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Visualizing the Flood: Noah’s Ark (Coffee Break Version)

This is the seventh post in an extended series on Noah and the Flood (Gen 6-9).  For the first six posts, click here for a discussion on:

1) The Nephilim and sons of God in Gen 6:1-4
2) The New Testament View of the Nephilim and sons of God in Gen 6:1-4
3) The Causes of the Flood in Gen 6:5-8
4) God repenting and the animals being wiped out in the Flood
5) The Mesopotamian precedents to the Flood narrative
6) The JEPD/Documentary hypothesis and why it’s a weak theory for the Flood narrative

This series is a summary series that focusses on broad findings.  For details, nuances, and debate, see the “geeky 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 the ‘ark’ and what is it’s significance?

(1) Definition and where the word comes from

If you’ve never thought about it before, you might now notice that ‘ark’ is never a word you use outside the English bible.  The reason for this is that the word ‘ark’ means ‘chest’ or ‘box’, and not, in the slightest, ‘boat’ or ‘ship’.  Below is the chart showing the history of the word, both it’s (likely) Egyptian root, and how it turned from it’s Hebrew form into it’s English form:

Noah - Flood - Ark - Hebrew - Greek

The history of the word ‘ark’


While it is probably pretentious to refer to ‘Noah’s chest’ or ‘Noah’s box’ on a regular basis, when our topic is the background of Noah’s ark, it is natural to clarify that the word ‘ark’ is merely a loan word from Latin, that it has a very specific meaning (chest), and that there is no reason to avoid this meaningful word for the non-explanatory ‘ark’.  So for this post only, we will refer to this object as what the Bible says it is: a chest.  To clarify any confusion the word behind ‘ark’ in ‘ark of the covenant’ is an entirely different word, which also means ‘chest’.

This word for Noah’s chest is used in only two other locations in the entire OT–and those are in Ex 2:3 and Ex 2:5, to describe the chest that baby Moses was put in when his mother gave him up after birth (although the English translation often uses ‘basket’ instead of ‘chest’).

This begs the question, why on earth did God have Noah build a chest, and not a boat, to survive the Flood?  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 definitely incorrect in translating the vocabulary.

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)), 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 Gen 6-9–the point is not that Noah survived because he was righteous).  This is much more visible when Noah is floating in a giant chest or box, and not in a great boat designed for the sea.  Whether or not the chest would float, God was necessary to steer and safeguard the chest.


(2) The wood and adhesive used

While some English translations attempt to translate the Hebrew ‘gopher wood’ into a specific species of tree, such as cyprus or cedar, the fact is that ‘gopher wood’ has no known English equivalent, and can only be guessed at.  In the Greek translation of the OT that the NT writers quoted from, the Septuagint, the Greek didn’t specify a species at all but instead translated ‘gopher’ as a quality of wood, namely ‘square wood’ (meaning ‘good for carpentry’, in this context).  Thus, it is possible the text never had a species of tree in mind, but rather a quality of wood.  It is best left untranslated, as many English translations choose to do today.

The adhesive used to keep the planks of ‘gopher wood’ together is often translated ‘pitch’, but the Hebrew word, ‘kofer’, means ‘bitumen’, a known adhesive.  Other scholars suggest that kofer means ‘reeds’ instead of ‘bitumen’.  This translation choice then sees Noah’s chest as being built by a combination of ‘gopher’ wood and reeds.


(3) The roof, ‘windows’, door, and decks: The shape of the chest

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

Accurate-ish representation of the Biblical chest/box/ark. Source: http://principlesforlifeministries.com/2012/05/

English translations imply that Gen 7:15-16 is straightforward, but in fact the Hebrew is quite idiomatic (doesn’t translate well into other languages), and all translators are forced to make interpretive choices that usually differ from other translations when they come to these verses.  What is clear is that it is a rectangular chest, with the dimensions being 135 m long, 22 m broad, and 45 m deep.  It is not curved like a boat, but is quite literally a floating box–just a dramatically over-sized one.  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.  In these accounts, though, 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 is one and 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 that its 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 describe).

(4) What is most important to note is that the chest contains no ‘rudder’, ‘sails’, or any means of a human being able to control it’s direction.  As described in the Bible, Noah’s chest is simply a floating box, not a ship in any sense of the word.  The entire point of it is that it places it’s contents in the hands of God to keep it safe.  The construction of it left no room for Noah to have any influence over it’s direction or safety.

The ‘window’ or ‘skylight’ found in some English translations is purely generated by English paraphrases of the difficult Hebrew in Gen 7:13.  Most commentaries reject the view of windows or skylights being present in this verse.  They are only theoretical from the description of the roof being raised 1 cubit, and the presumption that the space in between is windows (or vent) spaces.  Now, there is one 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).

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

Accurate-ish representation of the Biblical chest/box/ark. Source: http://www.conservapedia.com/Noah’s_Ark




(4) 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’ time period), 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.  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 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.   Namely 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, namely the theological meaning of human agency needing to give up and trust in God.



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


Arguments for the ark as metaphor for tabernacle

One important note that is contested among scholars is that the ark might be a type or ‘foreshadowing’ of the tabernacle of Moses’ generation.  IF this is true, and it is not agreed upon that it is, it is significant because the NT claims that the tabernacle is a type of Christ.  For details on this debate, see the geeky version of this post here.  One quote of note is that 1 Pet 3:18-22 clearly refers to the the ark as a type of baptism–but not necessarily of Christ himself.


A clumsy application of Noah’s Ark

When applying Noah’s ark to our own lives, we should be careful not to interpret our specific internal thoughts and intuitions as necessarily 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 an 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 start our car at the exact right time, so that we make a turn at exact right time, in order to avoid a collision.  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

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

Source: http://beautyofthebible.com/2009/10/15/oh-crap-that-was-funny-regan-dinosaur-cartoon/

Three things need to be mentioned when we come to an understanding of the modern evangelical approach to the science and history of the ark:

(1) Evangelical Christian scholarship actively refutes or is silent on any claims to the scientific credibility of Noah’s ark
(2) The point or moral of the Flood narrative is that Noah didn’t build a ship–but instead built a chest.  It’s not supposed to be an impressive sea-worthy vessel
(3) The pop Christian market that has pushed for the legitimacy of the science behind the ark is not taken seriously or even addressed by Christian scholars

(1) Evangelical Christian scholarship actively refutes or is silent on any claims to the scientific credibility of Noah’s ark

The Bible did not descend from heaven.  It is compiled from thousands of ancient manuscripts, not a single one of which agrees fully with any other.  It is painstakingly compared on a rigorous methodology by believing Christian scholars, whose methodology is increasingly refined and modified every decade.  The current edition of the OT is in it’s 4th edition, and the NT is in it’s 28th edition.  New editions for both are announced as being released within the next decade.

When the scholars mentioned above finish their work, they don’t just deliver ‘The OT’ and ‘The NT’ to translators.  They also pass on thousands upon thousands of textual notes as to why they chose certain manuscripts over others in arriving at the current edition of the Bible.  The translators then take over, and don’t just translate a received copy, but themselves consult these manuscript traditions and make their own decisions as to which manuscripts are most likely to be original.  There is not a single English translation of the Bible that agrees with the same background text as other English translations.  Biblical translation is not just about translation, it’s about interpretation of what is the real Bible behind the scenes, and given that, how to translate innumerable phrases that lose meaning when brought into English.

Commentators also work from the same position as translators, and in their commenting on the text of the Bible, make their own decisions as to what the ‘real Bible’ is behind the text, and how to interpret it.

Pastors then use these commentaries and other sources to write their sermons, which they then deliver to their congregation members on Sundays.

The scholars, translators, and commentators, are all (well, mostly) practicing Christians holding to a high view of Scripture as being infallible.  There is near universal-consensus among these Christians that the pursuit of scientific credibility for the Flood narrative is irrelevant to the spiritual meaning of the text.  Some of these sources mention evidence against the scientific credibility of the ark, and some don’t even mention the theories at all.

That is, if you believe that the Flood, the ark, and the animals on the ark can be researched in such a way to be scientifically justified, you are at odds with almost all of the people who have given you your Bible, the people who translated it for you, and the people who spend decades of their lives preparing background material so that pastors can write their sermons for you every Sunday.  If you choose to participate in the internet, TV, radio, and pop book community that perpetuates this view of the Flood and the ark, you should do so knowing you are going against the grain of the Christians who know Scripture in the greatest detail, and who are believers in its infallibility.  That seems like an unwise choice to me.


(2) The point or moral of the Flood narrative is that Noah didn’t build a ship–but instead built a chest.  It’s not supposed to be an impressive sea-worthy vessel

All of the attempts by the pop Christian movement like the Answers in Genesis museum, and the scores of books and TV shows on the issue, find themselves in the rather ironic position of going against mainstream evangelical Christianity–and more importantly Scripture itself–when they try to make arguments for the chest’s sea-worthiness, or ‘discovery’ in the latest hoax or misunderstood claim.  By making elaborate arguments for the ‘ark being scientifically possible’, they are actually diminishing the central moral and point of the Biblical story in the first place, by taking away credit from God and giving it to the ark.  As Gen 6-9 makes clear with it’s minimalist portrayal of Noah, the point of the Flood story is that God gets all of the credit, and humanity gets none of it.

 

(3) The pop Christian market that has pushed for the legitimacy of the science behind the ark is not taken seriously or even addressed by Christian scholars

The Christian market is a powerful force.  One source puts it at $1.75 trillion a year for Christian buyers who actively target their shopping to only Christian services1, and if it’s just shoppers who call themselves Christian, the number jumps up to more than $5 trillion a year2.  There is a lot to be made from producing conspiracy theories that the ark could fit ‘all the animals of the world’ and other such claims on it.  There are three full-scale models that can be visited around the world today (all of them inaccurate, incidentally, especially in the way that matters most, since they can be steered).  This industry is so large that they have convinced not only atheists and agnostics but also even Christians that the majority of Christians view the Bible as a document that speaks to science and scientific credibility in all its claims.

This is simply not true, as discussed above.  To borrow the phrase, the ‘silent majority’ of Christians likely do not hold to such a view, and, perhaps more importantly, the men and women whose work gives us our increasingly accurate Bible and all it’s translations and commentaries, are a ‘not-so-silent’ minority who explicitly want nothing to do with the industry built up around Creationism, radioactive dating conspiracy theories, and worldwide Flood claims.

The geeky version of this post lists the major commentaries used today, all of which not only disagree with the claims mentioned above, but also give the entire industry the ‘silent treatment’, choosing in an ironically Dawkins-like approach not even to engage in dialogue with such theories.

Since my blog is generally devoted to translating modern evangelical scholarship into layman’s terms, I will adopt this approach too, and not dip into any of the outlandish theories behind this.  In this post we discussed why the ark shouldn’t be sea-worthy or ‘scientific’.  In the next post we’ll discuss why modern Christianity denies that the Bible makes any claim to a worldwide Flood.



This is the seventh post in an extended series on Noah and the Flood (Gen 6-9).  For the first six posts, click here for a discussion on:

1) The Nephilim and sons of God in Gen 6:1-4
2) The New Testament View of the Nephilim and sons of God in Gen 6:1-4
3) The Causes of the Flood in Gen 6:5-8
4) God repenting and the animals being wiped out in the Flood
5) The Mesopotamian precedents to the Flood narrative
6) The JEPD/Documentary hypothesis and why it’s a weak theory for the Flood narrative

This series is a summary series that focusses on broad findings.  For details, nuances, and debate, see the “geeky version” of this series over here.