The Shape of Noah’s Ark

If I mention Noah’s ark, you probably imagine a structure that looks something like this.

noahs-ark-afloat

This image of the ark owes more to popular imagination than the actual instructions in Genesis. Although God gave Noah guidelines to the size and composition of the ark, He didn’t really specify the shape of the ark.

14 So make yourself an ark of cypress wood; make rooms in it and coat it with pitch inside and out. 15 This is how you are to build it: The ark is to be three hundred cubits long, fifty cubits wide and thirty cubits high.16 Make a roof for it, leaving below the roof an opening one cubit high all around. Put a door in the side of the ark and make lower, middle and upper decks. (Gen 6:14-16)

The NIV and many other modern translations use cypress to translate the Hebrew word gopher. It is not certain what kind of wood gopher actually refers to and older translations often simply transliterated the word. I would prefer they use the term gopher. A cubit is a translation of the Hebrew word ammah. Both the Latin cubitus and the Hebrew ammah are a measurement based on the length of the fore arm, from the elbow to the finger or wrist. Ancient measurements were seldom standardized but a we may think of a cubit as about eighteen inches. This would make the dimensions of the ark about 450 feet long, 50 feet wide and 30 feet high, or in metric terms about 137 x 23 x 14 meters.

It is not clear whether a wooden vessel with such dimensions would actually be seaworthy. There are, of course, many modern ships which dwarf Noah’s ark, including aircraft carriers, cruise ships and super tankers, but they are made of steel, which is stronger than wood. Another problem with large wooden ships is that  longer timbers flex allowing water to leak in. According to Wikipedia, one of  the longest purely wooden ship that actually sailed was the Wyoming with a length of 329 feet. The planks in this ship twisted in heavy weather so the crew had to continually pump out the leaking sea water. It sank in 1924 with all hands lost. In the nineteenth century, there were  the HMS Orlando and the HMS Mersey at 335 feet. Their length made them all but useless and they were eventually decommissioned and sold for scrap. There have been other wooden ships of similar size or larger, but for the most part they used some iron or steel in their constructions or they did not actually sail in the open sea. There are historical records of even larger vessels in ancient times, but these accounts cannot be confirmed and were likely exaggerated.

It would seem, then, that Noah’s Ark as it is usually imagined isn’t likely to have survived the great flood and to have stayed afloat the the year or so it took for the waters to recede, unless the ark was miraculous or gopher wood had properties not found in any contemporary type of lumber. So, must we regard the story of Noah’s ark as purely legendary? Perhaps. Or, perhaps Noah’s ark was not built in quite the way it is usually pictured. This leads me at last to this report at Fox News about the possible appearance of the ark.

In Darren Aronofksy’s forthcoming epic “Noah,” the vessel by which the biblical hero saves himself, his family, and pairs of animals from the apocalyptic flood appears like a huge shipping container standing some 50 feet tall and 500 feet long.

The design was inspired by “going back to what God tells Noah in the Bible,” Aronofksy said in a behind-the-scenes featurette recently released by Paramount.

The problem is, Russell Crowe’s Noah might have gotten the wrong instruction manual.

The original Noah’s Ark was a giant round vessel, says a script on an 3,700-old clay tablet now on display at the British Museum in London.

Found in the Middle East in the late 1940s by Leonard Simmons, who then passed it to his son Douglas, the cracked, smartphone-sized tablet consists of 60 lines in cuneiform. It was translated by Irving Finkel, curator of the British Museum’s 130,000 Mesopotamian clay tablet collection.

The tablet turned out to be a detailed construction manual for building an ark with palm-fiber ropes, wooden ribs and coated in hot bitumen to make it waterproof.

The vessel, however, was round.

“The Babylonians of around 1750 believed the ark in the flood story was a giant version of the type of coracle that they actually used on the rivers,” Finkel told Discovery News.

The coracle described in the tablet was “the largest the world had ever dreamed of, with an area of 3,600 square meters, and 6-meter high walls,” Finkel said.

“A round boat makes perfect sense in Mesopotamia where round boats are likely to have been used on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. It would not have made much sense in the Levant where you don’t have rivers like that,” Elizabeth Stone, an anthropology professor at New York’s Stony Brook University, told Discovery News.

Indeed, a waterproofed coracle would never sink.

“Being round isn’t a problem — it never had to go anywhere: all it had to do was float and keep the contents safe: a cosmic lifeboat,” Finkel wrote in his British Museum blog.

This makes a lot of sense. I would guess, without knowing much about ship building, that a round vessel would be better able to withstand rough seas and flooding. It might be more difficult to steer, but Noah wasn’t trying to get anywhere. This is even some Biblical reason for believing the ark was not shaped like a sea going ship. The Hebrew word that is translated into ark is teba, which is used in only one other place in the Bible, to describe the basket that Moses’s mother placed the infant Moses in to save him from Pharaoh.

 Now a man of the tribe of Levi married a Levite woman, and she became pregnant and gave birth to a son. When she saw that he was a fine child, she hid him for three months. But when she could hide him no longer, she got a papyrus basket for him and coated it with tar and pitch. Then she placed the child in it and put it among the reeds along the bank of the Nile. His sister stood at a distance to see what would happen to him.

Then Pharaoh’s daughter went down to the Nile to bathe, and her attendants were walking along the riverbank. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her female slave to get it. She opened it and saw the baby. He was crying, and she felt sorry for him. “This is one of the Hebrew babies,” she said. (Ex 2:1-6)

This basket was, perhaps, a small coracle, such as was used for river travel. The ark, then, could have been a very large coracle. The idea behind Noah’s ark was not so much a ship for traveling by sea as a refuge against a disaster.

Incidentally, the Hebrew word for the Ark of the Covenant, the one Indiana Jones was looking for is aron. If Strong’s Hebrew dictionary of the Bible is correct than the Biblical Hebrew word for ship was oniy.

This, does not, of course mean that the story of Noah’s ark and a global flood is literally true, though perhaps it adds a bit of credibility to the story. Irving Finkel  doesn’t believe it, though.

“I do not believe the ark really existed,” Finkel said.

“I think that the flood story echoes the memory of a real devastation but that the ark is a component of the mythology that developed to avert the fear of its happening again,” he concluded.

I think there is a lot more to the story than a vague memory of a disaster and a myth developed to reassure people, but that is a topic for another time.

 

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