The Bible, Bats, and Birds: Brief Thoughts

The Bible has its problems: implied geocentrism (Joshua 10:12-14), divinely sanctioned genocide (1 Samuel 15:1-3), explicitly failed prophecies (Ezekiel 26:12; cf. Ezekiel 29:17-18), and much more. Those who see it as scientifically accurate have to write thousands of pages to defend it where it is clearly and blatantly wrong (for example, the sun is created after the earth in the book of Genesis) while those who think it records true history resort to gymnastic level stunts to make it reflect events about which we have no real records (for example, the Exodus event). The doctrine of inerrancy that is maintained and proclaimed by evangelicals and fundamentalists alike is, frankly, untenable.

But that isn’t the subject of this particular post. While it would be easy to enumerate the Bible’s faults, instead I wish to focus on an area where it is attacked when it simply should not be. It involves this passage from the book of Leviticus.

And these you shall detest among the birds; they shall not be eaten; they are detestable: the eagle, the bearded vulture, the black vulture, the kite, the falcon of any kind, every raven of any kind, the ostrich, the nighthawk, the sea gull, the hawk of any kind, the little owl, the cormorant, the short-eared owl, the barn owl, the tawny owl, the carrion vulture, the stork, the heron of any kind, the hoopoe, and the bat. (11:13-19, ESV; cf. Deuteronomy 14:11-18)

You can see the problem. In a list of detestable birds, the Bible lists a bat. On the face of it, this is a glaring mistake. After all, aren’t bats mammals? Mammals, unlike birds, give birth to live young (the platypus notwithstanding), feed their young using mammary glands (marsupials notwithstanding), and have fur or hair (sufferers of alopecia notwithstanding). How is it that the Bible, a book proclaimed as inerrant by many Christians, could get this basic fact about bats so wrong?

The Bible Isn’t Wrong

For starters, the Bible isn’t wrong. The problem, you see, is that when we read the Bible in English we are doing so in black-and-white. But in Hebrew we see the color, the nuance. This is an instance where the black-and-white causes us to miss something that resolves the issue.

Here in Leviticus 11, we read of prohibitions against eating this or that animal based on whether it is “clean” or “unclean,” terms which have no relevance to us today but were important for ancient Israelites concerned with ritual purity. The author categorizes them based on simple criteria: whether they roam the land, roam the sea, roam the air, or swarm the ground. It may seem too obvious to say but we should do so anyway: these are not intended to be scientific categories. For example, in the list about “swarming things that swarm on the ground” we read of rats and lizards (v. 29) Do we fault the Levitical author for confusing mammals and reptiles? Of course not.

“But,” you object, “the text clearly says ‘birds’ in the English Standard Version or ‘fowls’ in the King James Version.” Indeed, they do. But these translations merely take a Hebrew word or phrase and attempt to put it into English for us to understand. And in this case, the translation is a little off for both.

Flying Things

The word translated as “birds” in the ESV (and NRSV) or “fowls” in the KJV is the Hebrew word עוֹף (‘ôp). It is related etymologically to the Hebrew word ‘ûp which means “I fly.” That verb, ‘ûp, is used to describe the flying of birds (Proverbs 23:5), angelic beings (Isaiah 6:2, 6), and other soaring creatures that are typically winged. ‘ôp is a collective noun derived from the ‘ûp root and is simply describing animals that fly. (Harris, Archer, and Waltke, 1980, 655)

So is Leviticus 11:19 claiming that bats, a mammal with wings, are birds? Of course not. The failure of the English translators to render ôp as “flying creatures” or “flying animals” is not the fault of the author(s) of Leviticus. Yet we cannot fault all English translations equally. For example, the ESV has a footnote next to the word “birds” in Leviticus 11:13 that reads, “Or things that fly.” Clearly the translation team for Leviticus knew that ôp meant more than just “birds.”

So bats, a flying thing, are grouped with other flying things in the category of unclean animals that should not be consumed. As far as the categories that the Levitical code is concerned with, bats are in their appropriate group. If the author of Leviticus was making scientific pronouncements about a Linnaean type of animal classification system, he would obviously be wrong. But that isn’t what is in view here.

Printed Works Cited

R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer, and Bruce K. Waltke, editors, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament. Chicago, Illinois: Moody Publishers, 1980.

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