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Discovery Magazine 1/1/2000

Why Were Birds of Prey Unclean?

by  Bert Thompson, Ph.D.

In the Old Testament, God told people that they could eat certain animals (known as "clean") but that they could not eat others (known as "unclean"). For example, God told His people that they could not eat the eagle, the vulture, the buzzard, the kite, the falcon, the raven, the ostrich, certain owls, sea gulls, hawks, the stork, the heron, and the bat (11:13-19). Some of these are birds of prey.

Why did God forbid His people to eat some animals but not others? And why, in the New Testament, did He lift this ban? In Acts 10:9-16, God showed the apostle Peter some unclean animals and told him he could eat them. But Peter said, "Not so Lord, for I have never eaten anything common or unclean." Finally, the Lord told Peter: "What God has cleansed you must not call common (unclean)."

God never told us why He made these rules. He may have had more than one reason. In the Old Testament, for example, people were commanded to offer the best of their clean animals as sacrifices to God. By requiring that only the clean animals could be used as sacrifices, God was able to teach people that He always deserved their very best. When one of King David’s subjects offered him an ox free of charge to use as a sacrifice to God, the king said: "Neither will I offer burnt-offerings unto Jehovah my God which cost me nothing" (2 Samuel 24:24). If God’s people had been permitted to sacrifice unclean animals, they simply could have used a dead animal from the roadside. But that would not have taught them the lessons God wanted them to learn.

Also, it is possible that some of God’s rules were for man’s protection. By definition, birds of prey are carnivores, which means they eat animal flesh. Some of them, like vultures, feed on dead and rotting flesh that could carry diseases. This might not affect the vulture, but it might affect humans who eat the vulture.

But if that is true, why did God tell Peter that we now were free to eat all animals? A part of the answer may be found in the way the Lord dealt with people through the ages. Beginning with Adam, God gave man instructions in a "progressive" fashion. That simply means He didn’t dump everything on Adam and Eve at once. He gave them some instructions. Later, He gave Abraham a few more. Then He gave Moses a few more. And so on throughout human history. It’s only a guess of course, but perhaps by the time of Peter people had gained enough knowledge as a result of the experiences of their ancestors to know which foods could be eaten safely if stored or prepared correctly.

There is one thing we know for certain, however. Whatever reasons God had for telling humans not to eat certain foods, they were good reasons. Abraham said in Genesis 18:25 that God, as "Judge of all the Earth," always does "that which is right." How very true! Isn’t it nice to serve a God Who has our best interests at heart—even if we don’t always understand why He does some of the things He does?

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