The size and contents of Noah’s ark

  • Question from JB, Australia

    Creationists are well known for explaining the size of Noah’s Ark as adequate to accommodate even dinosaurs, but how can anyone explain how the ark could have accommodated the sheer number of species in the world? One biologist recently estimated that the world today contains thirty million species, 97 per cent of which are insects. The Bible says that the flood wiped out all living things, and that the ark contained all living things. Further, it would seem that sea creatures were not included in the ark, but if not, why would God treat them differently in his plan to destroy all living creatures – except for the one (unclean animal) or seven (clean animal) pairs of each that were taken into the ark?

    Thanks for the question, JB. This is a theme that keeps reoccurring at the moment with regards to the early parts of Genesis. There are a number of things to note about the ark story. Firstly, it has been included in Genesis to tell us about God’s character and the fact that God does not tolerate human sin. The story in Genesis chapter 9 verses 18-29 about Noah’s drunkenness shows that the ‘warning’ of the flood did not restore the right relationship between humans and God. It is a mistake to blindly assert the ‘fact’ of the flood without drawing out the reason behind it (see below).

    Secondly, there are instances where Biblical terms are literally translated as ‘the whole world’, but probably do not mean the whole world as we are aware of it now. (A good New Testament example of this is in Acts 2 v 5 “God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven” – really, where are the Welsh?) In the case of the Noah story the Hebrew word translated as ‘earth’ in chapter 6 verse 17 is usually translated as ‘land’ or ‘country’ in chapter 10 verse 10.

    The limitations of ‘the whole world’ as a phrase probably refer to the known world, i.e. the region surrounding the Mediterranean and the ‘fertile crescent’. This phrase becomes more enigmatic when we realise that the Noah story is one of the oldest stories in the Bible. Comparative accounts have been found in Babylonian legend, with very close parallels to the Noah story, but without the spiritual message. The likelihood is that there was some kind of civilisation-destroying flood in South Mesopotamia a long time ago in human history (there is certainly evidence in rock formations and silt deposits for this hypothesis). Whether the destruction of ‘the whole world’ as it was known to the writer ‘only’ means Mesopotamia is one way to look at this and does not diminish the catastrophic effect of the flood.

    It is very unlikely that dinosaurs were included in Noah’s manifest and many creationists posit the Great Deluge as the extinction event that caused the dinosaurs to die out and, of course, artificially age the Earth considerably. As has been said on freelance theology before, building a huge cosmology on the basis of these Biblical accounts is up to the individual. However, there is a danger that in getting wrapped up in the ‘how’, people can easily lose focus on the ‘why’.

    What we see in Genesis and Exodus is a progression. God is in relationship with humans who sin. Punishment does not work. The covenant with Noah’s descendants (all of humanity) soon leads to the prideful project of Babel. With mankind scattered, the next covenant is with Abraham. However, that does not seem to have the holding power it should, so a covenant is made on Sinai with the nation of Israel (one offshoot of Abraham’s family). Even that doesn’t work, hence the Incarnation and a personal covenant made individually, either with the ‘elect’, or those who choose to know ‘Christ and him crucified’ (whatever your view on predestination may be).

    Along this timeline, Noah’s story is one of a God angered by human rebellion, pride, selfishness and ingratitude and acts as a warning to wayward human beings today. Asking ‘how big was the ark?’ is not really the issue, in the opinion of this theologian.

    I hope this answers your question, JB.

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