Hapax Legomena and Ostriches

Why Seventh-Day Adventists are Unable to Rely on Scripture Alone . . .

Several of my dearest family members are Seventh-day Adventists (SDA).  They love me, and I love them.  I myself am not SDA — I belong to the Eastern Orthodox Church.  Just like my SDA family, I believe that obedience to God is more important than conformity to one’s culture.  That’s why we both do things that look “strange” to the average American.  As an SDA believer, my uncle avoids pork, shrimp, and catfish.  As an Orthodox Christian, I avoid meat on Wednesdays and Fridays. As an SDA believer, my uncle honors Ellen White as an exemplary expositor of biblical teachings.  As an Orthodox Christian, I give special honor to Mary, for giving birth to my Savior.  My uncle refuses to work on Saturday.  I worship God in a church that burns incense, lights candles, and has icons on the walls.  None of these practices are popular in America.  My uncle and I both practice things that run counter to our culture, because we earnestly desire to obey God and to worship Him appropriately.  So why is it that the church my uncle attends looks so radically different from the church I attend?  If my uncle and I both seek to obey God 24 hours a day, seven days a week, then why are our practices so different?  Are God’s commands unclear?

My uncle claims that he “follows Scripture alone”.  For many years I tried to do the same thing, but then I realized how impossible it is to do that consistently.  I now realize that God speaks to us in many ways. Scripture is one of those ways, but it is not the only way.

I have met many Seventh-day Adventists (and other Protestants) who claim to follow Scripture alone, but I have never met one who actually did so. There are many reasons why it is impossible to make the Bible one’s sole spiritual guide for Christian living.  For now, I will focus on one particular reason which uniquely impacts a core tenant of SDA theology: hapax legomena.  What are “hapax legomena”?  Hold on for a moment, and I will explain . . .

A few years ago, my parents and I took a trip to Wichita, Kansas, to visit our extended family.  One evening while we were in town, my mom and I visited a local restaurant.  Always the adventurous eater, I was rather excited when I discovered ostrich meat on the menu! I was delighted to savor my very first taste of this exotic cuisine.  It was delicious!  I loved how similar—yet distinct—it was in comparison to beef.  It tasted similar to a juicy steak . . . with the ostrich meat itself providing a uniquely appealing flavor, as if enhanced with a delightful hint of some secret, unidentifiable seasoning.

At the time I enjoyed my exotic dinner, I did not realize that ostrich meat is healthier for you than beef. And I was not yet contemplating the biblical implications of my unusual meal.  I was merely happy to have dined upon such sumptuous fare.  But in retrospect, I can see what difficulties my dinner posed for devout Seventh-day Adventists around the world.  It may be that some SDA believers have truly agonized over the question of whether they may eat ostrich meat.  It is likely that many SDAs have never seriously thought about it.  But whether an SDA believer eats ostrich meat, or avoids it, he cannot do so on the basis of Scripture alone.  When a member of the Seventh-day Adventist church makes a decision regarding ostrich meat, he makes his decision on the basis of his church’s tradition, rather than on the sole basis of biblical teaching.

Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14 provide a number of details regarding which foods are “clean”, and which foods are “unclean”. According to these two passages of Scripture, it is acceptable to eat beef, bass, and grasshoppers, but it is a sin to eat catfish, shrimp, or pork.  Seventh-day Adventists take these Old Testament dietary restrictions very seriously.  Unlike most Protestants, they do not believe that God abolished his dietary laws after the death and resurrection of Jesus.  According to SDA believers, God commands us to adhere to these dietary rules even today.

If a Seventh-day Adventist normally reads from the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible, he may think it is OK to eat ostrich meat, since the KJV never prohibits it.  In Leviticus 11:16 and Deuteronomy 14:15, we are told to avoid eating “the owl, the night hawk, and the cuckow”, but the ostrich is never mentioned.  The World English Bible (WEB) and the New International Version (NIV) similarly leave the word “ostrich” out of both chapters.

But if an SDA believer primarily reads the Revised Standard Version (RSV), the New Living Transla­tion (NLT), or the English Standard Version (ESV), he will suddenly have to cross ostrich meat off his menu.  In these versions of the Bible, Leviticus 11:16 and Deuteronomy 14:15 prohibit the eating of “the ostrich, the night hawk”, and “the sea gull”.

My uncle would very much like for me to become a Seventh-day Adventist.  He believes that I should obey Scripture alone.  So, let’s imagine that I did that very thing.  Suppose that I tried to live according to the Bible alone, and that I made an honest attempt to obey the dietary laws found in Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14.  How could I do this?  Is it even possible?  There are a number of ways I might try to go about it:

  1. Just to “play it safe”, I could avoid all meat, and become a vegetarian.
  2. I could eat some meat, but to “play it safe”, I could avoid both owls and ostriches.
  3. I could search through the Bible for other instances of this Hebrew word, to compare.
  4. I could search for this word in Hebrew literature outside the Scriptures.
  5. I could simply “eat what the Jews eat”, since they know the Hebrew Scriptures.
  6. I could just “pray about it”, and then follow-up by doing whatever “feels right”.

Option #1 would probably appeal to many Seventh-Day Adventists, because approximately half of SDA believers are vegetarians.  However, the SDA church does not teach that God requires people to be vegetarians.  Millions of SDAs eat beef, chicken, and various sorts of fish, and most SDAs would not want to condemn them for doing so.  After all, Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14 explicitly teach that some types of meat are acceptable for eating.  Strict vegetarianism may be a way to “play it safe”, but that practice still fails to answer the question, “Does God permit His people to eat ostrich meat?”  And if I cannot answer that question using Scripture alone, then I have lost any reason to be a Seventh-Day Adventist.  So let’s consider the other options.

Option #2 fails for the same reasons the first option fails.  While “playing it safe” keeps me from personally sinning against God with my diet, it still does not tell me how I should interact with others who do eat ostrich meat.  If I catch a fellow Christian eating ostrich meat, should I warn him that he is sinning against God?  Or should I figure it is no big deal, and forget it?  “Playing it safe” may protect me from personal sin, but it still fails to answer the question, “Does God permit His people to eat ostrich meat?” Yet if God’s Word is clear, and if God’s Word is contained in Scripture alone, then this is a question we should be able to answer with clarity.

Option #3 is often an excellent approach, where we “interpret Scripture with Scripture”.  For example, consider the “raven” bird that is mentioned in Leviticus 11:15 and Deuteronomy 14:14.  In the Old Testament, we see the raven frequently.  It shows up all the way from Noah’s Ark (Gen. 8:7) to the book of Isaiah (34:11).  Ravens fed the prophet Elijah (1 Kings 17:4-6), ravens are mentioned in multiple books of biblical poetry (Job 38:41, Ps. 147:9, Pro. 30:17), and King Solomon’s lovely bride even makes reference to the sheer blackness of the raven’s feathers (Sgs. 5:11).  So if we want to identify the “raven” using Scripture alone, we might succeed.

Hapax Legomenon: a word which occurs only once in the written record of a language, in the works of an author, or in a single text

Why not use this same approach every time?  If it is true that “Scripture interprets Scripture”, then why not use this identical method with every Hebrew word that we encounter in the Bible?  The reason we cannot do this is because of hapax legomena . . . words that only show up in Scripture once.

Examples of such words are דָּאָה (da’ah) and רָאָה (ra’ah).  The Hebrew word da’ah is found in Leviticus 11:14 alone, and is variously translated as “vulture” or “kite”.  But this translation is little more than a guess, since the word cannot be found anywhere else in Scripture.  What color is this bird?  How big is it?  What does it look like?  How can we identify this bird, so that we can avoid eating it?  The Bible does not answer any of these questions for us.  Perhaps this da’ah bird is a vulture, or perhaps it is a different bird altogether.  Similarly, the word ra’ah is found in Deuteronomy 14:13 alone, and can be found nowhere else.  Sometimes it is translated as a “kite”.  Sometimes it is translated as a “glede”.  But where did such translations come from?  They certainly did not come from Scripture, because Scripture never bothers to tell us what sort of a bird this is.  This word shows up only once in Scripture, and it is never defined.

There are also many words which are not quite hapax legomena, but are very nearly so.  For example, consider the Hebrew word שַׁחַף (shakh’af), which is only found in two places in Scripture:  Leviticus 11:16 and Deuteronomy 14:15.  Some linguists think this word is a reference to the “sea gull”, which is how it is translated in some Bibles.  But other Bibles translate the same word as “cuckow” or “cuckoo”. Have you ever been surrounded by cuckoos at the beach?  Have you ever seen a “seagull clock”?  Me neither. These are two very different birds. Yet, according to this passage of Scripture, there is no way to know which one we may eat, and which one is forbidden.  What sort of clarity is this?

Similarly, the Hebrew word דּוּכִיפַת only shows up twice: in Leviticus 11:19 and Deuteronomy 14:18. Some scholars translate this word as a “lapwing” bird, while other scholars translate it as a “hoopoe” bird.  Yet these are two very different birds.

The owl/ostrich fares only slightly better.  The Hebrew phrase בַּת יַעֲנָה (ya`anah bath) is only found eight times in the Bible, and it is never described or defined.  Biblical experts in the Hebrew language honestly don’t know whether this phrase is a reference to an owl, or to an ostrich!  The Bible never makes it clear what this phrase means, so whenever we try to translate it into English, we are really just guessing.

But perhaps there is still hope.  Let us consider option #4.  Maybe we can resolve this issue by consulting other Hebrew literature, outside of Scripture alone.  If we can just find these words defined outside the Bible, then perhaps we will be able to understand what they mean inside the Bible.

This option fails for two reasons.  The first reason is because the Bible contains literally thousands of hapax legomena.  And several hundred of these words are not only unique to Scripture . . . they are unique to all of Hebrew literature!  Read any number of ancient Hebrew books, and there are hundreds of biblical words which you won’t find anywhere.  Indeed, the linguists who translated the Bible into English were scholars . . . They had already looked for examples of these words throughout Scripture and also throughout other Hebrew manuscripts.  Yet they still could not agree on whether to translate a phrase as “owl” or “ostrich”.  They could not figure out whether a particular bird was a “cuckoo” or a “sea gull”.  The second reason this option fails is because it is an approach which takes us outside of Scripture alone.  If we have to review books that are not part of the Bible, that means the Bible alone is insufficient to tell us whether we can eat ostriches or not.  The moment we go outside the Bible to answer such questions, we lose any claim to rely on “Scripture alone”.

Option #5 is beginning to sound appealing.  Jews have long been familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures, and many Jews are fluent in the Hebrew language.  So why not just eat what they eat?

The problem with this option is that the Jews themselves don’t know the meanings of these rare Hebrew words.  They have the same level of difficulty translating words as biblical scholars do.  Confusion still exists between the “owl” and the “ostrich”, as well as between the “cuckoo” and the “sea gull”.  Some prominent Jewish scholars have even taught that chickens are among the “unclean” birds referenced in Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14, and there are literally millions of Seventh-Day Adventists who would be upset with that sort of news!  SDAs are good about avoiding pork and shrimp.  But don’t try to take away their chicken!  (I can’t say that I blame them . . . I myself am a sucker for KFC.)

With a final dive of desperation, we may just throw up our hands and choose option #6.  We can just “pray about it”, and trust the Holy Spirit to reveal the truth to us.  But after prayer, if one Christian decides that eating ostrich is acceptable, while another Christian concludes that it is an abomination, then what are we going to do?  Should one Christian chide the other because he “didn’t pray hard enough”?  If we get a “feeling” that eating ostrich is a sin, then are we going to condemn the translators of the KJV, the WEB, and the NIV, because they came to a different conclusion?  Will we throw away every translation of Scripture that doesn’t use the word “ostrich” in the 11th chapter of Leviticus?

Even if we went to such extremes, we would still fail in our mission to rely on “Scripture alone”, because our prayers themselves are not confined to Scripture alone.  We don’t need to “pray about” whether pork is forbidden in Leviticus 11, because everyone agrees it is clearly forbidden there.  That command is clear to everyone.  Similarly, no one has to wonder whether it is ok to eat grasshoppers.  According to Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14, grasshoppers are definitely permitted for dinner.  But the very moment we begin to “pray about” what a particular Scripture teaches, we admit that we are considering something that is actually not clear at all.  If it was already clear, then we wouldn’t have to pray to discover its meaning.

Some people tell me that the 2000-year-old teachings of the Church are not authoritative.   They tell me that the ancient practices of the Church are irrelevant. They tell me that the Holy Spirit did not speak to us through the Seven Ecumenical Councils. They tell me I should worship God according to Scripture alone.  Of course, since I am an Orthodox Christian, no one should be surprised that I reject the Protestant’s view of Scripture.  What does surprise me is that Protestants trick themselves into believing that they follow Scripture alone.

The shocking truth is that worshiping God according to Scripture alone is not even possible.  Even if I attempted to worship God according to the Bible alone, it would not be possible for me to do so.  If I joined the Seventh-day Adventist church, and I referred to nothing but the Scriptures alone, it would be impossible for me to tell which foods are “clean”, and which foods are “unclean”.  Not only would I be unclear about whether I should eat ostrich meat . . . I would not even know for sure whether it is acceptable to eat chicken!  There are no examples of anyone in Scripture eating a chicken.  There are no criteria set forth to tell me whether a chicken is a “clean” bird or an “unclean” bird.  Even Jewish scholars have fussed and fought over whether chickens are “clean” food or “unclean”.  To play it safe, I might avoid chicken meat for the rest of my life.  But my conscience would be haunted at every SDA potluck meal, every time I peered upon an ominous chicken casserole.  Should I be concerned for the salvation of the lady who cooked it?  Is she violating God’s commands by serving unclean meat to eat?  Should I pull her aside and ask her why she cooked a bird that the Scriptures never explicitly call “clean”?  Should I tell her that an ostrich casserole would be a much more delicious choice, as long as she sticks with the King James Version of the Bible?

Or should I simply point out the fact that Seventh-day Adventists unintentionally fail to practice what they preach?  They may say that they worship God according to Scripture alone, but in fact, they do nothing of the sort.

Why do Seventh-day Adventists avoid ostrich meat?  Why do Seventh-day Adventists permit their members to eat chicken?  Not because of anything taught by Scripture alone.  Rather, these dietary practices are a part of their church’s tradition.  Similar to Orthodox Christians, Seventh-day Adventists get their doctrine from Scripture AND tradition, not from Scripture alone.

The only significant differences are in regard to the ages and origins of the traditions.  Seventh-day Adventist traditions date back to the 19th century, originating from a group of people who lived over 1700 years after the death of Jesus and the apostles.

The Orthodox Church, on the other hand, was founded approximately 2000 years ago by Jesus himself.  And we get our Traditions directly from His apostles.


About Fr Joseph Gleason

I serve as a priest at Christ the King Orthodox Mission in Omaha, Illinois, and am blessed with eight children and one lovely wife. I contribute to On Behalf of All, a simple blog about Orthodox Christianity. I also blog here at The Orthodox Life.
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6 Responses to Hapax Legomena and Ostriches

  1. Geo says:


  2. MB-F says:

    Actually, we have to mold our faith and practice according to Sola Scriptura. Just because SDA do not realize that Jesus freed us to eat every kind of meat, it doesn’t follow that Sola Scriptura is wrong.
    And also, I live in Roman Catholic country, where Roman-Catholicism claims that it is their church and traditions that are the true ones. Now, is it Roman-Catholicism or is it Eastern Orthodoxy (or maybe some other tradition) that we should follow?

    • For Sola Scriptura to work, you have to be able to figure out what Scripture commands. In Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14, it is not clear what Scripture commands. Using Scripture alone, you cannot figure out how to interpret the various hapax legomena in these passages. Therefore, Sola Scriptura does not work. Scripture is not self-interpreting.

      You asked about Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthdoxy. For the first thousand years, these were actually the same Church. But little by little Rome changed its doctrines and fell away from the apostolic Faith. Meanwhile, the Orthodox Church teaches the same things we taught 1000 years ago, the same things we taught 1500 years ago, the same things taught 2000 years ago by Jesus and the apostles. So it is Eastern Orthodoxy that you should follow.

      • MB-F says:

        When Lord Jesus came to Earth, it is exactly what Pharises told Him: you need the tradition to interpret the Scriptures. But again and again, He rejected their traditions and interpreted the Scriptures with Divine authority.
        Also, in Hebrews 1:1-2 we see that Jesus Christ is the Final Word that interprets and overshadows the OT! Are there hapax legomena that we don’t know how to interpret in Scriptures? Sure, but those are no longer important to our faith and practice (because they deal with the shadows in the Old Testament (so, it doesn’t matter whether you shouldn’t have eaten a certain type of food in the OT, because (1) you can eat it now and (2) you can still understand the principle of ritual cleaness that is fulfilled in Christ as our Final sacrifice.
        Now, you said that Roman Catholicism fell away from the apostolic Faith, and they say that it is Ortodox church that did it. But the only way for you to know whether OC or RC fell away from apostolic faith is the principle of Sola Scriptura – the Scripture always being the final Authority in all matters of faith and practice. Without it, you can only hope that your traditions are more truthful than the RC traditions.
        Now, the same God who said: “Do not make images of anything in heaven or on earth…” (contra RCC and OC) also said: “He made all foods clean…” (contra SDA) and He also said that “Christ died once!” (contra RCC). Submit to Scriptures’ authority! 🙂

      • Glad to hear you are not SDA. Keep in mind that the article was written to them, not to you.

        “Sola Scriptura” means that you go to Scripture alone to determine your central doctrinal beliefs. Yet nobody actually does that. Not even Protestants like yourself.

        For proof, you might want to consider this article: https://theorthodoxlife.wordpress.com/2011/11/19/the-insufficiency-of-scripture/

      • MB-F says:

        Well, you attacked the principle of Sola Scriptura, so the article was written about me.
        Funny, you have actually attacked the principle of Sola Scriptura by giving example of SDA, who hold to the authority of Ellen White to interpret the Scriptures. Sola Scriptura means that we don’t have any such authority (because the last person that had that authority passed away around the year 100: apostle John!)

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