By Carmen Acevedo Butcher

Cows and Scripture

This semester I assigned my students a half-day Facebook fast and essay analyzing the experience. Most said Facebook was hard-to-impossible to do without — they schedule extracurricular activities with it, keep up with friends, and, yes, occupy boring hours. They did, however, say fasting from Facebook helped them hear the unaccustomed sound of silence, so we discussed what John of the Cross means when he says, “Silence is God’s first language.”

In our technology-loud world, we easily forget how intimate silence is. Distracted by social media, how can we prone-to-wander creatures “renew our minds” as Romans 12:2 says, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”

Duke Divinity professor Ellen Davis says we need new spiritual habits: “[O]nce we start reading in a spiritually engaged way, [we notice] . . . the Old Testament is urging us toward certain habits of heart and mind that ‘work’ in our relationship with God[,] . . . countercultural habits such as seeking solitude, or repenting of our sins, or offering praise to God.”1

One of these “countercultural habits” is Scripture rumination.

In graduate school I delighted knowing medieval Christians used healthy, cud-chewing ruminants — cows — to symbolize Scripture meditation. Latin rūmināre means “to chew food over and over again”; hence, when we ruminate, we turn something over and over in our minds.

An appreciation for the cow’s complex digestive process deepens our understanding of Scripture rumination. Each hour cows can take 890 bites of grass, and this food enters forestomach number one, the rumen, where billions of microbes — bacteria, protozoa, and fungi — slosh around in twenty-five gallons of liquid, making enzymes to digest grass-cellulose into nourishing sugars and fatty acids; this grass-green “smoothie” enters the second forestomach, the reticulum, where it is regurgitated as cud, and cud-chewing is crucial to a cow’s digestion of nutrients.2 This food then enters the cow’s third forestomach, the omasum, before moving into the abomasum, or true stomach. Cows spend nearly eight hours a day chewing cud, as much time as early Christians spent “chewing on” Scripture daily.

Martin Luther taught that meditating on Scripture is necessary to get nutrients from God’s Word and could never fathom why some found the Bible boring, as he says in his Psalm 188 preface:

Holy Scripture is neglected as though there were no need of it. Those who condescend to read it want to absorb everything at once. . . . But why complain? No one pays any attention to our lament. May Christ our Lord help us by His Spirit to love and honor His holy Word . . . [because] God will not give you His Spirit without the external word.3   

Luther defined Scripture rumination as saying verses aloud to write them more deeply in us. We sing, whisper, mumble, or proclaim the Bible aloud to soak our souls in it, transforming our outlook and actions, in Christ. He describes this process: “Sprich nicht allein im herzen, sondern auch eusserlich die mündliche rede [Say it not only in your heart, but also out loud by reading it aloud].” He adds, “Und imer treiben und reiben [And always keep at it and push and knead the Bible’s words into your heart.]”4

What Luther learned as an Augustinian friar, we can practice even today, discovering that Scripture rumination heals holes life knocks in all our souls. When Thomas Cranmer lost his wife and baby in childbirth, this English Reformation leader ate Scripture, saying: “Lette us ruminate [on Scripture], (as it wer) chewe the cudde, so we maie haue [its] swete ieuse [juice], spirituall effecte, mary [marrow], hon[e]y, kirnell [kernel], tast[e], comfort, and consolacion.”5

So for instance take a bite of Philippians 4:5: “Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near”: Whisper it; listen. Slowly read it out loud. Do not rush. Write or type its words, and carry them around like a snack of miniature carrots in a sandwich bag. Chew them — ask what the Living Word is saying through them: Am I gentle? What about people I don’t like or who hurt me? Be gentle with THEM? How? Help me pray they receive your blessings and peace. Am I even gentle with myself? What would gentleness look like in my life? Teach me. Show me. The second sentence strengthens us in the sometimes-impossible-seeming be-gentle command: The Lord is near. Turn these words over again, savoring them in mind and heart. Pray through God’s Word, and in this way digest it, embracing the promise of Psalm 46:10. We let go, be still, and rest in the friendship of our intimate Lord.



1.     Ellen Davis, Getting Involved with God: Rediscovering the Old Testament, 145.
2.     Donna Amaral, “Why Do Cattle Chew Their Cud” and A Cow’s Digestive System (YouTube)
3.     Richard P. Bucher, “Martin Luther’s Love for the Bible”
4.     Franz Posset, Pater Bernhardus: Martin Luther and Bernard of Clairvaux, Foreword by Michael Casey (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1999), 136-137.
5.     Oxford English Dictionary, “ruminate.”
About the Author

Carmen Acevedo Butcher is a professor of English and scholar-in-residence at Shorter University in Rome, Georgia. She was the Carnegie Foundation professor of the year for Georgia in 2006, and during the 2004-2005 year she and her family lived and learned in Seoul, South Korea, while she taught as a Fulbright Senior Lecturer at Sogang University. She has written books on medieval women mystics and linguistics. More information can be found on these at her website. (Photo credit: Katherine Butcher.)

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