What Types of Foods Were Forbidden in the Old Testament?

The Old Testament, the foundational religious text of Judaism and an important part of the Christian Bible contains numerous guidelines and laws that govern various aspects of life, including dietary practices. These dietary laws, known as kosher laws or kashrut, outline which foods are permissible and which are forbidden for consumption. In this article, we will delve into the types of foods that were considered forbidden in the Old Testament and explore the reasons behind these dietary restrictions.

Are There Foods a Christian Should Not Eat?

Indeed, the Bible instructs that certain types of meat are considered “unclean” or unsuitable for human consumption. These prohibited meats encompass pork, shellfish, as well as specific animals, sea creatures, and birds. It is important to note that these dietary laws are not ceremonial in nature but rather serve to highlight God’s intentional design of animals and their compatibility with our digestive system.

What Does “Unclean” Mean?

The Old Testament designates certain things as “unclean” (Hebrew “tame”), which stand in contrast to those that are considered clean, pure, and holy. The state of uncleanness acted as a barrier, preventing individuals from engaging in worship at the temple. It is important to note that the focus was not solely on physical dirt but rather on God’s prescribed definition of purity.

The terms “clean” and “unclean” in relation to animals served a purpose in indicating which animals God designated for sacrifices and consumption. These categories were employed by God to establish guidelines regarding the animals that were suitable for offerings and permissible for consumption.

The classification of animals and foods into clean and unclean categories was observed in the Old Testament. Clean animals were deemed permissible for consumption, while the unclean ones were forbidden. Additionally, only animals classified as clean could be offered as sacrifices to God. This distinction between clean and unclean is explained in the Zondervan Expository Dictionary of Bible Words (1991) as a means of differentiating animals and foods based on their suitability for consumption and sacrificial purposes (p. 169).

The Bible establishes a connection between adhering to these dietary laws and the pursuit of holiness, resembling God’s character. Leviticus 11:44 states, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” While the exact reasoning behind the classification of specific animals as clean or unclean is not explicitly explained, it is understood that God’s instructions are intended for our well-being and benefit, as emphasized in Deuteronomy 10:13. The passage implies that obedience to God’s commands is ultimately for our own good.

Forbidden Animals

dirty pig on brown soil

The Old Testament provides a list of animals that were considered unclean and therefore forbidden for consumption. Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14 contain comprehensive lists of animals categorized as clean or unclean. Some examples of unclean land animals include the pig, the rabbit, the camel, the hare, and the hyrax. Aquatic creatures lacking fins and scales, such as shellfish, were also prohibited. The reasons behind these restrictions can be traced back to various factors, including health concerns, cultural context, and symbolic significance. For instance, pork was forbidden due to its association with paganism and the risk of trichinosis, a parasitic infection prevalent in swine.

Forbidden Birds

Eagle in flight

Certain species of birds were also considered unclean according to the Old Testament. Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14 mention specific birds that were prohibited for consumption, including birds of prey, scavengers, and water birds. Examples of forbidden birds include eagles, vultures, owls, buzzards, falcons, ravens, ostriches, seagulls, hawks, jackdaws (part of the crow family), storks, herons and cormorants. The reasons for these restrictions are not explicitly stated in the text, but some theories suggest that it may be related to their feeding habits, association with death, or symbolic associations with pagan rituals.

Forbidden Sea Creatures

lobster on icy tray

The Old Testament provides guidance on which sea creatures are permissible and which are forbidden. Leviticus 11:9-12 and Deuteronomy 14:9-10 mention that only sea creatures with fins and scales can be consumed, while those without these characteristics are considered unclean. This restriction prohibits the consumption of catfish and shellfish, such as shrimp, lobster, crab, and oysters. The reasons behind this dietary law are not explicitly mentioned, but it is speculated that the prohibition may have been due to health concerns, as shellfish can sometimes carry harmful toxins or parasites.

Forbidden Insects

The Old Testament contains a brief mention of certain insects that are considered unclean. Leviticus 11:20-23 outlines that flying insects with four legs, except those with jointed legs for hopping, are unclean. Although the specific insects are not enumerated, it is generally understood to refer to certain species of grasshoppers, locusts, and crickets. The underlying reasons for this prohibition are not explicitly stated, but some theories suggest that it may be related to the insects’ association with decomposition or as a means of distinguishing the Israelites from neighboring cultures that consumed insects.


The dietary restrictions outlined in the Old Testament served multiple purposes. Some of these prohibitions had practical reasons, such as concerns about food safety and preventing the spread of diseases. Others were rooted in cultural and symbolic significance, as a means to maintain a distinct identity and foster religious purity. These dietary laws played a vital role in shaping the religious and cultural practices of ancient Israelites and have continued to influence Jewish dietary customs throughout history.

While these dietary restrictions still hold significant meaning for observant Jews today, many Christians do not adhere to these guidelines due to the teachings of the New Testament, which declared all foods clean. Nevertheless, understanding the historical and cultural context behind these dietary laws allows for a deeper appreciation of the traditions and beliefs of the ancient Israelites.

Therefore, the Old Testament establishes various dietary prohibitions, encompassing certain land animals, birds, sea creatures, and insects. The reasons for these restrictions range from health concerns to cultural and symbolic significance. By examining these forbidden foods, we gain insights into the religious practices and historical context of the ancient Israelites, and how these dietary laws have influenced religious traditions throughout the ages.