Was Moses Wrong?

Do hares really chew the cud? Do camels have cloven hoofs? Or did the author of Leviticus make some serious scientific misstatements?

Leonard Brand, Ph.D., is chairman of the Biology Department of Loma Linda University, Loma Linda, California.

The Bible contains many statements on scientific subjects, some critical to our understanding of human history and our relationship to God, and others not at all essential to our faith. Are even these incidental items reliable, or did God not concern Himself with correcting the writers' ideas on minor, irrelevant items?

For example, the Bible states that hares chew the cud, camels chew the cud but do not have cloven hoofs, and in sects walk on all fours (see Lev. 11:4-6, 20-23). These statements have, at times, been cited as evidence of Biblical errors on scientific topics. Also, these "errors" regarding admittedly minor areas have been used as evidence that it is unrealistic to rely on the accuracy of Biblical statements on other scientific subjects such as Creation and the Flood. Ac cording to Leviticus 11:6, hares chew the cud. Hares are not usually known as cud-chewing, or ruminating, animals. Is this really an error in the Bible, or did Moses know what he was talking about?

When a cow swallows grass, it goes first of all to a compartment of the stomach known as the rumen. Microorganisms there digest the grass and convert much of it into nutrients that the cow can utilize. The cow then brings the microorganisms and leftover grass back to her mouth, chews them, and sends them on through the rest of her digestive tract. Thus the cow really doesn't subsist directly on grass alone, but also on the protozoa and bacteria that she breeds in her rumen. 1

This process is referred to as fermentation and occurs in many other animals besides the cloven-hoofed ruminating animals. Kangaroos, whales, dugongs, hippopotamuses, sloths, and colobid monkeys also have special forestomachs for fermentation. Other modifications of the stomach or some part of the intestines to provide a fermentation chamber are found in rodents, rabbits and hares, gallinaceous birds, horses, hyrax,2 and in mallards. 3

Many rodents4 and all genera of hares and rabbits5 consume part of their own feces, thus recovering fermentation products that have passed through the digestive tract. Reingestion of feces is an especially well-developed practice in lagomorphs (rabbits and hares) and is important for their adequate nutrition.

Lagomorphs produce two kinds of fecal pellets, the familiar hard pellets when they are active and feeding, and soft pellets when they cease their activity and retire to their burrows or resting areas. Rabbits reingest 54 to 82 percent of these soft pellets as soon as they are passed,6 apparently swallowing them whole, without chewing. 7 The soft pellets are composed of products from the fermentation chamber (mainly bacteria mixed with some plant material), which in the lagomorphs is located in the cecum, a blind pouch at the beginning of the large intestine. 8 Each pellet is en closed in a proteinaceous membrane, which remains intact for at least six hours after reingestion, and is secreted posterior to the colon. When swallowed, the pellets pass to the fundus portion of the stomach, where they remain for several hours. Other food that is swallowed moves past this accumulation and goes on through the digestive tract. The membranes around the pellets, as well as a buffering solution in the pellet itself, control the alkaline-acid balance so that fermentation continues in the pellets even though the rest of the stomach is acid. 9

The process of cecal fermentation and reingestion helps the rabbit in several ways. Amino acids and proteins are synthesized by the bacteria in the cecum, using nonprotein nitrogen (perhaps urea). Amino acids are absorbed directly through the walls of the cecum and provide 4.4 to 21.8 percent of the animal's daily energy requirement. Proteins thus synthesized in the cecum are carried to the stomach in the soft pellets and are important to the animal's nutrition. Experiments have shown that "nitrogen balance in the rabbit was reduced 50 percent if soft feces were not eaten." 10 Fermentation and reingestion also improve utilization of sodium and potassium, and provide 83 percent more niacin, 100 percent more riboflavin, 165 percent more pantothenic acid, and 42 percent more vitamin 612 than would be available if soft feces were not consumed. 11

Is this special digestive process analogous to rumination, or cud chewing, in cows? Both similarities and differences exist between the two processes. Rab bits are different because they do not have a four-part stomach with a rumen and because the material that reaches their fermentation chamber has already been chewed and partially digested. Cows and rabbits are similar because they both have a fermentation chamber with microorganisms that digest other wise indigestible plant material and convert it to nutrients. Some of the micro organisms are different, but many are the same or similar. 12 Both cows and rabbits also have a mechanism to pass the con tents of their fermentation chamber back to the mouth and then on through the digestive tract.

Madsen wrote an article entitled "Does the Rabbit Chew the Cud?" 13 Southern concluded that reingestion has an advantage to the rabbit "equivalent to 'chewing the cud.'" 14 Griffiths and Davies concluded, "We consider that the fundus of the rabbit stomach, loaded with soft pellets, is analogous to the rumens of sheep and cattle." 15

Carles compared cows and rabbits and reached the conclusion that rumination should not be defined anatomically by the presence of a four-part stomach, but rather by the presence of an adaptation for breeding bacteria to improve food. On this basis he stated, "It is difficult to deny that rabbits are ruminants." 16

Thus, is Leviticus 11:6 an error, or is it evidence that Moses had a source of information far ahead of his time? The answer becomes a question of the technicalities of one's definition of rumination, and therefore it would be difficult to justify interpreting Leviticus 11:6 as an error.

Leviticus 11:4 states that camels chew the cud but do not have cloven hoofs. Scientists classify the hoofed animals, or ungulates, in two orders. Perissodactyla— uneven-toed ungulates includes horses, tapirs, and rhinoceroses. These animals do not chew the cud, and have an odd number of toes. The weight is carried mainly by the middle toe, the end of which is encased in a single undivided hoof. Artiodactyla—even-toed ungulates— includes pigs, camels, deer, cattle, and antelopes. These animals have an even number of toes, and the weight is carried by the third and fourth toes, which are equal in size and encased in separate hoofs, producing the clovenhoofed foot. This order is divided into suborders. Suina—nonruminating types such as pigs and hippopotamuses—do not chew the cud. Ruminantia ruminating types such as camels, deer, cattle, and antelopes—have a three- or four-part stomach and chew the cud.

This system of classification tells us that the camel is indeed a cud-chewing animal, a fact you can verify for yourself the next time you go to the zoo.

However, if you look at the camel's foot, and refer to the classification given above, there seems to be a problem with the Bible's description. The camel's foot is divided just like the other artiodactyls, so why does Leviticus 11:4 say that the camel does not have cloven hoofs? It would appear that science has shown the Bible to be wrong. However, this is a case in which seeming problems with the Bible are actually the result of our own superficial knowledge. We classify ungulates as cloven-hoofed or nonclovenhoofed, but the complexities of nature often do not fit our neat pigeonholes. In reality, camels do not entirely fit either group, because they do not have hoofs at all! They have the two-toed bone structure of the artiodactyls, but each toe has a naillike structure on the front and a large fleshy pad underneath. 17 These nails are on the front of the toe only and are very different from hoofs, which completely encase the end of the toe and support the weight of the animal. Yet we still classify camels with the Artiodactyla because of the rest of their characteristics. Popular books on animals often do not have room for such details, and thus if we judge the Bible by our common sources of information, we can make mistakes.

What about insects that walk on all fours (verses 20-23)? Every insect that has ever been studied has six legs, not four. We may not be able to come up with a satisfying answer, but it is helpful to compare all the possible answers. There are two possible explanations.

First, the Bible is wrong, and this is an example of an irrelevant detail with which the Holy Spirit did not concern Himself as He guided the writer. This would seem to indicate that the people in Moses' day did not know how many legs insects have.

Second, "walking on all fours" is an expression referring to animals that walk on their legs rather than crawling or swimming, and is not intended to be a statement of the number of legs that insects have.

The second explanation seems more likely. Insects are all around us, and the number of their legs is so easily deter mined that it is difficult to imagine that Moses and his contemporaries really believed that insects have only four legs.

In summary, we cannot explain adequately every apparent contradiction between science and the Scriptures. It is impressive, however, to see the frequency with which seeming scientific errors in the Bible evaporate when we study nature more carefully. Our under standing of nature continually changes as we do more research. Science is a powerful tool for discovering the truth about nature, but scientific knowledge can best be described as a progress re port—a description of our current understanding of the natural world—that is always subject to change as new evidence appears.

Is every minor scientific statement in the Bible correct? Science cannot answer that question until all the data is in. In the meantime, as we learn more of the subjects discussed in the Bible, it is interesting to contrast the changing of science with the repeated vindication of the Scripture's scientific statements.


1 Jules Carles, The Rabbit's Secret (CNRS Research No. 5, 1977), pp. 34-37.

2 Richard H. McBee, "Significance of Intestinal Microflora in Herbivory," Review of Ecology and Systematics 2: 165-176, 1971.

3 Michael R. Miller, "Cecal Fermentation in Mallards in Relation to Diet," The Condor 78: 107-111, 1976.

4 Edward J. Thacker and C. Stafford Brandt, "Coprophagy in the Rabbit," Journal of Nutrition 55: 375-385, 1955.

5 Carles, loc. cit.; W. J. Hamilton, Jr., "Coprophagy in the Swamp Rabbit," Journal of Mammalogy 36: 303, 304, 1955; Charles M. Kirkpatrick, "Coprophagy in the Cottontail," Journal of Mammalogy 37: 300, 1956; R. R. Lechleitner, "Reingestion in the Black-tailed Jackrabbit," Journal of Mammalogy 38: 481-485, 1958; McBee, loc. cit; K. Myers, "Coprophagy in the European Rabbit (Oryctolagus citniculus) in Australia," Australian Journal of Zoology 3: 337-345, 1955; H. N. Southern, "Coprophagy in the Wild Rabbit," Nature 145: 262, 1940; J. C. Watson, "Reingestion in the Wild Rabbit, Oryctolagus cuniculus (L)," Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London 124: 615-624, 1954; J. C. Watson and R. H. Taylor, "Reingestion in the Hare Lepus europaeusPa\," Science 121: 314, 1955.

6 Myers, loc. cit.: A. Eden, "Coprophagy in the Rabbit," Nature 145: 36, 37, 1940.

7 Watson, loc. cit.

8 McBee, loc. cit.

9 Mervyn Griffiths and David Davies, "The Role of the Soft Pellets in the Production of Lactic Acid in the Rabbit Stomach," Journal of Nutrition 80: 171-180, 1963.

10 McBee, loc. cit.

11 McBee, loc. cit.; Myers, loc. cit.

12 McBee, loc. cit.

13 Holger Madsen, "Does the Rabbit Chew the Cud?" Nature 143: 981, 982, 1939.

14 Southern, loc. cit.

15 Griffiths and Davies, loc. cit.

16 Carles, loc. cit.

17 L. Harrison Matthews, The Life of Mammals (New York: Universe Books, 1971); Vol. II, p. 440; Alfreds. Romer, Vertebrate Paleontology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966); Ernest P. Walker, Mammals of the World (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1964), Volume II.


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Leonard Brand, Ph.D., is chairman of the Biology Department of Loma Linda University, Loma Linda, California.

December 1980

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