Sunday, June 14, 2015

Noah's ark

I'm going to assess some objections to Noah's ark:

i) A landlubber like Noah couldn't have the know-how to build such a sophisticated vessel. 

That may be a valid objection from a naturalistic perspective. But to take a comparison–God showed Moses a model of the tabernacle (Exod 25:9,40). What is more, God endowed Bezalel and the other artisans with the know-how to construct the tabernacle and its furnishings (Exod 31:1-11). By analogy, God could do the same thing for Noah and his work-crew, if need be. Genesis and Exodus are part of the same historical series. Same religious outlook. So that's consistent with the narrative viewpoint.

ii) Another objection is that the length of the ark exceeds the upper limit for a wooden boat. I'm no expert, but I believe it's analogous to a wooden bridge. Wooden beams have limited longitudinal strength. If a wooden bridge is too long, the keel will buckle in the middle. Even steel-hulled ships can break in half under certain conditions. And you can't even have a continuous beam (or keel) 450' long (from stem to stern), since trees don't grow tall enough to produce logs that long. 

Another issue is the seams coming apart due to wave action. The longer the wooden ship, the greater the stress on the joints. Not to mention if you're having to join shorter beams to create one long keel. 

iii) That betrays certain tension in YEC. On the one hand, YEC needs an ark large enough to accommodate enough animals to repopulate the globe. On the other hand, would a wooden vessel that large have structural integrity? Would it hold together? 

By contrast, OEC doesn't have the same requirements. 

iv) Keep in mind that the ark was only built to last for about a year. 

v) One issue is the length of a cubit. It's typically defined as the distance between the elbow and the middle finger. Problem with that definition is it makes a cubit person-variable. It has no standard length. A cubit would be longer if a tall person is the ruler. 

vi) Another possibility is iron reinforcement. Gen 4:22 refers to iron. That may allude to meteoric iron. Perhaps the ark had iron bracing. 

For instance, Viking ships used some iron components:

Iron nails were often used as well as washers during the construction of a vessel, iron rivets were also used in the later Viking Age…In some cases, such as the Gokstad ship, iron bands were used to repair masts that had split due to strain from the sail.

I don't know for a fact that iron reinforcement would be sufficient to solve the engineering challenges. But it's something to consider. 

vii) There's evidence of huge wooden ships. The Tessarakonteres was reputedly about 425 ft. long. For more, see:

Ming dynasty treasure junks were reputedly immense:

The largest of the junks were said to be over 400 feet long and 150 feet wide…Were the reported dimensions of the biggest galleons—over 400 feet long by 150 wide—gross exaggerations? If accurate, these dimensions would signal the biggest wooden ships ever built. Only the mightiest wooden warships of the Victorian age approached these lengths, and several of these vessels suffered from structural problems that required extensive internal iron supports to hold the hull together…However, in 1962, the rudderpost of a treasure ship was excavated in the ruins of one of the Ming boatyards in Nanjing. This timber was no less than 36 feet long. Reverse engineering using the proportions typical of a traditional junk indicated a hull length of around 500 feet.

viii) Of course, we bypassed the engineering challenges of wooden ships when better building materials came along (iron, steel). If, however, we were stuck with wood, we might have figured out solutions. Humans are remarkably ingenious when they have to be. 

Solutions may not occur to us because we have no occasion to give it much thought. Steel mooted the need to solve those problems. But humans adapt to the environmental resources them have. They can be very clever about outfoxing the limitations. Do remarkable things with seemingly unpromising materials. 

ix) Both objections and defenses of the ark share a common, unquestioned assumption: that it was a wooden vessel. I assume there are two reason for that: (a) ancient ships were made of wood; (a) Genesis says the ark was made of "gopher [wood]."  

That, however, may not be a given. To begin with, if you consult standard commentaries, they will inform you that we don't know what "gopher" was. Scholars don't know what kind of tree that came from. Translations render it "gopher wood," but the Hebrew doesn't say "wood." 

When you think about it, that's surprising. At least it's surprising to me. If this was such a useful natural building material, why was the meaning of the word forgotten? You'd expect that building material to remain in fairly continuous use. 

Perhaps that kind of tree was destroyed in the flood. But maybe it wasn't wood at all.

To take a comparison, consider manna. We don't really know what that is, either. Some scholars think it's a secretion of the tamarisk plant. But there are details in the Biblical description that resist a naturalistic explanation. Manna seems to be a foodstuff that God created ex nihilo.

Likewise, "gopher" made have been a supernatural building material. A malleable lightweight material with great tensile strength.  

x) I'd add that even if the Hebrew said it was made of gopher wood, etymology is unreliable. Indeed, the Pentateuch contains a number of folk etymologies.

Is a pineapple tree a pine tree that bears apples? No. Is a chalkboard made of chalk? No. Were the USS New Ironsides made of iron? No. 


  1. I wonder what the "upper limit" of wooden ships actually refers to. Usually that doesn't refer to a hard limit, it just means that it becomes structurally inefficient past a certain point, thus incurring a large weight and cost penalty. What critical failure mode do the critics have in mind? I can think of some theoretical limits if we are talking about some type of beam failure, where the ark is a long, unsupported beam spanning between the crests of 2 large waves. For any given cross-sectional dimensions, that theoretical limit would be approached as the span is increased, the mass increases, and the beam goes from a thin-shelled cross-section and approaches a solid (i.e. no interior volume). I can run the numbers, but I'd bet that that is orders of magnitude off of the kind of design the Bible is describing for the ark.

    They might have in mind more practical problems. Although the lack of very long timber to make a continuous beam would not be a particular problem. All boats (except dugout boats) have had to employ joint systems in their construction. Joints that ensure longitudinal continuity are no different. I assume that, even without metal, they would have had rope, wooden pegs, and perhaps primitive adhesives.

    I also wonder if we can really characterize the wave action of the storm that is described in Genesis. Is it really realistic to envision the crests of 2 waves 450' apart, holding up the bow and stern of the ark, such that there is nothing but air underneath the rest of the ark?

    Perhaps it would not be practical with a large ship, but one strategy one could use to alleviate the maximum stress the wood would see would be to engineer some flexibility into the structure. If the keel can deflect sufficiently, the ship could be partially conformal to the shape of the wave, thus driving down the bending moment.

  2. Gophers, although adept at tunneling, are extremely buoyant and flexible. Plus they're cuddly and furry while being water resistant.

    1. I don't know if Noah and family ate unclean animals, but gophers are also a potential food source. Taste like archaeopteryx.