3D graphic stating, "The Skeptical Review Online"

   Print Edition: 1990-2002

Grasshoppers, Locusts, and
Other Four-Legged Creatures
by Gavin Steingo

1999 / September-October

For much of the information in this discussion of errors in what the Bible teaches about locusts and grasshoppers, I owe a special thanks to Dan Johnson, Ph. D., who is a senior scientific researcher in Lethbridge, Canada, and a specialist in the anatomy and physiology of these insects. He has reviewed my material and helped me with much of the technical information.

In Leviticus 11:20-23, the Bible's description of locusts and grasshoppers is contrary to known scientific facts.

All winged swarming things that go upon all fours are a detestable thing unto you. Yet these may ye eat of all winged swarming things that go upon all fours, which have jointed legs above their feet, wherewith to leap upon the earth; even these of them may ye eat: the locust after its kinds, and the bald locust after its kinds, and the cricket after its kinds, and the grasshopper after its kinds. But all winged swarming things which have four feet, are a detestable thing unto you."

The first sentence of this passage has caused considerable controversy in the on-going debate over biblical inerrancy. We know that locusts have six legs, as do all other insects. The word "insect" is often defined (such as in the World Book Encyclopedia) as a "small six-legged animal," and so biblical inerrantists have been challenged to explain why the biblical description of locusts states that they have four legs when they have six. The text in Leviticus clearly referred to insects as "all winged swarming things that go upon all fours."

Bibliolaters remain undaunted by this damaging description and assert that the verse is no more than an idiomatic expression. According to J.H. Hertz (referred to in his commentary as "the chief rabbi of the British Empire"), the phrase to "go upon all fours" cannot be taken to mean that insects were possessed of only four legs but that the words probably referred to a method of locomotion and signified only that they "move like quadrupeds" (Pentateuch and Haftorahs, second edition, Soncino Press, 1960, p. 451).

The Chumash: Stone Edition offers a more technical and scientific explanation: "Hoffman raises the difficulty that all insects have six legs not four. He explains that they have four legs that are used for simple walking, while the other two are used for jumping" (Mesorah Publications, Ltd., 1993, p. 601). This argument will become important later when I examine a central point in the inerrantist position.

Either way, bibliolaters remain unperturbed and find no reason to think that the writer of Leviticus believed that locusts have only four legs, but to so think is to evade the problem. I have yet to encounter an inerrantist who can convincingly explain away the real problem at hand. Even if we accepted that the expression "go upon all fours" is not saying that locusts have only four legs but just that they move about on four legs, what can one say about what the passage in Leviticus says further along in verse 23: "But all winged swarming things which have four feet are a detestable thing unto you"? Here, without any reference to movement or motion, the passage described insects as "winged swarming things that have four feet." It's rather hard to argue that this part of the passage was describing only the way that insects move about.

Some translations like the King James Version and the Jerusalem Bible, have inserted the word "other" in verse 23. The statement hence reads, "Even these of them ye may eat: the locust after its kinds, and the bald locust after its kinds, and the cricket after its kinds, and the grasshopper after its kinds. But all other winged swarming things which have four feet, are a detestable thing unto you." The insertion of "other" makes the passage mean that one could not eat winged swarming things with four feet, except the locust, bald locust, and grasshopper. The word "other" clearly conveys the belief that locusts have four feet, and so do other winged swarming things. "Other," however, is not present in the Hebrew text, so translations that omit it accurately convey the reading of the original Hebrew, but it would be ridiculous to argue that the expression "all winged swarming things which have four feet," coming as it does immediately after the commandment concerning locusts and grasshoppers, should be seen as a statement completely unrelated to the preceding description of locusts and grasshoppers. Indeed, with the word "but" beginning the reference to "all winged swarming things which have four feet," in the context given, it seems entirely appropriate, and even necessary, to assume that the word "other" was implied. "But" is a conjunction that shows contrast, so if the statement permitting the eating of locusts was followed by a "but" that prohibited the eating of "all winged swarming things which have four feet," it's rather obvious that the writer meant to classify locusts and grasshoppers as "kinds" that belonged to a category of all winged swarming things with four feet. No doubt, this was why many translations have inserted the word "other."

Now that we know that "other" was not in the original Hebrew, let's just assume that the statement "all winged swarming things which have four feet, are a detestable thing unto you" was intended to stand alone and that it had nothing to do with the previous statement about locusts. What creature could this sentence be talking about? There is no animal that exists that is a winged swarming thing with four feet. The distinction had already been made between these "winged swarming things" and birds, which were discussed in verses 13-20. There is no "winged swarming" invertebrate with four feet, and there is no "winged swarming thing with four feet" in any other animal group. The only possibility is the "bat," but the bat had also been talked about completely separately in Leviticus 11:19. Besides this, the bat can hardly be said to "swarm," from a Hebrew word that meant movement as in the swarming of "an active mass of minute animals" (Strong #8318).

There is the ridiculous example of the "flying squirrel," which has been proposed by some inerrantists as a winged creature that goes about on all fours, but the flap of skin underneath this animal's arms can hardly be considered a wing. Although this animal jumps really well, it can hardly be considered a "flying" creature. Not only this, but unlike other squirrels, flying squirrels are most active at night. They normally don't "fly" in packs and definitely don't swarm!

So let us assume, as most do, that the phrase "all winged swarming things with four feet" in verse 23 should have the word "other" and should read: "But all other winged swarming things which have four feet are a detestable thing unto you." This would be saying that locusts have four feet. This is not true, but an interesting argument has been used to explain why it can be considered a true description of insects. Some bibliolaters claim that because the locust sometimes uses primarily its front four legs to push itself along and its back legs are of secondary importance when walking, the back legs of a locust were not considered legs or feet. (This argument was used by Rashi, an 11th-century Jewish commentator). Thus, some inerrantists quibble that maybe the biblical definitions of "foot" and "leg" were different from our current definitions. Perhaps the Levitical writer did not call the "hind jumping appendages" of a locust "legs" with "feet" but counted only the front four appendages. Thus, by this definition, the Bible would be right, and the locust would have only four feet. Of course, there is no anatomical blunder if the writer merely had a different definition from us of "foot" and "leg," but this argument is problematic. The chief problem is that the writer's definitions of "foot" and "leg" were obviously not different from ours. The passage described these creatures (insects) as having legs above their feet, wherewith to leap upon the earth" (v:21). This statement was clearly referring to the hind jumping appendages of the locust, grasshopper, and cricket and in so doing called them "legs" with "feet." We can ascertain from this statement that the writer of Leviticus did consider the back legs and feet of a grasshopper, locust, and cricket to be "legs" and "feet," so the writer's definitions were the same as ours. Therefore, it is highly probable that the writer truly did think that locusts, grasshoppers, and crickets have only four legs.

People find it difficult to believe that even a fallible human could have made such an error about the number of legs on a grasshopper. After all, anyone can pick up a grasshopper and look at it directly. Grasshoppers, however, are often scarce at certain times of the year, and this could account for the writer's ignorance. In fact, locusts have been known to be scarce for several decades, which scarcity may have occurred at the time Leviticus was being written. This may have been problematic for the Leviticus writer if he had wanted to observe a locust more carefully.

To support the claim that people can be mistaken about the number of legs on a grasshopper, I conducted my own study. I did a survey of fourteen and fifteen year olds at a private school in South Africa. These students have already learned about electrostatics, algebra and Euclidian geometry, and many aspects of geography. I asked eleven random students how many legs a grasshopper has. Here are the answers that I received: (1) I don't know... six? (2) Six, it's an insect. (3) 6 (4) 8 (5) 6... or 4? (6) 6 (7) I don't know. (8) 6 (9) 6 (10) I don't know. (11) 6. So even some of these relatively educated people were not sure how many legs a grasshopper has. The most likely explanation why the Leviticus writer erred is that he did not directly observe a grasshopper before he wrote his description of insects.

We must conclude that the Bible says, without any reasonable doubt, that locusts, grasshoppers, and crickets have only four legs, but there is still another problem in this passage that we should consider. Inerrantists obviously believe that the food laws in Leviticus 11 are the Word of God, so they believe that there are "benefits" that one will obtain from following these dietary laws. The Christian Apologetic Society's Reasons to Believe has even claimed that the Bible "foresaw" scientific information that could not have been known to people living at the time that the Bible was being written, and so they argue that God inspired biblical writers to "see" scientific information that would not be generally known until much later. Reasons to Believe says that the "control of cancer and heart disease" is "forecasted" in Leviticus chapters 11-19, so this is just an articulation of the inerrantist view that God made the distinction between "clean" and "unclean" animals in order to protect "his people" from health hazards. A frequent example bibliolaters will cite in support of this claim is that eating insufficiently cooked pork can cause trichinosis, and so God protected the Israelites from this disease by forbidding the eating of pork.

If there is anything to this argument, then it should follow that health factors were also the reason why God prohibited the eating of all "unclean" animals, and this is where a serious problem arises. Eating locusts is clearly a health hazard. Although there is a very specific way of killing animals in Judaism (that is stated in the Gemera), no such directions were given for locusts. As Rabbi Lauffer, a specialist in kosher laws in the Israeli organization Ohr Somayach, said, "Not only do locusts not require ritual slaughter, they may even be eaten alive." However, eating a live locust could cause infection and certain bacteria, and, although rare, rickettsia could even infect the consumer. Rickettsia are parasitic microorganisms that lived in the bodies of some insects and can be transmitted to animals and humans by the bite of the hosts, or they can be transmitted when the host insects are eaten. The variety of rickettsia that lives in locusts is not the type that causes typhus and spotted fever, but the effect of eating them can nevertheless be disconcerting. When eating an uncooked dead locust, one could be eating bacteria that rapidly multiply in the locust after it dies. This too could lead to sickness.

This is not to deny the fact that locusts are generally quite nutritious. They have a high protein content and are low in fat. Rabbi Lauffer has noted that the author of the Arichat Hashulchan points out that locusts were never really considered a "delicacy" but rather a food for the impoverished. Eating locusts, then, could provide a source of food in the desert or during a famine, but we must not forget that eating uncooked locusts alive or dead can also cause illness. This fact doesn't lend much support to the inerrantist claim that God instituted dietary laws to protect his people from health hazards.

Of course, it is only one interpretation that the food laws in Leviticus were intended to have health benefits. For example, there are some ardent scholars who believe that the food laws in Leviticus were given for purely spiritual reasons. That is to say that the food laws were not intended to have any physical benefits but were laws given for spiritual benefits that mere humans are unable to understand, and so we should follow them because they are "God's Word." I still believe, however, that it was necessary to have discussed the health hazards that are posed by eating locusts, because so many bibliolaters believe that the food laws in Leviticus were intended to have physical benefits like the prevention of cancer, heart disease, and other illnesses.

In "Kosher Insects," Isman and Cohen said, "That the rationale for the dietary restrictions lies in the area of ancient hygiene and health regulations is a common misconception, having no basis at all in the Biblical text" (American Entomologist, Summer 1995, p. 101). Some disagree with this; others agree. Still others wonder why a law, presumably divine in origin, was given to permit the eating of a few kinds of insects but forbid the eating of all others? Bodenheimer has suggested that permitting the consumption of locusts "is nothing more than a codification of a habit existing since the oldest times among the nomads of the Middle East, which... has lasted down to our day" ("Insects as Human Food," The Ecology of Man, 1951). Isman and Cohen acknowledged Bodenheimer's studies in saying, "Bodenheimer provides numerous historical references to the human consumption of locusts; the practice continues today in several tropical regions" (p. 102). The Food Insects Newsletter mentioned many cultures that eat locusts today (July 1989). A strange thing about this practice is the fact that many cultures that eat very few species of insects do eat orthopterans (e. g., locusts and grasshoppers). The web page of the Food Insects Newsletter has a large picture of a grasshopper on it, this and no other insect, so it seems that the consumption of orthopterans in particular was (and still is) a widely practiced tradition in many cultures.

On its internet site, The Food Insects Newsletter republished an article by David Madsen that told of the discovery of an unusual horde of grasshoppers:

In the spring of 1985, "millions" of grasshoppers (the migratory grasshopper, Melanoplus sanguinipes) were found lying along the eastern shore of the Great Salt Lake. Madsen, state archaeologist in the Antiquities Section of Utah's Division of State History, says, "enormous numbers of the insects had flown or been blown into the salt water and had subsequently been washed up, leaving neat rows of salted and sun-dried grasshoppers stretched for miles along the beach" (July 1989: Vol 2, Issue #2).

The hoppers, coated with a thin veneer of sand, were in as many as five rows in some places, with the widest rows ranging up to more than six feet in width and nine inches thick and containing up to 10,000 grasshoppers per foot.

A year earlier, while digging in Lakeside Cave, which is at the western edge of the Great Salt Lake, Madsen and co-workers had discovered thousands (even estimated millions) of grasshopper fragments in the various strata of the cave floor. The hopper fragments, in a matrix of sand, were also found in the majority of the samples of dried human feces found in the cave. The connection between beach and cave was obvious. Lakeside Cave had been visited by Great Basin hunter-gatherers intermittently for the past 5,000 years. It served only as a temporary base because it is far from fresh water. Obviously, the cave was used as a winnowing site for removing sand from the grasshoppers that were scooped up at the beach and most of which were then hauled elsewhere. The same article said, "Madsen also investigated the rate of return per unit of effort expended in collecting Mormon crickets (Anabrus simplex), another food of early Native Americans.

From time to time, the Food Insects Newsletter even publishes insect recipes. One recipe recommended ingredients of about 1000 grasshoppers (the younger the better); 1/2 cup chili sauce; a pinch of salt; garlic; onion; 1 lemon; 1 cup of guacamole; and 6 tortillas. The newsletter also said that recipes for crickets were now available and would be featured in a later issue. I have yet to see whether grasshoppers simply taste better than other insects, but it does seem that, although many other insects were also eaten by various cultures in the past, orthopterans were an obvious favorite. Isman and Cohen "favor another ecological explanation" for why the Israelites chose to include locusts in their diet. They tasted better and had become a dietary favorite of the Israelites before the writing of Leviticus, so as Bodenheimer suggested, the classification of orthopterans as "clean" food was just a codification of a longstanding dietary habit. This accounts for what seems like inconsistencies to us in the dietary code, and "health benefits" or speculative "spiritual benefits" that surpass human understanding had nothing to do with this law.

Various books have been written about Old Testament laws and stories that parallel laws and stories of earlier literature. Although it is a controversial issue as to whether the Biblical writers took stories from earlier cultures, many scholars, such as Victor Harold Matthews, Don C. Benjamin, and Alexander Heidel, have spent their lives studying biblical customs that paralleled practices in other cultures, so we must at least consider the possibility that the law prohibiting the consumption of insects except for certain orthopterans was taken from surrounding cultures. For example, the famous "eye for an eye" (Ex. 21:24) is clearly taken from the Code of Hammurabi, which stated, "If a citizen blinds an eye of an official, then his eye is to be blinded" (Article 196). It is very probable that (as Bodenheimer stated) the law to eat orthopterans was based on common practice of the time, and divine revelation had nothing to do with it.

To summarize, I have illustrated that the Leviticus writer believed that locusts, grasshoppers, and crickets have four legs. I have shown that this was not an overly ridiculous mistake to make. I have also explained that eating locusts, alive or dead but not cooked, can cause health problems. Thus, I have shown that the food laws of the Bible could not have been put there purely for health reasons. I have also shown that the eating of orthopterans was a common practice in the Middle East during biblical times, as well as in various other cultures. To attribute this dietary habit to divine revelation is stretching imagination a bit far.

(Gavin Steingo, P. O. Box 784496, Sandton 2146, South Africa; e-mail, gostein@iafrica.com)

Rollover button for Main Menu pageRollover button for Print Edition Main Menu pageRollover button for Search Engine pageRollover button for Contact Us page