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What is the correct way of interpreting and understanding the words all and every in the Bible? My problem is that I learned maths for years and sometimes it makes it very hard for me to understand things. Mathematically every means that there is no exception. But what does this word mean in the Bible?

Exampe 1

And of every living thing of all flesh, two of every sort shalt thou bring into the ark, to keep them alive with thee; they shall be male and female.

vs.

Of every clean beast thou shalt take to thee seven and seven, the male and his female; and of the beasts that are not clean two, the male and his female.

Taking the first citation literally means that two were taken into the ark from even the clean beasts. But the second says later that there were seven from them. In this case however the two sentences are relatively close, so they’re straightforward for everyone (except me with my overly mathematical mind).

Example 2

What about fish? They are living flesh, I think, so Noah should have taken fish into the ark too. But I don’t think fish were killed by the cataclysm. Or were they?

And every living thing was destroyed that was upon the face of the ground, both man, and cattle, and creeping things, and birds of the heavens; and they were destroyed from the earth: and Noah only was left, and they that were with him in the ark.

Fish are not “upon the face of the ground” so they might survive, however if only those who were in the ark were saved, then fish should have been destroyed.

Coda

To be clear: this question is not about the fish and Noah’s ark (those are merely examples), but about understanding the words every and each in the Bible.

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3 Answers 3

up vote 10 down vote accepted

Among the 13 principles of Torah interpretation are that sometimes the Torah may express itself using "a general statement followed by a specific one," or vice versa, or "a general statement, a specific one, and then another general one." In each of these cases, the general statement is meant to be limited in some way.

Your first example, about the number of animals taken into the ark, is a case of "a general statement followed by a specific one." The general rule is that two of each animal were to be taken; then this is modified by adding an extra detail - that this is the minimum, but that there are some species where it should be more.

Your second example is somewhat similar as well. First G-d tells Noah to take "all living things, all flesh" into the ark (Gen. 6:19), but then He immediately qualifies (in the next verse) that this includes only "the birds... the animals... the creeping creatures on the ground" - thus excluding fish. (Two verses earlier, too, G-d specifies that the Flood will destroy "all that is on the land," so this also makes it clear that fish and other aquatic creatures are excluded.)

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The language of mathemeticians and logicians is very specialized, and, to do their job adequately, they usually have to be careful (and perhaps pedantic) about the precision and accuracy with every aspect of the language that they use. Imputing mathematical denotations of language to literature that clearly does not share the same standards of precision and detail is not appropriate.

Suppose, for example, somebody were to tell you, I itch like crazy because there were a billion mosquitoes chewing me up yesterday. There are several problems with this sentence when you view it with undue precision: mosquitoes don't chew people up, per se, the number of mosquitoes was likely rather smaller than one billion (regardless of whether you use the short or long scale) and it is not really characteristic of crazy people to itch. Despite these apparent shortcomings to the pedant who supposes that language ought to be perfectly precise, literal and unambiguous, I would guess that you easily understand what was meant.

The same is true when considering whether or not the fish were destroyed. Unless the fish were with Noah on the ark (in which case there would be no issue), I think it is fairly well understood to the reader what was meant: that everything that lived on the face of the ground and in the air was destroyed, but not fish. (Of course, in some minds, it still leaves the question about creatures like axolotls that live in water but are capable of walking on land.) However, even with a more precise point of view I could argue that in context, only Noah was left among the the group of every living thing that was on the face of the ground, and not the larger group of every living thing. Similarly, I could argue that there were in fact two pairs of each clean animal on the ark, but there is no contradiction because there were also three pairs of each clean animal, as well as four, and five, all the way up to seven.

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"The Torah speaks in the language of Man"--not the language of mathematicians. –  jake May 17 '11 at 1:29

As @Alex writes - Hermeneutical Rules is key for a broader answer to your question.

With regards to your specific example:

  • The first verse gives a general rule that you take two of each animal
  • Upon a closer reading, the second verse distinguishes between "clean" beasts and beasts that are "not clean". Jewish tradition teaches that this refers to animals that are fitting to be sacrificed (one might say, the Kosher animals) and those that are not.

The second verse defines and limits what was written in the first verse.

With the third verse that you cite, your translation distinguishes between "every living thing on the face of the ground" (עַל-הָאָרֶץ) and "from the earth" (אֲשֶׁר בֶּחָרָבָה) (Genesis 7:21-22). I would translate these slightly differently: "on the land" and "who were on the firmament". The second one does not unambiguously mean "the Earth" in the way that we think of it to day (ie: the entire third planet from the sun, including all water and land). Thus there is not necessarily a contradiction there either.

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