Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Seven… Sevens… or Seven Pairs? in Genesis 7:2

Biblegems #7

In the account of Noah bringing animals into the ark, Bible translators seem to have some difficulty accurately conveying into English the number of clean animals that were to board the ark. Genesis 7:2 in the KJV reads:
      “Of every clean beast thou shalt take to thee by sevens, the male and his female…

The English Standard Version (ESV) reads,
      “Take with you seven pairs of all clean animals,* the male and his mate…

The question is, which translation —“sevens” or “seven pairs” best reflects the Hebrew? To muddy the waters just a little more, lets see how some other translations have handled the question.

The Greek translation of the Old Testament (LXX) uses a double adjective, “seven-seven (hepta hepta), male and female…,” while the New English (NET) translates it “seven of every kind of clean animal, the male and its mate…” The Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB) reads, “seven pairs, a male and its female…” and the New International (NIV) has “seven of every kind of clean animal, a male and its mate…”

Why is there so much variation? The answer to that question brings up a key sticking point of any translation from one language to another: When do you translate exactly, word for word, and when do you sacrifice exact wording to accurately communicate the sense? To show how difficult that can be at times, here is Genesis 7:2 taken from the NIV Interlinear Hebrew-English Old Testament, vol. 1:
      “From-every-of the animal the clean you take with you seven seven male and mate–of-him…”

Translating word for word is not a simple matter, and often not possible at all because of how languages are structured differently from one another. However, the Hebrew clearly indicates that seven males and seven females of each kind of clean animal were to board the ark. Each of the translations listed above seek to reflect that fact, some using the principle of keeping as close to the Hebrew wording as possible, others using the principle of conveying the Hebrew meaning as accurately as possible.

What a motivation to pray for those whom God has called to the important ministry of Bible translation!


  1. thanks for this post. :)

  2. Well thanks for the appreciation! I know many people do not appreciate thorough study of the Scriptures in the original texts and would rather believe their __V (fill in one version of their choice) of the Bible never be questioned. It's nice to see pastors realize the importance of continual exegetical work. I'll send you an email with some thoughts if you'd like to read them.