Leviticus 11:3-6: Do the Camel, the Coney and the Rabbit Chew the Cud?
Do the animals listed in Leviticus 11:3-6 actually "chew the cud" in the scientific sense of having a gastronomical system wherein several stomachs are used for processing food?
True ruminants generally have four stomachs. As the stomachs work, the food is regurgitated into the mouth, where it is chewed up again. Do the camel, coney and rabbit qualify as ruminants? If not, how do we explain the presence of this classification here?
Cows, sheep and goats "chew the cud." They swallow their food without chewing it especially fine and store it in one of their stomach compartments. Later, at leisure, they bring it up and rechew it more thoroughly, again swallowing it. Clearly, the Hebrews were not working with this definition of "chewing the cud." The camel, coney and rabbit are also said to "chew the cud," but these animals only appear to chew their food as the true ruminants do. In the technical sense neither the hyrax syriacus (Hebrew sapan) of Leviticus 11:5--which is called the "coney" in the KJV and NIV and the "rock badger" in the NASB--nor the rabbit in Leviticus 11:6 chews the cud.
The Hebrew expression for "chew the cud" is literally "raising up what has been swallowed." But what does this raising up of what has been swallowed refer to? Surely there is the appearance of a cud-chewing process in these animals. In fact, so convincing was this appearance that Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778), to whom we owe the modern system of biological classification, at first classified the coney and the hare as ruminants.
We believe the rule in Leviticus should be understood not according to later scientific refinements of classification; instead, it was based on simple observation. The fact that the camel, the coney and the rabbit go through motions similar to those of cows, sheep and goats must take precedence over the fact that we later limited the cud-chewing category to just animals that have four stomachs. The modern definition of terms does not take away from Moses' ability, or even his right, to use words as he sees fit to use them. To question his use of a term to which Linnaeus eventually gave a more restrictive meaning is anachronistic argumentation.
Interestingly, resting hares and rabbits do go through a process that is very similar to what we moderns call chewing the cud. The process is called refection. As the hare rests, it passes droppings of different composition, which it once again eats. Thus the hare is chewing without taking fresh greens into its mouth. During this second passage of the food through its stomach, that which had been indigestible can be better assimilated through the action of bacteria.
The case of the three animals that chewed the cud in Moses' day but no longer do so can be solved. Moses' classification had a solid observational basis that was accessible to all. In modern times, the phrase "chewing the cud" has been given a more restrictive meaning. Later generations, having forgotten which came first, have tended to freeze the meaning to the most recent definition and then accuse Moses of not using the term in this later sense.