Why does the Bible say that rabbits chew the cud?Question: "Why does the Bible say that rabbits chew the cud? Is this an error in the Bible?"
Answer: In the Mosaic Law, animals were divided into two broad groups: clean and unclean. Rabbits were placed in the “unclean” category, which means they could not be used as sacrifices and could not be eaten by the Jews. The rabbit’s “unclean” status was based on this description: “The rabbit, though it chews the cud, does not have a divided hoof; it is unclean for you” (Leviticus 11:6). This verse is often used as an example of an error in the Bible, since rabbits and hares do not chew cud.
Rabbits definitely do not “chew the cud,” in the modern, scientific sense of that English phrase. That’s irrelevant, however, since the Bible was not written in modern English. What matters is what the translated phrase meant in Hebrew at the time it was written. What rabbits and hares do is called “refection” or “coprophagy,” and it involves re-digesting food after it passes out of the body (in other words, rabbits eat their own feces). Rabbits are also known to constantly move their mouths, in a motion that looks extremely similar to the chewing motion of cows and other ruminants. What’s described in Leviticus 11:6 is meant for simple identification, not detailed scientific analysis.
The key phrase, in Hebrew, is alah gerahh. 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 doesn’t have to mean something biologically specific. The word’s broad usage doesn’t stop skeptics from claiming that the word absolutely must mean “regurgitate” and that Leviticus 11:6 is therefore a gigantic error.
Gerah is only used in Leviticus 11, so, it’s more difficult to know exactly what it means. What is clear, however, is that rabbits, like ruminants, make a constant chewing motion, and, like ruminants, they re-digest their food (albeit through a different process). We also know that the description given is pretty easy to understand: rabbits “recover” food and make a constant chewing motion. But, since they do not have a split hoof, they are unclean.
Skeptics sometimes spend an awful lot of time over-complicating issues that are actually fairly simple, and their misuse of Leviticus 11:6 is a common example of that very problem. There’s no error here. There’s no reason to cram a modern scientific explanation into the text. And there’s no cause to split hares, as it were. In reality, Leviticus 11:6 is just a simple description used for classification. God did not need to go into a lengthy tangent about the details of digestion. Rabbits indeed give the appearance of chewing cud. The biblical description says exactly what it needs to say in order for the Hebrew reader to get the point: rabbits chew, but they don’t have divided hooves, so they’re unclean, done.
The bottom line is that, to the Old Testament, Hebrew-speaking people, alah gerah described the visible actions of both cows and rabbits (and hyraxes, Leviticus 11:5). In English, this phrase has been translated as “chewing the cud,” which means something slightly different to us, but it’s the closest we have. Any perceived inaccuracy here is caused by forcing meanings the original writer did not intend onto the words he used.
Recommended Resource: Leviticus & Numbers: The NIV Application Commentary by Roy Gane
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Questions about Leviticus
Why does the Bible say that rabbits chew the cud? Is this an error in the Bible?