Clean and Unclean

This entry is part 271 of 332 in the series Inquiring Minds

What is the difference between clean and unclean animals in the Bible when Noah is commanded to gather animals for the ark?

Clean and unclean were ritual distinctions for Israel to follow to be in God’s presence. For something to be clean meant that it could be in his presence. Unclean things must follow certain ritual laws before the person or thing could be declared clean and enter God’s presence.

God wanted his people to be separate from the nations around them. The things that the nations ate, Israel was to avoid. It showed the distinction between God’s people and the people who weren’t God’s people in the Old Testament.

A person who touched or ate and unclean thing became unclean by association and touch. There was usually a certain time period they would have to wait to be declared clean again by one of the priests.

Everything from bodily fluids to certain animals could make a person unclean for a time. Most of the time the priests were involved in deciding whether a person was clean or unclean and could return to the Temple. The Temple was where God’s presence dwelt in Israel.

In Genesis 7:2-3, God tells Noah to take both clean and unclean animals into the ark. But the distinction between clean and unclean animals did not happen until the Law of Moses, much later chronologically than Noah’s Ark.

So why does Genesis 7 have a distinction between clean and unclean animals? It’s possible that even the ancient peoples before Genesis 11 new about these distinctions because God told them. But it is more likely that Moses simply recorded that all the animals went into the ark, and animals are broken up into two categories, clean and unclean.

Since Moses wrote the book of Genesis probably in the time of the wilderness wanderings, it’s not surprising that we see a distinction between clean and unclean animals in the book. Even though the law wasn’t given chronologically until much later, the book of Genesis was written at the same time the other four books of the Torah were written.

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