul]”! About what, then, is this verse speaking? About consecrated animals which had become blemished, — that they must be redeemed and may then be eaten in anyplace (בכל שעריך). One might think that they may be redeemed and thus divested of their holy character also on account of a transitory blemish! Scripture, however, uses the expression רק (which word has a limitative force) (Sifrei Devarim 71:1).


And so we realize now that the verse is not speaking about clean and unclean animals as outlined in Deuteronomy 14. It is speaking about clean animals raised for the purpose of sacrifice that had at some point becomes blemished (unclean) and not fit for an offering. God, in His understanding, allows the person to eat these animals.

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