Biological Classification
in the Bible

ethnobiology and more

Chad Arment (2023)

It has been suggested that seeing biological classification in the Old and New Testaments is the result of misreading modern science into Scripture. That is only true insofar as people try to force a modern (Linnaean) taxonomic concept onto ancient beliefs. In truth, classification is an inherent instinct to humanity as we conceptually organize the natural world into a coherent environment. Taxonomic units at different hierarchical levels are regularly met in Scripture. The different classification schemes are worth a look so that we better understand the context of biological terms within ancient Israel’s culture.

Baraminic Lineages are Covert

First, let me point out that there are no biblical classification schemes that readily equate to scientific classification, whether evolutionary or creationist. The Hebrew word mîn is often translated as ‘kind’, but it does not directly equate to ‘species,’ or any other Linnaean class. It is a word that differs in meaning depending on contextual use, particularly as a classificatory term. It might, sometimes, indicate divisions within broader taxa, or it might indicate a comparable taxon of equal rank. The phrase ‘after its kind’ might simply refer to all the different types of a certain thing (Neville 2011). Context is key.

For a creationist, as we do not accept universal common descent of all organisms, due to the clear teaching of Genesis 1, the concept of the baraminic lineage best fits natural reality (Wood et al. 2003). Specifically, an archaebaramin is the entirety of the potentiality region of a biological lineage, from the initial created organisms (however many there were) through all of their descendants, including any morphologically distinct descendants which are unknown. But while Genesis notes that lineages are separately created, it doesn’t tell us exactly what those lineages are. God never defines or delineates the baraminic lineages themselves. The finer points of baraminology are intended to test organisms for possible relationships within baraminic lineages.

There has been debate within creation science over whether the Created Kinds are the same as the Ark Kinds in Genesis. The similarity in language is notable, but creationists who promote an upper Cenozoic Flood boundary run into difficulties if a single unclean pair of a kind on the Ark represents the entirety of a baraminic lineage. My ARJ paper (Arment 2022) discusses this point, and notes that it is certainly possible that the mîn of the Creation account and Flood account are referring to the same baraminic lineages, but if so, it is in a covert fashion. (You’ll see more discussion of covertness below in the ethnobiology section.) Because of the ambiguity in the language in Genesis, the Flood model one holds essentially determines how we view the relationship between Created Kinds and Ark Kinds: those who hold to an upper Cenozoic Flood boundary are forced to limit the Ark Kind to genus level or smaller, even if the Created Kind is family level or higher. (This is because of the sheer number of genera within the same unclean baraminic lineages that cross the upper Cenozoic boundary. Many of those genera are known to hybridize, so they aren’t separately created baraminic lineages.) Those who hold to a K/T Flood boundary or variable lower Cenozoic Flood boundary are able to include Ark Kinds that would incorporate family levels or broader. It isn’t necessary to posit multiple genera from the same unclean baraminic lineage on the Ark, because modern mammals, for example, didn’t diversify in post-Flood strata until some time (more recent fossil strata) after their dispersal from the Ark and into the new continentally-divided landscape.

A Prescribed Taxonomy

Best known from the Dietary Laws, there was a classification system which was specifically ordained by God, where animals were ‘divided’ (Leviticus 11:47) between three polarities: edible/inedible, clean/unclean, and detestable/not detestable (Hawley 2015). These designations determined what was permissible to eat and what was permissible for sacrifice. These were separate labels, though often overlapping. Prior to the Dietary Laws, Genesis 7 noted that both clean and unclean animals would be brought to the Ark, but it isn’t until Genesis 9:3 that God gave permission to mankind to eat animals (and at that point, no differentiation was made between clean and unclean kinds). After the Exodus, Israel was given specific guidelines for determining if an animal was ‘clean’ or ‘unclean,’ and therefore whether it could be eaten or not. When Jesus came, he declared all foods clean (Mark 7:19), which was reiterated with Peter’s vision (Acts 10).

Whether an animal was edible, clean, or detestable was determined by God. A designation could change, and did not necessarily apply to an entire baraminic lineage. For example, the ‘clean insects’ in Leviticus 11:22 appear to be singled out from within a specific baraminic kind (the locust kind), but there are orthopterans which would not have been considered ‘clean.’ See Arment (2022) for more details on this.

Ethnobiological Classification

Ethnobiology is a multidisciplinary study of the relationships between people and other living organisms: how a community views plants and animals, how they utilize them and interact with them, how they classify them, and what they know or believe about them (Berlin 1992; Anderson 2011; Hunn 2011). Cultures past and present infer biological relationships, whether due to physical appearance, behavior, or other characteristics. Even distinctly unrelated cultures will often share commonalities in folk-taxonomies (Atran 1990). Berlin (1992) noted: “When human beings function as ethnobiologists . . . they do not construct order, they discern it. One is not able to look out on the landscape of organic beings and organize them into cultural categories that are, at base, inconsistent with biological reality. . . . Rather, groups of plants and animals present themselves to the human observer as a series of discontinuities whose structure and content are seen by all human beings in essentially the same ways . . .” Even with notable discontinuities and definable clusters, of course, there can be more than one way to classify a cat. Ross and Revilla-Minaya (2011) highlighted several inductive principles that are used in ethnobiological classification: similarity (relationships based on how similar organisms are), typicality (relationships based on how ‘normal’ an organism is), and diversity (relationships based on what may be shared by diverse organisms).

Despite a wide range of literature on ethnobiological classification, even the ethnobiology of Scripture, the subject is rarely discussed by creation biologists. (Sanders and Wise (2003) referred to a 1973 paper on folk biology, while McLain, Petrone, and Speights (2018) discussed folk taxonomies in regard to how creationists use bird and dinosaur.) While some creationists have argued that God never intended to prescribe a taxonomic system in the Bible, taxonomy is not simply a divine dictate—it is an anthropological desire to conceptually organize the natural world we see around us. Taxonomic structure is present in Scripture, because while ‘God-breathed,’ it is also written by and for humans—it just does not directly equate to modern scientific classification.

Just as Linnean taxonomy is organized by levels within its classification system (species, genus, family, etc.), ethnobiological classification is also organized by levels, with Berlin (1992) providing the commonly used ethnobiological rank system today. Every rank within a folk-taxon connects to other taxa within a taxonomic tree (Hunn and Brown 2011).

The folk generic rank is the taxon that people immediately recognize as distinctive (salient) yet general, and which reproduces with others of its type. It may be monotypic or polytypic (incorporating other taxa). The folk generic is the primary taxon used for discussing a given plant or animal (Berlin 1992). ‘Deer,’ ‘chicken,’ ‘cat,’ and ‘dragonfly’ are often used in English conversations as folk generics.

A folk specific rank is always found grouped with other folk specifics within a polytypic folk generic. It often includes a second (often descriptive) word in the name: ‘bald eagle’ and ‘golden eagle’ would be folk specifics within the folk generic ‘eagle’. A relative handful of folk specifics are polytypic, consisting of multiple folk varietal taxa. Most folk varietals are related to domestication or agriculture. If you have a garden, you might plant ‘habanero chili peppers,’ a folk varietal of ‘chili peppers,’ which are a folk specific of the folk generic ‘peppers.’

The unique beginner or kingdom rank is the highest which incorporates everything in the category. For English speakers, this would include ‘plants’ or ‘animals.’

The life form rank broadly encompasses similar folk generic taxa, though based on a small number of characters (Berlin 1992). A life form is always polytypic. ‘Birds,’ ‘fish,’ ‘snakes,’ ‘mammals,’ and ‘trees’ are commonly represented at life form rank in cultures around the world. A complete catalog of life forms should fill out a given people group’s kingdom (whether plant or animal), but there are occasionally folk generics (whether due to morphological anomalies or cultural sensitivities) which are not included in recognized life forms. They may be considered to have covert or unnamed life form ranks (Berlin 1992).

An intermediate rank is sometimes found between the folk generic and the life form (and there may be multiple intermediate levels between those two ranks). An intermediate is sometimes covert, and may only reflect a culture’s recognition that certain taxa go together somehow.

Folk taxon ranks do not correspond perfectly to the Linnaean taxonomic system. Many folk generics correspond to a Linnaean species, but some cultures may recognize and name two plants that occupy the same Linnaean species (splitting), or may not distinguish between two Linnaean species of birds (lumping) (Hunn and Brown 2011). Familiarity, salience, and utility all play a part in determining folk ranking.

Ethnobiological Structure in the Bible

Using an ethnobiological lens, we can better understand the context when plants and animals are mentioned in Scripture (Gray 2019). When we approach the plants and animals of the Bible, we are looking at how an ancient Middle Eastern culture viewed them (which may have changed over time). The Israelites interacted with other people groups (such as the Egyptians in the Old Testament and Greeks and Romans in the New Testament), which would have influenced their folk biology.

What about Genesis 1? No man was present during the Creation Week, so what we know must have come from God. Does that mean ethnozoology doesn’t apply to that passage? Moses, as primary compiler and editor of Genesis, guided by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, was not working with recent Hebraic material. DeRemer (2014) and Sarfati (2015) discussed possible sources that Moses may have used, with family documents likely preserved through the Flood on the Ark accounting for the Creation and Adamic narratives. The internal evidence does not suggest a direct word-for-word translation from pre-Flood and pre-Babel documentation. First, those original documents had to have been translated from a pre-Babel language. (Hebrew was certainly not the pre-Babel language.) That may have occurred long before Moses had access to them. Second, key elements in the literary structure (including chiastic structures found throughout Genesis, repetition for emphasis, and thematic parallelism) suggest purposeful organization by a single editorial hand (Ouro 2002; Kay 2007; Sarfati 2015). Raised in the Egyptian court, Moses would have been highly educated, certainly able to accurately and skillfully bring the Creation account to life. (Acts 7:22 [ESV]: ‘And Moses was educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians . . .’) Moses was compiling Genesis for use by the Israelites, so details were intended to be understood within that culture. The Creation narrative is therefore true and accurate, and also intentional in the ethnobiological framework given.

The closest we find to a traditional unique beginner in the Old Testament would be ‘flesh’ (basar), which includes mankind and all animals. All ‘flesh’ had corrupted their way (Genesis 6:12), only ‘flesh’ with the breath of life is included on the Ark (Genesis 7:15), and all ‘flesh’ that moved on the earth perished in the Flood (Genesis 7:21). ‘Flesh’ is specifically noted to include flying creatures, livestock, and creeping things in Genesis 8:17. ‘Living creatures’ (nephesh hayyāh) is possibly synonymous as a unique beginner. Both ‘flesh’ and ‘living creatures’ are homonyms, so context must determine their usage as a unique beginner. Regarding plant life, an argument has been made (Wenham 1987) that dese in Genesis 1:11 refers to vegetation as a whole, including the terms ‘plants yielding seed’ and ‘fruit trees bearing fruit’ (ESV) that follow, though it is sometimes viewed as a separate third category. Wenham (1987) noted that, in favor of the bipartite classification, ‘plants’ and ‘trees’ are noted to be self-propagating, while dese is not. If dese here does refer to all vegetation, the term is also polysemous, referring to ‘grass’ or ‘green herb’ in other parts of the Old Testament.

Far more commonly given are life forms, which are often listed in groups. The best-known examples are those given for the Creation Week. On the third day of Creation (Genesis 1:11-12), God created ‘plants/herbs’ (eseb), and ‘trees’ (ets). On the fifth day (Genesis 1:20-21), we are introduced to ‘sea monsters’ (hattanninim haggedolim), aquatic creatures, and ‘flying creatures’ (oph). On the sixth day (Genesis 1:24-25), God makes beasts of the earth, ‘livestock’ (behemah), and every creature that crawls on the earth. These specific life forms are not set in ethnozoological stone. Whitekettle (2001) pointed out that Ancient Israel’s ethnozoological structure developed over the years, though certainly influenced by the Creation account, into different organizational schemes. Still, later authors continued to echo the Genesis categories. Whitekettle (2008) showed that the author of Psalm 50 used an adapted classification to point out that God owned (verses 10-11) the ‘beasts of the forest’, the ‘cattle on a thousand hills’, the ‘birds’, and all that moves in the fields (creeping things).

Intermediate taxa may be given names, or if unnamed may be recognized through how they are placed on lists (such as in the Dietary Laws). Within the aquatic animals of Leviticus 11, there are creatures that have both fins and scales, and those that do not. Some land animals have hooves, others do not. These would be intermediate categories. Placement in such may relate to locomotion, anatomy, and behavior. Because specific venomous snakes are given folk-generic names in the Old Testament, ‘snake’ itself is an intermediate taxon. Whitekettle (2002) noted that ‘snake’ moves, after God’s curse, from within the ‘wild land animal’ life form in Genesis 3:1 to ‘crawling creatures’ in Deuteronomy 32:24, 33 (or from what Whitekettle called High Carriage to Low Carriage Land Animals). Another intermediate (tsippor) refers to birds in general. (See Genesis 7:14, which follows up ‘flying creatures’ with ‘birds’ specifically, entering the Ark.)

When the Bible mentions specific animals, the folk generic is most often used. ‘Lion,’ ‘cattle,’ ‘bear’, ‘eagle’, ‘goat’, and ‘jackal’ are all folk generics. Some folk generics (‘lion’) correspond to Linnaean species, while others (‘eagle’) do not. Whitekettle (2003) discussed ‘terminal taxa’ (taken from Ralph Bulmer’s ethnozoological scheme, referring to taxa that are not distinguished further by additional sub-ranks), but as Berlin (1992) noted, undifferentiated taxa represent different levels of biological systematics and cultural cognition, so denoting them as such adds little to a discussion. In most cases, Whitekettle’s ‘terminal taxa’ are better understood as folk generics.

There are few notable examples of folk specifics in the Bible. Though agriculture often leads to folk-specific names, most crops and livestock are given folk-generic names even when closely related. Exodus 9:32, for example, refers to two different domestic species of wheat (possibly common wheat and spelt) that are given distinct folk-generic names. Aharoni (1938) offered a possible folk specific with what he believes should be translated ‘ravens of the river’ in Proverbs 30:17. He suggests this refers to the magpie, also a corvid, which resides on the shores of the Euphrates.

It should also be noted that not all differences qualify as ranks: distinct life stages may be recognized linguistically, but are not separate levels under a folk generic. In Judges 14:5, Samson meets an aggressive ‘young lion’ (kephir arayot), which Strawn (2009) suggested refers to a nomadic subadult lion. This would still be considered a lion. Similarly, different life stages of the migratory locust are given distinct names in Joel 1:4 (Aharoni 1938; Simkins 1991), but these would not be considered separate folk specifics.


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