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Visualizing the Flood: Noah’s Ark (Geeky Version)

This is the seventh post in an extended series on Noah and the Flood (Gen 6-9).  For the first three posts:

1) Click here for a discussion on the Nephilim and sons of God in Gen 6:1-4
2) Click here for a discussion on the New Testament View of the Nephilim and sons of God in Gen 6:1-4
3) Click here for a discussion of the Cause of the Flood (Order vs. Chaos) in Gen 6:5-8
4) Click here for a discussion on God repenting and the animals being wiped out
5) Click here for a discussion on the Mesopotamian Flood and Genesis’ reliance on it
6) Click here for a discussion on the JEPD/Documentary hypothesis and why it’s a weak theory for the Flood narrative

This is a detailed series that focusses on nuanced and more complicated findings.  For a friendlier and more user friendly version of the same content, see the “coffee break version” of this series over here.

Let’s start with the passage of Gen 6:13-16

13 So God said to Noah, “I have decided that all living creatures must die, for the earth is filled with violence because of them. Now I am about to destroy them and the earth. 14 Make for yourself an ark of cypress wood. Make rooms in the ark, and cover it with pitch inside and out. 15 This is how you should make it: The ark is to be 450 feet long, 75 feet wide, and 45 feet high. 16 Make a roof for the ark and finish it, leaving 18 inches from the top. Put a door in the side of the ark, and make lower, middle, and upper decks.

The Ark: Gen 6:13-16

What is it and why is it called the ‘ark’?

(1) Definition and where the word comes from

The Hebrew behind this word is quite interesting.  The word תבה means ‘chest’ or ‘box’, and is probably a loan word from the Egyptian Demotic language1, though this view does not hold complete consensus.  Outside the Flood narrative, it occurs only twice in the OT, both times referring to the basket Moses was put into as a baby and put down the Nile (Ex 2:3; 2:5).  This seems to beg us to find a connection between Noah’s Ark and Moses’ Ark(basket).  For example, we could see Noah as a foreshadowing of Moses, both of whom were saved (by God) on the water.  But it is quite possible we would be chasing ghosts if we did so.  The WBC prefers not to see any significance in following such connections.

Noah - Flood - Ark - Hebrew - Greek

The history of the word ‘ark’


As for the English word itself, ‘ark’, which really has no meaning or use outside ‘the English Bible’, it comes from the Vulgate (Latin) translation, arca, meaning ‘box’.  This too is derived not from the Hebrew OT, but rather from the Greek LXX (the Bible Jesus and the NT writers used2), which translated the Hebrew word into Greek κιβωτός, meaning ‘chest’.  The NT uses the same word invariably to describe Noah’s chest/box/ark in all of the NT passages that refer to the Flood narrative (Mt 24:38, Lk 17:27, Heb 11:7, 1 Pet 3:18-22).  It has no use to modern readers other than it’s overwhelming historical tradition to describe Noah’s chest/box.

Incidentally, the ‘ark of the covenant’ (the chest in which the tablets of the ten commandments were placed) uses a different word altogether for ‘ark’ (אָרוֹן), so the two are unrelated.  That is, while in English translations ‘ark’ is used of both Noah’s chest and the chest of the covenant, in Hebrew they are different words, and instead Noah’s chest and Moses’s chest use the same word.

It is best, at least in studying the text, to drop ‘ark’ altogether–a meaningless word–and to instead describe Noah’s ‘chest/box/ark’.  It is crucial, at any rate, not to describe it as a boat, since this implies human agency in the salvation of humanity, and Genesis 6-9 is entirely focussed on minimizing human agency down to nothing more than obedience, and emphasizing God’s agency as total and sufficient.  English translations which use ‘boat’ or ‘barge’, such as TEV, and commentaries such as the UBS translation guide, are probably in theological error in their choice–but they are undoubtably in vocabulary error.

It is crucial not to picture a boat or a ship here–the Biblical text is clear on that.  The reason behind this is probably that if it were a sea-going vessel like a boat (which of course Moses knew the word for, having used it in Gen 49:13 (אנטה) and could have employed here), humanity (Noah) might be able to take some credit for surviving.  The Biblical text is adamant, however, that Noah is a ‘non-issue’ in the survival of humanity through the Flood.  The text emphasizes that Noah is an observer and God is the orchestrator (that is indeed the point of the story).  This is much more visible when Noah is floating in a giant chest or box (which we call an ‘ark’), and not in a great boat designed for the sea.

(2) The wood used

Some English translations simply transliterate the Hebrew to copy it’s sound, creating ‘gopher wood’ (not identified with any real tree).  Other associations today identify it, tentatively, with the Cypress tree, but this is based on a questionable association between Latin and Hebrew letters and the use of cypress in ancient shipbuilding.  If we look to archaeology, most ships of considerable size in the ancient near east were made from the cedars of Lebanon.

Apparently the most favoured interpretation of the word today is that ‘gopher’ might better be translated a type of quality of wood, rather than a species of tree.  This is how the LXX saw it, translating Hebrew ‘gopher’ to Greek ‘square wood’, referring to the quality of the wood for shipbuilding.  Given that we do not know for sure, and that other attempts in the ancient world to identify it are also inconclusive, the safest bet is to follow the transliteration and call it ‘gopher wood’, leaving it’s biological identity unknown.

(3) The roof, ‘windows’, door, and decks

The Hebrew is more vague than English translations imply here.  While many English translations use ‘rooms’, from the Hebrew ‘nest/cell’, if we repoint the word (disagreeing with the MT), we turn ‘nest/cell’ into reeds, thus changing the meaning from discussing internal rooms (which are then left up to our imagination), to discussing the use of reeds (i.e. from reed huts) as a second construction material after ‘gopher wood’.

Likewise, the word for ‘pitch’ shares the same letters with Akkadian ‘bitumen’, so it is likely safe to see in the word ‘pitch’ the meaning of ‘bitumen’, an adhesive for connection the gopher wood and, possibly, reeds.  This means to ‘cover the seams between the wood (and reeds)’.  A modern technical term would therefore be ‘caulk the ark with bitumen’.  Since the Hebrew kofer (bitumen) rhymes with gofer, it is likely we are seeing a play on words here in Hebrew, so that both the wood and the caulking are of the same ‘kind’. 

(4) The shape and appearance of the chest/box/ark

Flood - Noah - Ark - Order - Chaos - Biblical world - ancient near east

Accurate-ish representation of the Biblical chest/box/ark. Source:

The shape of the ark is one of the most surprising things to come out of study of the text.  Most people are likely to be disappointed to find out that it is not shaped like a boat at all.  Rather, it is shaped precisely like the word ‘chest’ itself implies–it is a giant, floating box or chest, right down to a flat bottom.  This is certainly a strange image, but the text describes it nonetheless.  This ‘rectangular cube’ is 135 m long, 22 m broad, and 45 m deep.  A couple things come out of these facts.

(1) It is similar in appearance to the Mesopotamian chest (also not a boat) in their Flood narratives, although in these accounts the chest is literally a cube, 120 cubits long in either direction, and thus bigger than the Genesis chest in volume by about five times.

(2) It is three times the size of the tabernacle courtyard of the First Temple (100 x 50 cubits) in surface area.  In modern terms, it was one a half football fields in size, and if it had a flat bottom as the text describes, it would displace 43,000 tons of water.  The absence of a ‘rudder’ or anything making it a boat, instead of a chest, is again explicit to show it’s fate is in God’s hands, not human ones.

(3) It was huge by ancient historical standards (though not mythological ones).  Not only was it at least 2.5 times bigger than the biggest ships of it’s time, but if it could be made, it would be the biggest wooden ship ever built.  Therein lies the issue, that even if the best wood was found to construct it, the physics of it’s shape, water, and even the most ideal wood would not permit the ship to hold together, but force it to snap under it’s own weight (the tensile strength of wood is not strong enough to support the dimensions of the chest described).

Flood - Noah - Ark - Order - Chaos - Biblical world - ancient near east

Accurate-ish representation of the Biblical chest/box/ark. Source:’s_Ark

The ‘roof’ is a very strange description in the Hebrew (Gen 7:12-13), and English translations have inevitable interpretations to make (so that any literal understanding of any English version is incorrect).  The two most popular interpretations of the Hebrew verse is that there is a space of one cubit (foot and a half) above the top of the chest, or alternately that the top overhangs the edge of the chest by one foot.  The significance of the absence of mentioning any windows is related to this.  If the first view is taken, then we can probably picture foot and a half windows (although let’s be honest, and call them vents) above the top deck.  If the second view is taken, then the most natural reading is to see no windows in the chest at all.

The ‘window’ or ‘skylight’ found in some English translations is purely generated by English paraphrases of the difficult Hebrew.  Most commentaries reject the view of windows or skylights being present in the text.  They are only conjecture from the description of the roof being raised 1 cubit, and the presumption that the space in between is window (or vent) space.  Now, there is a window in the ark, as the Hebrew word for window is used in Gen 8:6 to describe precisely that.  But here a different phrase (not even a word) is used, and so most evangelical commentators in the modern era appear to reject the notion that windows are being referred to here (Gen 7:13).

The discussion of the three decks leads to some intriguing theological implications, though we are probably safest to see these as over-analysis and not take them as more than coincidences.  Since they’re fun nonetheless, let’s quickly mention them.  :)

Given the height of the chest, and dividing into three decks, each deck would be the height of the tabernacle of Moses’ generation.  Likewise, if we add to the text what isn’t there, which is dividing each deck into three equal portions, each portion would be the same size as the tabernacle courtyard.  Given that ‘tabernacle’ later becomes the Biblical word for the concept of God ‘living among us’ (literally ‘tabernacling among us’), and given the typology of the Temple for Christ (the most literal event of God ‘tabernacling among us’), we enter the domain of reading a type of Christ into the chest, which given it’s salvational role has it’s own logic.  Pretty as this view is, we’re probably safest to side with the WBC and chock this up to coincidence mingled with eisegesis.

(5) Construction scenarios

Let’s take stock of what we know as ‘fact’ before we employ any notions of theories of how it was constructed.

Flood - Noah - Ark - Order - Chaos - Biblical world - ancient near east

Sewn plank boat (solar boat from Egypt). Source: Illustrated Bible Background Commentary (Frederick J. Mabie)

(1) Nails (metal) were not used at the time (either Noah’s or Moses’), but instead contemporary ship-building used wooden pegs to join planks of wood together, the wooden pegs in turn being sewn to each other with cords of unknown material (see Ill BBC for reference to details).  Construction began with the plank skin or shell itself, then came the supporting frame inside, and finally came the addition of decks.

(2) The earliest known multi-deck ships built with planks of wood (and wooden pegs) come from between 2500 and 2000 BCE, and are found in Egypt.  However, these would have only held 11 tons, not the monumentally larger 15,000 tons capacity the chest would have given it’s dimensions.

(3) Even if we go to the largest ships from 500 to 0 BCE (considered marvels at the time, like the Titanic), they could only carry 4000 tons capacity.  The chest, therefore, was written in to be way beyond the scale of a Titanic for it’s time.

(4) Wooden boats exceeding 300 feet (compared to the chest’s 450 feet) cannot, even with iron support strapping, remain seaworthy.  These numbers have been questioned by those trying to make a historical case for Noah’s ark–somewhat ironically, since the entire point of the Biblical narrative is that the ark was supported by God, and human agency was meaningless in its construction and seaworthiness.  That is, Christian attempts to ‘prove’ that the ark could be built ironically miss the theological point of the ark in the first place, which is that it was not designed for human agency as a sea-going vessel but rather as a chest meant merely to float by God’s sovereign grace.  The more ‘historical ark advocates’ push for the realistic existence of the ark, the more they argue against what is most important in the Flood narrative, the theological meaning of human agency needing to trust in God.

(6) Tempering over-analysis

There is a long history in Biblical studies of understanding the term ‘cover’ used in Gen 6:14 to carry the meaning ‘atonement’ that it does later in many passages in Leviticus.  However, modern scholars now hold back on such over-analysis, pointing to the fact that here it is in a form different from that in Leviticus, and that the form shifts it’s meaning 3 from the more intensive ‘atone’ to the more prosaic and basic ‘cover’.  As such, old readings of this text which go on about the ark being a ‘covering’ or ‘atoning’ for sin by Noah (and thus potentially turning him into a type of Christ) are for the most part rejected by modern evangelical scholarship as moving to far beyond the text.

Is Moses intentionally making the ark a type of the tabernacle?

Arguments for the ark as metaphor for tabernacle

Flood - Noah - Ark - Biblical world - ancient near east

Dimensions of the Tabernacle in Exodus. Source: Rose Guide to the Temple (Randall Price).

Both the instructions for building the tabernacle, and the recording of it’s physical completion, have many echoes in the Flood narrative, where there is ample repetition of both building instructions and entry scenes (compare the much lengthier Ex 35-40 with Gen 6-7).

What draws our attention most is the relation of animals.  There was ancient near east precedent for sacrificial distinction between animals (but only distinction along the lines of ‘favoured’ and ‘unfavored’, not the concept of ‘clean and unclean’).  But there was not precedent for dietary distinction.  Therefore, we can see in the bringing of ‘extra’ clean animals onto the ark the prescription for their sacrifice along the lines of the tabernacle (Lev 7:19-21, where only clean meat can be eaten within the tabernacle).

EBC also asks us to see in the provisioning of clean meat for the ark for 40 days a parallel to the provisioning of the tabernacle for 40 years in the desert.  Since both are surrounded by covenant declarations and ‘signings’, we might see in the ark a type of the tabernacle, which is itself a type of ‘heaven’ or God’s ‘true’ temple on earth.

So too when the clean animals are sacrificed after the Flood (Gen 8:20-21), the description of the aroma being pleasing to YHWH mirrors that of Lev 1:17, where the sacrifices are a pleasing aroma to YHWH.

However, the EBC reflects older scholarship, and today current scholarship among Christian evangelical scholars are quite careful to avoid seeing too many parallels between the ark and the tabernacle.  There are similarities, to be sure, but neither the WBC, nor the NIVAC, nor the NICOT, nor the ILL BBC or IVP BBC, all modern evangelical commentaries ranked among the best commentaries on Genesis4, see the case for a comparison as strong enough to make it confidently.

NT views of the ark as metaphor for tabernacle

While readings of the OT text makes most modern scholars (it appears) uncomfortable with the exegesis of Gen 6-9 being a type for the tabernacle, which is in turn a type for Christ, we must acknowledge that the NT nevertheless sees typological notions–though not explicitly Christ himself–in the ark, in 1 Pet 3:18-22.  This passage states that the ark ‘prefigures’ baptism–or the public ‘covenant commitment’ to being saved by Christ.  While the exegesis of such baptism is absent from Gen 6-9 itself (since baptism only dates to Second Temple Judaism, it being a moral replacement for circumcision as a sign of covenant relationship with God), the NT’s testifying to it’s meaning binds us, in a high view of Scripture, to see it as such nonetheless.  Other passages that show us the tabernacle as a type of Christ than suggests a similar reading for the ark as a type of tabernacle.  We must tread carefully here, as most commentators do, acknowledging the possibility while also acknowledging the risk of allegorizing the Flood too much in order to fit into Peter’s (Canonized) eisegesis.

Christians, unlike Jews and Muslims, who share the same history of Noah’s Ark, are thus bound by 1 Peter’s reference to a view of the Flood narrative as a type of the trusting relationship that, paired with baptism, our the heart of a covenantal and personal relationship with the triune God.  This unique passage in the shared religious history of Judaism and Islam has Christians distinct in their explicit view of the ark.  However, it should be noted, while the baptism element is unique to Christian interpretation, the understanding of the ark as a theme of trust in God is shared by all three religions.  God is sovereign, and by saving Noah in an oversized floating chest with no steering capability or resemblance to any ancient ship, the point is made clear by Moses that it is trusting in God’s sovereign power–and not following his commands to build a seaworthy vessel–that leads to Noah’s, and humanity’s, literal salvation.

A clumsy application of Noah’s Ark

Speaking in application terms, so too we are to be careful in not interpreting our specific internal thoughts and intuitions as ad hoc coming from God, especially when they are minute in detail.  If God wanted you to float on water, he wouldn’t (at least in Moses’ theology) inspire in you the blueprints for a innovative new sea craft.  Instead, he would plop you in a bulky, unwieldy chest with no seaworthiness or means for human control, and then have you walk on, and close the door behind you–trusting your life into his hands.  For myself, that makes me question whether God is engineering like clockwork every single business decision I make, guiding clients toward my door while at the same time restructuring my business model to match my clients’ needs perfectly in a grand design.  Instead, Gen 6-9 seems to be saying, God has a purpose for me that involves me having little to no role in the hows and whys I make a living, and instead wants me to ‘sit back’ and trust in him to take care of my needs merely through trusting against all odds.

This is not to say, of course, that God is incapable of guiding our hand to select just the right egg carton in the supermarket to select just the right egg with just the right amount of Omega 3 to boost our brain just the right amount to swerve our car just the right amount to avoid missing the kid who just ran out into the street.  He is, of course, capable of everything.  But Gen 6-9 portrays Noah without having any emotional or intellectual insights or responses whatsoever to any events in the Flood, and of saying no words throughout the entire incident.  This does not sound like a man who was born in a ship-building town and given the right amount of knowledge to build a boat by God’s grand design.  Rather, Noah’s ship-building skill goes completely unmentioned–instead only his ability to trust in God (Hebrew ‘righteousness’) is mentioned.  God then gives him blueprints for an oversized chest, scarcely meant or–in pure physics terms–designed to be sea-worthy, and has Noah climb aboard.  Noah doesn’t even close the door behind him–God does.  The theme is one of trust, utter and complete, in God–not one of analyzing our inner thoughts to guess how we think God has designed our life to meet some purpose that we can deduce based on our skills.  The trust God wants of us is more complete, and more child-like than that.  And so Noah’s flat one-dimensional character is never meant to be any more than just that.

The science of the ark

One thing is for sure, and we will see this both with the animals that come aboard the ark, as well as the Flood itself.  The attempt by some Christians to demonstrate the scientific credibility of the Flood, the Ark, and the animals, misses the mark in it’s overzealous attempt to bend and squish the Bible into a modern scientific worldview.  By trying to produce ‘scientific’ models on which the narrative is scientifically verified, they miss the forest for the trees, and actively counter the entire spiritual message God is conveying in the story–that trusting in him and–if he asks–getting into a clunky chest instead of a sea-faring ship when the Flood arrives, is exactly the child-like type of faith he asks of us, and has always asked of us.  2 Timothy 3:16 says “Every scripture is God-breathed and useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness”.  It says nothing about warping scientific models of the world into an understanding of English translations of Scripture that paraphrase Hebrew so idiomatic it can’t be directly translated (Gen 7:16, see above for discussion).

‘Pop Christianity’, found on radio, TV, and in pop Christian books, has led much of the world to think that conservative Christianity with a high view of Scripture compels us to view the Bible as ‘trumping’ science or as needing to be verified by science.  One thing I think is paramount for Christians and atheists/agnostics to understand, is that this fundamentalist approach to the Bible is in fact not the same as the conservative evangelical approach to Scripture, which views the Bible as infallible.  While I won’t be providing the quotes themselves in this article, I’ve prepared a future post which quotes the introductions of the five most popular English translations, in which only of them holds to the pop Christian view that the Bible is a scientific authority–the other four, including the NIV, probably the most popular translation in evangelical circles, lack any such expression.

In preparing sermons, trained pastors5 usually consult commentaries which explain the background of the Biblical passage they are preaching on, nuances from the original language that are lost in translation or can be misinterpreted, and finally how other parts of the Bible speak to or clarify the passage in question.  While TV/radio/pop book Christianity, not to mention the internet, is full of all kinds of wild claims about the legitimacy of the ark and it’s supposed discoveries, it is crucial to note that:

1) Commentaries regularly cite archaeological evidence that supports historical claims made by the Bible, and archaeology and ancient near east literary texts are constantly consulted to aid pastors in preparing proper (exegetical) readings of Scripture.

2) Of all of the below commentaries, of which a number are among the highest rated modern commentaries in use, every single one holds to a high view of Scripture (as being infallible), and not a single one of these mentions any archaeology or historical claims of the ark itself except to point out the various hoaxes and falsehoods.  There is near-universal consensus amongst the translators of the Bible and the guides for pastors who shepherd their flocks, that the pursuit of the scientific credibility of the ark currently has zero credibility, and more to the point, that it is actually counter to the spiritual message of the Biblical Flood narrative.

These commentaries, all written by conservative evangelicals and amongst the top-rated ones currently in use by conservative evangelical pastors and Christians, universally refute or are silent on any question of the science or historical nature of the ark:

Illustrated Bible Background Commentary
IVP Bible Background Commentary
UBS Handbooks for Translators

If you are a Christian who is convinced that the historical claims of the ark are essential and necessary to the validity of the Bible and Christianity itself, you should know that you are at odds with:

1) The scholars who have compiled the current versions of the OT and NT in their original languages from the most ancient manuscripts
2) The translators who read these compiled versions, make their own interpretive choices on what are the most likely original verses, and make interpretive choices in their translations
3) The conservative evangelical schools whose professors research original materials and spend decades writing commentaries
4) The pastors who consult these commentaries to write their sermons for Christians

I think this is important to point out because the media has convinced both atheists and Christians that to be a ‘Bible-believing evangelical Christian’ you must hold this view, but as shown above, that media presentation is not accurate.  The reasons for this and discussion on it are a topic for another series in the future, but to start with, if you are interested, begin by exploring the difference between Biblical inerrancy and Biblical infallibility.

Next post we delve into the Flood itself, it’s description, meaning, and scientific interaction.

This is the seventh post in an extended series on Noah and the Flood (Gen 6-9).  For the first three posts:

1) Click here for a discussion on the Nephilim and sons of God in Gen 6:1-4
2) Click here for a discussion on the New Testament View of the Nephilim and sons of God in Gen 6:1-4
3) Click here for a discussion of the Cause of the Flood (Order vs. Chaos) in Gen 6:5-8
4) Click here for a discussion on God repenting and the animals being wiped out
5) Click here for a discussion on the Mesopotamian Flood and Genesis’ reliance on it
6) Click here for a discussion on the JEPD/Documentary hypothesis and why it’s a weak theory for the Flood narrative

This is a detailed series that focusses on nuanced and more complicated findings.  For a friendlier and more user friendly version of the same content, see the “coffee break version” of this series over here.