Some laws in the OT are not cruel; instead, they are unusual. If God exists, why would he place such arbitrary and ridiculous restrictions on the nation of Israel? There are many different theories for the rationale behind the kosher laws (Lev. 11; Deut. 14) and other seemingly arbitrary laws in the OT.
Were there medicinal or medical reasons for some of these laws?
In some cases, we can find a medicinal reason for the laws of the OT.
God commanded the Jews not to eat the fat of an animal (Lev. 3:17; 7:23). It’s possible that he was trying to prescribe a healthy diet that did not consist of fatty foods. By eating herbivores (Lev. 11:2-3; Deut. 14:6), the Jews were less likely to eat an animal that carried disease. Fawver and Overstreet write, “Animals excluded from these provisions in Leviticus 11 include rats, lizards, skunks, snakes, and weasels, which are predators and carriers of parasites. Pigs were excluded understandably, as it is now known that pigs carry parasitic trichina larvae.” When we compare Israel’s laws with Egypt, we find that they were generally healthier. Fawver and Overstreet write,
Much of the information found in the Egyptian medical texts was medically hazardous. For example donkey feces were used for the treatment of splinters, which probably increased the incidence of tetanus because of tetanus spores present in feces. Crocodile feces were used for birth control. In contrast Moses wrote that God instructed the Israelites to cover their excrement because it was ‘unclean’ (Deut. 23:12-13). At no time did Moses resort to adding the popular medical techniques of his day, though he was ‘educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians’ (Acts 7:22), which certainly included their medical wisdom.
Atheist Christopher Hitchens decries the act of circumcision as “the sexual mutilation of small boys.” Theologically, circumcision was given as a sign to distinguish the Jews as God’s people. Medically, however, circumcision may have had a specific purpose. Fawver and Overstreet note that cancer of the penis is significantly higher in non-circumcised males. They write,
This is thought to be due primarily to the accumulation of smegma, a paste of bacteria and dead cells trapped under the foreskin. Statistically, the rate of penile cancer in men living in Brazil (where most are uncircumcised) is almost 70 times higher than in Israel (where most are circumcised).
God commanded the Jews to be circumcised on the “eighth day” (Gen. 17:12). But, why the eighth day? As it turns out, a baby’s blood clots the best eight days after birth. Prothrombin, which helps clot a baby’s blood, is produced by Vitamin K. Fawver and Overstreet write,
After birth prothrombin decreases so that by the third day it is only 30 percent of normal. Circumcision on the third day could result in a devastating hemorrhage. The intestinal bacteria finally start their task of manufacturing vitamin K, and the prothrombin subsequently begins to climb. On day eight, it actually overshoots to 110 percent of normal, leveling off to 100 percent on day nine and remaining there for the rest of a person’s healthy life. Therefore the eighth day was the safest of all days for circumcision to be performed… Today vitamin Κ (Aqua Mephyton) is routinely administered to newborns shortly after their delivery, and this eliminates the clotting problem. However, before the days of vitamin Κ injections, a 1953 pediatrics textbook recommended that the best day to circumcise a newborn was the eighth day of life!
Egyptians, Edomites, Ammonites, and Moabites also practiced adult circumcision, but Israel was the only nation that practiced infant circumcision. This might be because this act was less physically and psychologically traumatic for the person at infancy. Moreover, the Jews were commanded to use flint knives to circumcise the male babies (Ex. 4:25; Josh. 5:2), which were knives chipped away from stone. Fawver and Overstreet write, “Bacteria and viruses cannot grow in rock.” Flint knives may have been the most hygienic way to perform this surgery.
God commanded that the unclean had to live outside the camp (Lev. 13:46). While this seems like a harsh command, it was probably the best way to isolate contagious disease. Today, we might call this a medical “quarantine.” Moreover, God commanded the Jews not to touch dead bodies that were fraught with disease (Num. 19:11-12). God also commanded hand washing and drying for people to prevent disease (Num. 19:19). If they followed these prescriptions, God promised that he would “put none of the diseases on you which I have put on the Egyptians” (Ex. 15:26). Fawver and Overstreet write, “God recognized that the incubation period for most bacteria is within seven days. This means that after exposure to a disease, a person will know within seven days whether the disease is contracted.”
While this medicinal explanation is powerful, it cannot be the primary explanation for all of the laws of the OT. If God’s laws were purely medicinal, then why didn’t he add prohibitions against any poisonous plants? Moreover, why did Jesus later render all of these foods “clean” (Mk. 7:14ff; Acts 10:10-16)? There must be more to the story than just medicine.
Were there religious reasons for some of these laws?
Some argue that God prescribed specific animals unclean, because some animals were associated with Pagan religions. While this might help explain the problem, it cannot be the final answer, either. If it was, then why wasn’t the bull considered unclean in OT law, when it was directly associated with both Canaanite and Egyptian religion? Like many Bible difficulties, there is no simple answer to this question. However, there are two central purposes for these laws that need to be made clear.
First, God was demonstrating the need for separation between Israel and the other nations. In the Bible, the term “holiness” just means “set apart” or “separate.” When God commanded Israel to be holy (Lev. 20:26), he was merely telling them to be set apart from the other nations. By prescribing hundreds of kosher laws, many think that God was giving the people hundreds of reminders to keep themselves separate. Copan writes,
Just as God was set apart from human beings, Israel was to be set apart in its behavior and theology from the surrounding nations. Just as the tabernacle represented sacred space within Israel, so the land of Israel itself represented a set-apartness in contrast to the nations around it.
Their diet, which was limited to certain meats, imitated the action of God, who limited himself to Israel from among the nations, choosing them as the means of blessing the world. [emphasis mine]
This object lesson of “separateness” bled over into other areas of law. For instance, the Jews were told not to marry people outside of Israel (Lev. 19:19; Deut. 22:9-11). They were commanded not to blur the lines between male and female identity by cross-dressing (Deut. 22:5). These laws were created to reinforce the idea of separateness.
Second, God was demonstrating the need for separation between himself and Israel. In Israel’s ceremonial law, we see a correlation with rituals and ablutions and the Holy of Holies in the Temple. That is, these separation laws increase the closer someone gets to the presence of God. God did not allow a high priest with a defect to perform the sacrifice in the Holy of Holies (Lev. 21:18-24), and he did not allow an animal with a defect to be the sacrifice in the Holy of Holies (Lev. 22:18-26). The same exact language is used of both the priest and the animal sacrifice. This system was meant to prefigure and foreshadow the perfect (“no defect”) work of Christ, who was both the perfect high priest and perfect sacrifice.
All of the laws are acts of separation, which reminded the people of these two important theological truths: both the priest and the offering have to be perfect. Jesus made it clear that these ritual washings were not cures for inward change (Mk. 7:14-23). However, they served the purpose of illustrating God’s separation from the sin and the impurity of humans (Lev. 10:10).
Now that we understand this broad heading, let’s try to explain individual laws more closely. Here are a few speculations about the rationale for specific animals (NOTE: these are speculations –not certainties):
1. It could be that animals that were similar to the original creation (only water, only land, and only air) were clean. However, mixed animals were unclean (e.g. both water and land animals, both land and air animals, etc.). This could be an object lesson in keeping God’s original creation separate –not blurry.
2. It could be that slithering animals were similar to the Serpent, who was cursed by God. In Genesis, there was one rule “you may eat” (2:16; 3:2) and “you shall not eat” (2:17; 3:1, 3). This same language appears again in Leviticus 11 to describe the kosher laws. Perhaps these laws are harkening back to the original creation and subsequent curse of God.
3. It could be that discharged semen and menstruation were symbols of death. These acts were considered unclean, because they blurred the lines between life and death.
4. It could be that dead animals represented the same thing. The Jews weren’t allowed to eat road kill, because it may have symbolized death (Ex. 22:31).
5. It could be that predatory animals were forbidden, because they themselves consumed blood (see the ban of this in Gen. 9:4; Lev. 17:14). Cud-chewers or split hoofed animals were ones that were not predatory (e.g. they didn’t drink the blood). God didn’t allow drinking blood, because this practice symbolized taking an animal’s life (Lev. 17:9-11). Ultimately, this prefigured Jesus’ atonement. When Jesus told his disciples to drink his blood, this offended them (Jn. 6:53), probably because of these original dietary restrictions. Jesus was communicating that people need his spiritual life to live. This is why we are told to “drink” the blood of Christ at communion.
6. It could be that certain animals represented defenselessness. These reminded the people that they should care for the marginalized in society (Deut. 14:29; 16:11; Is. 1:17).
7. It could be that men were restricted from having sex with their wives during menstruation, because this blurred lines of life (pregnancy) and death (menstruation). Moreover, these protective laws for women were not equaled in the ancient Near East. There was no such thing as leaving your wife alone, if you desired sex. You would simply take it from her in ancient Near Eastern culture.
Now that we have some general themes covered (e.g. separation, life and death, etc.), let’s consider a few examples of kosher laws that often come up.
(Ex. 23:19; c.f. 34:26; Deut. 14:21) Why couldn’t the Jews boil a young goat in the milk of its mother?
This may have been a Canaanite fertility ritual; therefore, God banned it for contextual and religious reasons. On the other hand, it could be that these are clashing symbols of life (i.e. the mother’s milk) and death (i.e. the baby goat).
(Lev. 12:1-8) Why was a mother unclean for 7 days for giving birth to a boy, but she was unclean for 14 days for giving birth to a girl?
By being called unclean, this provided rest for the mother. If she was unclean, she would not be required to work around the home or travel to the sanctuary to make an offering. Travel would have been very strenuous for a young mother. Moreover, by being called unclean, this would prevent the spread of childbed fever, which took many lives back then. However, these solutions do not address the male-female problem. The male-female objection can be met with at least three solutions:
First, this could be a sign of protection for the girls –rather than inferiority. The mother may have rested longer, because they protected girls more in their culture. If a modern woman was given four days to rest in the hospital, rather than two, we wouldn’t consider this an act of bigotry. In fact, we’d probably consider it an act of favoritism!
Second, this could be due to the fact that both mother and daughter are bleeding during birth, making them doubly unclean. During birth, an infant girl will often have vaginal bleeding (v.5). Therefore, there are two sources of bleeding –not one. In this way, they were doubly unclean. Because bleeding was a symbol of death, this was all symbolic for being unclean.
Third, the baby boy was circumcised on the eighth day. If the baby boys were considered unclean, they wouldn’t have been able to be circumcised. Medically, the best time to be circumcised is eight days after conception, because Vitamin K levels are at their highest. While the boys were recovering from circumcision, the baby girls were allowed to rest, as well.
(Lev. 19:27-28) Why couldn’t the Jews trim their beards or their hair or get tattoos?
In ancient Near Eastern culture, beard trimming and tattoos were closely connected with Pagan practices of contacting the dead, which was expressly forbidden in Israel (Deut. 18:11). This is why the text clearly states, “You shall not make any cuts in your body for the dead” (Lev. 19:28). Copan writes, “The act of men trimming their hair on the sides of their head or the edges of their beard… was a Canaanite practice of offering one’s hair to departed spirits to appease them (cf. Deut. 14:1).”
 Jay D. Fawver & R. Larry Overstreet “Moses and Preventative Medicine.” Bibliotheca Sacra July-September 1990. 273.
 Jay D. Fawver & R. Larry Overstreet “Moses and Preventative Medicine.” Bibliotheca Sacra July-September 1990. 275.
 Hitchens, Christopher. God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. New York: Twelve, 2007. 223.
 Jay D. Fawver & R. Larry Overstreet “Moses and Preventative Medicine.” Bibliotheca Sacra July-September 1990. 276.
 Jay D. Fawver & R. Larry Overstreet “Moses and Preventative Medicine.” Bibliotheca Sacra July-September 1990. 277.
 Harris writes, “Circumcision was widely practiced in antiquity even as it is today among the Arabs and in some African tribes. But there was a difference. Egyptian pictures of surgeons performing the operation show that the subject was a grown young man. Arabic and African circumcision also are puberty circumcisions associated with entering manhood and sometimes associated with licentiousness. As far as the author can learn, infant circumcision in antiquity was peculiar to Israel.” Harris, R. L. Leviticus. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Volume 2: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers (F. E. Gaebelein, Ed.). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House. 1990. 574.
 Jay D. Fawver & R. Larry Overstreet “Moses and Preventative Medicine.” Bibliotheca Sacra July-September 1990. 277.
 Jay D. Fawver & R. Larry Overstreet “Moses and Preventative Medicine.” Bibliotheca Sacra July-September 1990. 278.
 Jay D. Fawver & R. Larry Overstreet “Moses and Preventative Medicine.” Bibliotheca Sacra July-September 1990. 280.
 Copan, Paul. Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense of the Old Testament God. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2011. 78.
 Copan, Paul. Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense of the Old Testament God. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2011. 81.
 Kaiser writes, “The prohibition… has been explained since 1933 by a reference in a broken passage of a thirteenth-century B.C. Ugaritic text called “The Birth of the Gods Pleasant and Beautiful” (text 52, line 14). It is generally agreed that the reference is to a fertility rite that entails boiling a kid in milk; but there is no sure reference to the milk of its mother in the broken Ugaritic text.” Kaiser, W. C., Jr. Exodus. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Volume 2: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers (F. E. Gaebelein, Ed.). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House. 1990. 445.
 Harris writes, “Being unclean she could not do the cooking or keep the house.” Harris, R. L. Leviticus. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Volume 2: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers (F. E. Gaebelein, Ed.). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House. 1990. 574.
 Harris writes, “It is possible that such a provision would help prevent the spread of childbed fever, which in former days took so many lives. If the mother was unclean, presumably any midwife would have to wash in water and be unclean until the evening, which might help prevent the direct transmission of this disease.” Harris, R. L. Leviticus. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Volume 2: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers (F. E. Gaebelein, Ed.). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House. 1990. 574.
 See Jay D. Fawver & R. Larry Overstreet “Moses and Preventative Medicine.” Bibliotheca Sacra July-September 1990. 277.
 Copan, Paul. Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense of the Old Testament God. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2011. 91.