Clean and Unclean Fish and Birds: Leviticus 11:9-19

Leviticus 11:9‑19  •  4 min. read  •  grade level: 8
After telling the children of Israel which animals were clean and which were unclean, we now come to the instructions about fishes. They were only permitted to eat those which had fins and scales. The fish uses its fins to push itself forward against the current of the rivers and streams, and this it can do even though the water may be flowing very swiftly. We are reminded here of the Christian in his pathway through this world where he finds the “stream” against him as he presses upward to glory. The course of this world is ever downward. It is a good thing to learn this while we are young, for if we allow ourselves to be caught in the current of things here, we will soon be drifting down with those around us. How much we need that energy of faith which “swims” against the stream! The thought of doing things simply because the world does them, or in the same way they do them, is entirely wrong. The Word of God says: “Be not ye ... like unto them” (Matthew 6:88Be not ye therefore like unto them: for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask him. (Matthew 6:8)); and again, “Be not conformed to this world” (Romans 12:22And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God. (Romans 12:2)), and so we need our spiritual “fins” to press on in spite of opposition.
Why We Need Scales
Then there were the scales. They are like a little coat of armor to the fish, keeping out any defilements and impurities while swimming through the water. The best fish prefer cool, clean water, but if it is necessary for them to pass through dirty water, they can do so without defilement. And so we, too, should never willingly go into temptation’s ways, but if we are unwillingly placed there, we can count on the Lord to preserve us if we have on our armor (Ephesians 6:11-1711Put on the whole armor of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. 12For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. 13Wherefore take unto you the whole armor of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. 14Stand therefore, having your loins girt about with truth, and having on the breastplate of righteousness; 15And your feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace; 16Above all, taking the shield of faith, wherewith ye shall be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked. 17And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God: (Ephesians 6:11‑17)). How needful that we always have it on — every part of it! The clean fish is always protected by its scales, even though they may not seem so necessary when swimming in clean water, but in this way it is always ready if someone unexpectedly stirs up the mud.
Unclean Birds
As to the birds, all birds that fed upon flesh were unclean — they were abominable. Such birds might soar up on high like the eagle, but they would come down just as quickly to feed upon the carcasses of dead things; so one might profess to be occupied with things above, but if they still continue to feed upon and find their pleasure in that which the carnal nature desires, there is no evidence of divine life. They would be just like the eagle — unclean. Then there were also birds which fed upon everything. They could eat the fresh green things, or the unclean flesh of dead animals, according to the occasion. These, too, were unclean. In the same way we find those who can talk freely on any subject, holy or unholy, and seem to feel at home in any kind of company. Such are seen here as in the class with the unclean. It is sad to meet such people, and yet we find many of them today. But how can a true Christian be a “good mixer” with the world? The precious things of Christ and the unclean trash of this poor world are entirely different — they will not mix at all. Even the beautiful white swan was in the same class as the bat — both were unclean, and so being on the clean side of the broad road, instead of the unclean side, does not change its end. Pilate and Herod, men of entirely different characters, became friends in rejecting Christ. The clean-living unsaved man and the drunkard will join hands in rejecting God’s message of grace. Let us not be deceived by outward appearances, for “the Lord looketh on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:77But the Lord said unto Samuel, Look not on his countenance, or on the height of his stature; because I have refused him: for the Lord seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart. (1 Samuel 16:7)).
For Further Meditation
1. What do fish scales represent for a believer in Christ?
2. Birds that feed on dead things were unclean. How do believers feed on dead things sometimes? What does the Lord Jesus do in order for us to feed on a healthier spiritual diet?
3. You can find more on this topic, such as reading from Notes on the Pentateuch by C. H. Mackintosh, by going to and searching for Leviticus 11.