Part Seven in a Series
I can imagine that nearly everyone who talks about his/her beliefs with friends and associates has at one time or another encountered objections to the factuality of the story of Noah and the ark. Many times in my travels I have heard people excuse their rejection of the scriptures with some comment about the incredulity of a boat and a handful of people rescuing all species of life from a global deluge a few thousand years ago. They assume that is what the Bible says--after all, countless children's books portray the story that way--and they know that science tells a different tale.
There is no way in so short an article I can address all the key issues, so I will address a few this time and a few more in our next newsletter and then leave the rest to your own study and research. For now let us look at the problem of the number of animals, the size of the ark, the quantity of food, and the number of caretakers.
Estimates of the number of species of animal life on Earth fall between 1.5 million and 6 million.1 Considering the current extinction rate, this figure would have been higher in the days of Noah. Genesis 6 tells us that the ark was 300 cubits long, 50 cubits wide, and 30 cubits high. Though we cannot be exact about the modern equivalent of Noah's cubit, scholars can give us the outer limits, which indicate that the ark was between 450 and 900 feet long. In other words, it was close to the size of an aircraft carrier. (Given such dimensions, the biblical account of the time required--about 100 years--for Noah to build the ark certainly seems plausible!)
What does present a problem is the fact that a boat of such enormous dimensions still would be too small to accommodate so many species of creatures and their food supply, nor could so small a staff of keepers (the eight members of Noah's family) have handled the tasks of feeding and cleaning.
In this case, as in so many others, we need not panic but simply take a closer look at what we think we already know, including the text itself and the context. Let's start with the latter. We know that the story of Noah is a story about God's judgment, His purging the world of the malignant effects of rampant, epidemic sin. What light does the rest of scripture shed on this subject, and therefore on this passage?
Many, many verses affirm that sin is damaging, defiling. I Corinthians 6 says that some sins are more defiling than others. The Old Testament gives specific statements about the extent of the defilement and of God's response to it:
- All sins defile the person who commits them (Leviticus 18:24).
- Some sins defile the sinner and the sinner's progeny for several generations (Exodus 20:5).
- Some sins defile the sinner, his progeny, and the birds and mammals which are part of his livelihood (Joshua 6:21).
- Some sins defile all the above plus the sinner's material possessions (Numbers 16:23-33).
- Some sins defile all the above including the sinner's agricultural land (Leviticus 18:24-28).
Nowhere in the Bible do we see God's meting out judgment beyond these limits, and we can apply that principle in the case of Noah. We can apply it, too, in light of the expressed purpose of God in wiping out the corruption all around Noah. Thus, we gain some valuable guidelines for determining the extent of the flood, geographically and otherwise. The matter of geography I will save for discussion in Part Eight of this series.
As for the animals, we would expect God to destroy all those that had been defiled by the wickedness of mankind. That would include all the cattle, sheep, etc. owned and/or tended by anyone other than Noah, though perhaps even some of his animals would have been harmed if they had been in contact with others.
A close examination of the text reveals that only two Hebrew words are used in the Genesis flood account to refer to the animals destroyed by the flood and to those taken aboard the ark. The words are nephesh and basar. The word nephesh translates as "soulish" animals and refers to those creatures endowed with characteristics of mind, will, and emotions, creatures with a unique capacity to relate to humans. We call them mammals and birds. It is their soulishness2 which makes them particularly susceptible to the effects of man's sin. The word basar refers more specifically to those birds and mammals that are part of man's economic system, that is, to livestock, poultry, game animals, any birds or mammals that have had contact with man.
So, the animal species rescued via the ark were nephesh, particularly those in the category of basar, living within the reach of the flood's devastation. They may have numbered in the hundreds and probably did not exceed a few thousand. The ark, then, would have been adequate to house them and their food, and eight people could have cared for them, as well as for themselves, for many months. There is no problem of credibility on this point.
How important to the credibility of the story would be the finding of a remnant of the ark? To me it would seem insignificant compared with the abundance and reliability of geological, geophysical, and historical evidence. These are topics I will take up in this column in our next issue of Facts & Faith. If you would like to delve into them right away, you may order our audio tape titled The Flood using the order panel on the next-to-the-last page of this newsletter.
- Ehrlich, Paul and Ann, Extinction: The Causes and Consequences of the Disappearance of Species. (New York: Ballantine Books, 1981), pp. 20-23.
- The Old Testament (Hebrew) usage of "soul" or "soulish" is different from the New Testament (Greek) usage. In Greek, soul and spirit are intertwined, but in Hebrew they are (usually) distinct.