Birds on the Ark
How many clean and unclean birds were on Noah’s Ark?
Carol E. from Canada asks about the number of ravens and unclean birds on the Ark, based on a recent Creation magazine article about parrots. These are important questions that have divided respectable commentators. Dr Jonathan Sarfati answers this question based on the research for his recent commentary on Genesis 1–11, The Genesis Account.
Dear Creation Magazine,
Well, I just received my new magazine… and with great self control, managed to spread reading it over 3 days… (I want to read the whole thing at once, it’s so good!)
Just a comment on the “Jewish scholars” cited in Footnote 9 of “Parrot Puzzle” (Creation 37(3):36–39, 2015). Genesis 7:2 mentions taking two of unclean beasts or animals, while 7:3 states taking seven of fowls or birds. And while ravens were unclean (Leviticus 11:15), more than two birds might have been a good idea. I taught the story of Noah to children this past year, and pointed out it was a good thing the ark held 6 more ravens (and 6 more doves, a clean bird) after Noah sent out one of each of these birds. The first raven Noah released never came back—if only one raven was left behind, it might have had a good hunt later on to find its mate!
Dear Carol E.
Thank you for writing to CMI and for your kind comments on our magazine.
It is good that you are teaching the Ark is real history, unlike the fairy story portrayed in bathtub arks. We also appreciate your teaching the children that the Ark is rational.
What you say about ravens and the mate was not unreasonable. The article was trying to go by the best evidence from the text, then ministerially apply science to that biblical teaching. So what does the original text say? I cover this in detail in two sections of my new Genesis 1–11 commentary as follows:
Clean animals and birds (7:2–3)
We previously saw how God moved from the general to the specific. Previously, he had told Noah that at least a breeding pair of all land vertebrate kinds was to embark. Now God tells Noah that there must be extra ‘clean’ animals. The adjective ‘clean’ is understood to carry over to the ‘birds of the heavens’, i.e. what follows applies only to the clean birds and clean animals.
The vast majority of animals are not clean, and were represented by only two specimens each. The term ‘clean animal’ was not defined until the Mosaic Law. But since Moses was also the compiler of Genesis, if we follow the principle that ‘Scripture interprets Scripture’, the Mosaic Law definitions can be applied to the Noahic situation. There are actually very few ‘clean’ land animals listed in Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14.
However, in Noah’s time, the distinction had nothing to do with diet. That’s because it was not until after the Flood that God gave man permission to eat animals (Genesis 9:3), and without distinction. And in Moses’ day, while many of the cleanliness laws had great health benefits, it doesn’t appear to be the main reason. Rather, ritual purity is a far more likely reason. This was to symbolize the separation of the Messianic People from the surrounding pagan nations until the Messiah came to break down this wall (Ephesians 2:14). For example, lobsters have legs but live in the sea, so they violate the ritual land-water boundary. On the other hand, poultry is ritually clean, but is a very common source of food poisoning (as a victim of salmonella poisoning, I have personal experience).1
Commentators have debated considerably about the number of the (few) clean animals on board. A common view is that there were only seven, not seven pairs, to provide three breeding pairs and one for sacrifice. But about equally common is the view that there were seven pairs.2
Woodmorappe is undecided, but his figures are for seven pairs, just to be as generous as possible to the critics. Actually, since so few animals are clean, he points out that it would make less than 1% difference.3
However, the evidence from the text seems to favour seven pairs. The word ‘seven(s)’ is repeated in 7:2, which reads word for word, “sevens sevens male and his female”
(שִׁבְעָ֥ה שִׁבְעָ֥ה אִ֣ישׁ וְאִשְׁתּ֑וֹ [shiv‘āh shiv‘āh ’îsh wə’ishtô]). Hebrew scholar Ting Wang (王 定 遠)4 writes about this:The repetition of שִׁבְעָ֥ה makes me think that it is seven males and seven females. In addition, when contrasted with the instruction regarding unclean animals, (שְׁנַ֖יִם אִ֣ישׁ וְאִשְׁתּ֑וֹ) [shənayîm ‘îsh wə’ishtô], it seems that since ‘two’ is not repeated, that this is how Moses expressed just a male and his mate—a total of two animals, rather than two of each sex.5
It’s also notable that in both these expressions, there is a different expression from that used in 6:19, which said a male (zākār זָכָ֥ר) and a female (nəqēbāh נְקֵבָ֖ה). Above, in 7:2, the account uses essentially same words for Adam and Eve in 2:25: man and woman, or man and wife (’îsh and ’îshshah). The words have a wide usage in biblical Hebrew, and here could reflect the mating of the breeding pairs after the Flood. When it comes to the clean birds, it’s back to ‘male and female’.
Noah sends out birds (8:6–12)
At this time, Noah is not receiving direct revelation from God. Evidently God has left it to Noah to use natural means to work out when they should disembark. So after 40 days have passed since the mountaintops became exposed, Noah opens a window. This is probably one of the one-cubit windows on the roof (6:16—see ‘Ark’s window and three decks’, Ch. 17).
First Noah sends out a raven—the Hebrew is literally ‘the raven’, hā’ōrêb (הָֽעֹרֵ֑ב). However, “it kept flying back and forth until the water had dried up from the earth.” The Hebrew expression means “that the raven flew back and forth repeatedly”.6 The Hebrew text doesn’t explicitly rule out the possibility that the raven later returned, but the LXX is more explicit with “and it went forth and did not return.” 7 This rendering is followed by the Syriac and Vulgate versions.
This makes good sense—the raven is a scavenger, so could easily find food from the rotting carcasses in the Floodwaters. There was no need to return to the Ark, because it could rest on the mountaintops, now more exposed than when they were first visible. Rabbinic tradition teaches that the raven was released first as expendable since it was neither good for food nor sacrifice.8 However, the raven was specifically declared to be an unclean bird only under the Mosaic Law, which was a millennium after the Flood (Leviticus 11:15, Deuteronomy 14:14). And even after that, God feeds ravens (Luke 12:24), and ravens fed Elijah by divine command (1 Kings 17:4–6).
Because the raven did not return, Noah could deduce that there was a substantial amount of land exposed, so the raven could find a resting place. However, as far as providing information about whether the rest of the Ark passengers could safely disembark, it was inconclusive.
Then Noah sends out a dove (Hebrew ‘the dove’, hayyônāh (הַיּוֹנָ֖ה), specifically “to see if the water had receded from the surface of the ground.” The dove and the pigeon are members of the Columbidae family—’dove’ is a term for the smaller species and ‘pigeon’ for the larger species, but they are fairly interchangeable. The dove is used as a positive symbol in the Bible, depicting youth (Song of Songs 1:15, 4:1, 5:12), love (Song of Songs 2:14, 5:2, 6:9),9 and innocence (Matthew 10:16). Indeed, at Jesus’ baptism, “the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form, like a dove” (Luke 3:22).
Doves and pigeons have very strong flight muscles, around a third of their weight. So they are powerful flyers, and the Bible hints at this (Psalm 55:6, Isaiah 60:8, Hosea 11:11). Combined with their manoeuvrability, they can cover a long range in a day. But they don’t normally eat carrion, usually prefer valleys to mountains, and like dry and clean places for nesting.
The first time the dove was sent, it found neither food nor a suitable nesting place—“found no place to set her foot.” So the dove returned to Noah’s outstretched hand, and Noah brought it back inside the Ark.
The timing of the doves was one week apart, and the first was sent a week after the raven, which showed Noah’s patience despite his likely desire to be free to walk the earth again.
Olive leaf (8:11)
A second time, Noah sends out a dove, perhaps the same one. This time it returned “in the evening”, implying that it was out somewhat longer. But this time, it had “a freshly plucked olive leaf” in its mouth. This implies that olive trees were now starting to sprout—they can readily grow from seeds and branches (vegetative propagation), which would have survived the Flood. Indeed, olive trees can regenerate from shoots only 5–10 cm long.10 Olives can also tolerate relatively high salinity, a wide pH range, and stony ground.
From the olive leaf in the dove’s beak, Noah could deduce “that the waters had subsided from the earth”. However, though olives can sprout from wet ground, doves won’t nest (or rest) on such a surface, and the trees were obviously not yet of a sufficient size. So the ground was not yet dry enough for disembarkation.
So a week later, Noah sent out the dove again. This time the dove did not return. So there was both food for the dove, and dry land for it to nest in. Thus finally it is almost time to leave their home.
In Romans 11:11–24, Paul uses the olive tree and its ability to propagate via grafting as a potent symbol. That is, Gentile believers (“wild olive shoots”) were being grafted into the Church alongside Jewish believers (“natural branches”).
When it comes to the mating instinct, animals have a knack of finding their mates somehow, whether by sight, sound, or pheromones. Ravens actually mate for life, and because they can eat almost anything, they have no need to migrate very far. Some of the related articles have more on ravens.
Hope this is helpful.
References and notes
- Sarfati, J., Are we allowed to eat all animals today? creation.com/all-food-clean, 1 September 2012. Return to text.
- Creationist zoologist Dr Arthur Jones surveyed over 40 commentaries and found them equally divided, ‘How many animals on the Ark?’ CRSQ 10(2):102–108,1973. Return to text.
- Woodmorappe, J., ‘Which part of the animal kingdom was on the Ark?’ Noah’s Ark: A Feasibility Study (NAFS), Ch. 1. Return to text.
- Sarfati, J., Hebrew scholar affirms that Genesis means what it says! Interview with Dr Ting Wang, lecturer in biblical Hebrew, Creation 27(4):48–51, 2005; creation.com/wang. Return to text.
- Ting Wang to J. Sarfati, personal communication, 1 June 2011. Return to text.
- Mathews, K.A., The New American Commentary: Genesis1–11:26 (Vol.1A), p.387, 1996. The Hebrew is wayyetse’ yātsô’ wāshôv (ושוביצואויצא). Return to text.
- Mathews, Ref. 15. The LXX reads, “kai exelthōn ouch hypestrepsen (καὶ ἐξελθὼν οὐχ ὑπέστρεψεν)”. Return to text.
- Mathews, Ref. 15. Return to text.
- Fruchtenbaum, A.G., The Book of Genesis, p. 177, 2009. Return to text.
- ‘Vegetative propagation and the olive branch’, NAFS, Ch. 19. Return to text.