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Leviticus 11:13,19 reads:

And these you shall detest among the birds . . . the eagle, the bearded vulture, the black vulture . . . and the bat. (ESV translation)

Does the bible describe bats as being a bird?

Modern science indicates that taxonomically speaking, bats aren't birds, but mammals.

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The Hebrew word for fowl in these verses is עוֹף, which means "wing" (winged creatures). Please click here. –  Joseph Jun 6 at 1:59
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Be aware also that there is a kind of "bananas are berries" approach to scientific terminology that mistakes the map for the territory. "Bats" are not "birds", but this is because we choose to define the category "bird" in a certain way, and the category "bat" in a certain way. We didn't "discover that bats aren't birds" since Lev. was written, rather we changed the meaning of "bird". The sentence "bats are birds" does not necessarily assert incorrectly that bats have feathers, if the person stating it intentionally means a different thing by the category "bird" than you do. –  Steve Jessop Jun 6 at 8:19
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2 Answers 2

up vote 23 down vote accepted

The Hebrew word was used for winged creatures that weren't insects. Applying 'modern science' to an ancient culture's classifications of the world is anachronistic.

The Tyndale Bible Dictionary reads:

Modern scientists classify organisms on the basis of internal and external structure, but the biblical writers generally classified organisms according to habitat.1


1 Editors: Walter A. Elwell, Philip Wesley Comfort, Tyndale Bible Dictionary, p.215.

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Applying 'modern science' to an ancient culture's classifications of the world is anachronistic. -- And a warning that it can be dangerous to take ancient descriptions literally. –  Robert Harvey Jun 6 at 4:22
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And a warning that it can be dangerous to take ancient descriptions literally - Not applicable: The literal translation of עוף is flying/winged creature, not the modern taxonomic "bird". –  Vector Jun 6 at 7:53
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Then, a warning that it can be dangerous to take a free translation of an ancient description literally! For that matter one could remove "ancient" and keep the warning. –  Steve Jessop Jun 6 at 8:29
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9 UV's as I type! This has answer to have one of the highest UV-to-keystroke+labour ratios on BH.SE. ;) (P.s. My +1 is in there!) –  Davïd Jun 6 at 10:00
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There's no such scientific category as "domestic animals" either. Doesn't mean it isn't a useful category for non-scientific purposes. –  TRiG Jun 6 at 10:34
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In modern Hebrew, עטלף, the word to which I believe you are referring, indeed means bat. But Targum Yonason (I know the Hebrew, I am referring to the source material at the moment) translates that word as טרפידא in Aramaic, which, based on the roots, (to capture prey by chasing it down and ripping it apart) leans more towards a sort of owl or other bird of prey that pounces on its prey with its talons, whereas bats, especially those found in the Old World, do not acquire their food in such manner:

Bats are the second largest order of mammals (after the rodents), representing about 20% of all classified mammal species worldwide, with about 1,240 bat species divided into two suborders: the less specialized and largely fruit-eating megabats, or flying foxes, and the highly specialized and echolocating microbats.[5] About 70% of bat species are insectivores. Most of the rest are frugivores, or fruit eaters. A few species, such as the fish-eating bat, feed from animals other than insects, with the vampire bats being hematophagous, or feeding on blood.

Abraham ibn Ezra explains on עטלף : "A small עוף (flying creature) that flies at night" - perhaps a bat, but could just as well mean a type of owl or other nocturnal bird of prey. Ramban (Nahmanides) on those verses explains that the underlying reason for the prohibiition is that the species mentioned are birds of prey. Again, consistent with Targum Yonason, that would eliminate the bat.

If the translation is indeed bat, then @MarkEdward's answer is obviously the correct one: Biblical Hebrew is not the language of modern taxonomy. That translation is by no means unquestionable however, and if we translate differently, such as suggested, your question falls aside.

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