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Written by Ángel Manuel Rodríguez
Deuteronomy 14:21 forbids the Israelites from eating the flesh of anything they found already dead, but it allows them to sell it as food to non-Israelites. Why the double standard?
Some Old Testament laws are difficult to understand, mainly because their rationales are not clearly obvious. This requires interpreters to examine all the biblical evidence related to that particular piece of legislation, in an attempt to understand it better. Two main types of animals are involved, clean and unclean. The regulation is legislating what should be done with the carcass of an animal that died by itself or that was killed by another beast. The basic question is What should an Israelite do when he or she finds such an animal in the field?
1. Touching the Carcass Contaminates: Passages dealing with this question make clear that an animal carcass is a source of impurity. Therefore it should not be touched by the Israelites. This applies to both unclean (Lev. 7:21; 11:28-39), and clean animals (11:39). One can detect a hygienic concern, but the theological one-contact with the sphere of death that separates one from God-is also present.
2. Setting Controls to the Legislation: Perhaps what is surprising is that the prohibition against touching a dead animal is not absolute; there are conditions under which this may be necessary. In the case of unclean animals such conditions are not acknowledged. In the case of clean animals it is stated that their fat is not to be eaten by the Israelites but that it could be used for other purposes (Lev. 7:24), for instance to polish leather and utensils. The fact that there is a proper, nonreligious use of the fat of the animal suggests that the person had to remove it from the animal through contact with the carcass. That did not mean that there was no contamination; it simply allowed for the contact with the understanding that the person would be unclean until the evening (Lev. 11:39), the case with minor contamination.
3. Disposing of the Carcass of the Animal: What was to be done to the carcass of the animal itself? The legislations dealing with this issue offer more than one possibility. First, when the Israelites were in the Sinai wilderness, the law required that the flesh of the animal be thrown to the dogs (Ex. 22:31). However, the law also recognized that there may be circumstances for which the meat of clean animals could be a source of food for an Israelite. Those conditions are not defined or established, but what is established is that even on such occasions the person eating it would be unclean. Since in this case the law was dealing with the consumption of the flesh of the animal, the person was unclean until evening and had to wash his or her clothes (Lev. 11:39, 40).
The flesh of clean animals could also be given to resident aliens in Israel (Deut. 14:21). This specific legislation applies to conditions after the Israelites entered Canaan. Eating meat was not that common in Israel and was probably much more rare for the poor. Resident aliens were usually poor and, therefore, God made provision for them to eat from the carcass of clean animals. Since aliens could also have access to the sanctuary, one could postulate that they were unclean after eating from the carcass. The flesh of such animals could also be sold to foreigners, probably because most foreigners would have been in Israel for business purposes and could pay for the meat (verse 21).
4. God’s Ideal for His People: As you can see, the legislation is a little more complex than it at first appears. The law pointed to God’s ideal for His people because He wanted them to enjoy the best of life. It acknowledges that it may not always be possible to live up to a particular ideal, but at the same time it reminded them-through the need for cleansing-that even in those occasions the ideal remained valid. It also informs us that God expects more from those who have entered into a covenant fellowship with Him than from those who exist outside that relationship. His laws aim at revealing the fact that “you are a people holy to the Lord your God” (verse 21, NIV).