You ask, ‘What in the world does rabbits chewing cud have to do with the Bible?’ Well, I’m glad you asked.
In the Old Testament, God provides rules for living, including what foods should be avoided. The dietary laws say that to be edible, an animal must have a divided hoof and chew cud. Leviticus 11:6 and Deuteronomy 14:7 speak of hares, which are actually a different animal than rabbits, as chewing cud. But modern biologists know that hares do not chew cud. They make a chewing motion, but do not chew cud. Is the Bible wrong?
It is tempting to treat this issue as completely irrelevant. However, some have used it to say that there are errors in the Bible. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America cites this question as one reason for denying the inerrancy of the Bible. And skeptics have raised it for the same reasons, using hares and cud as a reason to mistrust the Bible. So how do Christians respond?
First, this was written at least 3,600 years ago in the Mideast. Many animals have become extinct since then, so it is entirely possible that whatever specie is being spoken of existed then and has since left the scene. Further, the language of ancient Hebrew exists only in the scriptures, and many terms are used rarely, sometimes only once. Therefore some terms are difficult to determine what exact object is being described. But we have no way to prove that the term in question is incorrectly translated, so we will assume the animal mentioned in Leviticus and Deuteronomy are the hares which we have today.
Second, the whole purpose is to identify animals which are not safe to eat. In this sense, the scriptures are very accurate, for modern hares and rabbits are not very safe to eat. Wild ones in certain times of the year are especially to be avoided, as many hunters will attest. While the main point of identifying an unsafe food source is valid, we still do not have an answer to our problem of cud chewing.
Third, the greatest issue is that the critic is placing modern definitions onto ancient texts. The modern definition of cud chewers is whether the animal is a ruminant, has four stomachs, regurgitates food and re-chews, which is a modern biological definition used to classify animals. It is not fair to overlay a modern definition onto an ancient text and say that they do not match. Of course they do not match, for if modern definitions were used in every communication to a people who had no context for the terms, confusion would result. We simply cannot impose modern definitions and modern contexts onto ancient communications. This is a fundamental rule of hermeneutics. Only by using modern definitions to measure ancient texts do we have issues with hares and cud.
Fourth, and similarly, to the observer at the time, hares did chew cud. So the communication was directed at people who would understand the situation as an observer. This would be similar to statements of sunrise and sunset, which is what an observer sees. It would make no sense to speak to an ancient man about “Look at the beautiful earth rotation.”
Fifth, when we regard the context of the audience for whom Leviticus and Deuteronomy were written, the thoroughness of chewing done by hares would indeed fit the definition of cud chewing. Again, context of the original communication is key. If the audience at the time understood thoroughness of chewing to be cud chewing, then there is no contradiction.
Sixth, hares practice a habit known as refection, where the animal re-chews the vegetable matter after it has been partially digested. In this sense it is a type of cud chewing. While this admittedly does not qualify as being a ruminant, and is not the same as the modern definition of cud chewing, the critic is again imposing a modern biological definition onto ancient contexts.
Seventh, the Old Testament dietary laws were meant as practical guides to average ancient people on how to pick food. They were not designed to be a technical textbook on animal physiology or behavior.
So with all this added together, the Christian responds that we cannot measure the Old Testament using the modern definitions of ruminant, for this is violating a fundamental principle of textual interpretation. We must deal with the context in which the book was written, and the definitions which were used at the time. In this sense, the thoroughness of chewing qualifies as cud chewing. The main point of the passage is to guide people with unclean foods, and in this sense it is 100% accurate in regard to hares and rabbits, for they are often unsafe to eat.
But in all seriousness, are we really willing to hang our eternal destiny on whether a rabbit chews cud? Consider this: there is a mountain of other evidence that shows the historical accuracy of the Bible texts. The Bible is proven beneficial in structuring personal lives and human governments. The teachings of the Bible have helped countless numbers of people avoid human problems such as poverty, alcoholism, and abuse of every nature. Are we really willing to walk away from the truths of the scriptures because of a text about animals chewing cud? Especially when the main point of the passage is true, that eating hares can make you sick?