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Noah's Ark (Hebrew: תיבת נח, Tevat Noach; Arabic: سفينة نوح, Safina Nuh) is the vessel, which, according to the Book of Genesis, was built by the Patriarch Noah at God's command to save himself, his family and the world's animals from a worldwide deluge. The narrative features in a number of Abrahamic religions including Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

The biblical account, told in the Book of Genesis 6-9, tells how God sends a great flood to destroy the earth because of man's wickedness and because the earth is corrupt. God tells Noah, a righteous man in his generation, to build a large vessel to save his family and a representation of the world's animals. God gives detailed instructions for the Ark, and after its completion, sends the animals to Noah. God then sends the Flood which rises until all the mountains are covered and every living thing died. Then "God remembered Noah," the waters abate, and dry land reappears. Noah, his family, and the animals leave the Ark, and God enters a covenant to never again send a flood to destroy the Earth.

The narrative has been subject to extensive elaborations in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, ranging from hypothetical solutions to practical problems (e.g. waste disposal and the problem of lighting the interior), through to theological interpretations (e.g. the Ark as the precursor of the church in offering salvation to mankind). Although traditionally accepted as historical, by the 19th century the discoveries of archaeologists and biblical scholars had led most people to abandon a literal interpretation of the Ark story. Nevertheless, biblical literalists continue to explore the region of the mountains of Ararat, in eastern Turkey, where the Bible says the Ark came to rest.

Biblical narrative

(Quotations from the English Standard Version)

God observes that the earth is corrupted with violence and decides to destroy all life. But Noah "was a righteous man, blameless in his generation, [and] Noah walked with God," and God gives him instructions for the construction of an ark, into which he is told to bring "two of every sort [of animal] ... male and female," and their food.

God instructs Noah to board the Ark with his family, seven pairs of the birds and the clean animals, and two pairs of the unclean animals. "On the same day all the fountains of the great deep were broken up, and the windows of heaven were opened, and the rain was upon the earth," and God closes up the door of the Ark. The flood begins, and the waters prevail until all the high mountains are covered fifteen cubits deep, and all the people and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens are blotted out from the earth, and only Noah and those with him in the Ark remain.

Then "God remembered Noah," and causes his wind to blow, and the fountains of the deep and the windows of the heavens are closed, and the rain is restrained, and the waters abate. In the seventh month the Ark rests on the mountains of Ararat, and in the tenth month the tops of the mountains are seen. Noah sends out a raven and a dove to see if the waters have subsided; the raven flies "to and fro" and the dove returns with a fresh olive leaf in her beak. Noah waits seven days more and sends out the dove again, and this time it does not return.

"In the six hundred and first year, in the first month, the first day of the month, the waters were dried from off the earth, and Noah removed the covering of the ark and looked, and behold, the face of the ground was dry." God tells Noah to leave the ark, Noah offers a sacrifice to God, and God resolves never again to destroy the earth, "for the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth." God grants to Noah and his sons the right to kill animals and eat their meat, but forbids meat which has not been drained of its blood. Blood is proclaimed sacred: "For your lifeblood I will require a reckoning: from every beast I will require it and from man...Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image." Then God establish his covenant with Noah and his sons and with all living things, and places the rainbow in the clouds, "the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth."

The Ark in later traditions

In Rabbinic tradition

The story of Noah and the Ark was subject to much discussion in later Jewish rabbinic literature. While Noah was building an ark he preached to his neighbors but no one listened, making fun of him instead. In order to protect Noah and his family, God placed lions and other ferocious animals to guard them from the wicked who tried to stop them from entering the Ark. According to one midrash, it was God, or the angels, who gathered the animals to the Ark, together with their food. As there had been no need to distinguish between clean and unclean animals before this time, the clean animals made themselves known by kneeling before Noah as they entered the Ark. A differing opinion said that the Ark itself distinguished clean animals from unclean, admitting seven each of the former and two each of the latter.

Noah was engaged both day and night in feeding and caring for the animals, and did not sleep for the entire year aboard the Ark. The animals were the best of their species, and so behaved with utmost goodness. They abstained from procreation, so that the number of creatures that disembarked was exactly equal to the number that embarked. The raven created problems, refusing to go out of the Ark when Noah sent it forth and accusing the patriarch of wishing to destroy its race, but as the commentators pointed out, God wished to save the raven, for its descendants were destined to feed the prophet Elijah.

Refuse was stored on the lowest of the Ark's three decks, humans and clean beasts on the second, and the unclean animals and birds on the top. A differing opinion placed the refuse in the utmost storey, from where it was shovelled into the sea through a trapdoor. Precious stones, bright as midday, provided light, and God ensured that food was kept fresh. The giant Og, king of Bashan, was among those saved, but owing to his size had to remain outside, Noah passing him food through a hole cut into the wall of the Ark.

In Christian tradition

From the first century, Christians interpreted the story to fit the new religion. In the First Epistle of Peter those saved by the Ark from the waters of the Flood are said to prefigure the salvation of God's Elect through baptism, St. Hippolytus of Rome, (d. 235), seeking to demonstrate that "the ark was a symbol of the Christ who was expected", stated that the vessel had its door on the east side - the direction from which Christ would appear at the Second Coming - that the bones of Adam were brought aboard together with gold, frankincense and myrrh - symbols of the Nativity of Christ - and that the Ark floated to and fro in the four directions on the waters, making the sign of the cross, before eventually landing on Mount Kardu "in the east, in the land of the sons of Raban, and the Orientals call it Mount Godash; the Armenians and Persians call it Ararat". On a more practical plane, Hippolytus explained that the ark was built in three stories, the lowest for wild beasts, the middle for birds and domestic animals, and the top level for humans, and that the male animals were separated from the females by sharp stakes so that there would be no cohabitation aboard the vessel.

From the same period the early church Father Origen (c. 182–251), responding to a critic who doubted that the Ark could contain all the animals in the world, countered with a learned argument about cubits, holding that Moses, the traditional author of the book of Genesis, had been brought up in Egypt and would therefore have used the larger Egyptian cubit. He also fixed the shape of the Ark as a truncated pyramid, square at its base, and tapering to a square peak one cubit on a side; it was not until the 12th century that it came to be thought of as a rectangular box with a sloping roof.

Early Christian artists depicted Noah standing in a small box on the waves, symbolising God saving the church as it persevered through turmoil, and St. Augustine of Hippo (354–430), in City of God, demonstrated that the dimensions of the Ark corresponded to the dimensions of the human body, which is the body of Christ, which is the Church. St. Jerome (c. 347–420) called the raven, which was sent forth and did not return, the "foul bird of wickedness" expelled by baptism; more enduringly, the dove and olive branch came to symbolize the Holy Spirit and the hope of salvation and, eventually, peace.

In Islamic tradition

Noah (Nuh) is one of the five principal prophets of Islam. References are scattered through the Qur'an, with the fullest account in surah Hud (11:27–51). As a prophet, Noah preached to his people, but with little success; only "a few" of them converted (traditionally thought to be seventy). Noah prayed for deliverance, and God told him to build a ship in preparation for the flood. The flood destroys all of Noah's people; a son (named either 'Canaan' or 'Yam' depending on the source) of Noah's wife was among those drowned, despite Noah pleading with God to save him.

In the Qur'an itself, there is no indication that the flood was worldwide, only that it destroyed all the unbelievers among Noah's people. Some Muslim authorities have nevertheless adopted the Judeo-Christian view that the flood was global.

In contrast to the Jewish tradition, which uses a term which can be translated as a "box" or "chest" to describe the Ark, surah 29:14 refers to it as a safina, an ordinary ship, and surah 54:13 as "a thing of boards and nails". `Abd Allah ibn `Abbas, a contemporary of Muhammad, wrote that Noah was in doubt as to what shape to make the Ark, and that Allah revealed to him that it was to be shaped like a bird's belly and fashioned of teak wood. Noah then planted a tree, which in 20 years had grown enough to provide him all the wood he needed.

Abdallah ibn 'Umar al-Baidawi, writing in the 13th century, gives the length of the Ark as 300 cubits (157 m, 515 ft) by 50 (26.2 m, 86 ft) in width, 30 (15.7 m, 52 ft) in height, and explains that in the first of the three levels wild and domesticated animals were lodged, in the second the human beings, and in the third the birds. On every plank was the name of a prophet. Three missing planks, symbolising three prophets, were brought from Egypt by Og, son of Anak, the only one of the giants permitted to survive the Flood. The body of Adam was carried in the middle to divide the men from the women. Sura 11:41 says: "And he said, 'Ride ye in it; in the Name of God it moves and stays!'" takes this to mean that Noah said, "In the Name of God!" when he wished the Ark to move, and the same when he wished it to stand still.

Noah spent five or six months aboard the Ark, at the end of which he sent out a raven. But the raven stopped to feast on carrion, and so Noah cursed it and sent out the dove, which has been known ever since as the friend of mankind. The medieval scholar Abu al-Hasan Ali ibn al-Husayn Masudi (died 956) writes that God commanded the earth to absorb the water, and certain portions which were slow in obeying received salt water in punishment and so became dry and arid. The water which was not absorbed formed the seas, so that the waters of the flood still exist. Masudi says that the Ark began its voyage at Kufamarker in central Iraq and sailed to Meccamarker, circling the Kaabamarker before finally traveling to Mount Judimarker, which surah 11:44 states was its final resting place. This mountain is identified by tradition with a hill near the town of Jazirat ibn Umar on the east bank of the Tigrismarker in the province of Mosulmarker in northern Iraq, and Masudi says that the spot where it came to rest could be seen in his time.

Noah left the Ark on the tenth day of Muharram, and he and his family and companions built a town at the foot of Mount Judi named Thamanin ("eighty"), from their number. Noah then locked the Ark and entrusted the keys to Shem. Yaqut al-Hamawi (1179–1229) mentions a mosque built by Noah which could be seen in his day, and Ibn Batutta passed the mountain on his travels in the 14th century. Modern Muslims, although not generally active in searching for the Ark, believe that it still exists on the high slopes of the mountain.

In other traditions

The Mandaeans of the southern Iraqi marshes practice a religion that was possibly influenced in part by early followers of John the Baptist. They regard Noah as a prophet, while rejecting Abraham (and Jesus) as false prophets. In the version given in their scriptures, the ark was built of sandalwood from Jebel Harun and was cubic in shape, with a length, width and height of 30 gama (the length of an arm); its final resting place is said to be Egyptmarker.

The religion of the Yazidi of the Sinjarmarker mountains of northern Iraq blends indigenous and Islamic beliefs. According to their Mishefa Reş, the Deluge occurred not once, but twice. The original Deluge is said to have been survived by a certain Na'umi, father of Ham, whose ark landed at a place called Ain Sifni, in the region of Mosulmarker. Some time after this came the second flood, upon the Yezidis only, which was survived by Noah, whose ship was pierced by a rock as it floated above Mount Sinjarmarker, then went on to land on Mount Judi as described in Islamic tradition.

The Bahá'í Faith regards the Ark and the Flood as symbolic. In Bahá'í belief, only Noah's followers were spiritually alive, preserved in the ark of his teachings, as others were spiritually dead. The Bahá'í scripture Kitáb-i-Íqán endorses the Islamic belief that Noah had a large number of companions, either 40 or 72, besides his family on the Ark, and that he taught for 950 (symbolic) years before the flood.

Historicity: The Ark and science

Various editions of the Encyclopedia Britannica reflect the collapse of belief in the historicity of the Ark in the face of advancing scientific knowledge. Its 1771 edition offered the following as scientific evidence for the ark's size and capacity: "...Buteo and Kircher have proved geometrically, that, taking the common cubit as a foot and a half, the ark was abundantly sufficient for all the animals supposed to be lodged in it..., the number of species of animals will be found much less than is generally imagined, not amounting to an hundred species of quadrupeds... ." By the eighth edition (1853-1860) the encyclopedia says of the Noah story, "The insuperable difficulties connected with the belief that all other existing species of animals were provided for in the ark are obviated by adopting the suggestion of Bishop Stillingfleet, approved by Matthew Poole...and others, that the Deluge did not extend beyond the region of the earth then inhabited..." By the ninth edition, in 1875, there is no attempt to reconcile the Noah story with scientific fact, and it is presented without comment. In the 1960 edition, in the article Ark, we find the following, "Before the days of "higher criticism" and the rise of the modern scientific views as to the origin of the species, there was much discussion among the learned, and many ingenious and curious theories were advanced, as to the number of animals on the ark..."

16th-18th centuries

The Renaissance saw a continued speculation that might have seemed familiar to Origen and Augustine. Yet at the same time, a new class of scholarship arose, one which, while never questioning the literal truth of the Ark story, began to speculate on the practical workings of Noah's vessel from within a purely naturalistic framework. Thus in the 15th century, Alfonso Tostada gave a detailed account of the logistics of the Ark, down to arrangements for the disposal of dung and the circulation of fresh air, and the noted 16th-century geometrician Johannes Buteo calculated the ship's internal dimensions, allowing room for Noah's grinding mills and smokeless ovens, a model widely adopted by other commentators.

By the 17th century, it was becoming necessary to reconcile the exploration of the New World and increased awareness of the global distribution of species with the older belief that all life had sprung from a single point of origin on the slopes of Mount Ararat. The obvious answer was that man had spread over the continents following the destruction of the Tower of Babel and taken animals with him, yet some of the results seemed peculiar: why had the natives of North America taken rattlesnakes, but not horses, wondered Sir Thomas Browne in 1646? "How America abounded with Beasts of prey and noxious Animals, yet contained not in that necessary Creature, a Horse, is very strange".

Browne, who was among the first to question the notion of spontaneous generation, was a medical doctor and amateur scientist making this observation in passing. Biblical scholars of the time such as Justus Lipsius (1547–1606) and Athanasius Kircher (c.1601–80) were also beginning to subject the Ark story to rigorous scrutiny as they attempted to harmonise the biblical account with natural historical knowledge. The resulting hypotheses were an important impetus to the study of the geographical distribution of plants and animals, and indirectly spurred the emergence of biogeography in the 18th century. Natural historians began to draw connections between climates and the animals and plants adapted to them. One influential theory held that the biblical Ararat was striped with varying climatic zones, and as climate changed, the associated animals moved as well, eventually spreading to repopulate the globe. There was also the problem of an ever-expanding number of known species: for Kircher and earlier natural historians, there was little problem finding room for all known animal species in the Ark, but by the time John Ray (1627–1705) was working, just several decades after Kircher, their number had expanded beyond biblical proportions. Incorporating the full range of animal diversity into the Ark story was becoming increasingly difficult, and by the middle of the 18th century few natural historians could justify a literal interpretation of the Noah's Ark narrative. An uneasy rapprochement was reached by thinkers such as Edward Stillingfleet, a late 17th century English theologian and scholar who suggested that mankind at the time of Noah had inhabited only a small portion of the world, so that a purely local Flood would square the Bible with science; the idea gained popularity in intellectual circles in the 18th century, but was increasingly abandoned as the century wore on and the scientific evidence mounted.

19th century

In 1823 William Buckland interpreted geological phenomena as Reliquiae Diluvianae; relics of the flood Attesting the Action of an Universal Deluge. His views were supported by other English clergymen naturalists at the time including the influential Adam Sedgwick, but by 1830 Sedgwick considered that the evidence only showed local floods. The deposits were subsequently explained by Louis Agassiz as the results of glaciation. In 1862 William Thompson, later Lord Kelvin, calculated the age of the earth at between 24 and 400 million years, and for the remainder of the 19th century, discussion was not about whether Kelvin was right or wrong, but about just how many millions were involved. The field of Geology had a profound impact on attitudes towards the biblical Flood and Ark story: without the support of the biblical chronology, which placed the Creation and the Flood in a history which stretched back no more than a few thousand years, the historicity of the Ark itself was undermined. The influential 1889 volume of theological essays Lux Mundi, which is usually held to mark a stage in the acceptance of a more critical approach to scripture, took the stance that the gospels could be relied on as completely historical, but the earlier chapters of Genesis should not be taken literally.

In the 19th century biblical scholars were beginning to examine the origins of the Bible itself. The Noah's Ark story played a central role in the new theories, largely because, using the newly developed tools of source criticism, scholars discovered in the Ark narrative two complete, coherent, parallel stories. It is stated twice over, for example, that God was angered with his creation, but the reasons given in each telling are slightly different; we are told that there was a single pair of each animal aboard, but also that there were seven pairs of the clean animals; that the source of the water was rain, but also that it came from the "windows of Heaven" and the "fountains of the Deep"; that the rains lasted forty days, but that the waters rose for 150. This, they decided, was how the entire Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible) had been written: the work of many authors over many centuries, combining separate sources into a single whole.

The 19th century also saw the growth of Middle Eastern archaeology and the first translations into English of ancient Mesopotamian records. The Assyriologist George Smith achieved world-wide fame with his translation of the Babylonian account of the Great Flood, which he read before the Society of Biblical Archaeology on December 3, 1872; the audience included the Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone, the only known instance of a serving British Premier ever attending a lecture on Babylonian literature. Further exploration and discoveries brought to light several versions of the Mesopotamian flood-myth, with the closest to Genesis 6-9 in a 7th century BC Babylonian copy of the Epic of Gilgamesh: the hero Gilgamesh meets the immortal man Utnapishtim, who tells how the god Ea warned him to build a vessel in which to save his family, his friends, and his wealth and cattle from a great flood by which the gods intended to destroy the world.

Modern views

The Ark and Genesis 1

As the Flood rises it wipes out the work of Creation, each month of the Flood corresponding to the matching day of Creation. As God on the second day created the firmament to separate the Earth from waters above and below, so in the second month God opens the floodgates of Heaven and the fountains of the Deep and allows the waters to return; as the work of Creation was completed on the sixth day when all living things were ready for man, so the Flood rises for a further five months (the 150 days of Genesis 7:24) until "everything that had the breath of life in its nostrils, everything that was on the earth, died"; and as God rested on the seventh day, so the Ark rests on the seventh month. The world is then re-created: the firmament and the "fountains of the Deep" are closed, the mountain peaks appear (in the tenth month, equivalent to the third day of Creation when God commanded "Let the land appear"), Noah sends out birds (in the twelfth month, equivalent to the fifth day of Creation when birds were made), the waters dry from the land, and in the fourteenth month, equivalent to the seventh day, men and creatures exit the Ark, and Noah enters into the first Covenant with God.

Ark and Tabernacle

The Ark is 300 cubits long, 50 cubits wide, and 30 cubits high, and it has three decks. Each deck thus has the same height as the Tabernacle and three times the area of the Tabernacle forecourt. Claus Westermann has therefore suggested that the dimensions of Ark and Tabernacle indicate that the biblical authors saw both structures serving the same purpose, the preservation of humankind for God's plan.

Structure: The chiasmus in the Ark story

Gordon Wenham’s description of an elabrate chiasmus within the Ark story with "And God remembered Noah" at its centre has attracted numerous followers, especially among more conservative scholars. The analysis has been criticised by J. A. Emerton and others on the grounds as being essentially subjective and inclined to arbitrary results, but some variant of the chiastic structure of the story continues to be widely quoted in scholarly literature, even by scholars who are not inclined to a historicising reading.

Literalism and the search for Noah's ark

Biblical literalists continue to believe in a literal Ark, advancing arguments not so different from those in the earliest editions of the Encyclopedia Britannica. They feel that finding the Ark would validate their views on a whole range of matters, from geology to evolution. "If the flood of Noah indeed wiped out the entire human race and its civilization, as the Bible teaches, then the Ark constitutes the one remaining major link to the pre-flood World. No significant artifact could ever be of greater antiquity or importance... [with] tremendous potential impact on the creation-evolution (including theistic evolution) controversy." Searches for Noah's Arkmarker continue on and around Mount Araratmarker in Turkey.

See also


  1. Plimer, Ian (1994) "Telling Lies for God: reason versus creationism" (Random House)
  2. Genesis 6, ESV
  3. Genesis 7, ESV
  4. Genesis 8, ESV
  5. Genesis 9, ESV
  6. "...God's patience waited in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water, [b]aptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you". 1 Peter1:1, 3:20-21.
  7. Gätje, Helmut. The Qurʼan and its Exegesis.
  8. Perished Nations by Hârun Yahya, Mustapha Ahmad, Abdassamad Clarke, 1999 p. 11
  9. Legends of the Patriarchs and Prophets and Other Old Testament, by Sabine Baring-Gould - 1884
  10. From a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi, October 28, 1949: Bahá'í News, No. 228, February 1950, p. 4. Republished in
  11. From a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to an individual believer, November 25, 1950. Published in
  12. All quotations from the article "Ark" in the 1960 Encyclopedia Britannica
  13. Dalrymple, G. Brent, 1991, The Age of the Earth, Stanford University Press, pp 14–17, ISBN 0-8047-2331-1
  14. [ James Barr, "Biblical Chronology, Fact or Fiction?" p. 17 in the downloadable pdf file, pp.14-15 in the original]
  15. Jon Paulien, "The Deep Things of God" (2004), pp.36-38
  16. James D. G. Dunn and John William Rogerson, "Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible" (Eerdmans), p.44)
  17. James McKeown, "Genesis" (Eerdmans, 2008), p.62
  18. J.A. Emerton, An Examination of Some Attempts to Defend the Unity of the Flood Narrative in Genesis: Part II, Vetus Testamentum XXXVIII, 1 (1988), pp.1-21
  19. See, for example, Answers in Genesis


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