How Many Animals entered the Ark of Noah?

The usual discussion about Noah and the Flood among Catholics involves two different positions: that the Flood story is entirely fictional, or that it is entirely literal. In my book, Noah’s Flood: Literal or Figurative?, I refute both positions and propose an alternative: a literal historical event is described using figures.

Noah built a literal Ark, but the size stated in the text is figurative. A literal Flood occurred, but the extent of the Flood is figurative. The Flood did not kill all humans and animals outside of the Ark; that description is also figurative. The Ark contained animals, but not every animal species on earth; that description is also figurative. So what we are left with, after accounting for the figurative elements, is a literal flood-event, that affected the whole world and caused immense destruction and death, and from which Noah and his family and many animals were preserved by the Ark.

Since the Flood did not kill all animal life outside of the Ark, the Ark need not have contained every species of animal on earth. The animals on the Ark were representative of all animal life, just as the humans on the Ark were representative of the human race.

Two by Two

An interesting question arises on the number of each type of animal entering the Ark. The Greek Septuagint and the Latin Vulgate indicate seven pairs of each kind of clean animal, and two pairs of each type of unclean animal. The Latin says:

{7:2} Ex omnibus animantibus mundis tolle septena et septena, masculum et feminam: de animantibus vero immundis duo et duo, masculum et feminam.
{7:2} From all the clean animals, take seven and seven, the male and the female. Yet truly, from animals that are unclean, take two and two, the male and the female.

The Latin Vulgate editions (1590 Sistine and 1592, 1593, 1598 Clementine) all say “seven and seven” and “two and two”. The Septuagint says “seven, seven” and “two, two”, with the “and” implied: “seven [and] seven” as well as “two [and] two”.

One interpretation given by Origen and others is that there were 14 of each kind of clean animal, and 4 of each type of unclean animal.

The expression “seven and seven” is followed by “male and female”, indicating the reason for the repetition of the number: seven reproductive pairs, so as to increase the numbers of each type of clean (edible) animal after the Flood. This pairing alludes to the start of the human race from one pair, Adam and Eve. The USCCB website, with its NABRE edition of the Bible, uses this translation: “Of every clean animal, take with you seven pairs, a male and its mate.” So the interpretation is not merely an ancient opinion, but one that has persisted in the Church to the current time.

The other interpretation was that the seven indicates 3 pairs plus one animal for eating. I find that interpretation ridiculous. In no way is such a claim supported by the text. The earlier passage on the animals that would enter the Ark, in Genesis 6, indicates pairs:

{6:19} Et ex cunctis animantibus universæ carnis bina induces in arcam, ut vivant tecum: masculini sexus et feminini.
{6:19} And from every living thing of all that is flesh, you shall lead pairs into the ark, so that they may survive with you: from the male sex and the female,

This verse does not yet say how many pairs, but merely states a general instruction that the living creatures placed on the ark should be in pairs, male and female. This passage teaches us that human persons, as well as all other animals, are intended by God to be in pairs. So the interpretation of the verse from Genesis 7, “seven and seven, the male and the female”, as seven only (3 pairs plus 1) conflicts with the earlier instruction that all the animals are to enter as pairs. Notice that the human persons on the Ark also entered as pairs: Noah and his wife, Noah’s three sons and their three wives.

Also, the last verse of Genesis 6 instructs Noah to take food for his family and for the animals on the Ark. So Noah and his family did not need to eat any of the clean animals. There was no need for a seventh animal of each type for food.

The reason for having seven pairs of each of the clean animals is so that, after the Flood, the clean animals could be used for food. They would more quickly increase their numbers from seven pairs than from one or two pairs (or from the three pairs of the alternative interpretation).

But how many of the unclean animals entered the Ark? Were there two of each type or two pairs of each type? The general instruction in Genesis 6 is that the animals are to be in pairs, and the specific instruction of Genesis 7, phrased “seven and seven, male and female”, indicates seven pairs by its repetition of “seven” and by the explanatory statement: “male and female”. Now some texts of the next part of the verse say “two and two” [Vulgate] or “two, two” [Septuagint] followed always by “male and female, but other texts just say “two” followed by “male and female”. I argue that in either case, two pairs is indicated. The pairing instruction of Genesis 6, and the example of clean animals in Genesis 7, both weigh strongly in favor of the interpretation that “two” means two pair of each unclean animal type.

Moreover, the practical reason for having two pairs of the unclean animals is in case any single animal of an unclean type dies before reproducing, then there will be another pair to carry on the species. This parallels the practical reason for seven pairs of the clean animal types: so as to reproduce after the Flood.

Some persons argue that the instruction of Jesus, sending out disciples “two by two”, meaning in pairs, weighs against the above interpretation. But the text of the Gospel does not imply that conclusion. The Vulgate does not say “two by two”, but only “in twos”.

{6:7} Et vocavit duodecim: et cœpit eos mittere binos, et dabat illis potestatem spirituum immundorum.
{6:7} And he called the twelve. And he began to send them out in twos, and he gave them authority over unclean spirits.

And while some Greek texts of Mark say “two, two”, the Gospel of Mark was probably written originally in Latin. In addition, the Greek expression “two, two”, when used to refer to the Twelve Apostles, is not a clear parallel to the Genesis text. The Apostles were male only, not male and female. Also, the Twelve could be arranged as three sets of two pairs. So the argument fails to imply that Genesis 7 is to be interpreted as one pair only of the unclean animals.

Clean and Unclean

Many commentators have noted that this distinction between clean (permissible to eat) and unclean (not permissible to eat) predates the Mosaic dietary laws.

One interpretation is that God gave the distinction to Adam and Eve, and they handed it down until Moses. But that interpretation fails because Sacred Scripture indicates that the dietary laws were given by God to Moses directly, not merely handed down.

My interpretation is that the Jewish dietary laws were chosen by God as an adaptation of a much older categorization of animals, which developed in secular society, based on which animals are suitable for eating, and which are not. This categorization would be, first of all, a necessity for survival, and secondly, a useful distinction to obtain the most suitable foods for a growing civilization. So this categorization most likely pre-dated the dietary laws, the latter developing out of the former.

As adapted in the Jewish dietary laws, there may well have been some changes as to which animals were clean and which were unclean. The original purpose of this distinction was practical: to identify the most suitable animals to be used for food. If people noticed that consuming pork (likely to be not thoroughly cooked by ancient methods) often resulted in grave illness, pork became seen as an unclean food. And the same would be true for other foods. Shellfish grow along shores, and so they can easily be contaminated by bacteria from human waste. So shellfish would be categorized as unclean. Subsequently, when the Jewish dietary laws were established by God, these distinctions were adapted to an additional purpose: to function as a daily living parable for distinguishing between good and evil, between what is the will of God and what is contrary to the will of God.

For more on the Flood of Noah, see my book:
Noah’s Flood: Literal or Figurative?

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

Please take a look at this list of my books and booklets, and see if any topic interests you.

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