Four Legged Insects (Lev. 11:20-23)

We’ve seen in earlier books that the authors of the Old Testament struggle when it comes to describing the natural world. Leviticus demonstrates that when it comes to taxonomy, the authors once again lack basic observational skills, let alone divine inspiration. For example, bats are included among the birds (Lev. 11:13-19). I’ll admit, whether we consider a bat a bird or not is mostly inconsequential except, perhaps, to the insistence that the text is completely infallible. I don’t think it’s unfair to expect modern readers to understand that humanity’s knowledge of the animal kingdom is quite a bit more sophisticated than at the time of Moses. However, some following verses are harder to justify:

20 “‘All flying insects that walk on all fours are to be regarded as unclean by you. 21 There are, however, some flying insects that walk on all fours that you may eat: those that have jointed legs for hopping on the ground. 22 Of these you may eat any kind of locust, katydid, cricket or grasshopper. 23 But all other flying insects that have four legs you are to regard as unclean. (Lev. 11:20-23)

Sure, “all fours” might be a colloquialism for “walks on all of its limbs” and that maybe it hasn’t translated very well, but in verse 23 it specifically says “four legs”. I’m willing to be forgiving about what an insect is (a quick Google search, or a little time on Wikipedia, reveals that translation from the original Hebrew word isn’t quite exact), just like it’s probably okay to give a pass to the birdy bats. But what are these four legged (or footed, depending on your translation) flying insects? Granted, I’m no biology (let alone entomology) wiz, but I can’t think of a four legged flying anything! Gryphons and dragons, I suppose. I wouldn’t really call them insects… or real. But maybe I’m on to something.

To preserve the infallibility of the text (or at least that if it is God-breathed that God didn’t forget to breath for too long) we can invent a few possibilities:

  1. There used to be four legged insects.
  2. The insects described never existed.
  3. The Israelites used the same name for the numbers 4 and 6. One day they realized their folly, created a new name for 6, and struck four for 6 from all records… save one.
  4. Not all of an insect’s legs count.
  5. Translations are not always exact.

The first three options are a little ridiculous. For the first, I would expect to find fossil evidence of this special branch of anthropods, including some with jointed legs meant for jumping. Considering the second, it seems a bit odd to ban something that doesn’t exist. Although, it wouldn’t be the first time. The third option would be too convenient.

The fourth option might make sense in the context of insects that have obviously specialized appendages, but what about the rest? How would one distinguish the four legs from the two non-legs of a beetle? That leads us into the last option. If the convention of the time is weird by today’s standards, and since it raises doubt about the author’s credibility, why would the translators keep it? The fundamentalist claim that the original meaning of the Bible has been divinely protected through translations seems to be weakened by this passage.

What matters here is not whether the author of Leviticus knew how to properly classify different animals, but rather that the text is very clearly not 100% literally true. To most, this probably seems like a very obvious fact, especially to those who read Holey Books, but there you go. I made the point all the same. It’s highly likely I’ll do it again.

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20 Responses to Four Legged Insects (Lev. 11:20-23)

  1. To claim that the Bible calls a bat a bird is an illogical conclusion from the text.

  2. FACT: The first group of organisms listed in Leviticus 11:13-19– are members of the CLASS AVES: birds.

    FACT: The very last organism listed in Leviticus 11:–19 is a member of the CLASS MAMMALIA: “the bat”

    FACT: Birds are NOT MEMBERS of the CLASS MAMMALIA.

    CONCLUSION: “the bat” is not a bird.

    INQUIRY: If Leviticus is UNRELIABLE as a taxonomic source, then from the text of Leviticus 11:13-19, and the Scientific Classification System:
    LOGICALLY CONCLUDE that “the bat” is a bird…

    (Please use as much workspace as needed for your facts and conclusion.)

    • Ryan says:

      Not really sure if I understand your line of reasoning. Here’s the dilemma, from the translation:

      1. Lev. 11:13-19 lists several animals, including “the bat”, and calls the entire grouping “birds”.
      2. The last animal in this list, “the bat” is a mammal.
      3. Birds and mammals do not intersect.

      Since 2 and 3 are categorically true as of 8/8/2011 it follows that 1 cannot be without error. It follows, then, that Leviticus is not a reliable source for predicting modern taxonomy.

      What you seem to argue in your “inquiry” is that because I reference these verses from Leviticus that I somehow accept its classification as one of my premises and since my conclusion (Leviticus is screwy) refutes this non-premise, I don’t have a logical argument.

      If that is indeed your argument, it’s flawed: I do not accept the Leviticus classification as valid in my argument because that’s exactly what I’m refuting.

  3. Phillip Evans says:

    That’s what I thought.

    Leviticus calls them “owf” = covered with feathers or wings. The bat qualifies.

    But the only way to conclude that a bat is a bird is to reason illogically from the text. A person must think illogically to find these errors.

    They say that birds of a feather flock together. Do you all reason illogically?

    • Ryan says:

      This proves my point (#5 from the post).

      The scholars who wrote the NIV translation (and most of the others found at the linked source) of Leviticus seemed to think that the correct usage of (as you say) “owf” is “bird” or “fowl”, not “covered with feathers or wings” (not sure how one is “covered” with wings). Perhaps you can offer some evidence to support your argument that the experts mis-translated “owf” in this section?

      But back to my point: if you are in fact correct, that “owf” means “covered with feathers or wings” and that there is no problem with these verses, then what does that say about the translations that disagree? Maybe you’d disagree, but I think it suggests that translating something thousands of years old is challenging and the resulting translation will not convey exactly what the original author intended. Also, this discrepancy would also suggest that there is no divine hand guiding these translations. The conclusion from all of this is that the argument of Biblical inerrancy, insofar as modern translations are concerned, is an argument full of holes.

      • Phillip Evans says:

        The Concordant Literal Version renders it “flyers”, and it is even used of a “serpent” (Isa 14:29). Therefore, an appeal to authority is a fallacy that does not interest me.

        “Maybe you’d disagree, but I think it suggests that translating something thousands of years old is challenging and the resulting translation will not convey exactly what the original author intended.”

        Are we avoiding challenges?

        “insofar as modern translations are concerned”

        Why not re-title the page “Translations of Holey Books”?

        • Ryan says:

          You’re still missing the point. The significance I’m drawing from this example is that the inerrancy of translated versions is a ridiculous notion because of verses like this one. Having to rely on the original text to demonstrate the inerrancy of the translation proves the translation is not free from error or possible gross misunderstanding.

          There are many sects that argue that the King James Bible is divinely inspired and inerrant. Maybe my mistake was using the NIV version of the text and not the KJV, which uses “fowl” instead of “bird”.

          • Philip says:

            If you are criticizing translations, then I have no argument with you.

            I am not one of those that relies on any one translation, or believes that any one translation is divinely inspired.

  4. Phillip Evans says:

    There is a factual error in your reference:

    Verse 23 reads “four feet” (regel).

    It foes not read “four legs” (kara’).

    From the text of Leviticus 11:20-23, LOGICALLY CONCLUDE that the insect has four “legs”.

    FACT: The first group of organisms listed in Leviticus 11:13-19– are members of the CLASS AVES: birds.

    FACT: The very last organism listed in Leviticus 11:–19 is a member of the CLASS MAMMALIA: “the bat”

    FACT: Birds are NOT MEMBERS of the CLASS MAMMALIA.

    CONCLUSION: “the bat” is not a bird.

    INQUIRY: If Leviticus is unreliable as a taxonomic source, then from the text of Leviticus 11:13-19, and the Scientific Classification System: LOGICALLY CONCLUDE that “the bat” is a bird….

    • Ryan says:

      Once again, this “error” comes from a translation. Please feel free to share why your translation is better.

      Furthermore, I’m not familiar with any flying four footed animals any more than four legged ones, so I’m not sure what point you’re trying to make here.

      • Phillip Evans says:

        It’s an equivication fallacy.

        The text says “which have four feet” (v 23), so how can you title your page “Four Legged Insects”? Where does the text say “which have four-legs”?

        Lev 11:20 “All fowls that creep, going upon all four,..”

        A human infant can be described as crawling “on all four” but it only has two legs.

        Class, Gastropoda, – broad flat muscular foot, but no legs.

        Therefore it is not logical to assume that these creatures have “four legs” simply because we read of “going on all four” or “four feet”.

        • Ryan says:

          Philip, click on the link following the block quote. It’ll take you straight to the source, the NIV Lev. 23: “But all other flying insects that have four legs you are to regard as unclean.” It looks like you’re referring to the KJV. You’ll notice I pointed out this discrepancy in the post.

          I’m not sure what you’re going for here. I make the point that “walking on all fours” doesn’t necessarily mean “has four legs”. I’m not making the argument that I think you think I’m making.

  5. Phillip says:

    For our purposes the order of Scientific Classification is as follows.

    1. KINGDOM

    2. PHYLUM

    3. CLASS

    It is not:

    1. KINGDOM

    2. CLASS

    Thus, we have:

    1) KINGDOM: Animalia. (11:13-23)

    2) PHYLUM: Chordata (11:13-19) / PHYLUM: Arthropoda (11:20-23)

    3) CLASS: Aves (11:13-19–) / CLASS: Mamalia (11:–19) / CLASS: Insecta. (11:20-23)

    Refute that.

    You said, “3. Birds and mammals do not intersect.”

    True, but bats and birds are both members of the PHYLUM CHORDATA by the very Scientific Classification System. Refute that.

    Every “owf” listed in verses 13-19 is a vertebrate.

    Every “owf” listed in verses 20-23 is an invertebrate.

    Simple.

    In fact, bats and birds are the only chordate fliers on earth. Other chordates that use arial locomotion do so by means other than flying.

    So let us avoid Composition Fallacies by saying that A, B C, of owf are birds, therefore all x of owf are birds.

    • Ryan says:

      Ah, I see what you did there. Thank you.

      Would you also say that pants and shirts are the same? They share a common classification of clothing. Sharing a common ancestor, or belonging to the same phylum doesn’t make bird an appropriate classification for a bat. Otherwise, bat would be classified under bird and there wouldn’t be a problem here.

      I guess I wasn’t very clear on what I meant by “intersect”. Yes, if you move up to a broader classification (in this case, the phylum) you’ll find an intersection. This is true of any living organism. What I meant was that there are no species of bird that is a mammal, and there’s no species of mammal that is a bird. If you want to find that intersection, you’d have to go back millions of years to a common (extinct) ancestor, that will look more reptilian than mammalian or avian.

      Regarding “owf”: if owf is originally intended to mean the very broad grouping of chordate, how well does that apply throughout the old testament? For example, is “owf” used in Gen. 1:20, 25?

      • Philip says:

        Hello Ryan.

        “if owf is originally intended to mean the very broad grouping of chordate”

        I didn’t say that.

        Every “owf” listed in verses 13-19 is a vertebrate.

        Every “owf” listed in verses 20-23 is an invertebrate.

        The “owf” of 20-23 are not chordates.

        • Phillip Evans says:

          The differences between Aves and Mammals are valid and significant.

          The differences between vertebrates and invertebrates are also valid and significant.

  6. Phillip says:

    If we avoid many commentaries and traditions, we can use the text, logic, and science to answer questions or even learn things.

    For the behemoth of Leviticus 11:2 we have a different arrangement:

    A. ORDER: ARTIODACTYLA (11:4) gerar
    B. ORDER: HYRACOIDEA (11:5) gerar
    B. ORDER: LAGOMORPHA (11:6) gerar
    A. ORDER: ARTIODACTYLA (11:7) NO gerar

    The first and the last are of the same order, but alternate gerar: the swine does not chew a cud, but a camel does.

    The two in the middle are of different orders. Both of them gerar, but since “not all flesh is the same flesh” (1Co 15:9), it might illogical to apply gerar to them as we did the camel and the swine.

    cheweth H1641 not H3808 the cud; H1625

    In 1 Kings 7:9 the Hebrew word is used for cutting stones. Science knows that hares are lagomorphs: their teeth grow throughout their life, thus necessitating constant chewing to keep them from growing too long. They literally must cut or grind their teeth.

    Thus, the hare that “gerar” (11:6).

    In Jer 30:23 the word is rendered “cutting” (CLV) for a “cutting whirlwind”. Scientists know that sound travels through the air, and coneys, or rock hyraxes, will give off a ear splitting noise when danger approaches.

    Thus, the coney that gerar (11:5).

    • Ryan says:

      Interesting. Though I’m not sure there’s anything that we can learn from all of this, except maybe: ancient Hebrew allowed the figurative use of words.

  7. steveo says:

    The Bible is Gods word which is perfect, if you study it instead of jumping to a conclusion you will see this

    • Ryan says:

      Steveo, while we appreciate when people comment on Holey Books, you need to be a bit more specific about how we supposedly jump to conclusions. Otherwise, that’s, just like, you’re opinion, man.

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