What Size Was Noah’s Ark?

Some persons say that the size of the Ark could not be literal.

{6:14} Make yourself an ark from smoothed wood. You shall make little dwelling places in the ark, and you shall smear pitch on the interior and exterior.
{6:15} And thus shall you make it: The length of the ark shall be three hundred cubits, its width fifty cubits, and its height thirty cubits.
{6:16} You shall make a window in the ark, and you shall complete it within a cubit of the top. Then you shall set the door of the ark at its side. You shall make in it: a lower part, upper rooms, and a third level.

However, we don’t know the exact length of the ancient cubit. Therefore, it cannot be definitively said that the above size is too large. If the cubit is about 18 inches, then the Ark would have been about 450 feet long. Some ancient ships are known to have been longer than 400 feet, most notably the Greek “Trieres” mentioned in the Latin text of Daniel 11:30. It is a sheer possibility that Noah, if he were wealthy and hired many workers, could have built a ship of similar size. And if the cubit were smaller, the ship would be smaller. So we cannot absolutely exclude the literal approach on this point.

But if we take the size of the Ark, like the extent of the Flood and the extent of the animals on the Ark, to be a figure, there is no problem. The Bible does not present the dimensions of the Ark as necessarily literal or historical. The existence of Noah and the event of the Flood are presented as literal and historical, but not all the details of the Flood. In addition, since the numbers assigned to the ages of Noah and his ancestors and some of his descendants are figurative, the numbers assigned to the size of the Ark may also be figurative: 300 x 50 x 30 cubits.

What would these numbers represent on the indirect level? The meaning of numbers in Jewish numerology is beyond the scope of my knowledge. However, the number three certainly is related to Jewish ideas about God. The name for God in the first line of the first book of the Pentateuch (Genesis) is Elohim. Ancient written Hebrew had no written vowels, and so the transliteration of Elohim into ancient Hebrew is only three letters: LHM (these Hebrew letters are named: Lamed, He, Mem). Of course, in Christian thought, three is related to God because the One God is Three Persons. But even in ancient Jewish thought, the number three had a symbolism related to God. I’m not sure what the number 5 would symbolize. Perhaps it represents Creation. For the Flood was a great event in the history of the Creation of the earth. Or perhaps it represents Divine Revelation, since the Jewish Scriptures begin with the five books of Moses (the Pentateuch).

In any case, the numbers referring to the length, width, and height of the Ark cannot have solely an indirect meaning. For as we saw with the extent of the Flood, the indirect meaning is based on a true direct meaning. So these numbers may indicate, on the direct level, the correct proportions of the ship, the length being six times the width and ten times the height. The low height would give the Ark a low center of gravity. The length would give the Ark stability in waves.

Also, though the length of the Ark need not have been 300 cubits, it was undoubtedly a large ship. The number 300 must have a true meaning on the direct level of meaning, which is that the length was great (but not specifically or literally 300 cubits).

In my interpretation, Noah literally built an Ark, a large ship that could carry him and his family of eight persons total, as well as many animals. The length of the Ark could possibly be literal, since we don’t know the size of the cubit as it existed in that ancient time. But I think that the size of the Ark (300 x 50 x 30 cubits) is a figurative expression, just as the lifespans of Biblical persons prior to Abraham are figures. The Ark may well have had these same proportions: 30 by 5 by 3. Such a design is very stable on land, as well as in the water. The figurative expression used for the size of the Ark also serves to indicate that it was a large ship. Noah could easily have built such a ship, if he was wealthy and if he devoted many years to the project.

Notice the combination of literal and figurative elements in this interpretation. Noah literally built an Ark, a large ship. But the dimensions are figurative. Many commentators have rightly pointed out that it would be very unlikely that Noah could have built such a ship, if the dimensions given in the Bible are literal (assuming a cubit of approximately 18 inches). They therefore jump to the unwarranted conclusion that no such ship was built at all. But a combined literal and figurative approach to the passage would suggest that the size of the ship is a figure, and yet Noah did literally build the ship. We don’t know how large the Ark was, but it must have been of substantial size: a ship, not a boat.

Scripture says that the Ark had three levels: this point is most likely literal, not a mere figure. In order for the ship to be so large, and stay above water in heavy seas, it had to have a significant height: two or three stories. The beams separating the different levels would also serve to reinforce the ship along its entire length and width. A ship with only one level below deck would not be strong enough to survive the severe storms of the great Flood. So two levels below deck is the minimum.

Each level of the ship had to have enough room for walking around, and so the height would need to have been at least 7 or 8 feet per level. If the height of the ship was three levels of about 8 feet each, then it was about 24 feet high (7 meters), about 40 feet wide (12 meters), and about 240 feet long (72 meters). This width and length assumes that the proportions of the ship are approximately those stated in the text.

This size ship would be possible as a long-term building project in ancient times. As points of comparison, the German ship Adler von Lübeck (Eagle of Lübeck) was a wooden ship built in the late 1500’s, with greater dimensions all around than the Ark, including a length of 78 meters and a width of 14.5 meters. That ship could carry one thousand men. The British ship HMS Sovereign of the Seas was launched in 1638 and served for nearly 60 years, so it was a sturdy design. It must have survived many storms and rough seas. The ship had three levels, and was 14.7 meters wide, with a length of 76 meters.

The window at the top of the Ark served the purpose of air circulation. Hot air would rise up to the top level, and be drawn out the window, and cool air would be drawn into the ship, through other windows lower in the Ark and through spaces between the boards. A ship built in that time period would not be air-tight. And the fact that God specified a window at the top does not rule out the possibility of other windows, as might be typical in ship designs of Noah’s day.

Another possibility is that the third level was the top open-air level. The phrasing of the text suggests this arrangement: “a lower part, upper rooms, and a third level.” The second level is referred to as the “upper rooms”, and that might indicate that the second level was the top interior level. The third level would then be the open-air deck, i.e. the top surface. I do not imagine that the Ark was entirely enclosed, so that Noah and his family were below deck for the entire time. The Bible indicates heavy rains only for about 40 days. So for much of the time on the Ark, Noah and his family could have ventured onto the open-air top deck. The lower level would be for the animals. The upper rooms (second level) would be storage and living quarters. And the top level would allow for time in the sunlight and fresh air.

This suggestion is just a possibility. But if it is correct, then the height of the Ark is essentially two stories, not three. This would imply a height of perhaps 16 feet (8 feet per story), and a proportionate width of 27 feet and length of 160 feet. Such a ship would certainly be large enough to hold 8 persons on one level, and a significant number of animals on another level. And when you think about it, a ship of this type really only needs two levels: one for animals and one for people and their supplies. Such a ship design would also still be large enough to survive heavy seas and torrential rainstorms.

Certainly, Noah and his family would have been able to build a ship of this size, especially if they were able to hire workers, and were willing to spend a number of years on the project. Is it possible that Noah literally built an Ark, a large ship, for him and his family, and many animals as well, to survive the great Flood? Yes, it is possible, given a faithful and reasonable interpretation of the Bible that allows for a combination of literal and figurative elements in the same story.

See my book for more on this topic:
Noah’s Flood: Literal or Figurative?

by
Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and
translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

Forgiveness and Salvation for Everyone
available in print (paperback, 510 pp.) and in Kindle format.

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