How many of each kind of animal were on the Ark? Look at just about any popular depiction of Noah’s Ark and you’ll likely get the wrong impression. Not only is the Ark often incorrectly illustrated to look like an overloaded bathtub, but the types of animals shown boarding the Ark are almost always inaccurate. You regularly see two lions, two tigers, two zebras, two horses, and two of every other popular animal that the artist could squeeze into the frame. But Noah did not need to bring both horses and zebras since these creatures are from the same kind—he just needed to bring two of the horse kind.1 Similarly, since they are both members of the cat kind, Noah did not need to bring two lions and two tigers; he just needed to bring two representatives of the cat kind.
People often think there were only two of each animal on the Ark because God told Noah that “two of every kind” of land animal would come to him (Genesis 6:20). But the text goes on to state, “Take with you seven pairs of all clean animals, the male and his mate, and a pair of the animals that are not clean, the male and his mate, and seven pairs of the birds of the heavens also, male and female, to keep their offspring alive on the face of all the earth” (Genesis 7:2–3).
Did Noah bring seven individuals or seven pairs of each clean animal and flying creature?
Despite what some skeptics have claimed, this is not a contradiction. In God’s original command (Genesis 6:20), He did not say that only two of each kind would come to Noah. It is perfectly appropriate for the Lord to expand upon His original statement by giving Noah some extra information. But here’s the tricky part: did Noah bring seven individuals or seven pairs of each clean animal and flying creature?
The Hebrew words translated as “seven pairs” in the ESV literally read “seven seven” (shiv‘ah shiv‘ah). Does this mean seven pairs, seven of each (NKJV), or even seven times seven? Very few hold the third position, which would mean that Noah brought 49 of each clean animal on the Ark, and there is no basis in the Hebrew text for this view so we will focus on the first two options.
In favor of the idea that only seven of each clean animal boarded the Ark is the uncertain rendering of shiv‘ah shiv’ah as “seven each,” or a similar phrase in some English translations, such as the KJV, NKJV, NASB, and NET. Also, the Bible reveals that after the flood Noah sacrificed “some of every clean animal and some of every clean bird” to God (Genesis 8:20). So if he brought seven aboard, then he could have sacrificed one of each kind, leaving six (three pairs) of each clean animal and bird to multiply and fill the earth. This was the reasoning of Henry Morris in his commentary on Genesis: “The seventh animal in each group clearly was intended for sacrificial purposes.”2
While this proposal is interesting, it is by no means decisive, and we must be careful to not allow our fondness for certain ideas to take precedence over the text itself. For example, it may be appealing to think of Noah taking seven individuals (six for repopulating and one for sacrifice) because it is consistent with other 6+1 patterns found in Scripture (e.g., God created in six days and rested for one (Genesis 1:1–2:3) and the Israelites were instructed to work the land for six years and allow it rest for one (Exodus 23:10–11)). However, nothing in the texts about the animals coming to and boarding the Ark explains that one extra of each kind was being brought along for sacrificial purposes. Those who favor this idea make an inference based on a later passage (Genesis 8:20), but is their inference legitimate? How many animals of each clean animal and flying creature did Noah sacrifice? The text does not tell us he only sacrificed one from each kind—it merely tells us that he “took of every clean animal and of every clean bird” (Genesis 8:20). He could have sacrificed a male and female from each pair. This would maintain the 6+1 pattern (six pairs for breeding and one pair for sacrifice). Sacrificing a pair of each kind of bird would be consistent with the sacrifices required of Israelites who could not afford a lamb as a sin offering. Leviticus 5:7 and 12:8 state that a person in this situation must offer two turtledoves or two pigeons instead, which is what Joseph and Mary offered after Jesus was born (Luke 2:22–24). But nothing in the Bible explains that there needed to be a 6+1 pattern with the Ark’s clean animals and flying creatures. As such, Noah could have sacrificed several of the males from each of the clean kinds—since most animals do not breed in monogamous pairs, a smaller number of males than females could still be used to quickly repopulate the earth.
On a more technical point, understanding “seven seven” as just seven individuals does not line up with the grammatical use of distributives to express pairing.3 To better understand this point consider how we use words like each, either, and neither in English. These are words that refer to a group of people or objects or to individual members of the group. Because it does not have a word for pair, the Hebrew language sometimes uses the repetition of cardinal numbers.4 So to express the idea of seven male-female pairs, a very natural way to do so in Hebrew would be “seven seven, a male and his female,” which essentially means “seven each of a male and his female.”
In favor of the “seven pairs” view is the fact that the Hebrew text literally states that Noah would bring “seven seven,” and that they would be a male and his female. If there were just seven of each kind of clean animal, then each male would not have a mate. The majority of English Bible translations reflect this position. In addition to the ESV, the HCSB, NRSV, NCV, NLT, NIV (2011 update), and others render the text as “seven pairs.”5 Furthermore, nearly all of the versions that have just “seven” include a text note that acknowledges that it may also mean “seven pairs.”6
This “formula” is different than how the Hebrew text discusses the unclean animals in Genesis 7:2. That is, this verse doesn’t say that Noah should bring “two two” (a male and his female)—it just has “two” (shenayim). Shouldn’t we expect a degree of consistency here since these numbers are found in the same verse? The Hebrew uses “two” to speak of two unclean animals, so why in the same verse would it use “seven seven” to refer to just “seven” of the clean animals?
Similar phrasing can be found in a later verse. In Genesis 7:9 and 15 the text uses “two two” (shenayim shenayim).
Since each male had a female it would seem that seven pairs of clean animals and birds boarded the Ark.
Of clean animals, and of animals that are not clean, of birds, and of everything that creeps on the ground, two and two (shenayim shenayim), male and female, went into the ark with Noah, as God had commanded Noah…They went into the ark with Noah, two and two (shenayim shenayim) of all flesh in which there was the breath of life. (Genesis 7:8–9, 15).
These verses do not tell us how many of each animal kind was slated to be on the Ark. Rather, they tell us the manner in which the animals boarded the Ark: two by two, a male and a female. And since each male had a female it would seem that seven pairs of clean animals and birds boarded the Ark.
A related issue arises in connection with the flying creatures. Many Christians assume that Noah only brought seven or seven pairs of the clean birds. The justification for this is usually drawn from Genesis 8:20, which speaks of Noah sacrificing some of each kind of clean animal and clean bird. However, just as mentioned above, this later verse should not be used to reinterpret a clear passage in the previous chapter. If Genesis 7:2–3 was unclear about the number of unclean flying creatures and Genesis 8:20 explicitly stated that an odd number of only clean animals were brought on board the Ark for sacrificial purposes, then it would be legitimate to appeal to this passage on this point. However, neither of these conditions exist. Look carefully at the text from Genesis 7 again.
Take with you seven pairs of all clean animals, the male and his mate, and a pair of the animals that are not clean, the male and his mate, and seven pairs of the birds of the heavens also, male and female, to keep their offspring alive on the face of all the earth. (Genesis 7:2–3, emphasis added)
Verse 3 clearly states that Noah was to take seven pairs (or seven) “of the birds of the heavens.” It does not say that this was only for the clean birds.
Verse 3 clearly states that Noah was to take seven pairs (or seven) “of the birds of the heavens.” It does not say that this was only for the clean birds. Actually, in this case, bird is not the word. The Hebrew word translated as bird in the ESV is more nuanced than our English word. Instead, it refers to any flying creature. Noah was supposed to take seven pairs of every kind of flying creature, including bats and flying reptiles.7 Presumably, this would also mean that flightless birds, such as ostriches and cassowaries, were only represented by a single pair on the Ark, assuming their kinds were originally flightless.
Why would God send seven pairs of every flying creature and clean animal to Noah? Our answer should not be limited to discussion about the sacrifice mentioned in Genesis 8:20. After all, he did not sacrifice any of the unclean flying creatures, and no one thinks he sacrificed six pairs of each clean animal. Regardless of one’s view about the sacrifice and the seven or fourteen issue, there were more of each kind of clean animal and flying creature on the Ark than each kind of unclean non-flying animal. The Bible does not specify why this is the case, but we can offer a couple of reasonable speculations here.
First, the clean animals were often the domesticated animals that could be used by people for work and food, particularly after the flood (Genesis 9:3). Since there would have been very little food from the ground available to Noah’s family in the months immediately after the flood, they likely would have relied upon eating animals, particularly the more numerous clean animals, for a while until new crops could be planted and grown.
Second, perhaps one of the reasons God sent seven pairs of each flying creature was so that they could assist with preparing the environments in the post-flood world for the other animals and people as they eventually spread around the earth. Not only can flying creatures spread out faster and reach remote places, such as islands, many birds also eat seeds and disperse them through their waste. One study concluded that seeds that pass through a bird’s digestive system have a 370% better survival rate than those that do not.8 So the reason for so many flying creatures on the Ark likely had less to do with sacrifice and more to do with preparing the post-flood environments to support animal and human life.
Let’s return to our original question. Did Noah bring seven or seven pairs of each kind of clean animal and flying creature? I believe a stronger case can be made for the view that Noah brought seven pairs of each clean animal and flying creature onto the Ark. This seems to be the proper way to interpret “seven seven” here, particularly since it is immediately followed by the qualifying phrase, “the male and his mate.”
Whichever view we hold, we can be sure that Noah was aware of the right answer. . .
Nevertheless, many fine Christians attempting to faithfully handle the text can be found on either side of the issue. Whichever view we hold, we can be sure that Noah was aware of the right answer and that there would have been plenty of room and food on the Ark for the required number of animals.
God’s Word is true—even in the areas where Christians disagree. At times like these, it is not the text that is in error. Instead, the differences arise due to our limited understanding and biases, among other things. May we all seek the Holy Spirit’s guidance as we attempt to accurately handle “the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15).