When Noah takes the animals on the ark, does he take seven pairs of all the “clean” animals, as Genesis 7:2 states, or just two pairs, as Genesis 7:9-10 indicates? [Bart Ehrman, Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don’t Know About Them). New York: HarperCollins, 2009, page 9]
Bart Ehrman has said in his book Jesus Interrupted that he wants the reader to take time to think about the things he’s saying and take the ideas seriously (even if, in the end, you should disagree with them). We’ve already disagreed with Ehrman’s position on issues such as how Abiathar and Ahimelech could’ve served as priests simultaneously when David eats the priestly bread in the temple, Peter’s denial of Jesus and the number of rooster crows, as well as whether there were human men or angels (and how many) at the tomb of Jesus.
Here’s another so-called contradiction Ehrman places before us. Ehrman says that in Genesis 7:2, we read that there are “seven pairs” of clean animals; in verses 9 and 10, it says “two by two” that the animals were to go in the ark. And Ehrman believes that these two statements are contradictory — but he hasn’t read the story well enough, I’m afraid.
Seven pairs, male and female
In order to discuss this question, let’s first look at the passage, Genesis 7, so that we all get an idea of the subject matter at hand:
Then the Lord said to Noah, “Come into the ark, you and all your household, because I have seen that you are righteous before Me in this generation. 2 You shall take with you seven each of every clean animal, a male and his female; two each of animals that are unclean, a male and his female; 3 also seven each of birds of the air, male and female, to keep the species alive on the face of all the earth. 4 For after seven more days I will cause it to rain on the earth forty days and forty nights, and I will destroy from the face of the earth all living things that I have made.” 5 And Noah did according to all that the Lord commanded him. 6 Noah was six hundred years old when the floodwaters were on the earth.
7 So Noah, with his sons, his wife, and his sons’ wives, went into the ark because of the waters of the flood. 8 Of clean animals, of animals that are unclean, of birds, and of everything that creeps on the earth, 9 two by two they went into the ark to Noah, male and female, as God had commanded Noah. (Genesis 7:1-9, NKJV)
When the Lord told Noah to prepare the ark, He told Noah to “take seven each of every clean animal, a male and his female.” In other words, Noah would have to take seven male animals and seven female animals of the same kind into the ark. If giraffes were to be placed in the ark, then Noah was to take seven male giraffes and seven female giraffes. When you add up the seven males and seven females, you get 14 animals of each kind (14 elephants, 14 giraffes, 14 monkeys, etc.).
While there were to be seven males and seven females (14 total) of each kind “of clean animal,” as Genesis 7:2 says, there were only to be 14 birds of each kind (7 male, 7 female) and “two each of animals that are unclean, a male and his female.” The numbers weren’t equal, as God wanted more clean animals on the ark than He wanted unclean animals.
Therefore, when we arrive at the “two by two they went into the ark” in verse 9, it shouldn’t make you think “contradiction”; rather, it makes sense. God has divided the animals up into “male and female” all throughout the passage in verses 2 and 3. When we arrive at verse 8, these animals are going in according to gender: “two by two they went into the ark, male and female, as God had commanded Noah.”
Moses is writing here in Genesis, and all he’s saying in verse 8 is that Noah did as God commanded regarding a male and female pair. In other words, the seven of every clean animal (male and female) were seven pairs of animals; and yet, no matter how many pairs of animals God commanded, they had to go in two by two into the ark.
The procession of animals into the ark doesn’t contradict with the seven pairs of clean animals and birds God told Noah to bring into the ark.
It didn’t take long to dispel of the notion that Genesis 7:2, 9 are contradictory. The reason? because they’re not. The animals were paired up according to gender, and they proceed into the ark by gender (1 male and female pair together). Claiming Genesis 7 with the ark animals is contradictory is akin to saying, “Okay, we need seven sets of brothers and sisters for the trip, but be sure to sit only one brother and one sister at each table.” How are these instructions contradictory?
If you have seven sets of brothers and sisters for a family reunion, and only one set (1 brother, 1 sister) is to sit at each table, then there should be 7 tables for two siblings to sit at, correct? And the number of siblings is 14, though the number of tables will be 7, correct? Again, this is not a contradiction, and neither is the pairing of the animals. Bart Ehrman has claimed this is a contradiction so that you won’t bother to study the passage and see how the instructions fit together. He focuses on the “number of pairs,” but the focus should be on gender — for it is the genders that pair the animals: “two by two, a male and his female.”