Questions From Readers
How many of the clean beasts did Noah take into the ark—seven of each clean beast or seven pairs of each?
After Noah finished building the ark, Jehovah told him: “Go, you and all your household, into the ark, because you are the one I have seen to be righteous before me among this generation. Of every clean beast you must take to yourself by sevens, the sire and its mate; and of every beast that is not clean just two, the sire and its mate.” (Genesis 7:1, 2) Some translations, such as The New English Bible, The New Jerusalem Bible, and Tanakh—The Holy Scriptures, render the original Hebrew “seven pairs.”
In the original language, the expression “sevens” literally reads “seven seven.” (Genesis 7:2, footnote) However, the repetition of a number in the Hebrew language does not necessarily mean that the numbers should be added together. For example, 2 Samuel 21:20 describes “a man of extraordinary size” as having “six fingers on each of his hands and six toes on each of his feet.” In Hebrew, the number “six” is repeated. This, though, does not mean that the giant had six pairs of fingers (or, 12) on each hand and six pairs of toes on each foot. The repetition relates only to the distribution of fingers on a hand and of toes on a foot.
What guidance do the grammatical rules of the Hebrew language provide in the matter of repeating numbers? When discussing Genesis 7:2, 9, William R. Harper’s Introductory Hebrew Method and Manual states: “Words are often repeated in order to express the distributive relation.” Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar (Second English Edition) says: “Distributives are expressed . . . by repetition of the cardinal number.” It gives as examples Genesis 7:9, 15 and 2 Samuel 21:20, where the repeated numbers are “two” and “six” respectively.
So “seven seven” in Genesis 7:2 does not mean seven pairs, or 14, just as the repeating of “two” does not mean two pairs, or four, in Genesis 7:9, 15. The repetition of a number in each verse merely denotes a distribution—not an addition of the numbers. Hence, while clean animals were taken into the ark “by sevens,” of the unclean ones, “just two” were taken.
What, though, of the expression “the sire and its mate” immediately after the word “sevens” at Genesis 7:2? That has led some to think that Noah was instructed to take seven pairs of every kind of clean animal. The clean beasts, however, were preserved not strictly for the purpose of procreation. Genesis 8:20 tells us that after coming out of the ark, “Noah began to build an altar to Jehovah and to take some of all the clean beasts and of all the clean flying creatures and to offer burnt offerings upon the altar.” Having on hand the seventh animal from each clean kind provided Noah with an animal for sacrifice, leaving three mated pairs for propagating their kind on the earth.