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The Talk.Origins Archive: Exploring the Creation/Evolution Controversy

What Is the Shaphan?

Post of the Month: January 2000

by William Pratt

Subject:    What is the shaphan? Attn. Jon Rothlander 
            (was Re: !The Bible and the Value of "PI")
Newsgroups:, alt.atheism, talk.atheism, sci.skeptic
Date:       January 10, 2000
Message-ID: 85e7p7$6vn$


This is a more detailed answer to your point of a week or so ago. It took a while to dig out the literature and digest it.

The shaphan appears four times in the Bible, Lev 11:5 (KJV: coney); Deu 14:7 (KJV: coney); Psa 104:18 (KJV: conies); Prov 30:26 (KJV: conies). The identity of this creature is of significance because twice (Lev 1:5; Deu 14:7) it is cited as an animal which "chews the cud" but does not have cloven hooves. Since no such animal is known to exist, this potentially is a clear misstatement of fact. To those who do not insist that the Bible is absolutely accurate in every detail, it would be merely a reflection of the state of knowledge of the men who wrote down the Tanakh. To those who insist that the Bible is inerrant, correct in every detail, it presents a problem.

What, then, is the shaphan? One thing it cannot be, in the literal sense, is the coney. At the time the KJV translation was prepared, the English word "coney" meant what we would today call a European rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus). The rabbit, in this restricted sense, forms colonial burrow complexes, called warrens, and is found today over much of Europe. Our domesticated rabbit is a descendant of the wild rabbit or coney. The biblical animal cannot be the rabbit, because that species was originally native only to the Iberian Peninsula and adjacent France. It was not domesticated until Roman times, about 500 years after the passages in question were written. Nor does it occur in the Holy Land region even today, except as a domestic animal.

The animal that has usually been identified with the shaphan is the hyrax, Procavia capensis (P. syriaca or Hyrax syriaca is a synonym.) This small, (very) distant relative of the elephant forms colonies among rock outcrops from the Cape of Good Hope to the Middle East. Although it does not ruminate ("chew the cud"), its mouth is in constant motion. It is actually sniffing the breeze for danger, but has the appearance of constantly chewing. A closely observant shepherd, watching from as close as the animal would let him get, would quite reasonably describe it as chewing its cud. One of its Arabic common names is taphan, which is etymologically related to the biblical Hebrew shaphan. One English common name has come to be "coney"! Since we no longer use the name for the rabbit, and since the KJV applies that name to the hyrax, it has seemed reasonable to use "coney" as an English common name for the hyrax.

Biblical translators have traditionally identified the shaphan with the little rock dwelling animal today called the rock hyrax ("book" name), dassie (S. Africa); or deman (modern Israel and Jordan). Actually the KJV translators may have been working from descriptions of the fauna of the Holy Land calling that same animal the "coney" (bear in mind that the modern science of taxonomy began in the late 17th century). Virtually all modern translations note the animal to have been the hyrax.

This unanimity creates a problem for those who contend that the Bible is inerrant, since if the attribution is correct, then the description in Leviticus and Deuteronomy is incorrect (i.e., errant). Jon Rothlander has recently related that Dr. (Henry?) Morris has suggested that the actual animal named the shaphan is an extinct one that actually was a ruminant without cloven hooves. I have been unable to verify this, or to determine which Morris is meant, but the UNLV Library's holdings of creationist literature earlier than about 1980 are limited. It certainly seems to be a reasonable attribution by Rothlander, if not a reasonable claim on Morris's part.

A claim made in the absence of any knowledge of the relevant evidence is not legitimate, and it seems doubtful that Morris checked the literature on the Quaternary fauna of the Holy Land Region. Had he done so, he would either have been wary of making such a claim, or would have at least tried to cast doubt on the work done. Let us, however, treat the claim seriously and examine the available evidence.

Two summaries of the known Quaternary fauna of Israel and the adjacent region have been published. These are: Tchernov, Eitan, 1979, Quaternary fauna, pp 259-290, in Aharon Horowitz, The Quaternary of Israel, New York: Academic Press and Tchernov, Eitan, 1984, Faunal turnover and extinction rate in the Levant, in Martin, Paul S. and Klein, Richard G., Quaternary extinctions: a prehistoric revolution, Tucson, AZ: Univ. AZ Press. Both include tables listing all known fossil records of vertebrates from the Middle Eastern Quaternary, including archaeological sites.

The first question that must be answered is the adequacy of the sample. Have enough sites been studied that we could expect to have found the shaphan in the first place? A test for this is the representation of the modern fauna in the fossil record. That is, we know what mammals occur in modern Israel and Jordan. What percentage of these are known from the Pleistocene record, especially the small, obscure species? Qumsiyeh, Mazin B., 1996, Mammals of the Holy Land, Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press provides a detailed treatment, listing and discussing the entire modern fauna. Comparing this list with Tchernov (1979 and 1984) and such wider lists as Kurten, Bjorn, 1968, Pleistocene mammals of Europe, Chicago: Aldine, demonstrates essentially complete coverage. The only taxa listed by Qumsiyeh (1996) that are not included in the lists of Tchernov are bats. Tchernov listed only a single species, the large Egyptian fruit bat, Rousettus aegypticus. Smaller species are normally only recovered by specialized studies of cave deposits which happened to form in caves suited to bats. Many of the modern bats are reported from sites in the general region by Kurten (1968), but even so quite a few are missing. This does not create a problem, though, since the writers of Leviticus and Deuteronomy simply refer to "the bat", obviously not distinguishing between species, and all bats are proscribed by fiat under the heading of "flying things". Additionally, no bat could be construed as "chewing the cud". All other taxa, including the small forms most likely to be missed, are included in the record, either at the species level, or as the genus. (Species within rodent genera are often not distinguishable unless particular bones or teeth are preserved.)

The criteria I have used for identifying possible shaphanim are that the species in question must have occurred somewhere within the overall Middle Eastern region (not strictly within Israel or Jordan) as recently as the Upper Paleolithic. In actuality, such an organism would have to have lived within the Bronze Age to be living at the time of the exodus, but the selected criterion allows a margin for sampling error. In rejecting candidates, the following criteria have been used:

1. The candidate clearly has cloven hooves. If such an animal is a ruminant, then it is kosher. If it is not a ruminant, then it is trafe [lit. "torn", signifying foods that are forbidden under kosher dietary laws --Ed.] because it "cleaves the hoof and does not chew the cud" as is the pig, the reverse of the conditions in the shaphan.

2. The candidate clearly belongs to a group that has been forbidden for other reasons, and living representatives are neither ruminants nor hoofed. A carnivore, for example, is forbidden (Lev 11:27, four footed animals that walk on their paws) or one of the "small creeping things" (rodents and shrews) (Lev. 11:29).

What, then, are the candidates? They are considered in the order of Tchernov's (1984) tables 24.1 through 24.3. Regional extinction is considered to be sufficient, even if the species survives elsewhere.

The hippopotamus (H. amphibius) went extinct before the beginning of the Upper Paleolithic. Additionally, it survives in Africa, and is definitely not a ruminant. Similarly the steppe bison (Bison priscus) went locally extinct too early, and is in any case a known ruminant. The spotted hyaena (Crocuta crocuta) is ruled out as walking on its paws. The extinct ox, Hemibos sp., persisted to the Iron Age, but it has cloven hooves. The aurochs (Bos primigenius) survived until the Neolithic, however it has cloven hooves and is a ruminant. The extinct North African hartebeeste (Alcelaphus bucelaphus) persisted until the Iron Age, but has cloven hooves, and living Alcelaphus spp. are ruminants.

Among the rodents, table 24.2, the smaller forms are included under Lev. 11:29. In any case, all of the forms which reach the Neolithic also survive to the present, and are not cud chewers.

Finally we come to the odds and ends, table 24.3. This is where any really strange beast would be. The pika (Ochotona sp.) is a surprising find, but it went extinct during the Riss-Wurm interglacial, long before the Neolithic. It is a Lagomorph, related to the rabbits and hares, and might have been thought to be a cud chewer for the same reason, but the problem here is the same as for the hare, it only seems to chew the cud. There is the hare, but that is treated separately (Lev 11:6), and again has the problem of only seeming to chew the cud. The remaining possibility, the hedgehogs (family Erinacidae) have living representatives of all the species found in the Neolithic, are definitely not cud chewers, and are treated separately in the text (Lev 11:30). And that leaves: Procavia capensis, the hyrax (etc.) as the shaphan, exactly as all the translators have concluded. It is known in the fossil record ever since the Riss-Wurm interglacial, it is common enough to catch the attention, it lives in the rocks as in Psalms 104:18 and Proverbs 30:26, and it seems to chew the cud, even as the hare does, but lacks a cloven hoof.

Given the extent of paleontological studies in the region, I really think that the burden of proof lies with Morris, or anyone else who postulates the existence of a now extinct animal unrelated to any known living group. Morris's shaphan would have to have existed as late as ca. 1400 BCE, to have been large enough to not simply be dismissed among the "the creeping things that creep upon the earth", to have been common enough to make the warning worth giving, and yet, in a region where the density of archeological studies probably exceeds that of any other area on earth, not to mention a fair density of paleontological studies, has never been found. This despite the fact that tiny shrews and mice have been collected, both every taxon presently known from the region, and others known only as fossils. Yet this one animal has somehow eluded the net. I submit that the burden lies upon Morris to provide objective evidence for his thesis or give it up.


Will Pratt,

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