joi, 30 iulie 2009

Four legs? Hmm !

To: Florin Laiu, Wednesday, July 29, 2009 6:47 PM

Subject: Re: "all fours"

Dear Florin

In our reading of Leviticus 11: 20 we came across this statement: "All flying insects that walk ON ALL FOURS (emphasis mine) are to be detestable to you." As we were discussing the text, Lynn said: "Insects have SIX legs. Why is NIV mentioning here insects with FOUR LEGS?" I said, "Are you sure insects have four legs rather than six legs?" She had a book on insects on hand, and she showed me right away pictures of insects. All seem to have SIX LEGS.

I know that NIV, as a dynamic translation, uses English language idioms to convey some of the propositional content of the Biblical text, in the belief that a word-for-word translation of some Biblical statements would not do justice to the meaning of the original Hebrew text. Still, the question is: Have the translators done the same thing with Leviticus 11:20? That would have introduced an error in the Bible, as insects are not four-legged but six-legged creatures.

What is your understanding of the NIV translation of Leviticus 11:20? Is the expression idiomatic for the English language, or the original Hebrew talks indeed about insects with four legs instead of six? Of course, I checked the original Hebrew text of Leviticus 11:20, and it seemed to be talking about four-leggedd insects, but I could not come to a clear conclusion about the meaning of the text. My knowledge of Hebrew is too limited for an interpretation of textual idioms or cliches, so I decided to ask you to help me in this matter.



Dear Ed

You read correctly in Hebrew and in translations “four legs” (Lv 11:20, 21, 23, 27, 42). I am not aware of any different version or translation. The oldest translations from Hebrew mention also “four legs” (ארבע heb. = ארבע aram., τσσαρες gr., quatuor lat.).

Certainly, this is not a scientific description. In fact no biblical description is „scientific”. Check please Lv 11:5.6; Dt 14:7 (does any hyrax [rock badger] or hare chew the cud?). The physical reality reflected in the Bible (flat earth and vault skies – three skies, according to Paul, and nine after the Romanian folklore – a great ocean „tehom” around and beneath the earth, and another kind of ocean above the sky, which is the source of rain Gn 1:7; 7:11; 8:2; Ex 20:4), the psycho-physiology reflected in its popular language (wisdom is in the heart, desires and emotions in the bowels and reins, life is in breath and / or in blood; moon may affect our mental sanity [Ps 121:6; cf. Mt 4:24] etc.), is not intended to reveal God’s truth, but this language reflects the culture of the biblical authors and the popular knowledge embedded in language.

Now I cannot say that Hebrew people, who was acquainted with eating locusts, did never count their legs. But this matter has no relationship with the divine inspiration of the Scripture. If the writer is ”scientifically” correct, this is only his knowledge. If he is not correct, or he lacks precision, they are only his human limits. The divine inspiration is only in the message that the prophet-author conveys. And the message is not affected at all by some cultural inexactities. No matter how many legs have insects, only species of locusts, grasshopers etc. are allowed to humans for food.

Just another example: Paul argues in Galatians that the promise made to Abraham could not be made void by the Law that came 430 years later. If we turn to Moses, we find that only Israel’s settlement in Egypt lasted 430, and therefore, between Abraham and Sinai there lasted about 645 years. Paul is certainly wrong with this number. But his issue, his divinely inspired message is not about chronology, but Gospel: the primacy of the divine grace over the Law. No matter how long span is between Abraham and Moses, the argument has the same force. In fact it has greater force if you prolonge the time.

I hope you will not be frustrated by this answer. I tried long time in the former years to harmonize Bible and science even in such minutiae. But meantime I got better understanding of biblical inspiration. In our Church, there were people who understood this phenomenon since the end of the 19th century (Ellen, James and William White, A. G. Daniells etc.) and the 1919 Bible Conference was intended to give prominence to this hermeneutic principle, because ministers and members became fundamentalist in their approach to the Bible and even to EGW writings. Unfortunately, the Conference failed to promote this principle, and its stenographic minutes have been discovered in GC vault after 1970... I am totally convinced that understanding the theology of inspiration saves one from loosing his or her faith when it comes to a more systematic Bible study.

I have no evidence and no explanation for a possible scribal error in this case. I see no possibility that an absent-minded copyist wrote „four legs” because this is a more common phrase. You see, there is not just one occurrence of this problem. And there are many similar problems. There is no way to blame the copyists for all these inconsistencies. But we should not really blame anyone, neither God, nor his servants the prophets, who humbly did their job as best as they could. The Bible is divine truth shaped in human cultural language. And to repeat what one Adventist authority said, when speaking about prophetical inspiration, ”Everything that is human is imperfect”. We must be careful with the message. Language, rhetoric, logic (arguments) and secondary details are sometimes funny; they are important for the philologyst, but they are secondary for the believer. They are important only as they help us understand the divine message.

I suspect that the use of phrase ”four [legs]” is possibly idiomatic, because when someone thinks to other creatures than humans, they have usually four legs, not just two. I don’t know wether there is any insect with only four legs, and it is also hard to believe that great writers as Moses etc. did not ever count the legs of a locust. But you know what? I played with locusts and other insects in my childhood, and even observed them later, but I was never attentive with this detail, how many legs. Probably Moses should have employed Zipporah, not Joshua as his secretary, since she had longer experience in the fields ! Anyway, I would be curious to know the opinion of King Solomon, who was an expert in zoology. But even the greatest ancient scholar in the field, Aristotle, the father of the natural science, also was mistaken in counting insects’ legs, as it is known. Read for example

There are old stories, e.g. when a faculty colleague of Albertus Magnus was confronted with a fly. He was told to count the legs. His answer was: if the Philosopher's text were not clear, I should accept that a fly has six legs. (The story is too nice. The Philosopher's texts are not unequivocal about the numbers of legs of the fly [eight legs]. Some years ago my colleague and Aristotle expert, K. Martinás tried with a hypothesis that Aristotle counted the spider's legs and applied the result on the fly by analogy. It is possible: a fly is not only smaller than a spider, but also its legs move much faster. So it is easier to perform the counting on a spider. Remember that the number of human chromosomes was also miscounted up to the 1950's as 24 pairs, which is the correct number for our closest living relatives but not for us.).

Best regards,


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