Genesis 6: Noah and the Ark

By Mary Jane Chaignot

While one man, Noah, "found favor in the eyes of the Lord," it appeared that the rest of humanity had become completely evil. The whole of creation would need to be undone; the means would be a flood of epic proportions. Yet, the flood would also epitomize the twin aspects of God's character—judgment and mercy/grace. Though the earth would return to chaos, one family would survive.

Interestingly, the Israelites were not the only culture to have a flood story. There are numerous accounts (Babylonian, Sumerian, Akkadian, Grecian, among others) that date from 2900 BCE to 320 BCE. Most seem to have been derived from a common source: the Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic. Among these ancient stories, the names for the deities and the heroes vary, as does the duration of the flood. When a reason is given, it is most likely due to the corruption of humanity. Most scholars agree that the many similarities far exceed the likelihood of coincidence.

The biblical account begins with praise for Noah. He was a just man and perfect in his generations. "Perfect" probably means he was without fault—a man of impeccable integrity. Additionally, he "walked with God," i.e. lived in an intimate relationship with God. He bore three sons—Shem, Ham, and Japheth.

Over against this wonderful person was the rest of the mankind, which had become corrupt and who filled the earth with violence. And God looked upon the earth, and, behold, it was corrupt – the word is repeated many times to emphasize the point. It basically means that every thing was ruined. A careful reader would notice that this language mimics that used by God in the creation story. Humanity was to "fill the earth," "God looked upon the earth and saw that it was good." Previously, He had been pleased with creation; here, He was dismayed. All of it was spoiled; it had already become self-destroyed.

"All flesh" is also repeated several times. "All flesh" was corrupted, and the end of "all flesh" is to come. "All flesh" has to include not only humanity, but also all other living creatures. Though it is hard to imagine how the animals could have become corrupt, but the word has to include them because they will also be destroyed.

These phrases are written in a way that suggests God was surprised at how things had turned out.  Surely, this had not been His intention.  So God said to Noah, “I will destroy them [all flesh] with the earth.”  The word for “destroy” is also “corrupt.”  Since the created beings “ruined” the earth, God will “ruin” the created beings.  However, unlike Abraham, who bargains with God for the lives of others (see chapter 18), Noah is silent.  He does not protest God’s decision.  But then, Noah never says anything to God.

God tells Noah to make an ark of gopher wood for himself. This word for "ark" will reappear in the Moses' story as the basket used by his mother to prevent him from being drowned in accordance with Pharaoh's edict. Gopher wood is unique to this passage, so exactly which kind of wood it was is unclear, though it might have been some sort of cypress wood, commonly used for shipbuilding. This ark would have "rooms," presumably for segregating the various animals, and it would be pitched both inside and out, making it seaworthy.

The dimensions are quite specific. Since a cubit was roughly 18 inches, the ark would have been about 450 feet long, 75 feet wide, and 45 feet high. (For comparison, the length and width of the QE2 is 963 feet and 105 feet respectively.) The bottom of the ark would have been flat. There is neither a power source nor a rudder. The only plan for this ark was that it would float wherever God intended it to go. There is nothing to suggest that either Noah or his sons would have been expected to navigate this vessel.

Needless to say, the ark needed to have a roof with a window and a door. Although these words are quite obscure, scholars think this is what they mean. Only then is it disclosed that it was three stories tall. This means that the floor space would have been well over 100,000 square feet. Again, for comparison – the Babylonian ark was 225 feet cubed with nine levels, making it roughly 5 times greater than Noah's ark. Perhaps this is one reason why Noah expresses no surprise over the dimensions of the vessel.

Though it should have been quite obvious by now, God mentions for the first time that He intends to use "a flood of waters to destroy all flesh, wherein is the breath of life, from under heaven; and everything that is in the earth shall die." The word for "destroy" is once again "corrupt," which is best translated as "ruin." God will bring an end to the corruption that has filled the earth, and everything in the earth will die—except Noah.

Instead of destroying Noah and his family, God establishes a covenant with him. This is the first biblical mention of "covenant." Typically, a covenant is an agreement signed by two parties that includes specific responsibilities for each of them. While it might seem apparent that Noah's part in the covenant is to build the ark, this is not the case. This is a one-sided covenant, similar to all of God's covenants with mankind. God is the one who makes the covenant and establishes its rules and requirements. Humanity is never an equal party in a covenant with God. Nor is it specified what the covenant is at this point. All we know so far is that Noah was told to build an ark and God establishes a covenant with him. Additionally, he is to take his sons and all their wives into the ark.

It might seem, then, as though the covenant would be consummated after the flood. Yet, it was made here, before the flood. No doubt the covenant was given to assure Noah that he and his family would survive the flood. Regardless of what was about to happen, Noah and his family know that they will be safe. They have nothing to fear. They have God's word. And while the covenant was made with Noah, it was apparent that his whole family would benefit. (On a bigger scale, the covenant made with Abraham would also benefit the whole family of man.)

In addition to his family, Noah is to take two of every living thing of all flesh – birds, cattle, and creeping things. They should be a male and female pair. Fish were not mentioned, since they could apparently survive the waters. These categories are essentially repeated from the story of creation. It should also be noted that a pair of all the animals would come to Noah, who would keep them alive. It would not be up to Noah to go out and find them; they would find him. God would be directing them to Noah.

Food is to be taken for his family as well as the animals. Needless to say, this command has drawn endless speculation. Would carnivorous animals have been limited to eating plants? Or if they maintained their usual diets, were extra animals brought on board in order to feed them? Were the rooms designed to keep natural predators at bay? Of course, none of these concerns are addressed in the text.

All we know is that "Noah did everything just as God commanded him." No further information is given about how Noah managed to do any of this. How could one person build such a vessel? Did he have help? How long did it take? How were the animals housed? How was the food gathered? None of these questions will be answered. All we know is that everything happened, "just as God commanded him."

The story will continue next month with a second version of what has just transpired. That, obviously, will raise more questions. It will be interesting to see how scholars have responded.