In certain circles today, there is a progressive sort of talk going around, concerning, of all things, the Story of Noah and the Ark! The historicity of the Story and the scope of the Flood are not so much an issue anymore, but whether the animals on the Ark, the ones that entered two by two, were simply representations ( not uncommon throughout Scripture ) of human beings! If this is so, such a revelation would go a long way in turning upside down the traditional & orthodox understanding of the true Story behind Noah's Ark, and would represent a huge paradigm shift in the way we view Salvation & Redemption!
If the scope of the flood was not world-wide, covering all terra firma under the heavens ( sky ) and it was human beings of every sort who were saved through the vessel of the Ark, then maybe the Story of the Flood of Noah's Day was not about the future redemption of the entire creation ( natural, animal, and human ) at all! Maybe it was simply an allegorical Story, witnessing to the future Redemption & Salvation of God's People, from both the Jews & the Gentiles!
Though application might be made here to a change of the Jewish dietary laws, Peter, as a traditional Jew, understood soon enough what Yahweh was telling him through the vision. As we see by reading further in the text, the animals in the sheet were representative of the Gentiles with whom Peter would share the Gospel the next day. He was not being told that Jews were now allowed to eat just any kind of meat, but that he 'should not call any man common or unclean'. Peter learned that day, as a representative of the Jewish nation, that it was to all men everywhere, not just the Jew, that the Gospel, or Good News had come!
Interestingly enough, in Nebuchadnezzar's Second Dream, recorded earlier in this passage, we see that the king was likened to a mighty tree 'whose leaves [ were ] lovely and its fruit abundant, in which [ was ] food for all, under which the beasts of the field dwelt, and in whose branches the birds of the heaven had their home'. As the king of a mighty empire, Nebuchadnezzar might easily have understood that the mighty tree which was chopped down in the vision was representative of himself. He would doubtless have understood this representation and even been proud of what he had accomplished, but it was the second part which he would have had trouble, not being a Jew, or Hebrew, in understanding. He would be changed into a beast?! Imagine that!
The representation of men as beasts was not a new thing, either! In John's Revelation, the Beast was revealed, to those with the capacity to learn it, as a mere man ( Ezekiel 28:9 ).The Beast of Revelation was simply a literary tool used to represent men who were in opposition to the reign of Yahweh. There are many references to beasts in this manner throughout Scripture; for example, David wrote, in Psalm 49 ( 20 ), 'A man [ who is ] in honor, yet does not understand, is like the beasts [ that ] perish'. Another way to put this, I believe, would be that without The Breath of Life, or the infusion of the Spirit of God, man is simply a beast, and perishes like all beasts!
The prophet Isaiah refers in such a way to the Egyptians to whom Israel had turned for the hope of salvation. Using the parallel form of literature that those familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures should be very familiar with ( Jeremiah 4:23, Isaiah 65:17-19 ), he referred to the Egyptians as mere dumb beasts through whom no real help or salvation could come!
Throughout The Prophets, Yahweh continually invites 'the beasts of the field' to His Great Feast. This Great Feast saw fulfillment in John's vision ( Revelation 19:9-18 ) of The Marriage Supper of the Lamb. Their feasting on the flesh & blood of Israel was significant of the Gentiles participation in the Body & Blood of our Lord ( John 6:53 ).
Even today, we tend to represent men with beasts, or even as beasts! In our terminology, people will often say, of a man ( or woman ) exhibiting great brute strength or prowess of any sort, 'what a beast!' Although not in use so much anymore, in old books, you may read phrases such as 'how perfectly beastly that man was', or 'what a beastly proposition', in reference to unwanted attentions or events which should not have happened.
Comic strips are probably the most common & familiar way in which we make this comparison in today's culture! You could not count, with all you digits, the comic characters out there who are representative of human society. I mean, do you think that Mickey & Minnie Mouse are actually supposed to bring to our minds thoughts of cute little fuzzy creatures with pea-brains, scurrying all over?! Of all the comic strips, old & new, that we look forward to laughing at in the daily newspaper, how many are dominated by animals that think talk and act, JUST LIKE HUMANS?!
When we begin to understand the Hebrew mindset, and their literary style of writing, the pages of Scripture are opened to us in a way that had been dark to us before! Understanding that a man without understanding, or illumination by the Holy Spirit is 'like the beasts that perish' helps us to make real sense of the Story and of the Reality of The Breath of Life! It is not this physical existence which is in view in the pages of Scripture, although in a very real sense, application must be made to our physical existence, but rather it is the Reality of the Presence, the Spirit within us, which is the Subject & Object of the Story of Israel; it is how the Son of Man, as Well as the Beasts of the Field, became the Son of God!
Charles Haddon Shank