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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