A Global Association of Orthodox Jewish Believers in Messiah Yeshua
Understanding Acts 10:9-19 (Peter’s Vision of the Unclean and Clean Animals; and Parasha Tazria)
A Jewish understanding of Peter’s vision of the sheet with both clean and unclean animals, where he is told to “rise, kill, and eat,” is necessary to understand what G-d was teaching Peter, and not contradict the Word of G-d that came before. It is derived from an understanding of parasha Tazria (Leviticus 12-13), and has nothing to do with making unclean animals, like the pig, now clean and thus fit for consumption.
The key to understanding the vision is knowing the difference between the Hebrew concepts of tamai (unclean) and tahor (clean), and the Greek concepts of akathartos (unclean) and koinos (impure) which are used to further clarify the Hebrew concept of tamei (unclean). G-d can not contradict his Word. G-d does not say to Peter that that which is akathartos (unclean) is able to be made clean by G-d, but rather G-d only says that that which is koinos (impure) is able to be made clean by G-d. Koinos (impure) can only refer to something that was originally clean before becoming contaminated by contact with something that is unclean. When we understand that G-d is realigning Peter’s false paradigm of Gentiles as somehow being akathartos (unclean without hope of being made clean) to rather instead of G-d’s paradigm that they are koinos (originally created clean but became impure through defilement with unclean things and thus can be made clean again), we can see then why Peter acquiesced and was willing to go with the three Gentiles that immediately knocked on his door. This is why Peter concludes that he is never to call any man, no matter how much they’ve been defiled by idolatry (which is unclean itself and therefore makes clean things impure) unclean (like idolatary). But rather to see all men as koinos (impure, defiled with contact by things unclean such as idolatry) who can then be made clean again by faith in Messiah.
To help explain this, let me present to you what I think I’ve discovered as a connection between parasha Tazria (Leviticus 12-13), Babylonian Talmud Bava Metzia 86a, and Acts 10.
9 About noon the following day as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray.
10 He became hungry and wanted something to eat, and while the meal was being prepared, he fell into a trance.
11 He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. ”
12 It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles of the earth and birds of the air.
13 Then a voice told him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.”
14 “Surely not, Lord!” Peter replied. “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.”
15 The voice spoke to him a second time, “Do not call anything impure that G-d has made clean.”
16 This happened three times, and immediately the sheet was taken back to heaven.
17 While Peter was wondering about the meaning of the vision, the men sent by Cornelius found out where Simon’s house was and stopped at the gate.
18 They called out, asking if Simon who was known as Peter was staying there.
19 While Peter was still thinking about the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Simon, three men are looking for you.
20 So get up and go downstairs. Do not hesitate to go with them, for I have sent them.”
Summary of Parasha Tazria
“The Parshah of Tazria continues the discussion of the laws of Tumah v’Taharah, ritual impurity and purity.
Tzaraat (“leprosy”) is a supra-natural plague, which also can afflict garments. If white or pink patches appear on a person’s skin (dark red or green in garments), a Kohen is summoned. Judging by various signs, such as an increase in size of the afflicted area after a seven-day quarantine, the Kohen pronounces it tameh (impure) or tahor (pure).
A person afflicted with tzaraat must dwell alone outside of the camp (or city) until he is healed. The afflicted area in a garment is removed; if the tzaraat spreads or recurs, the entire garment must be burned.”
Talmud, Bava Metzia 86a
“It was debated in the Academy of Heaven: If the white patch precedes the white hair, it is impure; if the white hair precedes the white patch, it is pure; but what if there is doubt (as to which came first)?
The Holy One, Blessed be He, said: It is pure.
The entire Academy of Heaven said: It is impure.
Said they: Who shall decide it for us? Rabbah bar Nachmeini. For Rabbah bar Nachmeini had declared: I am singular[ly knowledgeable] in the laws of tzaraat… They dispatched a messenger [to bring him to heaven]… Said [Rabbah]: Tahor! Tahor! (Pure, pure).”
“The “Academy of Heaven” is an allusion to the filling light, while “the Holy One” (kedushah, holiness, means transcendence) connotes the “encompassing” light of G-d. So regarding the case in which there is doubt as to whether the white hair came before or after the white patch, the “Academy of Heaven” is inclined to declare this a case of tzaraat. For this is the divine perspective on man that recognizes man’s selfishness. If tzaraat is a possibility, we must suspect that it has indeed occurred.
“The Holy One,” however, sees man as an essentially selfless being. From the standpoint of the “encompassing” light, tzaraat is an anomaly. If there is clear and conclusive evidence that a person has indulged his escapist desires to such an extreme, the laws of tzaraat apply. But where there is doubt, this divine perspective is inclined to declare him pure.”
“Rabbah bar Nachmeini was “singular in the laws of tzaraat.” He was a human being, but a human being who had so thoroughly devoted himself to G-d’s Torah that he had uncovered its singular core–uncovered the divine vision of reality as it relates to the very essence of G-d rather than to either the “filling” or the “encompassing” elements of His light.
When Rabbah bar Nachmeini pondered the laws of human selfishness and selflessness, he saw man as G-d Himself sees him: as a creation utterly devoted to the will of its Creator. A creation who, even if touched by the possibility of a shov-deficiency malady, is invariably declared: Pure! Pure!“
The issue in Acts 10 is not a debate between unclean and clean, but between unclean and impure. Two Greek words are used “koinos,” and “akathartos,” impure, and unclean. The difference between the two is that koinos means ritually impure, and akathartos refers to the Hebrew word tamai, a concept of intrinsic uncleanness. Tamai is contrasted to tahor, another Hebrew word that means clean, pure. Some of the animals listed in the vision, such as reptiles, are called in the previous Torah portion of Shemini, “tamai.” Other animals considered “tamai” (or if we want to stick with the Greek Septuagint’s translation of tamai, “akathartos”) are the pig, vulture, bat, and others. They are contrasted from animals that are “tahor” or clean, such as animals that have a split hoof and chew the cud, such as sheep, and cattle – which are acceptable for sacrifice. It is important to note that nothing that G-d declares is originally tamai (and thus intrinsically unclean)can be made tahor (ritually pure).
It will help to keep the following guide in mind when reading Acts 10:
- The Hebrew has only one word for unclean: tamai. The Greek translation splits this out into two concepts: akathartos (instrinsically “unclean”) and koinos (“common” or “impure” ritually unclean due to contact with that which is akathartos).
- The Hebrew has only one word for clean: tahor.
G-d’s command to Peter to “rise up, kill, and eat” is a reference in Greek to the Hebrew concept of sacrifice, the Greek says “thusia kai phago.” To “rise” is to make aliyah – to “go up” as in “go up to the mountain of the Lord,” or go up to Jerusalem” and make sacrifice. And we know from previous scripture that G-d only accepts the sacrifice from “tahor” animals, and not “tamai.” For example, G-d isn’t going to accept the sacrifice of a pig anytime soon, no matter how “holy” man could try to make it. A pig is still a pig.
So why did Peter object? Because had he sacrificed a tahor animal (sheep for example), and if any of the other animals which were tamai (such as a pig, or vulture) were to touch it, it would render the tahor animal as tamai - the slaughtered sheep carcass would no longer be clean, but ritually unclean – or impure. We find an example of this concept in Gen 15:11 “Then birds of prey came down on the carcasses, but Abram drove them away.”
In other words, the clean animal sacrifice would be made koinos - impure, because it would come in contact with akathartos - unclean animals. Thus for Peter to “eat” of such a ritually impure sacrifice, would make Peter tamai/koinos, a condition that Peter reiterates back to G-d that he has never eaten anything akathartos (unclean, like a pig) or koinos (common/ie ritually impure, like a sheep carcass being defiled by a vulture).
Yet G-d himself responds to Peter: regarding that which he just commanded him to “rise, kill, and eat” (ie the sheep carcass), to not call anything (the sheep sacrifice) koinos - ritually impure (because it came in contact with unclean animals), which G-d has made clean (G-d made the ritually impure, pure again). In other words, a sheep for example, though originally clean, could come into contact with a animal that is akathartos – such a vulture, and would thus be made impure; but G-d was saying the He is able to make that which is ritually impure, pure again. Contrary to the common (no pun intended) understanding of this vision, G-d is not telling Peter to “not call anything unclean (like a pig) that which G-d has made clean” – implying that G-d can make intrinsically unclean “akathartos” animals somehow “clean”; but rather is telling Peter that the impurity of the koinos sheep, can be made clean again, because the sheep is still a sheep! In other words, the sheep is koinos because it was not akathartos to begin with, even when it became defiled with akathartos animals, and as such, G-d is able to make koinos animals clean again! G-d made this vision happen three times. Peter was pondering what this mean, when three Gentiles knocked on his door.
This totally changed Peter’s paradigm concerning the Gentiles. For it was standard belief in Jewish circles that Gentiles were intrinsically unclean, ie akathartos, and thus without hope of eternal life, because akathartos/instrinsically unclean creatures (like a pig, vulture, or bat) can never be made clean! Thus the reason for the belief of Jewish conversion of the Gentiles – to change their stripes so to to speak, so they could be made “clean,” and thus have eternal life.
But G-d was telling Peter that the three Gentiles knocking on his door are NOT TO BE CONSIDERED AKATHARTOS/UNCLEAN, but rather likened to “clean animals ” which came in contact with unclean “akathartos” animals (paganism) and thus were only made koinos/impure and not made “akathartos” unclean! Not only that, but G-d can make that which is koinos, pure/clean again, and this forever changed Peter’s approach to the Gentiles who were coming to faith. The Gentiles didn’t need to be “made Jewish” by human hands, and thus change their stripes and become “Jewish” to be saved, but rather like Jews already, need to be given the Spirit of G-d, ie “born again” by faith in Yeshua:
Acts 11:17 So if G-d gave them the same gift as he gave us, who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could oppose G-d?”
Just as in the Talmudic midrash above on Parasah Tazria, and the response of Rabbah bar Nachmeini, G-d views all mankind as pure, clean creatures that when they become defiled, is a malady that can be taken care of because they are themselves intrinsically, created, clean! Once clean they are thus able to commune with G-d (typified by being able to enter the Tabernacle with their uncleanness removed). Conversion to “change the stripes” of a Gentile to a Jew isn’t necessary (because Gentiles are like Jews, created in the image of G-d, clean, pure, but became defiled with paganism, and need to be made clean). That this conclusion can be drawn from rabbinic literature is astounding, which many times teaches the opposite.
Following the perspective of the Torah to immerse items that were previously tahor, but made tamai due to contamination with that which was tamai, Peter asks the obvious question ” who are we to forbid immersion (Acts 10:47)” – and thus the Gentiles, like the articles of clothing, in Parasha Tazria, were immersed in recognition that they were no longer tamai… koinos/ritually impure.