Many skeptics ridicule the Bible’s claim—or what they think it claims—that Noah’s big boat housed a pair of every kind of land animal on the face of the earth. They laugh at the notion that one such craft could carry millions of animal species and that eight people could handle the care and feeding of every species from aardvark to zebra.
The error here is the presumption that Genesis 6–7 refers to all our planet’s land animals. A closer look at the Hebrew words for the animals on the ark reveals that all were in the nephesh (soulish creatures) category. God endowed these with a degree of intelligence, volition, and emotion that allows them to bond not only with others but also with humans. (All bird and mammal species and a handful of the higher reptilian species are nephesh creatures.)
The language used in Genesis 6–7 further restricts the list to those nephesh creatures that had been in contact with humans, because only these creatures would have been damaged by the wicked behavior of Noah’s contemporaries. Animals cannot sin. However, nephesh animals, when emotionally bonded to humans, are strongly motivated to serve and please those humans. If vicious, malicious behavior is what pleases the human to whom they’re connected, these nephesh animals will behave in a vicious, dangerous manner.
According to 2 Peter 2:5, the flood of Noah’s day destroyed “the world of the ungodly.” We can reasonably surmise that the ark safely harbored nephesh animals who had lived near the ungodly people but had not been irreparably damaged by the wickedness of those ungodly people. Since humans had not yet become globally distributed (Genesis 10–11:9), the flood need not have extended beyond the regions inhabited by humans. Thus, there would have been no need for Noah’s ark to rescue, for example, polar bears and emperor penguins.
Noah would likely have taken aboard some 1,000 to 2,000 pairs of nephesh creatures. Estimated to be at least 450 feet long, the ark was easily big enough to carry that many animals and the adequate provisions to sustain them, and Noah and his family would have been able to feed and care for them.