Ships, Boats, Floats and Arks

I know, this is far from the most important theological question most of us will face in our lives, but I’ll bet that most of us are at least a little bit interested. What Exactly is an “ark”? Answers in Genesis (AiG), parent ministry of the Ark Encounter theme park, who I frequently agree with and frequently disagree with, says, “Noah’s Ark was a ship; therefore, it likely had features that ships would commonly have.”

My purpose here is not to question their motives or their overall theological purity, but rather to point out where my opinions and theirs differ on some textual interpretations and scientific principles.

Artist’s conception: Noah’s Ark, somewhat as I envision it.

Linguistics

Nowhere does Scripture say the Ark was a ship! All that floats is not a ship. I did a search in several English translations to get a sense of the Biblical usage, concentrating mostly on KJV, NKJV, ESV, NIV and CJB. I found that the Hebrew “Oniy or the related “Oniyah” is translated as “ship(s)”, “boat(s)”, “sailing vessel(s)”, or “watercraft” in the Old Testament. The word can also refer to a fleet (of ships), a Navy, or seamen. Another Hebrew term, Tsiy is translated variously as “ships“, “boats” or “vessels (of papyrus reeds)”.

There are three contexts in which the term “ark” occurs in English translations of the OT. When referring to Noah’s Ark and the basket that Moses was placed in to escape Pharaoh’s attack on Israelite children, the Hebrew is “tebah“, which literally means “a box or chest“. When referring to the Ark of the Covenant, the Hebrew is, “aron“, meaning “a box, chest or coffin“. What is the difference in meaning between these words? AiG suggests that tebah is related to the Egyptian word for “coffin”, and comments that being sealed in the Ark would be like being sealed in a coffin. Their post that I am here referring to1 says nothing more about aron.

Based on my own survey of Jewish sources, I believe that tebah refers to containers for the “common“, while aron refers to boxes, chests, and cabinets dedicated to sacred objects. Noah had a sacred purpose, but he was not personally sanctified, as demonstrated after the Great Flood, in Gen 9:20-27. Moses was unable to enter the Promised Land because of his own sin.

On the other hand,

  • The Ark of the Testimony (Aron HaEdut) was “home” to God’s Sh’kinah, and contained, for a time, a jar of manna, Aaron’s staff that budded, and the stone tablets of the covenant. All of those are Jewish sacred objects.
  • For most of their history, the most sacred object associated with any Jewish synagogue has been their Torah scroll, and the second most sacred has been their Holy ark (aron HaKodesh) in which the scrolls are stored. These arks are cabinets, usually ornate, that stand against the synagogue wall most nearly facing Jerusalem and the Holy Mount.
  • When the Israelites left Egypt with Moses, they took with them, in an aron, the revered body of Joseph:

Genesis 50:26 (CJB)
[26] So Yosef* died at the age of 110, and they embalmed him and put him in a coffin [aron] in Egypt.

Ships, boats and barges, in all their myriads of varieties, generally have one thing in common: they are designed to transport people or other objects from one location to another, on or under the water. By “transport”, I mean to actively move it, using some form of energy, be it wind, machine, or muscle. The term “ships” generally refers to relatively large vessels designed to withstand the rigors of navigating the open sea or large rivers and lakes. The term “boats” can include “ships” as a subset, but more commonly it refers to relatively smaller watercraft. A “barge” is usually a box-like vessel designed to be pulled or pushed by a ship or boat.

By contrast, a vessel or platform, or even an air-filled vest, of any kind that is designed, not to navigate under any kind of propulsion, but simply to float on water and go wherever the force of nature takes it, is called—well—a “float“! Noah’s Ark was not a ship; it was a float. God said, “Build this, get in it with a herd of critters, and let it float you to wherever I send it by means of the winds and waves at my command.” If it was a float and not a ship or boat, then it doesn’t need to have “had features that ships would commonly have.”

Wind and waves

The design on AiG’s Ark Encounter, in fact the basis of much of their flood theology, depends on assumption that The Great Flood would have included catastrophic winds, waves and consequent destruction.

However, I think the argument is faulty. I see nothing in scripture to indicate that wind factored into the Genesis Flood in any significant way, so neither wind nor wave would have been an issue. According to Gen 7:11, “all the fountains of the great deep were broken up, and the windows of the sky were opened.” I don’t believe that this event can be compared in any way to a modern storm. I have discussed a likely mechanism for the flood in Fountains of the Deep. In that post I suggest that the vast majority of the flood water was miraculously brought up from earth’s mantle transition layer, primarily through volcanic eruptions in the mid-oceanic ridges. This would have perhaps generated tsunamis on shore regions until they were inundated, but tsunamis cause very little disturbance in deep water. Widespread volcanism generates huge amounts of ash, as well as CO2 and water vapor that would spawn torrential rain but could quell pressure gradients and dampen the normal winds.

The only mention of wind in the Flood text is in Gen 8:1b,”God caused a wind [ruach] to pass over the earth, and the water began to go down.” The Hebrew ruach can mean wind, breath, or any of a number of related English terms, but most often in the Bible, it means “spirit“, as in Gen 1:2b, “and the Spirit [Ruach] of God hovered over the surface of the water.” No amount of physical and literal wind could dry up that much water in the time allowed by Scripture; the waters of the deep were miraculously returned to their home in earth’s mantle through the power of the Ruach HaKodesh (Holy Spirit). I suggest that “wind” is a mistranslation in Gen 8:1.

Architecture

As an ex Naval Officer, I put in a lot of both formal and informal time studying subjects related to my job. Not that I could ever build a ship from the keel up, but I do have training in naval architecture, both technical and historic. The small “n” in “naval” means both military and civilian watercraft.

AiG has tried to justify their design of a ship-like Ark at Ark Encounter, as opposed to a parallelepiped, box-like float of the same overall dimensions, by appealing to model studies in wave pools. I can tell you from personal experience that because of their inertial characteristics, a massive ship won’t perform anything like a small model in either wind or waves. Not even close.

I have been at sea on a minesweeper, a destroyer, a battleship, and, for long periods, an aircraft carrier. On all but the battleship, I have served on the “bridge” (a ship’s navigational control center) while under way, and experienced “heavy seas” (storm conditions). On the minesweeper and the carrier, I periodically “had the con“, meaning I had command over the vessels’ engines and rudders, as well as lookouts and other underway personnel. In Navy parlance, a minesweeper is a boat, and designed for operations in littoral, i.e., coastal, waters, though able to transit oceans if necessary. My other “rides” were smallish, large and very large ships, respectively.

My destroyer, the USS O’Brien, DD-725, was about 80% the size of the Ark, so it gives me a good basis for comparison. We definitely felt the waves, but when under power, it was easy to control our direction of advance. If we cut our speed to “all stop“, or “zero turns on the ship’s screw“, we would fairly quickly lose our forward motion, and eventually the weight of the ship would drag us around until we were parallel to the swells (that’s the proper term for deep-water waves). Once so “broached“, there is a tendency for any vessel to roll side to side. This isn’t comfortable, but sailors are used to it and prepared for it. Even in rough seas, very few ships will capsize from it, though, because buoyancy and inertia limit the magnitude of the roll. A box with the same dimensions as the ship would have less tendency to roll than a ship with a bowed hull, given proper weight distribution aboard the two.

Water wave physics

Elsewhere in the AiG documentation, they either state or imply that waves would have driven the Ark forward. But that could happen only in near-shore wave action where wind shear pushes surface water onto the shallows. In deep waters, waves are propagated in a horizontal direction, but the only water movement is near the surface where molecules simply bob up and down in tight oval movements. It is the bobbing action that moves along the surface, not the water itself. Rather than delve into the physics of water waves more deeply, I will simply present this diagram, with the movement of individual water molecules depicted in red:

Features of the AiG design

In several blog posts, AiG explains why, from a sea-worthiness perspective, they think that the Ark needed to be a ship-like vessel, rather than a box. They use this diagram to illustrate:

Noah’s Ark, per Anwers in Genesis™

“Noah could have added a fixed ‘sail’ on the upper bow of the Ark so the wind could turn the ship into the rough waves.” The idea here is that the raised bow fin would act like a weathervane, causing the Ark to pivot and turn end-on to the wind. But the description makes no sense from a mariner’s perspective. Swells propagate in the direction the wind is blowing; that is, a wind blowing towards the east would cause waves that also “move” toward the east. “Into the rough waves” therefore implies that the fin would turn the Ark in such a way that the wind would be blowing bow to stern, but if the fin worked at all, it would cause the bow to turn away from the oncoming waves.

Functionally, the object is to keep the Ark from broaching, or turning broadside to the wind and waves. Facing either bow or stern into the waves is very much preferable, but unlike a light model, I very seriously doubt that this fin design would be workable with a massive ship. It would take a very large force against the fin to overcome the angular momentum of the Ark and its contents. Also, enough wind to push on the fin would push even more on the windward hull of the ship, resisting any pivot. If there even were any significant wind.

“Noah could have added a fixed ‘rudder’ at the lower stern of the Ark to keep the ship turned into the rough waves.” This is another statement that makes no sense to me. A fixed rudder, more commonly known as a “skeg“, is an underwater fin or projection that can be used to stabilize the motion of a powered watercraft. There is no reason to suppose that Noah, or God, provided the Ark with a propulsion mechanism, so the most that a skeg would have accomplished was a slight reduction of rocking. It would have no effect at all on the orientation of the Ark with respect to waves, since ocean swells involve no sideways water motion (see above).

“A ship’s keel is a structure built along the bottom of the ship’s hull to support the main body of the ship. In some cases, the keel is extended downward to function as a stabilizer for the ship. Noah’s Ark, as described in Genesis 6, may have had a keel since it seems to have been an essential piece for the ship to survive the wind and waves.” If the Ark was a ship, then given its size, a keel might have been necessary to anchor ribs and strakes. If the Ark was a box, then no such structure would have been necessary, since structural stability would be adequate using only rails, stiles and cross-braces.

“Jesus Boat”, ©2008, Ron Thompson
“Jesus Boat”, ©2008, Ron Thompson

There is no evidence from literature or archaeological findings that keels ever existed before they were invented by the Vikings around the 8th Century AD. Early ships and boats, including those built by the Egyptians and the Phoenician “Sea People” were built by lashing or pegging planking to bent or shaped ribs that ran perpendicular to the length of the craft. The 2,000-year-old “Jesus Boat” on display at Kibbutz Ginosar, Israel, was modeled on Phoenician boats from earlier centuries.

Earlier structures related to keels did exist in ancient times. Egyptian boats, for instance, featured what is now called a “plank-keel.” This was not a true keel, but rather a wide strake (hull plank) at the very bottom of the hull where keels would later be located. The function was primarily to give the boat a stable base while beached. Another device that occurred frequently in ancient ships (and is still often used) is a “keelson“, which was a structural beam or cleat in the bilge area, but not extending outside the hull. It was used mainly to help support masts in sail-powered boats, but often did add strength to the hull. Neither of these features would function on an Ark.

“The box-like Ark is not entirely disqualified as a safe option, but sharp edges are more vulnerable to damage during launch and landing.” Among many avocations, I have been a cabinet maker during my lifetime, and I still have a completely furnished cabinet and general woodworking shop in my basement. My opinion is that square corners (“sharp edges”) are vulnerable to dings and dents but are sturdier and more puncture-proof than a rounded wooden hull.

“Blunt ends would also produce a rougher ride and allow the vessel to be more easily thrown around” Most ships and small boats have a “sharp” bow for “cutting through” the water, but a large percentage of them have a “blunt” stern, and many larger ships have “blunt” vertical sides, as well. How much a vessel is “thrown around” is more a function of its mass and how deep it sits in the water. And, of course, a flat bottom is much less prone to rolling than a ship’s hull.

“While many designs could work, the possibility shown here reflects the high stems which were a hallmark of ancient ships.” Though I couldn’t find more explanation of what precisely this statement means, I assume it is referencing raised prows and sterns on many ancient ships. In the case of Egyptian vessels, these were stylized papyrus umbels (flat-topped or rounded flower clusters). The Egyptians used the stem of papyrus plants to make sails, cloth, mats, cords, and paper, so these plants were appropriate decorations. Other civilizations decorated their ships in the same manner with religious totems.

“Noah was 500–600 years old and knew better than to make a simple box that would have had significant issues in a global Flood (e.g., forces on the sharp corners would be too destructive, it could capsize if it is not facing into the wind and waves, and so on).” If Noah had any training in shipbuilding or hydrodynamics, it isn’t mentioned in Scripture. God may have coached him or given him engineering drawings or advanced physics training, but this is also unmentioned.

Author: Ron Thompson

Retired President of R. L Thompson Engineering, Inc.

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