You open your Bible to read a familiar passage, and come across an unusual word: “cloven.” This word may catch you off guard. What does it mean? Why is it used in Scripture? In this post, we’ll explore the meaning of “cloven” in the Bible. We’ll look at the original words behind our English translations, how “cloven” is used metaphorically, and what it teaches us about God’s design in creation.
- “Cloven” means split or divided into two parts
- It is used literally to describe split animal hooves and metaphorically for divided tongues of flame at Pentecost
- The cloven tongue points to the diversity of languages spread at Babel being reversed through the Spirit
- God designed many cloven-hoofed animals as “clean” for food to teach spiritual truths
- Israelites were set apart by dietary laws regarding cloven hooves
- avoided mixing unlike things, pointing to separation from sin and in holiness
- Living a holy life requires making careful distinctions and divisions
- God’s design in cloven hooves show his orderly creativity and wisdom
The Meaning of “Cloven”
When you look up “cloven” in the dictionary, it is defined as “split or divided into two parts.” The meaning is straightforward – something cloven is something split or divided. But why is this particular word used in our English Bibles?
The Hebrew and Greek words translate as “cloven” literally mean to “split” or “divide” as well. In Hebrew, the word is šāsap (Strong’s H8156), meaning to “split,” “divide,” or “cleave.” In Greek, it is διχάζω (Strong’s G1307) meaning to “make a separation” or “divide into two.” The English translators chose “cloven” to designate something “split” or “divided in two.”
This meaning emerges in two significant ways in Scripture: literally with animal hooves, and metaphorically with tongues of fire at Pentecost. Let’s look closer at how “cloven” is used in both cases.
Cloven Hooves in Leviticus
The primary literal usage of “cloven” in the Bible is to describe split or divided animal hooves. In Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14, God instructs the Israelites on which animals may be eaten or not – what is “clean” or “unclean.” One of the criteria God gives is whether the animal has a split hoof:
And the swine, though it divides the hoof, having cloven hooves, yet does not chew the cud, is unclean to you. (Leviticus 11:7)
The word translated “cloven” here is the Hebrew šāsap meaning to split or cleave. The animals that the Israelites are permitted to eat – like cattle, sheep, goats, and deer – all have hooves divided into two toes. But animals like pigs have a divided hoof, but don’t chew the cud, so are classified unclean.
So one literal biblical meaning of “cloven” is split or divided hooves on certain animals. But the dietary laws given by God aren’t arbitrary – they teach spiritual truths. The meaning goes deeper.
Teaching through Cloven Hooves
Why does God highlight the divided hooves of clean animals versus unclean? He designed these cloven hooves to impart wisdom.
Paul says the purpose of the Old Testament law was to point people to Christ (Galatians 3:24). The laws made distinctions between righteousness and sin, the clean and unclean, the holy and common. God used these laws to teach his people to be set apart from the evil influences of surrounding nations.
This principle applied to many laws, including diet. Certain animals with cloven hooves were permitted to teach what proper spiritual “chewing” looked like. Clean animals symbolized meditating on and living out God’s Word (Psalm 1:2).
Animals like pigs with divided hooves but that didn’t chew the cud represented those who may appear righteous on the outside but don’t fully digest and live out God’s commands. Jesus criticized the Pharisees for similar hypocrisy (Matthew 23:25-28).
In addition to meditation, cloven hooves also symbolized making careful divisions and distinctions between things like clean and unclean. This pictured separation from sin and living a consecrated life.
Holiness through Separation
A key lesson Israelites learned through the law was holiness. God repeteadly commanded, “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (Leviticus 19:2, 20:26).
Holiness means being set apart and dedicated to God’s purposes. It requires making divisions and distinctions between the holy and profane – like not mixing unlike things together.
The cloven hooves of clean animals pictured this separation. Permitted animals like cows, sheep, and goats kept their hooves completely divided into two toes. But unclean animals like pigs had hooves that were split but still joined together, mixing the cleanness of two separate toes with the uncleanness of being conjoined. This pictured blurring distinctions and mixing the holy with the profane.
For Israelites, this meant separating themselves from the corrupting influences of pagan nations around them. God strictly forbid mixing with their idolatrous practices (Deuteronomy 12:29-31).
They were also not to mix unlike things in other areas of life. The law prohibited mixing two types of fabric (Leviticus 19:19), having both tassels on a garment made of just one material (Deuteronomy 22:11), or mixing crops together (Leviticus 19:19). Donkeys and oxen weren’t to plow together (Deuteronomy 22:10) as different animals matched to different purposes.
Each law regarding separation reminded Israelites of the need for personal holiness and devotion to God. The cloven hooves of clean animals ingrained this lesson visually.
Cloven Tongues at Pentecost
The other biblical use of “cloven” is metaphorical with the tongues of fire at Pentecost.
In Acts 2, the Holy Spirit descended on Christ’s followers with tongues spreading and resting on each one like fire. This allowed them to speak in many languages to the diverse crowd gathered in Jerusalem.
The Greek word translated “cloven” or “divided” (Acts 2:3) is διαμερίζω meaning to “distribute” or “apportioned” out. Though not split like animal hooves, the idea is that the Holy Spirit divided and spread outward across many tongues like fire.
This mirrors Genesis 11 where God confused the universal language into many tongues at the Tower of Babel. But at Pentecost, the division of languages is overcome through the power of the Spirit enabling communication across barriers.
The cloven tongues show the gospel breaking through divisions between people – the very diversity that started at Babel now used to unite people in Christ. The partial is passing away as God’s kingdom is restored (1 Corinthians 13:8-10).
God’s Orderly Design
Stepping back, we see a beauty and order in God’s design using cloven hooves. Each instance reflects wisdom and creative mastery in Scripture.
The dietary laws distinguished between clean and unclean, teaching spiritual truths through the split hooves of permitted animals. This called Israel to holiness, avoiding mixing with worldly influences. Careful divisions portrayed careful living.
At Pentecost, divided tongues reversed Babel’s language barriers as the gospel crossed divides between people. Order replaced confusion just as fulfilling the law in Christ brought both Jew and Gentile into God’s family (Ephesians 2:14-16).
Behind it all we see God’s meticulous craftsmanship – fashioning cloven hooves both to teach spiritual lessons and fill the earth with his creative glory. As God’s image-bearers, attention to order and separation reflects our Creator and points others to Christ.
We can have confidence that God’s plans are perfect, his purposes sure. His designs in creation and Scripture showcase divine wisdom for all to see.
So next time you come across this peculiar word “cloven” in the Bible, remember there’s meaning even in the split of animal hooves. It teaches us who God is and how to walk wisely with him.