The central shrine of Israel is first and foremost about the Presence of God within. Leviticus 9 gives particular emphasis to this fact by showing the ritual the priests must lead the people through on opening day of regular services in the tabernacle. Hovering over the arcane and detailed notes about procedures for preparing and offering animals on the altar is something glorious and mysterious: כִּי הַיּוֹם יְהוָה נִרְאָה אֲלֵיכֶם ki hayyōm Adonai nir’ah aleichem, “For today, Adonai will appear to you” (vs. 4).
The appearance referred to will be closer and more intense than anything Israel has experienced so far. In form, this appearance is known as כְּבוֹד יְהוָה kevōd Adonai, “the Glory of Adonai.” This always refers in Torah to an appearance of fire within a cloud. There is no human form in these appearances.
What the people have to do to prepare for this appearance is at the very heart of the theology of Leviticus. The idea behind it is contamination and purification. We, as human beings, bear on our bodies the stench of death. This brings pollution into God’s place which must be purged.
Thus, on inauguration day in the tabernacle, first the priests and then the congregation required a purification sacrifice. The blood of this sacrifice cleansed the altar of this contamination.
Second, people need to invoke God, to declare a need for him and request his presence. This is the purpose of the burnt offering, a costly sacrifice (since its meat is all burned) which declares the value people place on having God’s Presence near them. First the priests and then the people invoked God at the inauguration with a burnt offering.
And then God appeared in a way he had not previously and has not since that day. This one-time manifestation of God, nearer than any other appearance of God to the people as a whole, sent a message. Israel’s worship is all about having the Presence of God at the center of their existence. This is a key piece of the belief the Torah presents the world. If those generations in Israel had only understood this and continued to practice this belief, history would have gone quite differently and the messianic age would surely already be here.
The command to inaugurate the Tabernacle on the eighth day and the notice that the Lord will appear (1-4), the people draw near and are told that the Lord will appear (5-7), the offerings of inauguration (8-16).
The ongoing story of the tabernacle’s inauguration began in Exodus 40. Moses set up the whole tabernacle (probably with help, though the text makes it sound like he did it alone), anointing all its articles with oil, and presenting a burnt and a grain offering on the altar. The story then takes a detour into the regulations for all the types of sacrifice until Leviticus 8, where we read about the initial eight-day period of the installation of the priests. Offerings were made daily on the altar during this eight day period. Leviticus 9 commences on the eighth and final day, which will really be the first day of the regular operation of the tabernacle.
God’s appearances to the people in the wilderness and at the tabernacle have been in various forms. Now on this special day, the start of regular services at the tabernacle, God will come closer to the people than ever before with a grandeur and danger that is unprecedented. The people had become used to seeing the pillar of cloud-encased fire in the wilderness. When Moses assembled and anointed the tabernacle, the could covered it and the intensity of God’s manifestation caused Moses to have to evacuate its courts. But now, on the day of the beginning of regular services, God will appear in a new way: כִּי הַיּוֹם יְהוָה נִרְאָה אֲלֵיכֶם ki hayyōm Adonai nir’ah aleichem, “For today, Adonai will appear to you” (vs. 4).
Vss. 6 and 23 further clarify what this appearance was: כְּבוֹד יְהוָה kevōd Adonai, “the Glory of Adonai.” This is the regular expression in the Torah for a manifestation of God. The Glory is a visible and tangible appearance in the form of fire in a cloud. The Glory is the particular kind of presence or appearance God makes. He does not appear in human form at the tabernacle, but as fire and light surrounded by cloud.
The ritual to prepare for this appearance is what Leviticus 9:1-16 is all about. There is a particular order to the sacrifices needed to prepare. First the priests needed to purify the contamination they brought into the tabernacle with them by making a purification offering. Then they needed to invoke God’s favor with a burnt offering. Following this, the same order of sacrifices was presented for the congregation: purifying the contamination they brought with them and invoking favor with a burnt offering. The ritual will continue in vss. 17-23, but it is important to observe in this initial stage that the priority is on purification of the sanctuary from the ritual pollution people bear on their bodies and on a gift invoking God’s favor.
The effect of these offerings is preparation for God to draw near. The place he will appear has been ritually cleansed of all effects of human death (the subject of chapters 11-15) through the purification offering. The people have spoken to God of their need for him and asked him to show favor by means of the burnt offering. God will honor their worship in a powerful way.
For a brief time in history in one place on earth, God was regularly appearing to one people among all the peoples of earth. They saw him first during the Exodus as a pillar of cloud in the daytime, with fire showing through by night (Exodus 13:21). They saw him descend in a cloud onto the top of Mount Sinai as the fire that could sometimes be seen through the cloud (Exodus 19:16; 24:15). God continued to appear to them throughout their journeys as fire through a cloud, but once Moses died and the people entered the land of Canaan, the appearances stopped. God was now present inside the tabernacle above the ark, but only the high priest entered there.
In this Torah portion, something unique happened in the way God appeared to the people. Jacob Milgrom (Leviticus 1-16, Anchor-Yale) discusses the characteristics of the divine appearances in the Exodus and Sinai stories. God appears as fire encased in cloud (Exod 40:38). In the daytime, the brightness of the sun is such that the cloud is visible and the fire inside is usually invisible. But at night, the illumination of divine fire can be seen glowing through the encasing cloud. This manifestation of God as fire is referred to as the כְּבוֹד יְהוָה kevōd Adonai, “the Glory of Adonai.”
Using one particularly clear text, Exodus 24:15b-16, Milgrom shows that the “Glory” referred to the fire alone and not the cloud. The cloud was not the Glory, but was a barrier protecting the people from the danger of the theophany:
The cloud covered the mountain,
The Glory of Adonai abode on Mount Sinai,
and the cloud hid it for six days.
But in Leviticus 9, two things differentiate the manifestation of God from the usual features of theophany. First, the people were gathered closely around the shrine and God made his manifestation visible very near to the people. Second, there is no mention of a cloud, but only fire: “And the Glory of Adonai appeared to all of the people . . . fire came forth from before Adonai and consumed the sacrifice” (vss. 23-24).
Up till now, the only person who has been in such close proximity to God’s fire has been Moses. The people have been afraid even of the afterglow of the Glory on Moses’ face (Exodus 34:29). What is it about the inauguration of the tabernacle that allowed the people a closer view?
The way the story is told, it seems as if God was eager to show himself to Israel. Twice God mentions to Moses that “today” he will appear (9:4, 6). We see in this story God’s delight in coming close to the people and making himself known. It seems that the joy of relationship between God and people is not merely felt on the human side. God himself longs for the end of separation and the day when he can be close to us and we can commune with him.
Completion of the offerings of inauguration (17-21), Aaron blesses the people with lifted hands (22), Moses and Aaron bless the people and the Glory of the Lord appears (23).
Having already made a burnt offering and purification offering, the eighth day ceremony continues with a grain and well-being offering. The meat of the well-being offering was to be eaten, but the story does not explain how “the people” will be fed by one ox and one ram (which surely could not feed all of the camp).
When the offerings are finished, Aaron “lifted his hands” and recited a blessing over the people. Later, in Numbers 6:23-26, the Torah tells us about a special blessing the priests use for the people. This “Priestly Blessing” is used frequently in Judaism today and is known as the Birkat Cohanim. Jewish men descended from Aaron lift their hands, forming a Hebrew letter “Shin” with the fingers of each hand (standing for Shaddai, a title for God). The gesture of raised hands is a feature found only here, in Leviticus 9. Did Aaron recite this Birkat Cohanim or some other blessing at the tabernacle inauguration? The text does not tell us.
After Aaron blesses the people, he and Moses enter the Tent. We are not told why. Perhaps they entered the Tent to pray for the theophany — the one Moses said would happen. When they emerge, they bless the people again. Many have wondered if the blessing of Aaron from the altar was different in content or the same as the second blessing by Moses and Aaron. Many details are left out of the story and have long been the subject of speculation. Milgrom, for example, quotes Targum Pseudo-Jonathan, where the blessing of Moses and Aaron is, “May the Memra [Word] of the Lord receive your sacrifices favorably and remit and forgive your sins.”
When the theophany does happen, it is something unique and also dangerous. Was this appearance, like others so far, also a cloud-encased fire? It seems this appearance happened closer to the congregation than any theophany so far. Furthermore, no mention is made of the cloud that usually hides the divine fire. Is it possible the Glory appeared without the protective cloud? The people are not sure how to handle such an open and dangerous appearance of the Mighty One. In vs. 24 the people shout, probably panicked, and fall on their faces to protect themselves from seeing God.
LEVITICUS 9:24 – 10:11
Something joyous turned tragic in an instant. God had appeared before the people unveiled, his fire exposed to the people who prostrated themselves. The emotion and direction of the story so far has been eagerness on God’s part to be near the people.
But then Aaron’s sons, meaning well and wanting the protect the people, violate what seems to be a minor rule of the sanctuary derived from Exodus 30. The tabernacle incense may only be burned on coals from the altar of burnt offering. But with divine fire blazing from the altar, Nadab and Abihu could not get coals from there. So they took coals from another place, perhaps a nearby oven. They improvised. Their intention was to protect the people with the cloud of incense.
They paid for their well-intentioned act with death. The troubling nature of this story leads us to ask some questions. Did the events narrated in this story actually happen? Would God really kill well-meaning people over an infraction of incense laws in the sanctuary?
One perspective is that this story is a fable invented by the priests many years after the time of Moses. It was written down during the period when Judah was ruled by kings, about five hundred years after Moses. This is Milgrom’s opinion (Leviticus 1-16, Anchor-Yale). There was a very good reason, says Milgrom, for the inventing of this fable. The people of Judah were straying from singular devotion to God. They were taking up popular religious practices of Near Eastern culture, one of which involved lighting incense on private altars.
Religion has often been a way human beings seek to manipulate reality to achieve life, security, and blessing for themselves. People want something to believe in. There is a desire to connect with the “other realm,” to transcend the natural and obtain a miracle. God provided Israel with a counterpart to all these religious acts such as sacrifices and vows, so that they could redirect this energy spent on seeking divine aid into something better. The national religion of Israel, codified in the Torah, eliminated many of the fears of demonic harm. The superstitious magical rituals common in Near Eastern life were not necessary to those with faith in God.
But old ways die hard. Could the story of Nadab and Abihu have been a fable to dissuade people for their private incense offerings? Or did it really happen?
Fire from the Lord consumes the offering (9:24), Nadab and Abihu bring unauthorized coals (10:1), Nadab and Abihu are consumed by divine fire (2), Moses gives a word from God (3), the removal of the bodies (4-5), Aaron and sons forbidden to show mourning (6-7), drunkenness forbidden in God’s service (8-9), discerning the clean and unclean and teaching Israel (10-11).
Abravanel, the medieval exegete, said it well, “Those who serve God more endanger themselves more; just as those who are closest to the battlefront are more likely to die, so those closest in the service of the sanctuary are more prone to err” (cited in Milgrom, Leviticus 1-16, Anchor-Yale).
What happened in this incident of Nadab and Abihu? There are many theories and issues, but the following reconstruction is based on Jacob Milgrom’s close reading of the story.
First, the offering on the altar, which was already burning, was suddenly consumed by divine fire. Milgrom says this was to affirm the newly installed priesthood of Aaron and sons and the service of the tabernacle. All the people saw the manifestation of God’s fire and prostrated themselves in fearful reverence.
Second, Nadab and Abihu, most likely responding to the danger of the Glory appearing in the open to the people (which could cause people to die), sought desperately to offer an incense cloud as protection from the fatal Glory. They could not get coals from the altar as prescribed in the incense legislation of Exodus 30 because the intensity of God’s fire was too great. So they used other coals available in a nearby oven and put holy incense on the coals.
This “unauthorized fire” (sometimes translated as “unholy fire”) was a violation of priestly laws of holiness and so a different fire proceeded from the Holy of Holies (or perhaps from the Glory that was still appearing) and consumed them. Their motivation was good, but their action was a transgression.
Moses then makes reference to a saying from God, which Milgrom explains is a new saying and not an allusion to something already said before: God will be sanctified by those who are privileged to serve near him. Nadab and Abihu erred and in their great privilege faced great consequences.
Some have wondered why the instructions against drinking are mentioned here. It is not necessary to assume that Nadab and Abihu were drinking. Rather, this law about drunkenness in the sanctuary service might be another example of the type of irreverence that could result in death.
Aaron is forbidden to mourn because his role as priest takes precedence over even his personal feelings and death is not desirable near the Presence of God. The bodies are quickly removed. Moses instructs Aaron and his remaining sons that their task in the future, so painfully modeled in the deaths of Nadab and Abihu, will be to know and teach the laws of clean and unclean. The priestly details are not minor, but reflect the reverence required for nearness to God’s Glory.
The death of Aaron’s sons in the tabernacle precincts has created a sort of paradox. The tabernacle is a place reserved on earth for the Presence of God and the meaning of God’s relationship with human beings. It is a place where holiness (life) overcomes impurity (the forces of death).
But impurity of the most extreme kind (human death) has happened here. It happened precisely because, well-meaning as they were, Nadab and Abihu brought impurity (acts associated with idolatry) into the sacred courts. According to the story (which may or may not be a literal historical event) God killed them in the very place where he wanted to show that life, not death, is his way and his plan for our destiny.
To put this in simpler terms, it is as if God brought some human beings to the foyer of heaven and they erred and died from the experience. Is this what it means to approach God? To risk death for being as yet unprepared? It seems access to God’s dwelling place was premature for them and would be similarly untimely for us. We are not ready to enter the hall and experience what God has inside.
The story raises important questions for us about ultimate meaning, about the nature of our future dwelling with God. How will we be joyful with the memory of death? Can the pain of what we experience now regarding death truly be erased? Will deaths like those of Nadab and Abihu be meaningful any longer? Will we understand? Is this the vision of the prophets who said, “he will wipe away tears from all faces” (Isa 25:8)? Or when they posed the question as if God himself was asking, “Shall I ransom them from the power of the underworld? Shall I redeem them from death? O death, where are your plagues? O underworld, where is your sting?” (Hosea 13:14)?
Eating the most holy Grain Offering (12-13), eating the less holy Peace/Well-Being Offering (14-15).
Though something unthinkable has happened, the procedures in the sanctuary are so holy, they must go on. In spite of Nadab and Abihu’s death the normal rules for eating the priestly portions from the grain offering (most holy) and well-being offering (less holy) must be observed. The inauguration of the tabernacle will not be completed until the priests eat the designated portions of these offerings (see 2:3 and 6:9).
Furthermore, grieving would be improper in this designated space for the Presence of God since the symbolism of the sanctuary is about holiness (life) overcoming the forces of death (impurity). This puts a terrible emotional burden on Aaron and his surviving sons, to perform the holy at a time of personal loss.
Moses had said earlier that the rest of Israel would mourn Nadab and Abihu in their place while Aaron, Eleazar, and Ithamar could not mourn (vs. 6). The grain offering portions are most holy (since they accompany the burnt offering) and must be eaten by the officiating priests in the sacred precinct (beside the altar, anywhere in the inner court). The priestly portions from the well-being offering can be eaten by any in the family of the priests in any place that is clean.
The argument between Aaron and Moses highlights a key principle of the theology of Torah. Jacob Milgrom (Leviticus 1-16, Anchor-Yale) puts it this way: “Holiness has swallowed impurity; life can defeat death.”
A purification offering is a particular kind of sacrifice for cleansing the altar — the place where all Israel comes to be near to God — from impurity caused by inadvertent violations of prohibitive commandments (i.e., doing something forbidden). To properly understand the cultural significance of the purification offering, it is necessary to grasp how fearful people in the ancient world were about unknowingly offending the gods and inviting death and suffering into their lives.
In the common worldview of the time, human suffering derived mostly from the gods and from demonic forces unleashed by the gods on the people. To live a good life — which meant having ample food and keeping one’s children alive — required walking a tight rope of rituals and procedures to keep the gods appeased. A slight error brought great wrath. Modern religion retains vestiges of such fears, usually transferring them to fears about the afterlife (“I’ll surely go to hell for this!”).
The Torah demolishes this worldview. Holiness swallows death. No liability to punishment remains on the people as long as they support the priesthood to do its job, attend festivals, and bring a few offerings during the year. God’s system in ancient Israel alleviated fears of suffering due to offending the deity. Much, in fact, of the purpose of the tabernacle and temple was to psychologically reassure the people more so than to appease God, who is merciful anyway.
When Aaron refused to eat the purification offering at the inauguration of the tabernacle, Moses assumed he was either mourning (which was forbidden to the high priest) or that he was afraid of the offering. The purification offering absorbed the impurities from the altar. But the priests were impervious to that impurity (they did not become impure even though they touched the altar during purification rituals). Moses’ anger derived from his dedication to the meaning of holiness. Moses believed in life defeating death.
But Aaron was right about this one. A more important principle came into play. During it’s very dedication, the tabernacle became impure and needed to be purged with the ritual of Yom Kippur (even though it was not that time of year). Human beings had died inside the courts. Only after the death-impurity was removed, could the tabernacle resume its operation.
Moses questions Aaron about abstaining from eating the offering (16-18), Aaron’s answer (19), Moses’ acquiescence (20).
This strange narrative needs much explanation. What is Moses angry about? Why is it assumed to be vital that Aaron and sons eat the meat of the purification offering? Why won’t Aaron eat it? Who is right in the end?
Jacob Milgrom’s reconstruction (Leviticus 1-16, Anchor-Yale) answers all of these and more. Baruch Levine (JPS Commentary) chooses a different interpretation, that Aaron did not eat because he was mourning and felt himself disqualified from eating the sacred portion (Deut 26:14). But the high priest is not allowed to mourn (Lev 21:10). Milgrom offers a different answer: the unexpected deaths of Nadab and Abihu after the offering was made but before the sacred portion was eaten contaminated the meat with death.
The incident is about Aaron, the founding high priest, teaching Moses a lesson in priestly legislation. Details that modern readers find mysterious or tend to skip over were the crux of meaning for the ancient Israelites. What did the ceremonies at the sanctuary mean? The act of the priest eating the meat of the purification offering was a statement that in normal cases impurity was not dangerous, it was not a demonic power responsible for the bad fortunes of humans. The defilement and impurity treated by sacrifice was the result of human nature and totally atonable by the God-given means.
Moses thinks Aaron in his grief is violating this principle, refusing to eat the offering because he is superstitious about the power of impurity. Milgrom explains that while the sanctuary and altar are vulnerable to impurity, the priests on duty are impervious. The eating of the purification offering is a theological affirmation: holiness swallows up death and life can defeat death.
But Aaron had a priestly case to make: the death of Nadab and Abihu has created an exception to the normal rule because death has directly occurred in the sanctuary precincts. A total purging would be required, the drastic type of purification offering as on Yom Kippur. Milgrom calls it a borderline case. Aaron’s logic is that this is not a normal case of a purification offering, but an emergency situation in which the sanctuary has become impure during the process of an offering. The presence of human death offends the Divine Presence (see Num 19). Therefore, following priestly logic, Leviticus will take this opportunity to expound on the causes of impurity in the succeeding chapters (11-15, Num 19). And the emergency purging ritual, also the ritual for Yom Kippur, will follow in Leviticus 16. The notion that Aaron “won” the debate is confirmed by Leviticus 16.
A handful of animals are permitted for slaughtering and eating to a Jewish person. The majority of animals may not be slaughtered or eaten. The meaning of the restrictions known as “dietary laws” and “kosher laws” is summed up by Jacob Milgrom (Leviticus 1-16, Anchor-Yale) by one word: holiness.
To most outside observers, Jewish food restrictions seem arbitrary and strange. Pork? Shellfish? Why not?
The Torah does not offer a clear rationale, which has left Bible readers puzzled for millennia. The issue has been a major point in Jewish-Christian relations. Paul the Apostle did not require his movement of non-Jewish followers of Jesus to keep the dietary laws. Christian interpreters unanimously read Paul (and Jesus also) as saying the dietary laws are abolished in the new era brought in by Christianity. The dietary laws came to be interpreted as a sort of mistake or temporary and arbitrary rule of separation between Jews and Gentiles that needed to be done away with (but see the “Paul within Judaism” school of thought in modern scholarship for a very different reading, by scholars such as Mark Nanos).
Is the issue in the dietary laws hygiene, as if all animals except the few permitted are unhealthy for eating? Although interpreters have tried to make this argument, the facts do not bear it out. Are these laws simply arbitrary? Did God give a law to randomly restrict his people as a test of loyalty?
No, the dietary laws are more than that. They are holiness. Milgrom says it this way: “God has restricted his choice of the nations to Israel, so must Israel restrict its choice of edible animals to the few sanctioned by God.”
Two axioms underlie the dietary laws. The first is categorization. Permitted animals move in their environment in a “normal” way (hooves for land animals, scales and fins for water animals, the rationale for birds is less clear). The second axiom is that slaughtering an animal is taking a precious life and the act of killing must be atoned for in some way.
The assumption in Leviticus (spelled out in chapter 17) is that there are many altars in Israel (this was before the one-sanctuary law of Deuteronomy) and that all animals slaughtered can have their blood and sacred portions offered to God. All slaughter for food in Israel was originally required to be offered as a well-being offering to God. This law was changed in Deuteronomy (in the time of Hezekiah, Deut 12). In place of the requirement that an animal must be a sacrifice, the new requirement was that the blood would be poured out on the ground (returned to the earth).
The meaning of impurity (everything called “unclean” in Torah) is about the be revealed. The chapter on dietary laws is the first in a section on all things impure (chapters 11-15). Everything designated impure in Torah is symbolic of death, starting with the slaughter of animals. Eating an animal is taking a life. God permitted Israel only a few species to be slaughtered and put further restrictions on the slaughtering. The death of animals is taken seriously and the Torah points to a better and higher way, in which there is an ideal that death should be abolished altogether.
Only these living things may be eaten from land animals (1-8), water animals (9-12), birds (13-19), winged insects (20-23), purity regulations for animal carcasses (24-28), swarming things (29-32).
It is common for modern interpreters to seek some inner logic concerning the purpose of the dietary laws. These must have been for reasons of hygiene, many would argue, so that God is protecting Israel by making their diet cleaner or healthier. If not hygiene, then surely these laws have something to do with health. Such theories have no basis at all in the text of Leviticus. Nor do they fit the evidence of science. Health arguments often focus on the supposed danger of pork, ignoring the equivalent health problems associated with cholesterols in beef and other meats. Some forbidden meats are known to be healthier than beef (ostrich, rabbit).
The true rationale for these laws is not immediately obvious, but rather requires immersion into the inner logic of the purity laws of Leviticus 11-15 and Numbers 19. The short answer to the question “why the dietary law of Torah” is that killing is inhumane, therefore these laws ameliorate the injustice of animal slaughter. The proper context for understanding the dietary laws may be obscure to the reader because they come at the beginning of a section about purity and impurity. To interpret them we must press on and consider the other causes of impurity in Torah: childbirth, skin disease, mildew, genital emissions, menstruation, and corpse contact (see Lev 12-15; Numb 19).
Jacob Milgrom’s explanation (Leviticus 1-16, Anchor-Yale) of the dietary laws breaks new ground in bringing together a close study of Torah’s teaching on impurity (it always symbolizes death and/or loss of life). What does eating meat have to do with death? The Torah’s view of animals is that they are not inanimate and amoral beings, but are responsible to to Torah (as in Exod 21:28). They keep the Sabbath (Exod 20:10; Deut 5:14). Firstborn animals are God’s property. There are promises for them in the messianic age (Hos 2:20(18); Isa 11:3).
Furthermore, Israel is called to higher holiness standards than the nations (and the priests even higher). Milgrom charts it out this way — Nations: Israel : Priesthood :: All animals: Clean Animals : Sacrifices.
The dietary laws do not eliminate killing, but they do moderate its dangerous effects of impurity in three ways (says Milgrom): (1) the kinds of animals that can be killed are very limited, (2) only those permitted may slaughter, and (3) the blood, which is life, must be properly drained into the earth (see Lev 17:3-5). Killing for food is a reality now, but is not the ideal and God’s laws regarding purity point to the world to come where death will be no more.
Symbols are always arbitrary. That is, they are to some degree randomly chosen to represent something meaningful. If we buy into the meaning attributed to the symbols, however, then they are not senseless and trivial, but relevant and consequential.
So it is with the kosher laws of Torah and the whole system of declaring some things “impure” (unclean) and other things “pure” (clean). At the end of a chapter many readers may find trivial and absurdly mundane (Leviticus 11, with its detailed rules about which animals are impure), we may be surprised to read the two concluding statements about meaning.
The first concluding statement is all about Israel’s relationship with God. These trifling rules about animals and carcasses somehow get elevated to being about how “I, Adonai, and your God” and “you shall sanctify yourselves and be holy” and “I, Adonai, your God am he who brought you up out of the land of Egypt to be your God.” Really? Kosher laws lead to relationship with the God of the Exodus? Yes, according to Torah.
The second concluding statement gets more specific and the way this symbolic system of purity laws works is spelled out: לְהַבְדִּיל בֵּין הַטָּמֵא וּבֵין הַטָּהֹר lehavdil bein hattamei uvein hattahōr, “for distinguishing between the impure and the pure.”
Torah gives an Israelite new eyes through which to see the world. In this world are categories. There are life-giving things which point to the holy and the there are death-dealing things which point to the weighty forces that drag humanity down. The distinction will continue to be the topic in Leviticus 12-15.
Impure things are not “bad.” Pork, for example, is permitted for non-Jews to eat (Genesis 9:3) and is called “good” (Genesis 1:25). But Israel is called to live within a symbolic system, a ritual life that is rich with meaning. Pork for those who live within this system is “impure” and “prohibited.” Readers will see in a similar way that other things which are “good,” such as the birth of a child, cause impurity.
To the people called to live within this system of symbol and ritual, the question is: what does all this mean? Readers will begin to see a pattern having to do with death (impurity) and life (purity) and that which brings back to life (holiness).
When impure carcasses contact vessels and objects (33-38), carcasses of clean animals found dead (39-40), detestable creatures (41-43), consecrate yourselves for I am holy (44-45), summary about purity distinctions and animals (46-47).
There is a distinction (little known outside of those who study Jewish law) between land animals and water/flying animals with regard to purity laws. Land animals and reptiles (created on day 6 in Genesis) when dead are tamei (impure to the touch) whereas marine animals and birds when dead are sheqetz (detestable, but not impure to the touch). The exception to this general rule can be seen in 11:24-28, where some four-footed creeping and reptilian animals do impart impurity by touch when dead
Milgrom (Leviticus 1-16, Anchor-Yale) spells out the differences in his commentary. Water is life-giving and to some degree it cleanses impurity. Thus, a spring does not become impure if it has a carcass in it (vs. 36). Not all swarming things transmit impurity to vessels (in which people would store food). Part of this is practical, since one could not prevent contact with insects and especially flying insects and vessels. Food must be stored to prevent contact with rodents and reptiles (four-footed creatures) and to keep it dry.
Land animals found dead (killed by disease or another animal) are impure to the touch even if they are clean animals (vs. 39). Interestingly, eating meat from an animal found dead does not seem to be forbidden here (as opposed to Leviticus 17) but does make a person impure until evening (vs. 40). This is an example of a difference in the rules which leads many to suspect Leviticus 17 begins a section containing a later version of priestly laws (often called the Holiness source, as opposed to the Priestly source).
In vss. 41-45, these swarming things are forbidden to eat, but contact with most of them will not make one impure. The laws of impurity with regard to creatures and vessels are complex and much space in rabbinic literature is devoted to the details.
Two sections fill out the end of chapter 11 with matters that may seem out of place to some readers. Rules about animals being impure may seem trifling, a sort of arbitrary system of senseless taboos. And yet, vss. 44-45 place them in the context of Israel’s relationship to the very God who is holy, who sanctifies them, and who set them free from bondage. Then vss. 46-47 raises a central issue in the whole philosophy of Torah: what is pure and what is impure? How could these rules about permitted and prohibited kinds of meat relate to such lofty topics?
The details of a daily lifestyle for the people of Israel is precisely what holiness is all about. Holiness in Torah is more than moral living. It also includes a symbolic system of living out customs designed to minimize and stigmatize the forces of death in order to promote an ideal of life. Outsiders to Jewish life and modern readers looking at the text and history with purely rational perspectives may feel the symbols are arbitrary. All symbols are arbitrary, that is, they are arbitrary unless we buy in to the deeper meaning assigned to them.