In Genesis 7:2 the noun שֶׁבַע appears twice. Does it imply any significance?
שֶׁבַע (meaning "seven") occurs twice in succession in this verse. Commentators ancient & modern have been divided as to why.
A common view, going at least as far back as the LXX (circa 200 BC), is that this is to be understood as a command to bring the animals by sevens, that is, seven pairs of clean animals (as opposed to one pair each of unclean animals).
The Pulpit Commentary favors this view, while acknowledging multiple sources who disagree:
"to thee by sevens". Literally, seven, seven; either seven pairs (Vulgate, LXX., Aben Ezra, Clericus, Michaells, De Wette, Knobel, Kalisch, Murphy, Alford, Wordsworth, ' Speaker's Commentary'), or seven individuals (Chrysostom, Augustine, Theodoret, Calvin, Pererius, Wiliet, Delitzsch, Rosenmüller, Keil, Lange, Bush); both parties quoting the next clause in support of their particular interpretation.
Davidson, Colenso, and Kalisch challenge both interpretations as "irreconcilable with the preceding narrative" (Genesis 6:19); but the obvious answer is, that while in the first communication, which was given 120 years before, when minute instructions were not required, it is simply stated that the animals should be preserved by pairs; in the second, when the ark was finished and the animals were about to be collected, it is added that, in the case of the few clean beasts used for sacrifice, an exception should be made to the general rule, and not one pair, but either three pairs with one over, or seven pairs, should be preserved.
"The male and his female". This seems to be most in favor of the first interpretation, that pairs, and not individuals, are meant.
In Gen 7:2, the "seven seven" part of the verse has a somewhat ambiguous meanings which could be one of the following:
- "seven pairs", as in NIV, NLT, ESV, BSB, NASB, NRSV, CSB, HCSB, ISV, YLT, etc. But if this is the intended meaning, why not use the word for "pairs" as is done later in the the same verse?
- "seven by seven" as in ASV, Aramaic, DRB, JPS, etc. Again, if this is the meaning why not make this more explcit? Further, against this translation is the reference in Gen 7:15 "two by two".
- "by sevens" (ie, an implied group plural) as in KJV, NKJV, LXX, NET(?), etc. Again, this is a strange, almost unique construction. Further, against this translation is the reference in Gen 7:15 "two by two".
[I pause to note in passing that seven of the clean animals appears to contradict Gen 6:19-21 that clearly says only two of all creatures should enter the Ark. But that is the subject of another question. However, a single pair would not provide enough for sacrifices later.]
The standard commentaries are similarly divided.
- The Pulpit commentary offers either "seven pairs", or, "seven individuals" but notes the contradiction with Gen 6:19. However, it eventually settles on "seven pairs" as does the Cambridge commentary.
- Matthew Poole's commentary makes these helpful remarks:
By sevens; either,
Seven single, as most think. Or rather,
Seven couples, as may be gathered,
From the duplication of the word in Hebrew. If it be said seven seven signifies only seven of every kind, then it would have been said concerning the unclean beasts two two, i.e. two of each sort: whereas now there is an apparent difference; there it is said only by two, but here,
by sevens, or seven seven, which difference of the phrase suggest a difference in the things. 2. By the following words,
the male and his female, which being indifferently applied to the clean and unclean, plainly shows that none of them entered into the ark single, and therefore there was no odd seventh among them, but all went in by couples, which was most convenient in all for the propagation of their kind, and in the clean for other uses also; as for sacrifices to God, if not for the sustentation of men in the ark, and after they came out of it. Which gives us the reason why God would have more of the clean than of the unclean put into the ark, because they were more serviceable both to God and men.
Given all the data in the surrounding text, I suggest that "seven seven" is best understood (uniquely) as "seven pairs" as this would make less of a clash with gen 6:19-21 and 7:15 - all animals entered by male and female pairs.