This is the first in a series of blogs which will focus on some of the animals mentioned in Scripture, but will be a bit different from the little illustrated article entitled,”Animals of the Bible” in the beautifully produced “Scholar’s Bible” which I used as a child. It also had a similar article called, “Women of the Bible.”
No, I want to look at how the Bible imagines various animals, comparing that with scientific knowledge, and seeing what we can learn from the difference.
The hare is mentioned in Leviticus 11:6 and Deuteronomy 14:7 both of which are instructions that it is unclean because “it chews the cud even though its hoof is not divided” ( that is, split in two). The dietary laws permitted eating animals that chewed the cud and had split hooves or feet, such as bulls or sheep, but forbade eating cud- chewers who had any other kind of foot.
Those who remain awake when listening to this passage will quickly be heard to exclaim, “But hares don’t chew the cud!!”
True, they don’t. But did ancient Israeli hares do so perhaps?
No. No hares have ever chewed the cud, since they are a species of rodent like rabbits and rats.
So what’s the Jewish Law doing?
It’s making a mistake. Sometimes hares grind their teeth in a movement which might be mistaken for chewing the cud. Doubtless keen Jewish observers knew that they weren’t chewing the cud, but were silenced by the prestige of the Law, and maybe they didn’t fancy eating hare anyway.
This tiny error shows how a sacred Law could invalidate the accurate observations of those who believed it. Not very important you may think, but say the error was about lepers or homosexual persons and how to treat them? Ah well, yes, that might be more serious. Indeed, the parish minister of Scotstoun in Glasgow has been lately been suspended from duties because he said the sort of things about homosexual persons that the scriptures say.
But back to the hares. These beautiful creatures are to be found in Scotland where we distinguish between the brown hare of grasslands and the blue hare of the mountains. To watch brown hares boxing in Spring or the blue hare displaying its white coat in the winter is to be struck with wonder at the marvels of evolution. The owners of large grouse moors in Scotland do something worse than eat them; they kill them because they reduce the food available for the grouse they really want to kill. It may be that Jewish dietary laws were ecologically sound even if they were physiologically wrong.
I have no problem in saying that the scripture verses about hares are wrong, mistaken, in error…. “mince” as we say here. But I am possibly in a minority today amongst Christian believers, many of whom are taught by their churches to regard the scriptures as the inerrant Word of God, even when it contradicts the known facts of nature or the decent kindness of human beings.
I often use as my online study desk the Blue Letter Bible, which provides the Bible text in the original languages with a selection of ancient and modern translations, dictionaries, commentaries and other help. It’s a magnificent construction which anyone can use. Only people with a strong love of scripture could have produced it. And yet, here and there are the signs that they are also fundamentalists who insist on the inerrancy not only of the words of Scripture but also of their interpretation of them. Sometimes this involves disagreeing with their preferred dictionary, or inventing animals which have never existed.
In the case of the hare, the Blue Letter Bible gives the Hebrew ‘arnebeth but provides a dictionary that tells the reader not to translate it as hare, but to keep the Hebrew as referring to an extinct hare-like animal that did chew the cud! Of course such editors could admit that a person was in error, but how could God the author of scripture be in error. God forbid!
How then would such editors deal with 1 Samuel 15: 2/3 in which God commands the massacre of an entire people including children and animals? Perhaps by inventing a especially devilish but now extinct race of humans who deserved to be murdered.
Anyone who believes in any magic book which is the complete inerrant wisdom for life here and hereafter in its every word and phrase, and regards it as authoritative for all humanity is a dangerous fanatic whatever his/her other virtues; and increasingly dangerous in societies which are increasingly multi-ethnic and multi- faith.
Perhaps a gentle re-education programme could begin with the gentle hare?