Q: “So if Noah’s ark had a male and a female of each species, then released to repopulate the earth…many species eat other species to survive. How did they all survive long enough to repopulate without nearly everyone starving or being eaten immediately? Is “pairs” to be taken figuratively then?”
This is a great question! There are several ways it could have happened, but we are not told specifically how it happened, but only that it did happen. So beginning with faith and seeking understanding we can ponder this question. In regards to your last question about whether we should interpret the Bible “literally” or “figuratively” the answer is “yes.”) The Bible uses both figurative and concrete language. So we need to interpret it literarily—when it is intended to be figurative we interpret it figuratively, when literal or historical we interpret it literally/historically. In this passage we are reading narrative that has no need of a figurative interpretation to help out it believability. So I would see “pair” in its natural sense of one male and one female.
However, I do need to clear up an inaccurate assumption in your question. Contrary to popular opinion, the Bible makes it clear that there was actually more than one pair of many of the “kinds” of animals on board the Ark.
“Take with you seven pairs of all clean animals, the male and his mate, and a pair of the animals that are not clean, the male and his mate, and seven pairs of the birds of the heavens also, male and female, to keep their offspring alive on the face of all the earth. (Genesis 7:2-3)
There were seven pairs of all of the “clean” animals…and this wasn’t so that Noah and his family would have an easier time cleaning the ark! “Clean” and “Unclean” refers to how the people of Israel (Moses’ original audience) were taught by God to determine which animals were good for food and for sacrifice. (For more information on which animals were clean or unclean see Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14) This category of animals would have included all livestock and many of the non-predatory mammals.
It seems that God was concerned with this same question of the survival of the animals after the flood (7:3). Let’s consider several possible explanations that would serve to answer your question:
1. The predatory animals were not solely carnivorous at this time.
The animals had originally been created vegetarian and there most likely would not have been enough loss of genetic material via mutation by this time (from Creation to the Flood) to have made vegetarianism physically impractical or impossible. While some animals began to develop carnivorous tendencies at some point after the fall of man, it would be reasonable that they were still mostly vegetarian at this time. According to the Biblical narrative, they had been fed from the stored food on board the Ark for over a year and so would not have immediately needed prey to survive (see #5).
2. Very fertile plants and animals after the flood
Plants: Noah, his family, and the animals remained in the Ark for about 7 ½ months as the land dried (and as the plants grew) until God instructed him to leave the Ark. There was an Olive that had sprouted into leaf before they left the ark (8:11) and certainly the grasses grow even more rapidly having quite a head start in that warm sun and soft soil. It should also be noted that the soil would have had many water-borne nutrients deposited in it as a result of the flood. I can testify to how tall the grass in my neighbor’s backyard grew after 7 ½ months of not being mowed, even despite the bad soil!
Animals: As far as the animal population goes, I would assume that because of the length of time on the ark, and the animals being coupled in breeding pairs, it is likely that many either gave birth on the Ark or at least were pregnant upon leaving the zoological Love Boat! The command of God upon Noah’s family and by extension all of the animals was to, “be fruitful and multiply, teem on the earth and multiply in it.” (9:1, 7)
3. There were other sources of protein available
The Bible does not say that all the fish and aquatic life perished in the flood, though much sea life would have been trapped in sediment (in fact this is the source of our fossil fuels today). Also as the waters receded and the land rose there would have been many fish, etc. trapped in lakes and shallow pools. So it is likely that there would have been easy access to aquatic species as a source of animal protein for land based predators, and aquatic plants for the herbivores as well. In addition, it is also possible that there would have been a lot of flood-kill carrion deposits that were not covered by sediments that may have temporarily supported post-flood carnivores.
4. The “fear of man” placed on the animals.
Up until this time it was not lawful for man to eat the animals, but given the moral conditions before the flood I am pretty sure that most did it anyway. I am not sure that this is now a new survival mechanism for the animals or simply the result of man now hunting them for food. In any event, this fear would make it harder for mankind to find and kill them.
5. Remaining food supply in the Ark.
It is also reasonable to assume that the resources stored in the Ark had not been exhausted. Noah had no idea how long he was going to be on the Ark and certainly would have not only collected food for his family and the animals for as long as possible, but also to be able to plant crops following the flood.
I hope these five possible (but not exhaustive) solutions I have provided serve, if not individually, then collectively to answer your question. For further reading, the story of the world-wide flood is found in the Bible in Genesis 6:1 – 9:17. There are also a great number of scientific and theological treatments of the flood that are more comprehensive than I would attempt. Thanks again for your question.