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Noah’s Ark: Was It Possible?

Atheists, agnostics, unbelievers and liberal scholars have all scoffed at the biblical account of Noah’s ark and the Flood. But their criticisms rest on some mistaken assumptions.

by Arnold Mendez

Many people today are under the false assumption that Noah’s ark could not possibly have carried all of its intended cargo. They believe that any such ship would have needed to be of gargantuan proportions—far exceeding the dimensions recorded in Genesis or the supposedly primitive technology of the ancient world.

Those who scoff at the Genesis story often picture the ark as a small vessel, complete with the giraffes’ heads sticking out the front and the elephants’ tails hanging out the back, sinking under the weight of an overloaded cargo of millions of animals. But this concept is based on several misconceptions.

Even a cursory reading of the sixth chapter of Genesis will reveal some often overlooked, but very important details. The Bible nowhere states that Noah had to take on board the ark representatives of every living creature. There were three requirements for the animals to be loaded on the ark. They had to be:

  • Air-breathing.
  • Terrestrial (land-dwelling).
  • Of the same biblical kind.

Read this early account: “And behold, I Myself am bringing floodwaters on the earth, to destroy from under heaven all flesh in which is the breath of life; everything that is on the earth shall die . . . And of every living thing of all flesh you shall bring two of every sort into the ark, to keep them alive with you; they shall be male and female. Of the birds after their kind, of animals after their kind . . .” (Genesis 6:17-20).

Biblical “kind” broader than species

The word species and the biblical word kind are often used interchangeably. But this is incorrect since they are not synonymous terms. The Genesis use of the word kind denotes an organism that reproduces others like itself. Since the species concept is much narrower, many species can be included in one single biblical “kind.” The term kind
is probably closer to the modern taxonomic classification of genus, and in some cases the larger taxonomic classification, family.

The Canidae (canine) family includes about 14 genera of dog-like animals. These include the dog, coyote, wolf, jackal, etc. The ark did not have to contain the hundreds of species of canines that make up this group. In reality, these were all represented by a few biblical “kind.” These “kind” would then produce all the animals that make up the Canidae family. For example, all of the hundreds of varieties of domestic pigeons that have been produced originated from one species, apparently the wild rock pigeon (Columbia livia).

The ark did not need to carry every species (possibly numbering in the millions) of animal. The ark was designed to carry only every biblical kind (numbering in the few thousands) of terrestrial, air-breathing animals. (For further information, see “Understanding Biblical ‘Kinds.’”)

Not all specimens on board

In reality, the majority of all animal species would not have been taken on board the ark. In addition to the information above, another reason is obvious: Enough representatives would have survived the Flood without an ark. These would have included aquatic animals such as the crustaceans (lobsters, crab, etc.), salt and freshwater fishes, echinoderms (starfish, sea urchins), mollusks, worms, corals, sponges and myriads of other specimens of animal life that does not live on dry land.

This category would even include such mammals as the whales, porpoises, seals, walruses and many others that live in aquatic environments even though they breathe air. Some reptiles and most amphibians would also fall into this category. Many other animals that are terrestrial may have also been able to survive outside the ark. These would include insects and protozoans.

Many insects could have thrived on floating patches of vegetation.

God reiterates this point when He describes the kind of animals that perished during the Flood. These were specifically the type of animals that Noah was told to take on board the ark. “Every living thing that moved on the earth perished—birds, livestock, wild animals, all the creatures that swarm over the earth, and all mankind. Everything on dry land that had the breath of life in its nostrils died” (Genesis 7:21-22, New International Version, emphasis added throughout).

When a statistical approach is used, it is easy to see that the ark could have carried its intended cargo. According to John Woodmorappe (Noah’s Ark: A Feasibility Study, 1996, p. 7), the total of the animals that Noah would have needed in the ark to meet the biblical requirements would number between 2,000 and 16,000—not in the hundreds of thousands as many might suppose.

Immense size of the ark

Another major misconception concerns the size of the ark. In reality the ark was an immense ship. Let’s examine the biblical record to gain an appreciation of its dimensions. Notice what God instructed Noah: “Make yourself an ark of gopherwood; make rooms in the ark, and cover it inside and outside with pitch. And this is how you shall make it: The length of the ark shall be three hundred cubits, its width fifty cubits, and its height thirty cubits. You shall make a window for the ark . . . You shall make it with lower, second, and third decks” (Genesis 6:14-16).

A cubit is approximately 18 inches (.46 meters). Most Hebrew scholars believe the cubit to have measured between 17 and 21 inches. Some estimates even put it around 25 inches. If the 18-inch cubit were used, the ark would have been 450 feet long, 75 feet wide and 45 feet high (137 by 23 by 14 meters). And if a larger cubit were used, the ark would of course have been proportionately larger.

Going with the smaller cubit measurement, the displacement tonnage of the ark, which is the weight of water it would displace at a draft of 15 cubits, would be almost 22,000 tons (20 million kilograms). By comparison the U.S.S. Salem, a 716-foot-long heavy cruiser commissioned in 1949, has a displacement tonnage of 21,500 tons.

The ark’s gross tonnage, which is a measure of cubic space (100 cubic feet being one gross ton), would have been 15,100 tons. Its total volume would have been 1,518,000 cubic feet. This would equal the capacity of 569 modern railroad stock cars. The standard size for a stock car is 44 feet long with a volume of 2,670 cubic feet. This would make
a train more than five miles long.

The deck space for the ark’s three decks would total more than 101,000 square feet (9,383 square meters), or more than 21 standard college basketball courts. By comparing the measurements of the ark, it is easy to see that it would be comparable to today’s oceangoing vessels. It was probably the largest vessel of its type built until the late 1800s when metal ships were first constructed (see John Whitcomb and Henry Morris, The Genesis Flood, 1998, p. 10).

The ark was built on a 1:6 ratio (50 cubits to 300 cubits). The science of naval architecture reveals that this is an extremely stable width-to-length ratio. Most oceangoing “hopper barges” use this same ratio in their design. It is estimated that the ark could easily have survived even the largest of ocean waves. If the ark were equipped with a dragging stone anchor, it would have been properly positioned to meet any size ocean wave. The design of the ark would have made it almost impossible to capsize.

Apparently the ark was simply a floating bargelike craft. The Hebrew word for ark means simply box. It didn’t need a prow or rudder. It didn’t need any sails, oars or any other type of propulsion; it simply had to float. Since it was constructed in a boxlike configuration, the interior carrying capacity would be maximized.

Caring for the animals

Many scoffers regarding the Genesis Flood state that it would have been impossible for the eight-person crew of the ark to have adequately cared for all the animals. This supposition is due to a common misconception, based on the theory of human and societal evolution, that ancient peoples were not advanced enough for such a seemingly
massive responsibility.

Yet, while it is true that we have more of certain types of modern technology at our disposal today, the ancients were in many respects very ingenious. Consider the seven wonders of the ancient world, which included the pyramids of Egypt, the hanging gardens of Babylon and many other notable man-made works. Many of these marvels of construction have never been duplicated since.

Much time would have been saved in the care of animals if laborsaving devices had been incorporated into the design of the ark. In reality most of the animals would have required very little if any care once loaded onto the ark. With the proper technology Noah could have built self-sustaining cage and confinement systems that would have required little human attention. And even without the proper technology, Noah had God to guide him.

The ark likely made use of self-feeding, self-watering and self-cleaning technologies. Such laborsaving designs were fairly common knowledge in the ancient world.

The cages could have been equipped with a mesh-type floor and slanted waste system to move animal wastes into a gutter. Once in the gutter the waste could have been allowed to either dry (becoming odorless and inert), or be biologically composted by earthworms and bacteria, or it could have been dumped overboard by means of a slanted trough leading to the exterior. For the larger animals the stalls could have been built with slatted floors. These containment areas would have been large enough to allow the wastes to collect and become dry and inert. None of the waste would have required human handling.

Food could have been preloaded into a chute or container on the side of the cages, enabling the animals to self-feed. Enough food would have been loaded into the chutes to last for long periods of time. Extra food would have been located in overhead bins or nearby. This same technique is used today in the animal industry to increase labor efficiency. This would have greatly reduced the time needed to feed the various animals.

Water could have been piped to self-filling bowls or troughs. The water could have been gathered through a rainwater cistern system or might have been preloaded before the Flood. Ancient people commonly made indoor pipes from reeds, baked clay and bamboo tubing.

The ark was not a floating zoo. Animals kept in a zoo require much room, specialized food and individual attention. The ark was an emergency vessel built by Noah under God’s special and specific guidance.

It was more in keeping with the conditions found in modern animal laboratories or mass production animal factories, which are crowded but relatively clean environments.

Nature of animals a factor

It is possible that many animals, which are not considered classic hibernators, have the latent ability to greatly lower their metabolic rates (Terry Vaughan, Mammalogy, 1986, pp. 421, 469-471). Such lowered metabolic rates can be brought on by several factors including temperature fluctuations, unavailability of food and water, variability of light and other environmental stimuli.

Many rodent and small mammals go into torpor during the course of their daily cycle. During this torpor animals do not eat, drink or produce any waste. Although the ark’s crew could have cared for all the animals, this need would have been greatly reduced if some of the ark’s inhabitants had either hibernated or gone into torpor.

When all the facts are considered, the crew of the ark could have cared for thousands of animals. Data from animal husbandry studies have shown that a few people can care for tens of thousands of animals (John Owen, Cattle Feeding, 1983, p. 101; E.C. Miller and E.F. Hodges, “One Man Feeds 5,000 Cattle or 60,000 Broilers,” 1970 Yearbook of Agriculture (USA), p. 57).

What made the ark possible?

God commanded the patriarch Noah to build an ark. He gave him plenty of time to accomplish the job along with specified dimensions and specific instructions.

Remember this important biblical principle: God always makes it possible for His servants to accomplish any task He has instructed them to carry out. The Creator’s objective was to save mankind; the patriarch Noah was His human instrument.

Noah carried out God’s instructions to the letter (Genesis 6:22). Like his ancestor Enoch before him, Noah had also learned to walk with his Creator (Genesis 5:22-24; 6:9). It is God’s testimony that Noah was a righteous man (Genesis 7:1). That is why our Creator remembered him and brought him and his family safely through the universal deluge (Genesis 8:1).

Noah prized obedience to God above personal popularity or anything else. That is his spiritual legacy to us down through the ages. This is the basic lesson we all must learn.

©2002 United Church of God, an International Association
Used with permission.

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