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Do hares chew the cud?

Hares do not chew the cud, so why does Leviticus 11:16 say they do?

Leviticus 11:6 The rabbit, though it chews the cud, does not have a divided hoof; it is unclean for you.

Have you ever seen a cow look at you with those big eyes and seen their jaw chewing, like they have a mouthful of bubblegum? Cow’s aren’t the only that do that either. Goats do it. Deers do it. If you’ve been to the zoo, you’ve probably seen the giraffe doing it. Why do they do that?

Well, if you ate grass maybe you’d do it to! Grass is tough, man! So tough these animals need seperate compartments in their stomachs to handle their stringy diet. As they swallow their breakfast they’re bringing up last night’s half-digested dinner to chew on it again. This process is called rumination. They then swallow the extra softened, extra chewed-up greenery so that it can pass through the other parts of the stomach which extracts all of its leafy goodness. “But rabbits don’t chew the cud!”

The insistence that these sort of factual inaccuracies represent a failure of the reliability of the text and its authors to properly report the details of biology and zoology is a failure to understand the genre, the audience and the purpose of the text.

These failures usually happen because verses are read in isolation from their immediate textual context. This means reading what is written before and after any verse is vital for decoding its meaning and understanding why it was written. Here is the immediate textual context to this verse.

In Leviticus 11:3 the rule given by God to the Israelites at the time was, positively stated, “You may eat any animal that has a divided hoof and that chews the cud.” In Leviticus 11:26 the same rule is reiterated, this time stated negatively, ‘Every animal that does not have a divided hoof or that does not chew the cud is unclean for you.’ Sandwiched between these statements are some examples of the rule being applied. Leviticus 11:4-8 4 “‘There are some that only chew the cud or only have a divided hoof, but you must not eat them. The camel, though it chews the cud, does not have a divided hoof; it is ceremonially unclean for you. 5 The hyrax, though it chews the cud, does not have a divided hoof; it is unclean for you. 6 The rabbit, though it chews the cud, does not have a divided hoof; it is unclean for you. 7 And the pig, though it has a divided hoof, does not chew the cud; it is unclean for you. 8 You must not eat their meat or touch their carcasses; they are unclean for you.

The bible describes other features of nature, such as the sun rising and setting of the sun, which are technically incorrect but nevertheless functionally useful. The description here is technically incorrect, since rabbits and hares do not chew the cud, but it is functionally useful, since it looks as if the hare chews the cud. What they are actually doing is called refection: eating partly digested faecal pellets. Yes, they eat their own poo!

This means the Hebrew phrase “chewing the cud” should not be understood in the modern technical sense, but in the ancient sense of a chewing motion that includes both rumination and refection.[1] Its important to realise that the list of clean and unclean animals here is not a twenty-first century science textbook intending to teach animal biology. It is intended as a practical guide for the ancient Israelite in selecting clean foods. A guide we no longer have to follow – so watch out, Peter Rabbit!

Footnotes:

  1. See Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe, When Critics Ask: A Popular Handbook on Bible Difficulties (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1992), 89-90.

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