Without Four Legs to Stand on

Does Leviticus make mistakes in describing animals?

By Jeff Laird

Does the Bible contain errors about the anatomy of animals? Or their classification? Or their digestive systems? According to some critics, the 11th chapter of Leviticus makes all three of these errors in short order. This, so says the critic, is evidence that the Bible was merely written by primitive peoples who lacked our modern understanding. The problem with this line of attack is really twofold. First, and worst, it assumes ancient Israelites either never interacted with those animals, or were too stupid to notice such obvious differences. Second, it fails to recognize that not only do words change as culture changes, but the words in question weren't written in English to begin with.

The three issues in question are from Leviticus 11:5-6, Leviticus 11:13-19, and Leviticus 11:21-23. According to the critic, the first is wrong in saying that rabbits chew cud, the second is wrong in saying that bats are birds, and the third is wrong because insects don't have four legs.

The first, most immediate question for the critic ought to be whether or not they've considered what their criticism assumes. Modern peoples, especially in the west, generally only see wild animals in documentaries or YouTube videos. Insects, they see in commercials for pest control and breakfast cereal. Ancient Israelites not only ran into them in person, they ate them — whole! Is the critic ready to support a claim that Hebrews couldn't count? Or they never noticed any differences at all between bats and sparrows?

Clearly, the more reasonable assumption is something's being lost in translation. Obviously, one needs to consider the original wording before making an attack based on the translated wording. Subtle differences between languages can make an enormous difference in what the words are intended to mean.

Likewise, vocabulary changes as cultures change. Words begin to take on slightly different meanings, or they take on connotations that they never had before. An easy example from English would be the word "gay", which historically meant "happy", or "cheerful", or even "colorful". In modern usage, it almost always refers to homosexuality. It would be silly to read a letter from the year 1600 which said, "the Duke was gay," and interpret that using the modern slang definition, rather than the definition contemporary to the writer. Words like "bird" have been adapted to define a category that simply did not exist until very recently.

The three attacks above suffer from both of these weaknesses. We don't use the same categories to group animals today as the Hebrews did when Leviticus was written. That doesn't mean the Hebrews were seeing anything differently, they were simply using different terminology, in reference to a subtly different category. Further, all lingual translations require some to be translated as the next closest thing. The alternative would be turning a single word into an explanatory sentence, which loses the effect and flow of the original. Some words simply do not translate well in a one-to-one format.

In prior cultures, animals were categorized differently than they are today. That's not wrong, it's just different. Grouping fruits by color would not be "wrong" just because a later culture preferred to group them by shape, for example. Movement was one of the primary ways ancient people grouped animals; the words they used meant "flying thing" or "crawling thing", and so are perfectly accurate descriptions. The Hebrew word owph in Leviticus 11:13 most literally means "a winged creature that can fly". For the sake of brevity, most translations in English will render this as "fowls" (KJV), or "birds" (NIV, NASB). Again, keep in mind this is not originally in English, but in Hebrew, and the category "mammal" simply did not exist 4,500 years ago. Bats may not be a part of the "bird" group, as we'd say in modern English, but they certainly are part of the owph group, as we'd say in Hebrew.

In Leviticus 11:22-23, the phrase translated "fowls" in the KJV is translated as "winged insects" in the NASB and "flying insects" in the NIV and NKJV. The phrase is most literally understood as "swarming things with wings". That could refer to birds, or to insects, but the context seems to imply insects. This means "birds" are not part of the description. Note that the verses immediately following Leviticus 11:20 list only insects, not birds.

Leviticus 11:21 uses two distinct Hebrew words and a figure of speech. The NASB translates as follows, with Hebrew words repeated in parentheses: "Yet these you may eat among all the winged insects which walk on all fours: those which have above their feet (regel) jointed legs (kera') with which to jump on the earth."

The text simply distinguishes between two distinctive types of limbs, referred to using the separate words regel and kera'. This is not much different than a person saying we have "four fingers and one thumb" on our hands, rather than "five fingers". Anyone who's actually seen a grasshopper up close (or who can see the photo attached to this article) will notice the back two legs are significantly different from the front four in terms of size, shape, and usage. Also, the Hebrew phrase translated as "walk on all fours" is a figure of speech, just as it is in English. We can say a person "walked on all fours" without implying that they suddenly had four legs. The phrase is descriptive, not taxonomical.

Rabbits definitely do not "chew the cud", in the modern scientific sense of that English phrase. What rabbits do is called "refection", and it involves re-digesting food after it passes out of the body. The key Hebrew phrase is alah gerah. Alah is used extensively in the Old Testament, and means to restore, take up, collect, recover, or regurgitate. It's used to describe the handling of money, swords, and even the Ark of the Covenant, so it can't always mean something biologically specific like "regurgitate". Gerah is used only used in this passage, so, it's more difficult to know exactly what it means.

So the available evidence tells us that, to OT Hebrews, alah gerah describes both cows and rabbits. In English, this has been translated as "chewing the cud", which means something slightly different, but it's the closest we have. More importantly, the point and purpose of the verse is pretty clear: rabbits make a chewing motion, but they don't have divided hooves, so they're unclean. That's meant for easy layman-level identification; there's no reason for the Bible to go into a lengthy tangent about the details of digestion.

All three attacks attempt to force meanings into the passage which the original writer did not intend. The first response to such a critic ought to be a challenge of the criticism itself: does this person realize what they'd have to assume about the intelligence and experience of the Hebrews?

The second response is that we can't impose particular, modern definitions of English words onto the original Hebrew words. Anyone who speaks more than one language knows that many, if not most, words have no perfect one-to-one equivalents in other languages. English translations of the Bible generally use the closest equivalent, rather than turning short phrases into this!

Image Credit: Jeff Laird

TagsBiblical-Truth  |  Controversial-Issues

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Published 5-7-14