Ham’s Ark

Noah and his ark have been in the news quite a bit over the past several months. A friend recently shared a story on American News X about Ken Ham’s Ark Encounter, soon to open in Kentucky. It may be open already, but I haven’t been down yonder lately. I’m not going to attempt to match the well-deserved snark of Thomas Clay’s article, but I did find the design of Ham’s ark worthy of comment. I’m afraid I’ll have to wait while you check the article since photographs are covered by copyright and, well, I haven’t been down yonder. What first strikes me about Ham’s ark is that it has a rudder (as well as a keel). The Bible does imply that this was the first boat built, but then it also states the plans, like the Bible itself, came directly from God. The Almighty surely understands fluid dynamics, but I was wondering what the rudder was for. Did Noah plan on going someplace? Presumably in his flat world he’d have wanted to just stay afloat over the same place since, to quote another scripture, “there’s no place like home.”

Genesis doesn’t say anything about a rudder. In fact, apart from the inexact measurements in cubits, all we know about the ark are the following features:

•its dimensions (300 cubits by 50 cubits by 50 cubits; RMS Titanic, by comparison, was approximately 548.5 cubits long)
•it had three decks
•it had a door
•it had a window.

The Ham-style ark design is based on that advocated by Sun Pictures some years back as being especially seaworthy. Nobody knows what gopher wood is, but there was plenty of it around since all the plants were considered expendable in the face of a flood that would kill everything. But a rudder?

The biblical ark took its cue, somehow, from the much older tale of Utnapishtim. There are even earlier versions than that in the Gilgamesh Epic, but the parallels between Gilgamesh and Genesis have been known for well over a century now and are pretty remarkable. The original ark, however, was a cube. It had six decks. Now a cube of wood—even gopher wood—would sink like, well, a cube of gopher wood. Such a ship wouldn’t require a rudder to help it find the bottom of the New World Ocean.

Before my academic career took a tumble I was slated to write a book on Noah. Too bad that never happened, what with all the interest these days. A cottage industry in making arks has been launched. As modern-day arks sail, or at least get towed, through the present-day oceans, or are built high on dry ground, we can be glad for a rudder in the prescient mind of the sender of all floods.

Photo credit: Centre for Research Collections University of Edinburgh, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Centre for Research Collections University of Edinburgh, via Wikimedia Commons

Narrative Ark

Complete with an artificial giraffe perched on its prow—or aft, I can never tell the difference—a modern-day Noah’s ark is about to set sail. Or set float. The Bible doesn’t describe any kind of steering or propulsion for the ark since its main job was not to sink. According to a story on Huffington Post by Nina Golgowski, the life-size “replica” of Noah’s ark from the Netherlands (that I’ve posted about before) is about to go to sea. Spreading the good news as it goes, it is headed for South America, according to the story. Then the itinerary heads north, where the most rapid true believers can be found. Perhaps intentionally the ark is headed toward the godless left coast rather than hitting the Bible Belt. The fact that an imaginative reconstruction of a mythical ship can float may save many from Hell. A few questions, however, remain.

I’m a visual guy. I study pictures rather than just look at them. As a kid I was amazed at the sheer variety of arks that claimed to follow Noah’s blueprint. Reading the account in Genesis, it is clear that all that’s given are measurements—in cubits, no less—and instructions to make three decks and a window. The Dutch ark follows the design made popular by the 1977 Sun Pictures’ In Search of Noah’s Ark movie. The design, I recall thinking as a teen, looked slick and scientific. Engineered to withstand a fake storm in a bathtub, this has to prove something. When rock outcroppings on Mount Ararat were photographed from satellites and military jets, they suggested this was, in fact, correct, some of the time. Close-up photos were inevitably lost as sherpa after sherpa fell into hidden crevasses with the camera still in hand. Now they won’t let you climb the mountain, just in case.

The drawing that launched a thousand, or at least one, ark(s).

The drawing that launched a thousand, or at least one, ark(s).

Apart from the ark design is the more important question—the question about leg room. With all our technology, and a world that has been pretty thoroughly, if disappointingly, explored, we still haven’t catalogued all the species on the planet. The ark had to hold all the species since evolution is a diabolical lie. Pugs had to be there as well as their non-ancestral wolves. Both African and Indian elephants. Black and white rhinos. Hippopotami, pygmy and economy-sized. It had to have been pretty crowded, and Answers in Genesis claims there had to be room for dinosaurs too. For me the question has always been those left off the ark—the fish. If the oceans are salt water and the whole world was flooded, whence the fresh-water fish? They couldn’t have evolved, since nobody does. That’s a head-scratcher. Good thing too, because there had to have been more than just two fleas on that ark.

High Tide

While the devastating rains in Colorado this month are a very serious concern, over the past several days I heard and read the adjective “biblical” associated with them several times. Even the National Weather Service made reference to “biblical rainfall amounts.” It’s true that the Bible does contain the most famous, if not exactly original, flood story in the modern world. The tale of Noah easily goes back to the Sumerians, and there are deluge stories from around the world that rival it in most details. Even in this secular age, though, we all still know that floods are the province of providence. It is of interest, however, how the word “biblical” has taken on a distinctly negative connotation. The most noteworthy of biblical materials are high literature of optimism and potential for good—and sweet heaven when we die. And yet, floods, droughts, plagues of insects, these are the “biblical” events in our lives.

Floods can indeed be devastating. They demonstrate the illusion of solidity under which we try to assure ourselves that the high ground is the safest place to be when the globe warms up, or God grows somewhat impatient with human antics. Biology has implanted deeply in our psyches the desire for a safe haven, a place where we can store our stuff securely. In fact, the “net worth” of an individual—so noteworthy when we die—is measured in terms of the material goods which we control, or “own.” The quality of a person’s inner life is not something of their “net worth” to society; it can’t be divvied up by lawyers and investors, and, in terms of legality, is unimportant. We are valued for our things.

That’s why floods are so pernicious. I don’t devalue the lives that have been lost, but the headlines declare the dollar amounts more loudly. Here is where the obvious clash between the days of Noah and our own come into play. The only goods the delugonaut took aboard the ark consisted of food and life itself (although the Sun Pictures version shows his family with anachronistic metal knives and even some furniture). When the whole world is flooded, the only property valued at all is that on the deck next to you. Our society values people by what they acquire rather than by who they are. Floods wipe out the former, leaving the latter harried but hopefully intact. If we were to build arks today, no doubt as the clear-cutting of rain forests with the subsequent extinction of countless species shows, we would use the choicest wood and would cram every last square inch with our stuff, while people and other animals outside beg for entrance onto the boats that we “earn.”

448px-Noah_mosaic

Floods and Fairytales

Never mind that the Bible gives only a cursory description of “Noah’s ark.” Never mind that the story in Genesis is clearly derivative from Mesopotamian originals such as the epics of Ziusudra, Atrahasis, and Gilgamesh (the Utnapishtim version). Never mind that all species of animals cannot survive within a single, extremely limited biosphere without evolving afterward into the diversity that the world currently hosts, even counting extinctions. Never mind that not enough water exists (with apologies to Kevin Costner) to cover all landforms without every mountain being pounded flat and stacked neatly on top of the ocean floor. In short, never mind reality—people will continue to build replicas of Noah’s ark. As a literary trope the ark has proved invaluable; many of my posts demonstrate how it appears and reappears in books and movies as a symbol of human irresponsibility. And yet, in order to demonstrate the veracity of an ancient myth, we continue to build fundamentalist arks.

Yesterday my wife pointed me to a msnbc story of an ark being built—and sailed—in the Netherlands. Certainly those in the “low countries” have global warming to deal with more immediately that those on higher (geologically, not morally, speaking) ground, and the engineer of this particular ark does not strike the viewer as a rabid literalist (he is a little too unkempt for that, and his shirt is not white and he wears no tie). John Huibers, however, worries about a more localized flood in the Netherlands. The ark may be overkill since polar bears, koala bears and panda bears are rare in Amsterdam, at least when one is not medicated. Arks, however, make great tourist attractions.

In Hong Kong the Kwok brothers built an ark replica in 2009. Greenpeace has one in Istanbul. A Christian theme-park featuring a full-size ark is under development in Kentucky, and just two years ago I drove past a roadside ark being built in Maryland. Most of these arks, interestingly, follow the design in the Sun Pictures’ production In Search of Noah’s Ark rather than the more traditional, mythic design in my children’s Bible. It is a natural human tendency to mistake form for substance. The story of Noah is a cautionary tale that has taken on daunting real-life implications in our treatment of our planet. Water is the signature of life, but for us land-dwellers too much is not a good thing. Thankfully, should a flood come, there will soon be enough arks around the world that would-be Noahs may find themselves in a buyers’ market.

Still my favorite ark

Noah’s Lark

This podcast deals with the myth of the great flood. It begins with a consideration of why modern expeditions do not find anything (nothing to be found), and considers the reasons the story is so appealing to present-day readers. The Sun Pictures productions on the flood story are reviewed, along with the story of the hoax played on Sun in their 1992 made-for-television movie. The history of the flood story is briefly narrated, beginning with George Smith’s 1872 discovery of the Mesopotamian flood story, back to Atrahasis and the Eridu Genesis from Sumer. The flood story is one of the earliest religious stories known.