Leviticus 11:20-23 “All winged insects that go on all fours are detestable to you. Yet among the winged insects that go on all fours you may eat those that have jointed legs above their feet, with which to hop on the ground. Of them you may eat: the locust of any kind, the bald locust of any kind, the cricket of any kind, and the grasshopper of any kind. But all other winged insects that have four feet are detestable to you.”
Four-Legged Grasshopers and Biblical Zoology
In my life, I have seen and held many grasshoppers but never once have I seen a four-legged grasshopper. Even when I encountered the occasional five-legged grasshopper, I assume that this insect had narrowly escaped becoming someone’s dinner.
Yet, here according to Scripture and placed in the speech of the Creator Himself (so there is no getting around it), we find insects being described as going about on “all fours” and having “four feet”. We cannot blame it on a mistaken translation, the Hebrew is quite clear.
So, must I reject the overwhelming evidence of my own senses and experiences with insects and simply accept the teaching of the Bible on this topic? Must I reject what I find in textbooks, dictionaries, and children’s books because the Bible clearly teaches that at least some insects have four-legs? Must I reject the mathematical formulas (however basic) that led me to the conclusion that grasshoppers have six legs and that all insects I have encountered have had six legs?
Of course, I am being ridiculous here. At least, I hope that most people who read this post would see that I am being ludicrous. Nevertheless, I draw attention to this little read passage from Leviticus to make a more serious point.
Ancient Cosmology and Biblical Authority
What I have done here in jest with the four-legged grasshoppers of Leviticus many do in all seriousness with the six days of Genesis 1, Adam and Eve of Genesis 2, and the flood of Genesis 6-9. That is, despite the overwhelming evidence that the earth is much older than 7,000 years, that the diversity of species including human beings came through a long slow process, and that there never was a global flood, many modern Christians feel that they must reject this evidence on the erroneous assumption that belief in the Bible as an authoritative and revelatory text commits them to holding ancient beliefs about the nature of the cosmos.
Consider the Genesis Flood
For this post, let us take the flood as our focal point. Even if the author and subsequent readers of Genesis 6-9 believed that there was a world-wide flood (and it is quite likely that they did), does it necessarily follow that a modern reader must believe that there was a global flood that covered the mountains of the earth (including the Himalayas and the Rockies)?
From other biblical texts (and other ancient cosmologies), it is clear that these same authors believed the habitable land (often translated earth) to be something more like a disk that was help up on pillars above primordial chaotic waters below and protected by a solid dome from the waters above.
Yet, most modern readers including those who insist on a “global” flood, accept that the earth is spherical, “suspended” in space, and orbiting the sun. In other words, while on the one hand, these readers insist that belief in the bible as authoritative and revelatory entails that they believe in a world-wide flood, they reject other features of ancient near eastern cosmology which is found in the same scriptures. In fact, they reject the very cosmology that is assumed in the flood narrative itself as the waters from below rush up to meet the waters from above.
The Character of God or Ancient Geology Lesson
In the end, the purpose of these texts was not to teach the proximate origins of life and the cosmos, whether physical, chemical, biological, or geological, but to teach Israel about the character of the Creator God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. In my study, by way of contrast, knowing something of alternative ancient cosmologies and theogonies highlights the revelatory power and authoritative nature of these texts more than any argument for scientific models developed from these ancient texts.
Leaping Back to the Four-Legged Insects
The reference to grasshoppers (and other four-legged insects) occurs in the context of Israel’s ritual purity laws and specifically clean and unclean foods. Good news, you can eat grasshoppers! I assume the author of Leviticus (and its original readers) were ignoring the back “leaping” legs of the insects for classification and identification purposes. Yet, being a Bible-Believing Christian does not require me to commit myself to ancient classification systems even if they are found in the Bible.
An interpreter must ask herself, why were creatures classified in this way? The specific answer may or not be forthcoming from the available data. Yet, what seems quite clear is that when the Biblical authors make biological, geological, and cosmological references, they are not primarily (if at all) interested in making the kinds of scientific claims that interest and occupy modern scientists.
A person who holds the Bible to be authoritative and revelatory may have good reasons to reject ancient cosmology and zoological classification. She need not commit herself to defending a global flood, or classification by “kinds” anymore than she need commit herself to defending four-legged insects.
Recommended Reading on Amazon: John Walton’s Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament, Peter Enn’s Inspiration and Incarnation