Do hares chew the cud?

Posted on Aug.08, 2009. Filed in Leviticus, Deuteronomy. Average rating: 1.2 / 10 (Rate It).

In Leviticus and Deuteronomy, God issues instructions concerning which of the land animals the Israelites may and may not eat. In doing so, he makes a factual error concerning hares.

First, in Leviticus, God issues his instructions via Moses and Aaron:

The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying to them: Speak to the people of Israel, saying: ‘From among all the land animals, these are the creatures that you may eat. Any animal that has divided hoofs and is cloven-footed and chews the cud—such you may eat. But among those that chew the cud or have divided hoofs, you shall not eat the following: the camel, for even though it chews the cud, it does not have divided hoofs; it is unclean for you. The rock-badger, for even though it chews the cud, it does not have divided hoofs; it is unclean for you. The hare, for even though it chews the cud, it does not have divided hoofs; it is unclean for you. The pig, for even though it has divided hoofs and is cloven-footed, it does not chew the cud; it is unclean for you. Of their flesh you shall not eat, and their carcasses you shall not touch; they are unclean for you.’ [Leviticus 11:1-8, NRSV]

This prohibition is repeated in Deuteronomy:

Any animal that divides the hoof and has the hoof cloven in two, and chews the cud, among the animals, you may eat. Yet of those that chew the cud or have the hoof cloven you shall not eat these: the camel, the hare, and the rock-badger, because they chew the cud but do not divide the hoof; they are unclean for you. And the pig, because it divides the hoof but does not chew the cud, is unclean for you. You shall not eat their meat, and you shall not touch their carcasses. [ Deuteronomy 14:6-8, NRSV]

Chewing the cud involves swallowing food and then regurgitating it in order to chew it again. The problem with these passages is that hares don’t do this. The Bible thus has God making a factual error about animal biology.

N.B. All posts are written in a style sympathetic to the claim of Biblical error, even in cases where the author ("Errancy") disagrees with the claim. See the About page for the site's philosophy.

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  1. 1

    I would expect the ‘primitive’ authors of the Bible to be very well-acquainted with the behavior of common animals like camels and hares. Such animals were a much bigger part of everyday life than they are now. They would not get this wrong. So they must have meant something different by “chew the cud” than we do today. Leviticus and Deuteronomy are perfectly true given the biblical meaning of “cud-chewing”.

    But what could that meaning be?

    Hares and rabbits have two types of dropping. One is the hard, dry, spherical dropping we are more likely to be familiar with. The second is soft and moist. This soft dropping is called a cecotrope. Like cats and dogs, hares and rabbits are capable of reaching the anus with the mouth, and they ingest the cecotropes directly from the anus. Cecotropes are sometimes called “night-droppings” because the animal excretes and re-ingests them at night. As such, the behavior is seldom observed.

    This is not cud-chewing in the contemporary sense that involves chambered stomachs, the chewing of regurgitated food, and so on. But the biblical authors probably categorized it as cud-chewing.

  2. 2

    That’s my suspicion as well – there was some Hebrew phrase XYZ, which has been translated to “chew the cud”. But it’s unreasonable to expect that XYZ had exactly the same meaning as our modern phrase.

  3. 3

    The more difficult issue here is the Hyrax (Rock Badger/Hebrew: Shafan). Hyraces do not exhibit the behavior of hares and rabbits I described above. The evidence that they do anything that could be interpreted as bringing up food (the more literal reading of ma’alah gerah) is mixed.

  4. 4

    The charge of “error” here reveals a mistake in thinking. This particular bible verse defines “chewing the cud” and obviously it does not limit the definition to animals with chambered stomachs.

    The Bible was around long before someone wrote the definition on that limits “cud” to that which is processed by animals with multi-chambered stomachs. Apparently, “cud” simply needs to be partially processed plant material that is digested (at least) a second time (as Wisdomlover has already mentioned.)

    Similarly, the Bible also has a right to define whales as a subset of fishes, bats and locusts as subsets of birds, dinosaurs as dragons, and so on and so forth. Rather, we should accept that the bible defines “fish” as that which swims in the sea, “birds” for those that have wings, and “dragons” for the big hulking reptile beasts.

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