Sunday, March 15, 2009

Bible Defense: Of Birds And Bats (No Bees)

Truly, there is nothing new under the sun. The thesis of this article presented itself quite uninvited inside my skull not long ago, and I thought it original. However, while researching, I found that the exact same argument has already been made, probably more effectively (and certainly more maturely), by others. We'll come back to that.

But, onward. I'll pretend for the moment that you haven't heard this before from anyone else- after all, a few hours ago, I hadn't.

Bible bashers like to seize on any supposed contradiction they can find in Scripture and use it to attack Christianity. If you're lucky, these issues will be presented in a calm and rational manner, leading to a stimulating discussion.

Usually though, they're phrased more like, "Silly Christians! The Bible is megadumb! NARF!" The attacker usually doesn't understand the alleged contradiction and couldn't cite the Biblical reference, but they're pretty sure that they heard about it from Christopher Hitchens or Michael Moore or George Carlin or somebody who must be right or they wouldn't be famous.

Today's example of an attack from the uninformed (or simply question from the curious): why does the Bible say that bats are birds? Does that prove the Bible can't be trusted? Leviticus 11:13-19 is a list of "unclean birds" that the Israelites were not to eat (NIV, emphasis added):

These are the birds you are to detest and not eat because they are detestable: the eagle, the vulture, the black vulture, the red kite, any kind of black kite, any kind of raven, the horned owl, the screech owl, the gull, any kind of hawk, the little owl, the cormorant, the great owl, the white owl, the desert owl, the osprey, the stork, any kind of heron, the hoopoe and the bat.
Sure enough, there's the bat, large as life and twice as ugly, clearly listed as a bird. No question about it.

Here are some reactions to this, found with a really quick and superficial peruse of the web. The first few words of each are linked to the source. Unlinked entries are from the same page as the one before. Spelling, capitalization, punctuation, and grammar errors are presented as found, despite how it pains me to repeat them (but some PG-13 language redacted):

The Bible says that bats are birds but we all know they are mammals...? ... why should I believe anything the Bible says?

Why the bible says that bats are birds?

wasnt the bible the so called "word of God" didnt he know that bats are different from birds when he created them?

Bats are birds to the biblical God.

I realize that the Bible says that bats are birds, but they're not-- they're mammals. Yes, that's right: something in the Bible is wrong! Sorry to p*** on your parade.

The creator of the universe and all living things surely must know that a bat is not a bird, no matter what label the two are given. So how is the Bible the voice of God here?

Still, if it was the infallible word of your imaginary friend, he would tell them it was not a bird.

Your sky-buddy would have planned for the future if he knew everything... Oh, and existed.

I mean, come on, he's supposed to be all-knowing, right? Scientists aren't out to refute an old collection of fairy tales; they are out to pursue knowledge. Your pretend god would have found a way to plan for the change in the bat's classification.

God would have known that bats are not birds, and that flight does not make something a bird. He would have known about flightless birds. He would have known bats are much more closely related to rats than to birds, and would not have made Himself look foolish by having his scribes record incorrect information.

The God you claim wrote the Bible could have ensured these details were correct. That He didn’t means either a) the Bible was not inspired by God, b) it may have been inspired by God, but it was written by humans and so cannot be expected to be correct in matters of science which they were unaware, or c) God did not intend it to be correct on matters of science, and wrote it as a spiritual guide, so we should not expect it to be correct where spiritual things are not concerned.

I realize that was a lot (and I actually cut it down significantly before posting), but I wanted to make sure that a good sampling of ignorance and arrogance was provided.

I am not, nor have I ever been, an ornithologist. My interest in bird species begins at "which ones scatter my garbage all over the street if I set it out on the curb the night before" and ends at "which ones taste good fried". Sadly, there's no overlap between those two groups.

My understanding, limited though it is, is that bats are not classified as birds in the modern taxonomy. However, whether that means that this Biblical passage contains an actual error depends entirely on the meaning of the word "bird". More specifically, it hinges on the definition of the ancient Hebrew word that our modern Bibles translate as "bird".

Interestingly, I didn't find an actual scientific definition of the word "bird". Wikipedia says, "Birds (class Aves) are winged, bipedal, endothermic (warm-blooded), vertebrate animals that lay eggs." Other sources seem to indicate that feathers are the key. My favourite tongue-in-cheek attempt came from a fellow named David Marjanovic, who wrote, "The definition of 'bird' is 'I know it when I see it'...I don't think there is, or should be, a scientific definition of 'bird'."

All the proposed definitions agree, though, that bats are not "birds", and I've never met anyone who claimed otherwise. Of course, I've only been around since sometime in the twentieth century. Had I lived a few thousand years ago in the ancient near east, the story may have been quite different.

The Hebrew word here translated "bird" is 'owph. That word in no way means "bird according to the scientific concept of same that will be in place by the dawn of the twenty-first century." In fact, it means something very close to "non-insect flying creature." Bats are not birds, but bats most certainly are 'owph.

Some modern Bibles, especially those of the study / reference variety, will contain a note to this effect. They are correct. The translators had a choice: either use a much less concise phrase, or go with the single word that all readers will understand and that mostly fits the bill. I consider it unfortunate that they made the choice they did, because it leads to nonsensical responses like those I quoted above.

It simply is not logically valid to attempt to apply a modern taxonomic definition to an English translation of an ancient Hebrew word, then cry Biblical error when it doesn't fit.

That said, I'd like to credit some of the places where I found this addressed and answered well. I stumbled across these while looking for either definitions of "bird" or non-Christian (and in some cases downright anti-Christian) reponses, not knowing how unoriginal my idea really was. Note that some of the attack quotes above come from comments on these sites. I didn't read everything written by the authors of these sites, so this is not necessarily a blanket endorsement, although I suspect it easily could be:

"Bat Mobile" by James Patrick Holding, on the page. - Bats

"Of Bats And Birds" on Vox Veritatis.

Hopefully this information will come in handy if you're ever accosted by someone wanting to argue about the birds and the bats. You may choose not to debate. However, if you decide to engage, you are now armed with a cluestick to brandish. Wield it well. A good whack with a cluestick sometimes yields wonders.

Enough rambling. Here's a picture of something else my wife made. I have no comprehension whatsoever of how fuzzy string gets turned into this sort of thing. I suspect witchcraft is involved.


Evil Bender said...

Of course, one could ask why God would have the Hebrews using a word that groups animals by flight, not by relationship. Surely he could have given them a better understanding of nature?

That the Creator of the Universe would conflate bats with birds (while apparently excluding flightless birds) does not help your case for infalibility.

Nor does the fact that pi is not equal to 3, nor that the gospels disagree about the event leading up to Jesus' death.

And that's without even getting into different lineages, iron chariots, and heaps of other biblical contradictions.

TEvans said...

If "owph" was only meant to denote "non-insect flying creature" then why in the list of birds in Deuteronomy does it mention the ostrich?...

The ostrich does not fly. Not to mention it can hardly be compared, in size and dimension, to any other bird. So why would it be included?

I believe the logical answer is because the author(s) od Deuteronomy were specifically talking about BIRDS in the sense that we commonly understand them today. This same author(s) made an error in classifying a bat as a bird, probably, from personal ignorance.

Why do we, in our modern arrogance, always rush to assume the overall stupidity of ancient humans? I feel confident that many civilizations probably were observant enough to distinguish birds from other warm-blooded vertebrates as a separate species category.