Noah took two of every kind of animal into the ark, right? Not exactly. The Bible states, “Of every clean beast thou shalt take to thee by sevens, the male and his female: and of beasts that are not clean by two, the male and his female. Of fowls also of the air by sevens, the male and the female; to keep seed alive upon the face of all the earth.” Genesis 7:2–3.
The Hebrew phrase translated “seven pairs” literally means “seven sevens,” so there is some question as to whether Noah took seven specimens of each “clean” species (three pairs and an extra) or seven pairs. Either way, he was told to take more clean animals than unclean on the ark. Only the unclean animals came in pairs (Genesis 6:19).
Leviticus 11 defines the difference between clean and unclean animals, but Noah lived before the giving of the Law. We are not told how Noah knew which animals were clean and unclean, but he obviously knew the difference. Sacrifices to God were made before the Mosaic Law (Genesis 4:4), which means God had somehow communicated to man what animals were suitable for sacrifice (and, later, for eating).
Leviticus 11 specifies which birds, land animals, and sea creatures were clean and unclean.
Clean animals: land animals that chew the cud and have a divided hoof, such as cattle, deer, goats, and sheep; seafood with both fins and scales, such as bluegill, grouper, and cod; certain birds, including chickens, doves, and ducks; and even some insects, such as grasshoppers and locusts.
Unclean animals: land animals that either do not chew the cud or do not have a split hoof, such as pigs, dogs, cats, horses, donkeys, and rats; seafood lacking either fins or scales, such as shellfish, lobster, oysters, and catfish; some birds, such as owls, hawks, and vultures; and other animals, such as reptiles and amphibians.
While the New Testament teaches that we are no longer judged regarding what foods we eat (Colossians 2:16), nutritionists have noted that the listings of clean and unclean foods in the Old Testament actually provide a guideline for a healthy diet. In a time period lacking modern food safety techniques, a diet consisting of only clean animals would have protected people against many health problems.
Ultimately, God’s distinction between clean and unclean animals was about more than one’s diet. Many of God’s regulations were to remind His people, Israel, that they were set apart to worship the one, true God. The original audience of Genesis 7, during Moses’ day, would have associated the reference to clean animals with the animals God had given them for food as well as sacrifice. It would only make sense to include more clean animals than unclean on the ark. Noah made a sacrifice immediately after the Flood (Genesis 8:20). Since seven (or seven pairs) of every clean animal had been aboard, the sacrifices would still have left plenty of animals to begin replenishing the earth.