Samson Paul Neb Moses Maggie Martha Joseph John Job Jezebel Esther Eve
 Launch the Ark
 News & clips
 Divine dozen
 Original Ark
 Study notes
   Original Ark
Child's Noah's Ark
An epic flood and a narrow escape for one chosen family... Steve Tomkins gets to the bottom of the original Noah story.

Also click here to read episodes from the story of Noah's Ark as told in the Bible – plus links to books and websites.

Even in these post-Christian days, Noah's ark is a top nursery favourite – presumably because it's so full of fluffy animals. In toys, books and posters across the world, pairs of giraffes smile from little wooden boats.
The animals went in four by four,
Hurrah! hurrah!
The animals went in four by four,
Hurrah! hurrah!
The animals went in four by four,
the dinosaur couldn't fit through the door!
Etc. And this is ironic, really, as Noah's Ark is the story of the greatest act of genocide the world has ever known.

The story

Here's a summary of the story as you'll find it in the book of Genesis, in a few easy-to-swallow paragraphs...

God is so appalled at the wickedness of the human race he decides to give the world a wash and start all over again. He tells the only decent family left – Noah's – to build a boat big enough for representatives of every species (apart from the ones that float, presumably) and then it rains for 40 days.

All non-swimmable life outside the Ark is destroyed. Finally God pulls out the plug and the waters subside. Noah sends out birds to test the waters, and when a dove comes back with an olive branch he knows the end is in sight. At last the Ark comes down on Mt Ararat, and the family and their animals disembark. It's very muddy.

Ironically, Noah then burns a vast numbers of animals as an offering to God, who creates the rainbow and promises by this sign never to flood the world again.

The moral of the story is clearly how seriously God takes human evil, and also that if God can create all life from nothing then he has the right to uncreate, too, if it turns nasty.

Bible boffins have noticed a clever little feature of the Genesis flood story that makes this point rather well: it's the creation story backwards.

In Genesis chapter 1, having made the earth, God separates the dry land from the water, fills it with birds, creeping things, animals and people, and says, "It's very good". But in the Noah story, God says that it's very bad, sends a flood wiping out "people, together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air", until the waters have covered over the mountains again.

But then, just as at the very start of the Bible, the spirit or breath of God blows across the face of the waters, and creation starts again.

Other floods

Although the Hebrew storytellers made the flood story their own, many other versions of the myth circulated in the ancient world.

The most famous is preserved in the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh. In this the gods decide to wipe out humankind because it's getting to big for its boots. A friendly creator god, Ea, breaks his oath to warn the Noah-like figure, who is called Utnapishtim. The rain falls for seven days (and, naturally, seven nights) in total darkness, and the human race is, unexpectedly, turned to stone. Utnapishtim also does the same test as Noah with various birds.

In the Greek version, Deucalion and his wife throw stones off the ark, which turn into people to repopulate the earth.

In India it is the first man, Manu, who is saved on the Ark, after being warned of the flood by fish. He then makes a wife for himself from butter.

In Australia, Bunjil, the creator, floods the earth by relieving himself in the ocean. A righteous man and woman save humanity by climbing a tree on a mountaintop.

There are also many American stories of a man saving the animals from a flood in his canoe.

How are these stories related? Those who believe in a real, worldwide flood argue that they are all memories of the event – but that, to be polite, is unlikely. Some of them, such as the North American story, seem to be based on the story as told by Christians. The Babylonian and biblical stories are clearly from the same roots (we know Gilgamesh is based on an older story, so they're probably cousins rather than mother and daughter).

Other than that, it seems to be simply that floods, sometimes devastating ones, are a feature of life, and survivors are bound to pass on stories of their ordeal to future generations.

Reflecting on the story

For Jews and Christians, the flood story has always been a major symbol of salvation. In the Jewish temple, the tablets of the God's law were kept in an ark, while in Christian churches the inside of the roof is sometimes consciously made to remind you of a boat – the church is the ark that saves us. According to the New Testament, Noah's salvation through water is a picture of baptism.

In medieval tradition, especially the English mystery plays, Noah's wife was very unhappy about the whole Ark project, and only agree to board after a long argument. March 17th was celebrated in the Middle Ages as the day the animals boarded.

According to the Babylonian historian Berosus, writing in the 3rd century BC, remains of the ark could still be seen in the mountains of Armenia, and pilgrims were said to be visiting and scraping off bitumen as a charm against witchcraft. Searches for the Ark still continue among those who are optimistic about the literal history of Genesis and the preservation of 6,000-year-old boats.

So did it really happen?

There is certainly no geological evidence for a worldwide flood. What's more, you only need to apply a modicum of educated intelligence to the idea of fitting every species now known to exist in the world into one 133-metre boat to come to the conclusion that we are not dealing with literal history.

Add to this the fact that Genesis is clearly weaving together two slightly different flood stories (each uses a different name for God, and they disagree, for example, about the number of animals on the ark) and it becomes clear that this, like the rest of the book of Genesis, is a retelling of well-loved myth, a campfire story shaped to embody theological teaching. The Bible makes no other claims for it.

Books, websites and the Bible's own account
The Ark © 2003
*Samson not drawn to scale