The Ark Genesis 6:14-16

Was the ark built by Noah the first example of naval architecture? did the art of the shipwright originate in this remarkable structure? We think not. It is scarcely credible that man had been so long upon the earth without discovering some means of floating upon the rivers and the seas. Are we to think so low of the state of the arts among the antediluvians—with all the peculiar advantages they enjoyed—as to suppose that they had not discovered an art known in modern times to the most savage and barbarous nations? Indeed, the instructions given to Noah for the making of the ark are so general as to imply that they were addressed to one who knew how to work out the details. These instructions do not enable us to define the form of the vessel, or to have more than a very obscure notion of its arrangements. This is because we lack the previous knowledge which Noah and those who wrought with him possessed, and which enabled them with the very same instructions to produce the intended fabric.

It is remarkable that the Phoenician annals ascribe the origin of the ark to the fifth generation—just in the middle period between the creation and the deluge. According to that account the discovery took place in this manner: “Usous having taken a fallen tree and broken off its boughs, was the first who dared to venture on the sea.”

Let us look to the description: “Make thee an ark of gopher-wood.” This is generally understood of the cypress tree. “Chambers shalt thou make in the ark;”—these chambers were doubtless cells or stalls for the different kinds of animals—and it appears from what ensues that these cells were arranged in three stories. “And pitch it within and without with pitch”—probably bitumen, the substance of all others best adapted to exclude the water.  “And thus shalt thou make it: the length of the ark three hundred cubits, the breadth of it fifty cubits, and the height of it thirty cubits.” These dimensions will presently be noticed. “A transparency shalt thou make to the ark;” not “a window”—but collectively the means of admitting light, and at the same time excluding the water. Had the antediluvians the knowledge of glass? The word may, however, mean translucency merely, and not necessarily transparency. It does, however, indicate something shining. The words of the next sentence but one, defining that the doorway was in the side of the ark, indicate that the translucency, or series of windows, was at the top—and it was indeed needful that it should be very high, to prevent the waves from breaking in. “And to a cubit shalt thou reduce it at the top,” is a difficult phrase. We are not sure that we understand it but it seems to mean that the roof, in which the translucency was set, sloped to a ridge of about a cubit wide. “And the doorway of the ark shalt thou place in the side thereof.” This clearly shows that it was not a decked vessel. The door must have been of some size to admit the larger animals, for whose ingress it was mainly intended. The door was no doubt above the highest draught-mark of the ark—and the animals ascended to it probably by a sloping embankment. A door in the side is not more difficult to understand than the port-holes in the sides of our vessels. Yet the sacred writer is aware of the apparent danger of a large door in the side, and therefore satisfactorily relieves our anxiety by informing us that “the Lord shut him in:”—and, in all ages, he whom the Lord shuts in is safe indeed. “With lower, second, and third stories shalt thou make it;” which shows that no space in this vast fabric was wasted; but every cubit of its enormous area, from floor to ceiling, was laid out in receptacles for the various animals. In all probability, the larger animals were kept in the lower floor, and the birds in the upper.

Such is the description of the ark. Of its shape nothing is said. But we have the dimensions. Taking the cubit at  the usual estimate, Note: That is, 21.888 inches. We adopt it merely to avoid the incidental discussion of a large subject; but we think the reader may very safely, in his current computations of Scripture measures, regard the cubit as half a yard.] these give it the length of five hundred and forty-seven feet; the width of ninety-one feet two inches; and the height of forty-seven feet two inches. This is nearly three times the size of the largest British man-of-war, and to make a vessel of these colossal proportions—a floating world—must clearly have required no small amount of practical as well as scientific knowledge.

The proportions simply as stated suggest the idea of an immense oblong square box or chest, and many have thought that this was its actual shape. They consider, it seems to us rightly, that the ark was not framed for any other purpose than to float safely, and keep steady upon the waters. It had not necessarily to make any progress from point to point; it may be doubtful if it had even to contend with strong winds or heavy waves; and if, at the worst, it were at times driven before the wind, acting upon the vast surface it presented, no great harm could come of this—as by striking against shores or rocks—seeing that all the world was under the water.

The form, therefore, usually given to the ark by painters, who have in view its progress through the waters, is probably erroneous, and is framed to meet conditions which did not actually exist. That figure is, indeed, in itself preposterous, and contrary to all the rules of naval architecture. We see nothing to prevent us from conceiving that the ark was shaped something like a house, secured upon a strong raft-like floor. It is right, however, to observe that the “ark of the covenant,” which was certainly a chest, affords no ideas which can aid our apprehension of the structure of Noah’s ark. The words are altogether different in the original—the one being tehah, and the other arun.

Whatever be our ideas as to the form of the ark, there is no question but that its dimensions were well adapted to the  object in view. There were formerly some experiments made in Holland and Denmark, with the same proportions of parts. About 250 years ago, in particular, a Dutch merchant, named Peter Jansen, caused a vessel to be built for him in the same proportions as (but of smaller dimensions than) Noah’s ark. It was a hundred and twenty feet long, twenty broad, and twelve deep. Jansen happened to be a Mennonite; and while his work was in progress, it was regarded as the enterprise of a fanatical visionary, and he was exposed to quite as much sport and derision as Noah himself could have encountered. But it was afterwards found that a vessel like this was well suited to commerce in times of peace, as it would take in a third part more lading than any other vessel, without requiring a greater number of hands. Accordingly, the name of Navis Noachica was, by some, given to this kind of vessel. The account of this matter is preserved in a letter written to Petrus Reinerus, who married the daughter of the person who built this vessel, on the supposed model of Noah’s ark, for Jansen, and which is to be found in one or two old books on Noah’s ark. In one of these works, the author, Reyher, Note: In his Mathesis Mosaica.] states that the like experiment had been made in his own country; and affirms that the kind of vessels called Fleuten or “Floats,” have almost the very same proportions as those of the ark.