On Rabbits and Rumination: A Response to Christian Interpretations of Leviticus 11:5-6
Originally Published on the Quran and Bible Blog: December 7, 2018
Updated: April 9, 2020
بِسْمِ اللهِ الرَّحْمٰنِ الرَّحِيْم
“The hyrax, though it chews the cud, does not have a divided hoof; it is unclean for you. The rabbit, though it chews the cud, does not have a divided hoof; it is unclean for you.”
– Leviticus 11:5-6
Over at BloggingTheology, I asked the Christian commenters to explain the seemingly erroneous statement made in Leviticus 11 about rabbits “chewing the cud”. I have discussed this issue in previous articles, and not surprisingly, I received the usual answers. Here, I will respond to the claims made by two Christians: the infamous Sam “The Scam” Shamoun of “Answering Islam” and Catholic commentator Denis Giron.
Before we delve into the Christian answers, let us summarize the controversy regarding Leviticus 11:5-6, and why non-Christians see it as a scientific error. As quoted above, verses 5-6 state that the Israelites were forbidden to eat hyraxes and rabbits. Everyone knows what rabbits look like, but some people may have never even heard of a hyrax. Here is what it looks like:
The problem is that the verses claim that both hyraxes and rabbits “chew the cud”. In other words, they regurgitate partially digested food to chew it again and then swallow it. This is done to gain the most nutrients from the food. This complex process is called “rumination”. Animals such as cows, sheep, and goats are categorized as “ruminants”. But animals like hyraxes and rabbits are not ruminants because they do not regurgitate their food to chew it again. Rather, they are categorized as “non-ruminant herbivores”. Thus, skeptics of the Bible claim that Leviticus 11:5-6 is a scientific error and clear evidence to disprove the Bible’s alleged “inerrancy”. Now let us examine the proposed solutions to this problem, as presented by Sam Shamoun and Denis Giron.
- Sam Shamoun
When I asked Shamoun to provide his view on this issue, he responded by pasting a section from one of his articles. His proposal was to examine the Hebrew words. Thus, he stated:
“[t]he term for cud is gerah, a word that is never used elsewhere in Scripture besides here and in Deuteronomy. Gerah can mean, “grain, berry,” even “a 20th of a shekel”. Hence, gerah can imply something of little value. Rabbits go through a process called refection wherein they take their dung and chew on it in order to get at the remaining partially digested food. In this way, rabbits are able to get the most nutrients possible from the food they digest.”
While it is true that the word “gerah” can mean “grain” or “berry” etc., in the context of Leviticus 11, the Hebrew lexicons define it as:
“…the food which ruminating animals bring up to chew…”
Here is a screenshot from “Gesenius’ Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon”:
As for the second definition, while it could be argued that the partially digested food is of “value” to the ruminant, this is not the meaning within the context of Leviticus 11. Rather, as with Deuteronomy 14, it is specifically referring to the process of rumination. Further evidence for this comes from the etymology of the word “gerah”. In order to determine this, we need to consult the Jewish commentaries. Some major ones are presented below (emphasis ours):
“מעלת גרה, “chewing the cud;” the word גרה is derived from גרון, “throat,” as is also גרגרותיך in Proverbs 3,3, which means: “(around) your throat.” The meaning of the term is that after having already eaten the food, these animals regurgitate it once more up to their throats. An alternate explanation (Karney Or); the word is similar to the word מוגרים in Michah 1,4: מים מוגרים, “cascading waters,” i.e. that it describes the mixing of what the animal ate and drank, before the mixture descends to its intestines.”
“cud-chewing “cud” [Hebrew: gera] is derived from the word “throat” [Hebrew: garon. chewing a verb. Scripture mentions the camel, the cony, the hare, and the swine, because each of these species displays exactly one of the signs.”
“מעלה גרה; regurgitating the food into the foodpipe before finally digesting it.”
“which cheweth the cud — which brings up and spues up the food from its entrails and returns it into its mouth to pound it small and to grind it thin.”
“גרה the cud — This is its name (that of the food thus returned to the mouth); and it seems likely that it is of the same derivation as the word we find in (II Samuel 14:14) “water which is drawn towards (הנגרים) the earth”, and it (the cud) is so called because it is drawn towards the mouth. The translation of the Targum, however, is פשרא which denotes something dissolved, for through the rumination the food is dissolved and becomes pulpy (cf. Bava Kamma 28b).”
As we can see, the Jewish commentators were unanimous in interpreting “gerah” as referring to the act of “bringing up” food (regurgitating) to chew it again. Also, Chizkuni and Ibn Ezra both noted that “gerah” is related to the word for “throat” (or “neck”). Chizkuni cited Proverbs 3:3 to prove this:
“[l]et love and faithfulness never leave you; bind them around your neck…”
Gesenius’ Lexicon defines the Hebrew word for “neck” in verse 3 as “throat, gullet”.
But even if “gerah” has nothing to do with the “neck” or “throat”, there is unanimous agreement among the classical Jewish commentaries that it referred to the act of regurgitating food to chew it again.
But there is more. We can go even further back in time to see that Jews had always interpreted “gerah” the same way. The 1st-century CE Hellenic-Jewish philosopher Philo explained the dietary law regarding rumination as follows:
“[a]nd these signs are both of them symbols of instruction and of the most scientific learning, by which the better is separated from the worse, so that all confusion between them is prevented; (107) for as the animal which chews the cud, while it is masticating its food draws it down its throat, and then by slow degrees kneads and softens it, and then after this process again sends it down into the belly…”
He also wrote the same thing in a separate work:
“[f]or as the animal which chews the cud, again masticates the food which is put before it and devoured by it, when it again rises up to its teeth…”
So, there is no doubt that “gerah” means to regurgitate food and nothing else.
Also, it can be argued that the food that ruminants chew is also of “value”, and that is the context for the word “gerah”. But there is no indication that any type of “dung” or “feces” which could be of “value” to an animal is included. Also note that there are related Arabic words in both cases (for cud and grain/berry), and they are different words. The “Hans-Weir Dictionary” defines the Arabic word “jirra” as “cud (of a ruminant)”. Here is a screenshot:
In contrast, the Arabic word for “grain” or “berry” is “habba”:
But the bigger and more embarrassing blunder that Shamoun makes, and which is a testament to his shabby research, is the following little nugget (or pellet, if you want):
“[r]abbits go through a process called refection wherein they take their dung and chew on it in order to get at the remaining partially digested food.”
Perhaps Shamoun should pick up a science book once in a while because this is an inaccurate claim. While rabbits do perform the process called “refection”, also known as “caecotrophy”, in which they swallow soft feces, they do not “chew” it. Rather, the pellet of feces is swallowed whole. As stated in the book “Nutrition of the Rabbit”:
“[h]ard pellets are voided, but soft pellets are recovered by the rabbit directly upon being expelled from the anus. To do this the rabbit twists itself around, sucks in the soft faeces as they emerge from the anus and then swallows without chewing them.”
The reason for this is that the pellets need to be covered by a protective layer of mucus, which would be impossible if the pellets were chewed before being swallowed. I asked Shamoun for his view on this issue because it was expected that he would respond by pasting one of his long, poorly researched rants, and he did not disappoint. Unfortunately for him, I had already read his article and had commented on it recently on my blog. No hard feelings Sam! It was just business!
So this is a testament to Shamoun’s lack of scholarly attention to detail. It appears that he simply copied another Christian article on the subject and assumed it was true. In the article, he linked to Tektonics.org, which committed the same blunder:
“…refection is a process whereby these animals pass pellets of partially digested food, which they chew on (along with the waste material) in order to give their stomachs another go at getting the nutrients out.”
So it appears that these Christian apologists just blindly copy each other, instead of actually researching these topics.
Moving on, Shamoun also stated that:
“…the Hebrew word for “dung” is used in Scripture to imply something defiled, unclean or useless and would not be suitable in describing what rabbits eat.”
If that is the case, then the Bible commits a different error, in verse 7, where it claims that pigs do not “chew the cud”:
“[a]nd the pig, though it has a divided hoof, does not chew the cud; it is unclean for you.”
The problem here is that pigs do eat dung occasionally, and since Shamoun has argued that the process of “refection” is included in the Bible’s category of “chewing the cud”, then pigs should also have been described as cud chewers. Note that the process of “coprophagy”, eating feces, is not technically the same as “caecotrophy”, but is nevertheless similar. Moreover, coprophagy does have nutritional “value” to pigs, specifically with regards to vitamin B-12 (cyanocobalamin), as well as vitamin K.
Worse still, and probably most importantly, Leviticus 11:29 states that rats and mice are forbidden to eat, but it does not group them with hyraxes and rabbits, even though many species of these animals practice caecotrophy! According to Gordon Dryden:
“[s]everal small hindgut fermenting herbivores (e.g. rabbits and hares, rats and mice, voles and the ring-tailed possum) harvest the nutrients produced by hindgut microbial metabolism through ‘caecotrophy’ or ‘coprophagy’…”
In fact, it has been reported that caecotrophy is just as important to rat nutrition as it is for rabbits. In a publication in the Journal of Comparative Physiology B, Quansheng Liu et al. state that:
“[c]aecotrophy in rats plays an important role in the maintenance of intestinal microbial flora…Thus, caecotrophy provides an avenue to recover nutrients produced by microbial fermentation in the hindgut…and is an important part of the digestion process in small herbivorous mammals.”
And yet, the Bible does not specify that rats and mice also “chew the cud”. If Shamoun and other Christian apologists want to be consistent, they need to explain why the Bible overlooked the fact that rats and mice “chew the cud” and only mentioned it with regards to hyraxes and rabbits.
To continue, Shamoun next discussed the Hebrew word “alah” which is most commonly translated as “chew”. He argues that:
“…the term used for “chew” is alah and literally means to “bring up.”
And after providing examples from the Bible, he concludes that:
“…the term does not necessarily imply regurgitation, but can refer generally to any type of movement such as lifting or bringing up an object. Hence, Leviticus 11:6 is completely acceptable and poses no serious problem with what we know of rabbits.”
But as we have already seen, Shamoun does not know much about rabbits. Nevertheless, he does not object to the fact that chewing is implied in the text, which is why he made the embarrassing blunder about rabbits “chewing” their dung (when in reality, they swallow the fecal pellets whole). Thus, the Bible is still wrong and the error remains. Indeed, virtually all English translations of the Bible, with the exception of “Young’s Literal Translation”, translate the relevant phrase as “chew the cud”.
Finally, to finish off his apologetic train-wreck, and trying to cover all his bases, Shamoun claimed the following:
“[t]here are some that actually do not believe Leviticus is actually speaking about rabbits. They rather feel that the verse is speaking of an animal that is no longer in existence…”
This argument is simply an act of desperation to avoid any possible hang-ups with the proposed solutions discussed above. If the Christians want to claim that some unknown animal was mentioned in Leviticus 11, the question is which animal? We know of extinct animals that lived millions of years ago, so it should not be too hard to identify an animal that lived in the time of Moses (peace be upon him). It should be noted that the Hebrew word אַרְנֶבֶת (‘arnebeth) is similar to the Arabic أرنب (‘arnab). Here is a screenshot of “Gesenius’ Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon”:
According to the “Hans-Wehr Arabic Dictionary”, “’arnab” is defined as a “hare”, “rabbit” or “guinea pig”. Here is a screenshot:
On a side note, guinea pigs also perform caecotrophy.
So there we have it. We have analyzed Shamoun’s attempted rescue operation of the Bible, and he failed miserably. Now let us analyze Denis Giron’s proposed solution.
- Denis Giron
In response to my question, Giron offered the following answers:
“[t]he gist is that, English translations aside, the Hebrew phrase ma³aleh gerah (which I proposed might be rendered “take up the morsel”) could be expansive enough to encompass rumination, pseudo-rumination and caecotrophy (with Torah usage not necessarily intending all forms of coprophagy).”
“[t]here is nothing limiting the verb to chewing or regurgitation (e.g. I could carry something up a ladder and use the verb to refer to that process). The verb most literally means to raise, lift, bring up, or cause to elevate (though in modern Israeli Hebrew it has also come to be associated with immigration to Palestine, as per the related word ³aliyah).”
Let us deal with the first claim. It is obvious that Giron is a much wiser person than Shamoun. We can note his claim that the Hebrew phrase is somehow “expansive enough to encompass rumination, pseudo-rumination and caecotrophy” but also somehow “not necessarily intending all forms of coprophagy”. Giron has considered this issue from many angles and he kindly referred me to a Facebook conversation he had more than 7 years ago. In that conversation, he had attempted to refute the argument that while pigs engage in coprophagy (similar to rabbits), the Bible does not classify them as cud chewers. In this vain, Giron stated on Facebook:
“…because the text states that ruminants as well as certain non-ruminants, like rabbits, engage in this process, but pigs do not, I would think that the relevant phrase must be interpreted in that light. In other words, the process can include caecotrophy, which is a specific form of coprophagy, but does not include all forms of coprophagy. This is why, in my previous post, I said that I would interpret the phrase as including both rumination and /pseudo-rumination/. Whatever activitis [sic] pigs engage in, I do not believe they qualify as taking part in “pseudo-rumination” (in the lexicalized sense, as in overlapping with, or being identical to, caecotrophy).”
Essentially, he argues that since the Bible does not classify pigs as cud chewers, it must not include coprophagy (at least the specific type that pigs engage in) in its list of cud-chewing. But this is based on the assumption that the author had this in mind, which has not been proven. This is simply Giron’s interpretation and one that he has made in light of the scientific facts. I would argue that Giron is simply picking and choosing.
The other problem with this line of reasoning is that, as mentioned above, rats and mice also engage in caecotrophy, just like rabbits, yet the Bible does not classify them as cud chewers either! I have studied the Facebook page and did not find any instance where the phenomenon in rats and mice was ever discussed. If I am mistaken, I humbly ask that Giron to kindly correct me.
Furthermore, as an astute observer pointed out to Denis on the Facebook page, the Bible says that hyraxes also “chew the cud”. The fact is that hyraxes do not ruminate NOR do they engage in caecotrophy! Giron graciously accepted that this was problematic for his initial interpretation, but he then tried to “wiggle” around the problem by proposing that older translations of the Hebrew word now translated as “hyrax” was actually “rabbit”. For obvious reasons, even if this is true, it is a weak argument at best.
As for Giron’s claim that the Hebrew phrase is not limited to chewing or regurgitation, we have already seen above that chewing is implied in the text, since the context is rumination. And since rabbits do not chew the fecal pellets, the problem remains.
In this analysis, we have seen that the Christian attempts to explain the scientific error in Leviticus 11:5-6 cannot stand up to scrutiny. It is my hope, naively or not, that Shamoun and Giron reconsider their initial assessments and admit that they may be mistaken. Even if they do not reconsider their views, they should be reminded what other Christian apologists have said regarding this issue. Citing the famous Christian apologist Gleason Archer, Kenton L. Sparks states that:
“Archer freely admits that this is an error, but he goes on to explain why this error appears in Scripture…Here again it is accommodation that serves as the explanation for the text’s error. […] The implication…could not be clearer: the Bible contains errors, but, according to Archer, these errors are irrelevant accommodations to the human perspective. […] In sum, I believe that Archer has admitted the human error in Scripture without realizing that he has done so. And he has done so because Scripture does accommodate human error in its discourse.”
And Allah (Glorified and Exalted be He) knows best!
 Michael Allaby, A Dictionary of Zoology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), p. 470.
 Peter R. Cheeke and Ellen Sue Dierenfeld, Comparative Animal Nutrition and Metabolism, 1st Edition (Oxfordshire: CABI, 2010), p. 38.
In actual fact, hyraxes are not ruminants or caecotrophs. See notes #25 and #26.
 Philo, The Special Laws, Book IV, Chapter XVIII, 106-107, http://earlyjewishwritings.com/text/philo/book30.html.
 Philo, On Husbandry, Chapter XXX, 132, http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/yonge/book11.html.
 T. Gidenne, F. Lebas and L. Fortun-Lamothe, “Feeding Behaviour of Rabbits”, in Nutrition of the Rabbit, 2nd Edition, eds. Carlos Blas and Julia Wiseman (Oxfordshire: CABI, 2010), p. 233.
 Joerg Mayer and Thomas M. Donnelly, Clinical Veterinary Advisor: Birds and Exotic Pets (St. Louis: Elsevier Saunders, 2013), p. 389.
According to the above source:
“[c]oprophagous animals on deep litter receive excellent sources of vitamin B12 from microbial fermentation. The pig’s inclination toward coprophagy will supply part of the vitamin B12 requirement.”
“[a]nimals that practice some degree of coprophagy, such as the pig, can utilize much of the vitamin K that is eliminated in the feces.”
Surprisingly, when pigs are prevented from coprophagy, they may actually become deficient in vitamin K:
“[a]nimal feces contain substantial amounts of vitamin K even when none is present in feed. Despite the intestinal synthesis, animals can be rendered deficient when fed vitamin K-free diets and coprophagy is prevented (e.g., germ-free animals) or if a vitamin K antagonist is given.”
 Gordon McL. Dryden, Animal Nutrition Science (Oxfordshire: CABI, 2008), p. 88. See also Philip I. Hynd, Animal Nutrition: From Theory to Practice (Australia: CSIRO Publishing, 2019), p. 7, which defines “caecotrophy” as:
“…the practice of some small herbivores (rabbits, hares, rats, mice, voles and ring-tailed possum) of consuming special ‘soft’ faecal pellets produced in the cecum during periods of rest.”
However, it is not necessarily true that all species of rats and mice practice caecotrophy, though the similar practice of coprophagy has been extensively documented in both. But caecotrophy is also different than coprophagy, even though the function of both is for enhanced nutrition.
 Quansheng Liu, Ji-Yuan Li, and Dehua Wang, “Ultradian rhythms and the nutritional importance of caecotrophy in captive Brandt’s voles (Lasiopodomys brandtii)”, Journal of Comparative Physiology B 177, (2007): 431, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/226817099_Ultradian_rhythms_and_the_nutritional_importance_of_caecotrophy_in_captive_Brandt’s_voles_Lasiopodomys_brandtii.
 He even honestly admits this in one of his Facebook posts:
“I will unabashedly confess that my methodology is to (a) presuppose that the Scripture is correct, (b) accept that interpretations and translations are very fallible, and then (c) look in nature for a precedent to fit the Scripture – i.e. I attempt to look to natural revelation for exegetical insight. So, indeed, I have been deliberately siding with that which seems to best fit the text.”
 The observer “Malik Preena” stated:
“[f]inally in this discussion most decisive evidence that Leviticus is referring to “rumination” and not “refection” comes from the Hyrax mentioned in Leviticus 11:6 before the verse mentioning the Rabbit as chewing the cud. Hyrax although looks a bit similar to Rabbit belongs to a different order under zoological classification- Hyracoidea. Hyrax does not chew the cud nor does it refect. The evidence comes from a research paper by the University of Zurich where they listed Hyrax under the category of Non-coprophageous Hind gut fermentors, which is revealing indeed.”
He linked to the following scholarly article: https://www.zora.uzh.ch/id/eprint/20645/5/Schwarm_Faecal_N_re-revised.pdf?fbclid=IwAR0JcUKZPYD1p6vI6e45XzRQetacl9Am2vRm4RIRy21e6uc2ayHA6m_hh9E
This article clearly labels the hyrax as a “non-coprophageous hindgut fermenter” (see p. 18) and includes it in a different category from “ruminant foregut fermenter” and “coprophageous hindgut fermenter”. So this only compounds the problem. Leviticus 11:5 claims that the hyrax “chews the cud”. Neither rumination nor caecotrophy/coprophagy can fall into the category of “non-coprophageous hindgut fermenter”.
 Kenton L. Sparks, God’s Word in Human Words: An Evangelical Appropriation of Critical Biblical Scholarship (Grand Rapids, Michigan: BakerAcademic, 2008), p. 255.