Bats Aren’t Bugs!! (They’re Not Birds Either)
by Greg West
My all-time favorite comic strip is Calvin and Hobbes. Although its original run lasted less than ten years and the author retired from drawing the strip in 1995, it still remains one of the most popular and most read. One common recurring theme in the strip is about how Calvin’s overactive imagination and his propensity to procrastinate in doing his homework often gets him in trouble at school, as is the case with his assignment to do an oral report on bats.
Thinking himself already an expert on the subject of bats, Calvin waits until the last minute to throw something together for his report. Expecting to dazzle his teacher and fellow students with his impressive knowledge, Calvin begins his report in front of the class:
“Dusk! With a creepy tingling sensation, you hear the fluttering of leathery wings! BATS! With glowing red eyes and glistening fangs, these unspeakable giant bugs drop into…”
That’s as far as Calvin gets before he is abruptly cut off by his classmates who spontaneously shout out in unison, “BATS AREN’T BUGS!!” At this point Calvin verbally lashes out at his fellow students for daring to challenge his obvious expertise on the subject before finding himself invited to a private audience with his teacher, whose first question was probably to ask where he got his information from.
I empathize with Calvin, as I myself remember giving oral reports in school; sometimes making them up on the spot. The difference between me and Calvin is that I knew better than to try this with a subject in which I was not thoroughly familiar with. Calvin thought he knew all there was to know about bats, when in fact he knew very little, other than the fact that they resembled some giant drooling bug he had seen in one of his comic books, or in a horror movie that quite possibly gave him a bad case of the ‘heebie jeebies’. Like Calvin’s fellow students, we ourselves would be quick to point out that Calvin is obviously mistaken when it comes to his classification of bats as bugs. If Calvin had said that they were birds instead of bugs, maybe he could have squeaked by with just a few muffled chuckles from his classmates instead of the more humiliating rebuke dished out by his classmates; but probably not as everyone today knows that bats are mammals and not birds. Had Calvin said they were birds instead of bugs, he probably would have been subjected to the students yelling out a chorus of, “BATS AREN’T BIRDS!!” Like I said, everyone today knows that bats are indeed, not birds.
Many critics of the Bible are quick to point out that the Bible cannot be deemed reliable because it contains errors, similar to Calvin’s, in classifying bats as birds in chapter 11 of the book of Leviticus. Perhaps if Moses had done just a little bit of research, as Calvin should have done, this gross misclassification of bats would not be in the Bible, and I would not be sitting here today, writing this essay in the defense of biblical inerrancy. If only Moses would have consulted his Hebrew edition of the world encyclopedia, or discussed the issue with one of the local ornithologists, he might have saved us modern defenders of the faith some time and effort.
The problem with this objection to biblical inerrancy is that the critics, reading through the lenses of modern science, are reading into an ancient passage, written in an ancient language, to an ancient people, something that is just not there; in other words, they are not reading this passage in its proper context. As we say when it comes to biblical interpretation, “Context is everything.”
A popular phrase today says, ‘Context is everything,’ While this may seem an overstatement, in reality, it is not far from the truth. Context is a governing aspect of all communication, and without it, critics of the Bible do little more than manufacture pretexts favoring their own agendas.1
In the King James Bible, Leviticus 11:13, 19 reads, “And these are they which ye shall have in abomination among the fowls… the stork, the heron after her kind, and the lapwing, and the bat.” Holding addresses the context of this passage earlier in the same article:
Using English translations that read ‘fowls’ or ‘birds’, critics accuse the author of Leviticus of erring in placing bats, which are mammals, under this classification. This objection, however, perpetuates a linguistic decontextualization. A modern, scientific definition of what a ‘bird’ was would not exist for another 3,100 years. The objector assumes that when the author refers to ‘birds’ (Hebrew: ‘owph), it is meant to refer to a feathered, egg-laying animal. Here, however, the word used indicates classification by function or form: animals that fly.
Faced with an answer like this, some critics offer the strained counsel that since ‘experts in Hebrew’ chose the English word ‘bird’, they must have been aware that ‘owph meant a feathered, egg-laying animal—as though seriously proposing that the Hebrews had in mind the modern classification scheme that defines ‘bird’ in scientific terms that would not exist for at least three millennia. Admittedly, modern translations continue to use ‘bird’ despite the apparent conflict it causes. It is doubtful, however, that modern translators are doing anything more than preserving a popular reading, as opposed to making a statement about the scientific and technical content of Leviticus 11:13.2
So, whether you are a skeptic, a critic, or a proponent of biblical inerrancy, before you shout out something like, “BATS AREN’T BIRDS!!”, you may wish to pause a moment and first carefully consider the historical and literary context of the passage you are reading.
1. Context is Everything by James Patrick Holding; Christian Research Journal Vol. 34/3/2011 p11