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Chew on This... Again!
by Jeffrey A. Justice

1994 / July-August

Food for thought: Does Leviticus 11:6 need rechewing? "The rabbit, though it chews the cud, does not have a split hoof; it is unclean for you" (NIV). Inerrantists refuse to see this statement as a biological error that incorrectly classifies the rabbit as a ruminant or cud-chewer. Instead, they resort to speculation and claim that the statement refers to another physiological process known as "refection," a little known behavior by which some animals reingest food that has passed through their digestive tracts. The errantist view, which is the more likely position, argues that the ancients observed the rabbit's jaw movements, which mimic rumination or cud-chewing, and mistook them as evidence of cud-chewing. Since the jaw movements are identical to those of the true ruminants, it is little wonder that the Bible blunders regarding this animal's biology.

To properly evaluate the inerrantist "explanation" of Leviticus 11:6 , we must examine the difference in refection and rumination. The former is a behavior by which rabbits eat their own feces (caecotrophs) for nutritional benefit, whereas rumination or cud-chewing is the regurgitation of food stored in the first chamber of a multichambered stomach, so that the food can be further broken down mechanically by chewing before it goes on to the next chamber of the stomach, where it continues to be broken down by chemical processes. (All true ruminants have chambered stomachs.)

Are They Equal Theories?

There are many weaknesses in the attempts to make refection equal rumination.

The major ones include these:

Facts About Refection: In Science in the Bible, a work that argues the inerrantist position, Jean Morton makes the following comments:

Caecotroph formations were first described in The French Veterinary Journal in 1882. Since that date [1882], many zoologists have considered this process [refection] as rumination. The identification of the hare as a ruminant is based primarily on caecotroph formation and bacterial decomposition of cellulose (Chicago: Moody Press, p. 181).

Caecotroph formations are the soft fecal pellets reingested by the rabbit during refection. Since they serve the same nutritional purpose as a cud when rechewed, some inerrantists argue that the Bible correctly classified the rabbit as a ruminant.

I disagree with the so-called "many zoologists" [which zoologists?] because they define "ruminant" inaccurately. The American Heritage Dictionary defines ruminant as, "Any of various hoofed, even-toed, usually horned mammals of the suborder Ruminantia, such as cattle, sheep, goats, deer, and giraffes, characteristically having a stomach divided into four compartments and chewing a cud consisting of regurgitated, partially digested food." Thus, the rabbit does not fit this definition, and trying to classify it as a ruminant is a misuse of the English language.

Morton further said, "The caecotrophs are generally passed during late night or very early morning hours, so the average individual may not have observed this process" (p. 181). This fact raises an interesting question. Did Moses refer to the well-known behavior of the camel (cud-chewing) in Leviticus 11:5 and then in the very next verse refer to a behavior that probably no one in biblical times had seen because it usually occurs while most people sleep or lack of sunlight interferes with visibility? Even today, most rabbit owners are not aware of this behavior because it is a nocturnal practice.

This is a major weakness of the refection theory. To show how weak it is, we have only to consider certain relevant questions: Did the Leviticus writer refer to a behavior known to the average Jew? Which behavior did he most likely refer to? Apparent rumination? Refection? The jaw movements alone? The writer must have alluded to something the Hebrews could relate to or else he wrote this passage in vain, because no one would have understood him.

In The Private Life of the Rabbit, R. M. Lockley makes the following observations about refection from his five-year research on the rabbit:

Our watches overnight were almost totally unproductive, except as negative evidence. On rare occasions, one [rabbit] might return below for an odd minute, even an hour, to rest and preen, and reingest. However, so long as we could watch the rabbits underground we had the ideal opportunity to study the phenomena of coprophagy or reingestion.... Reingestion or eating of excrement [fecal pellets] was seen occasionally out of doors.... Reingestion was observed both out of doors [occasionally] by day and below ground; but was most easily studied through the window of the artificial burrow.... Here it was most frequent between 0800 hours and 1700 hour [sic] GMT; that is, for ten hours or so after the night grazing period.... It is an intermittent, not an incessant action.... Within a twenty-four-hour watch underground, three rabbits reingested a mouthful of pellets, respectively, on 37, 18, and 16 occasions (Macmillan: NY, 1964, pp. 101,103-104).

Did the ancients watch the rabbits refect in underground borrows at night? Hardly! If the rabbits reingested on 37, 18, and 16 occasions below ground, then Lockely's use of the term "occasionally out of doors" probably means a much lower number. This deceases the odds for anyone both ancient and modern to observe this behavior. Lockely further says, "It could easily be overlooked by the casual observer..." (Ibid., p. 103, emphasis added). So if the casual observer today can easily overlook this, what about the ancient casual observer?

According to Lockely, the rabbit quickly retrieves the pellets from the anus before they hit the ground (p. 103). He states that the casual observer would probably not catch the rabbit making this quick movement (p. 103). Even if the ancients had witnessed the chewing of the feces which can last from one to over a hundred seconds (p. 105), we should ask: what are the odds for the ancient to have chanced upon the rabbit quickly retrieving the pellets before chewing? If he had witnessed this action, what would he have thought of it? Would the same individual witness this frequently enough to think this was typical behavior? Would he think it was rumination? The possibility seems both humorous and doubtful. If he witnessed only the chewing, would he have assumed the rabbit was chewing regurgitated bolus? "The observer could not see the faeces because of the masking action [of the rabbit's mouth structure] and the closed mouth" (p. 103, emphasis added). Because of this, an ancient would have had difficulty knowing, if witnessing reingestion, that the rabbit had feces in its mouth. Since he could not have seen the feces, he would have more likely assumed the rabbit was chewing cud.

Lockley goes on to say, "Later writers [after Leviticus], even authorities on both wild and domestic rabbits, have seldom referred to this phenomenon. In general, textbooks on rabbit physiology and management ignore the subject, not because of its lowly theme but because the authors apparently were ignorant of it" (p. 102, emphasis added). If, therefore, it is true that even authors of textbooks on rabbit physiology have been ignorant of refection, why should we believe the unsophisticated ancients were aware of it? Can we reasonably believe this behavior went unnoticed for thousands of years even by late rabbit physiologists yet was common knowledge to the ancient Hebrews? Can the inerrantist believe this more than that the rabbit's jaw movements were mistaken for rumination? Every rabbit hunter, owner, and physiologist is familiar with this frequent behavior! On the other hand, if refection was such an unobvious behavior that people overlooked it for centuries, would it have been an obvious enough behavior for Moses and those who listened to him to be aware of it? Lockley ironically quotes Leviticus 11:6 as an example of refection in the Bible (pp. 101-102)! However, he gives absolutely no reason to justify his claim. Apparently, he overlooked the overwhelming implications of his own research.

Phillip Eichman, Ph.D., cited his experience with a pet rabbit to support Morton's caecotroph-formation view:

We had a rabbit once which was house broken and lived entirely in the house with us humans.... His normal biological clock was altered by living with us. He often ate his night feces during the day. At first we thought that this was just a disgusting habit which he had developed. However, I was at the time an undergraduate biology major and happened to learn this was normal, healthy behavior for a rabbit. In fact, the rabbit needs this material and the vitamins and special factors produced by the microorganisms for its survival" ("Does the Rabbit Chew the Cud?" Does God Exist? March-April 1990, p. 19).

Dr. Eichman concluded from this that the rabbit practiced a "kind" of rumination. Take note, however, of the rabbit owner's initial response: he thought this behavior was "just a disgusting habit which he had developed." Dr. Eichman did not relate this behavior to rumination or a natural process until he learned that it involved chemistry similar to rumination. Certainly, the writer of Leviticus could not have believed that rabbits chewed the cud because he knew about the role of microorganisms that break down cellulose in the rabbit's caecotrophs or because he was aware of the nutritional value of the caecotroph formations, especially if they were first described in 1882! Cellulose breakdown is an idea too modern for Moses' time. Would these characteristics alone be enough to make an animal that has a split hoof clean to God?

Incidentally, this example of a rabbit's refecting by day, because indoor captivity altered its biological clock, proves that the casual observer can witness refection in certain circumstances. How regular this disturbance of the circadian rhythms of rabbits kept indoors is may be worth further research. However, the Hebrews probably did not keep rabbits as pets inside their homes.

Like Morton and Lockley, Dr. Eichman, overlooked the significance of the fact that most people never witness refection in rabbits:

The material from the caecum is then passed on through the intestines as a special type of feces known as night feces because this normally occurs at night.... Most people have never seen a rabbit do this" (Ibid., p. 19, emphasis added).

Yet, Dr. Eichman expects us to believe that Moses was talking about refection and that most of the Hebrews understood what he was saying! Lack of Historical Records: Inerrantists have presented no ancient records that mention refection, which strongly suggests that it is a recent discovery to which the writer of Leviticus was not privy.

Ritual Cleanliness: Because of their obsession with ritual cleanliness, it is doubtful the Jews would have ever thought the eating of waste made an animal clean! Would God have to tell the Jews not to eat such an animal because the Jew would interpret this reingestion of fecal matter as rumination and as a sign of cleanliness?

Ancient Taxonomy: In The Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties Gleason Archer made this attempt to resolve the problem:

In this technical sense neither the hyrax nor the hare can be called ruminants, but they do give the appearance of chewing their cud in the same way ruminants do. So convincing is this appearance that even Linnaeus at first classed them as ruminants, even though the four-stomach apparatus was lacking" (1982, p. 126).

If Archer is correct that even Linnaeus, an inquiring scientist, mistakenly classified the rabbit as a ruminant because the sidewise jaw movements fooled him, can we believe that anyone before his time knew better? So it appears that the writer of Leviticus made the same error Linnaeus did. To claim the contrary requires verifiable evidence.

The Rock Badger: We must not overlook the rock badger mentioned in Leviticus 11:5 . I could find no discussion of this creature in inerrantist literature, and I think I know why. I stumbled upon some possible implications presented by this animal for the inerrancy debate. The rock badger of Leviticus 11:5 may "hold the key" to the validity of the refection argument for the rabbit of Leviticus 11:6 . Further inquiry on the rock badger may determine this argument's success or failure. I have been unable to access any material that deals specifically with the biology of the rock badger, so errantists reading this article may wish to research this animal to develop a better defense. Fauna and Flora of the Bible identifies the rock badger as the Syrian coney [Procavia syriacus] of the order Hyracoidea in the group of subungulates (1972, pp. 69-70). We find this animal also wrongly listed in Leviticus as a ruminant. Discussing the rock badger, the authors of Fauna and Flora of the Bible point out, "(A)lthough it does not belong to the ruminants among which it is mentioned in Lv. 11, when chewing it moves its jaws in a way that resembles a ruminant" (p. 69). So was the writer of Leviticus deceived by both the rabbit's and the rock badger's sidewise jaw movements?

Fauna and Flora of the Bible has also tried to make the rabbit a ruminant:

It is generally assumed that the Hebrews thought the rabbit was a ruminant through observing the peculiar movements of its jaws when chewing. Today we know that physiologically the hare is a rodent [highly debatable], although the zoologists Osen and Madsen [Investigations on Pseudo-Rumination in Rabbits, 1943] have demonstrated that the hare and the rabbit perform a kind of rumination (p. 39).

Notice that Fauna and Flora... does not say whether the rock badger refects, although it gives refection as a possible explanation for the rabbit. Perhaps the writers would have used this explanation for the rock badger if the rock badger does refect, since they thought it a plausible alternative explanation for the rabbit. One wonders whether the rock badger does indeed refect, a matter important to both the inerrantist and the liberal scholar.

The implications are obvious. If it cannot be proven that the rock badger refects, then the inerrantist claim that the expression "chews the cud" can refer either to refection or rumination [whichever God secretly had in mind] will not stand, since the rock badger practices neither! Thus, the inerrantist must either concede that there are scientific errors in the Bible resulting from ancient misunderstandings or that the Bible is excessively inconsistent in its use of language, since the phrase "chews the cud" will have to be stretched to mean jaw movements, true rumination, or refection! Should it come to this, the inerrantists will have to modify their present position or devise more plausible arguments. Any modifications will have to be based on evidence, not on the usual resorting to speculation that is characteristic of most of their arguments.

The Hebrew Language: Now here is the clincher! According to Strong's Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, "cud" [gerah] in Leviticus 11:6 means, "the cud [as scraping the throat]: --cud" (word 1625). The American Heritage Dictionary defines cud as, "Food regurgitated from the first stomach to the mouth of a ruminant and chewed again." Strong doesn't help the refection theory since his translation is the same as the English definition, and its root meaning in Hebrew was "scraping the throat." So cud is cud, not rabbit pellets. In what sense could rabbit pellets be considered a scraping of the throat?

The word chews in Leviticus 11:6 , translated from the Hebrew word `alah, more accurately means, "[cause to] ascend up" (Strong's, word 5927). Thus, the Hebrew phrase for "chews the cud" translated literally means, "brings up the cud." This conclusively proves that Leviticus 11:6 gives a description of regurgitation, characteristic of true rumination but in no sense characteristic of refection. Refection does not involve regurgitation; thus, the phrase "brings up the cud" cannot refer to the eating of excrement. To claim this would distort the writer's intended meaning. It would be very inaccurate to say of an animal, e.g., a dog, seen frequently eating its feces, "Fido has been bringing up his food." This would sound ridiculous and would even be misleading, because it suggests that "Fido has been vomiting." When the inerrantists use the refection argument, they assume they need to prove that the rabbit chews, redigests, or forms cud, but this distracts from the real issue. They need to prove that the rabbit brings up the cud! The refection argument fails to prove this. Until it does, we may consider it erroneous, and that is not all!What inerrantists also need to prove is that gerah in this verse means something other than regurgitated cud and that `alah means something other than regurgitation. All of this needs to be proven with verifiable evidence. Refection has a few characteristics similar to rumination but not the most important one: regurgitation, the same characteristic the Bible refers to! The best the inerrantist can claim is that the phrase "chews the cud" can apply to refection in some forced, nonsensical, strained, ludicrous, and unnatural sense. The inerrantist cannot prove it is even unlikely that "brings up the cud" refers to regurgitation of cud! So one wonders why the writer of Leviticus did not use the Hebrew word for "dung" if he meant refection!

Does God Lie... Sometimes?

In their desperate attempts to defend the Bible, some inerrantists actually portray God as a cunning liar. For example, Gleason Archer, who is notorious for his speculative arguments, attempts to tackle the bunny problem in a way very unflattering to God: But we need to remember that this list of forbidden animals was intended to be a practical guide for the ordinary Israelite as he was out in the wild looking for food. He might well conclude from this sideways movement of the jaws that these animals ruminated like the larger cattle; and since they fed on the same kind of grass and herbs, they might well be eligible for human consumption. Thus it was necessary to point out that they did not have hooves at all and therefore could not meet the requirements for clean food" (p. 126).

Now wait just a minute! Notice what Archer is saying. He is saying effectively that this passage in Leviticus was written for the common hunter and, therefore, described this phenomenon from the hunter's mistaken point of view. The hunter might see the jaw movements and mistake the rabbit for a ruminant and thus consider it clean. Therefore, God validated this misconception but pointed out that the rabbit did not have hooves! Mr. Archer doesn't seem to realize he has contradicted himself. An important inerrantist argument is that the Bible doesn't echo ancient scientific errors, but Archer's argument implies that God just "played dumb" and, to keep them from making a mistake, lied to the gullible Jewish hunters by telling them the rabbit brings up its cud. Thus, God had good intentions or reasons for employing this duplicity. So instead of arguing that Leviticus 11:6 does not contain an error, Archer has admitted that it does contain an error and then proceeded to provide excuses for God's error! However, excuses or good intentions for making errors do not make errors not errors!

Some inerrantists will even suggest that God used metaphorical language to give the Jews the impression that he meant rumination, while he really meant refection. Millennia would pass before the truth about the rabbit's feeding habits would become known through modern science, so God just didn't tell his people this scientific truth about rabbits. Does such a devious God deserve our respect? If the ancients were unaware of refection and if God secretly referred to this process, God knew in advance that the Hebrews would interpret him to mean what they perceived as genuine rumination. Why did God fool his own "chosen people"? Why has he fooled most modern lay Bible students? Why does God bother to speak to us at all if he does not care about miscommunication? Do the Scriptures get their intended meaning from the human writer's language or from God who covertly misuses the writer's language?

Other inerrantists argue that God used "accommodative language" to refer to the rabbit's alleged rumination. Thus, it is explained, God didn't mean anything literal or scientifically precise when he inspired the writer to write this phrase. In other words, God didn't necessarily refer to refection nor did he mean anything literal about rumination.

The difficulty with invoking this explanation is the same as the metaphorical-language explanation: did God, without making it known that he was using some type of figurative language, use this deceptive phrase to give the false impression that he validated an ancient scientific misconception? The Bible was speaking of clean and unclean animals that required literal characteristics to determine their edibility. How can an animal figuratively classify as clean or unclean to God? Would it not have been more direct to avoid some weird metaphorical or accommodative language by saying the rabbit is unclean because it really doesn't bring up its cud? Surely God knows how to express "truth" this clearly! This, by the way, would have constituted an awesome proof of "scientific foreknowledge" in the Bible that inerrantists could have appropriated to use in their evangelistic efforts to convert unbelievers, not even to mention that God wouldn't have had to go through the trouble of pointing out that the rabbit doesn't have hooves! Besides all this, accommodative-language and metaphorical arguments alone could defend practically any religious book no matter how erroneous it was! These arguments should be replaced with verifiable defenses.

Notice that the inerrantist dares never to define precisely what an irrefutable error is! Since he does not define what an error is, many gullible people do not know how to find them. Instead, he arbitrarily argues that particular scriptures are not in error, because they are true in any sense that he chooses to assign to them. He might argue a scripture is true historically, chronologically, or scientifically. If the Bible errs in chronology, he may claim that chronology is not the issue; the Biblical writer's intent was to show events in their "order of importance." If the Bible errs in matters of science, he might argue that science is not the issue; the writer's intended meaning was merely figurative. It is as if he is always arguing, "Yes, this may be in error if interpreted that way, but you are really supposed to interpret it this way." Therefore, he can always ignore the most valid or likely meaning of a passage and invent another way of interpretation to excuse errors. True, the Bible requires different methods of interpretation, but these methods should demand certain consistent and nonarbitrary rules for application. If they do not, the inerrantist cannot tell us what the Bible says since he really does not know how to interpret it!

Is There a Way Out?

I have formulated below several arguments to support the inerrantist position. Since the evidence against them is overwhelming and leaves little room for convincing dispute, they appear weak and unconvincing, but don't be at all surprised if inerrantists appropriate some of them if you should ever bring up the cud-chewing problem.

[1] Refection involves "bringing up" food technically to the oral cavity but by an external indirect route rather than an internal direct one, and this was what Moses had in mind. (However, if this is argued, one should know such things as whether the Hebrews used the term gerah [cud] interchangeably. Could it mean cud and/or feces? Strong's Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible gives us but one choice. As one can see, this argument is just plainly ridiculous for it ignores the context and apparent language of Leviticus 11:6 .)

[2] God preferred to classify the rabbit as a ruminant based on refection, just as some unidentified zoologists have done.

[3] God used accommodative, idiomatic, or metaphorical language in some strange way without lying or deceiving.

[4] God used the recent popular concept of "fuzzy logic" (Kosko, Bart, Satoru, "Fuzzy Logic," Scientific American, July 1993, pp. 76-81). He meant to say that it is 80% true that the rabbit is a ruminant. (I would be surprised to hear this explanation from an evangelical inerrantist, since the idea is influenced by many non-Christian ideas as Buddhism and mysticism and conflicts with the Socratic Manichaeism of Pauline theology. The inerrantist would have to redefine his position, since if God can state sentences that are 80% true, then it follows that such sentences are 20% false. This would also mean that 100% inerrancy does not exist!)

[5] Refection was probably known to ancients, because they would have seen the soft pellets upon gutting the rabbit to prepare it for eating. (This is just a silly inerrantist argument that I have fabricated. According to R. M. Lockley, they could have seen these pellets only if they cut open the stomach and if they killed rabbits early in the evening. It is doubtful, however, that the ancients would have thought these soft pellets were for reingestion. Instead of construing the pellets as anything related to rumination or refection, the ancients probably would have thought that the soft pellets were nothing more than ordinary hard pellets in an early stage of digestion.)


It is, of course, possible some of the ancient Hebrews were aware of refection, but don't conclude too much too fast! This wouldn't necessarily imply that Leviticus 11:6 is not a reference to rumination. Who knows? The ancients could have thought that the rabbit chewed both regurgitated and excreted food!

I have attempted to give many different facts to interpret Leviticus 11:6 in its historical, cultural, and linguistic context. I am sure there are many more factors to consider. Thus, I would strongly urge all who read this article to take my food for thought and chew on it. I think, however, I have provided skeptics with adequate grounds to question the scientific accuracy of Leviticus 11:6 . If someone tries to convince you that this passage has already been explained by the refection argument, "bring up" this issue and tell him he needs to "chew on this again!"

(Jeff Justice, P. O. Box 454, Wylie, TX 75098; comments and reactions invited.)

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