Four Legs Good, Six Legs Bad

An Entomological Error?
James Patrick Holding

Lev. 11:20-3 All fowls that creep, going upon all four, shall be an abomination unto you. Yet these may ye eat of every flying creeping thing that goeth upon all four, which have legs above their feet, to leap withal upon the earth; even these of them ye may eat; the locust after his kind, and the bald locust after his kind, and the beetle after his kind, and the grasshopper after his kind. But all other flying creeping things, which have four feet, shall be an abomination unto you.

Is this an error -- since insects have six feet, not four, and since "fowl" have two feet, not four? The reference to "fowl" is thought by some skeptics to refer to birds, but the word used here is 'owph, which merely means a creature with wings -- it is the same word used in verse 21 (flying). The reference in both cases is to insects. Now we might be cute here and call this a poetic phrase (i.e., "crawling around on all fours"), and this is partially right. But there is an even better - and more correct - answer.

Quite simply, the big back legs on the locust, etc. were not counted as "legs" in the same sense as the other legs. Let's use an illustration from our popular literature, George Orwell's Animal Farm. In this story, Snowball the pig invented the slogan, "Four legs good, two legs bad" so as to exclude humans from Animal Farm society. The geese and other fowl objected, because they had only two legs. Snowball explained (more clearly in the book than in the movie) that in animal terms, the birds' wings counted as legs because they were limbs of propulsion, not manipulation, as a human's arms and hands were.

Now note the differentiation in Leviticus above -- referring to "legs above the feet" for leaping. The "feet" are being differentiated from the "legs above the feet" because of their difference in function. They are legs, but in a different sense than the "four" legs which are just called "feet." We are being told of two types of legs: The "on all four" legs (which are nowhere called legs; they are only called "feet" [v. 23]), and the "leaping legs." It is clear that the Hebrews regarded the two large, hopping hindlimbs of the locust and the other insects of the same type, which are the only types of insects mentioned here (we now translate "beetle" as "cricket"), as something different than the other four limbs - perhaps because they were used primarily for vertical propulsion, whereas the other limbs were for scurrying around.

Unacceptable? The alternative is to say that the Hebrews - who ate these things raw, for crying out loud - didn't see that these bugs had six legs. Maybe they closed their eyes before putting them in their mouths...?

Notes for the objectors in the audience...

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