“The Holy Scripture cannot err, … the decrees therein contained are absolutely true and inviolable. But I should have in your place added that, though Scripture cannot err, its expounders and interpreters are liable to err in many ways,” Galileo said in a 1613 letter to Benedetto Castelli.
Anyone who dismisses the possibility of the scientific accuracy of the Scriptures is ignorant of the facts of science, which can lead anyone to the same conclusions. Many people have repeatedly said that the Bible does not say what the Ark looked like. While it is true that we have no detailed floorplan, many specifics are available to us.
Before we examine these specifics, we must understand the tools we are using. For the book of Genesis, the Masoretic Hebrew is the authoritative source for study, representing the original inspired Scriptures. The Greek LXX is inspired when quoted in the original Greek New Testament. The LXX and the Syriac Peshitta, ancient and accurate translations, are very useful for helping us understand the exact meaning of words and phrases. This is especially useful when the Hebrew has more than one possible meaning.
The final source is the vast treasure trove of ancient literature unearthed in the last hundred and fifty years. The Epic of Gilgamesh and other flood legends have cuneiform tablets which date back to at least the eighth century BC. Religious zealots who call themselves “mainstream” wonder if the Bible originated or derived from these fragmentary documents. The scientific evidence demands that even though these cuneiform tablets might date older than the oldest biblical manuscripts we have, their stories are not the original source of the information.
The information in the Bible is accurate. These cuneiform tablets are missing important pieces, plus, picking the factual from the fanciful from these tablets is difficult at best. Thankfully, we are only looking to the Epic of Gilgamesh and other ancient flood legends as support documents, as helps in understanding words and phrases.
“Make thee an ark of gopher wood; rooms shalt thou make in the ark, and shalt pitch it within and without with pitch. And this is the fashion which thou shalt make it of: The length of the ark shall be three hundred cubits, and the breadth of it fifty cubits, and the height of it thirty cubits. A window shalt thou make to the ark, and in a cubit shalt thou finish it above; and the door of the ark shalt thou set in the side thereof; with lower, second, and third stories shalt thou make it.” Genesis 6:14-16 KJV
This is all the information we have about the appearance of the ark. The NASB and the NIV give the same information. So what does this say? First, the ark was made of wood. The exact type of wood varies from translation to translation, but it is always wood. Next, a cubit varied in size from about 18″ to around 24″. So the ark at the smallest possible size was 45’h x 75’w x 450’l and at the largest possible size 60’h x 100’w x 600’l. Except for someone who claims to know the exact size of Noah’s cubit, there is little room for debate here. The next point with little debate is that it had a window. The phrase “in a cubit shalt thou finish it above” is usually understood as an opening one cubit wide all the way around the outside of the ark just below the roof (deck).
Though there are many versions of the Epic of Gilgamesh, newer translations have the ark built as a cube, length, width and height equal. The 1929 translation of Wallis Budge has the height and width equal, but the next line is “I covered (?) it six times.” followed by the lines “I divided into seven, Its interior I divided into nine,” If this actually refers to the length, then the ratio of 6 to 1 for width to length is the same ratio as we find in the Bible.
Most drawings have some sort of deck structure, but this is not mentioned. A deck structure would have required more work and was not necessary. A flat or slightly pitched deck that functioned like roof would fit the information given. The epic of Gilgamesh says, “roof it over like the Apsu.” Scholars say this means that Utnapishtim was familiar with “apsu boats,” vessels for water transport, and he was to make his roof like theirs. The pitch-covered door would blend into the hull and was probably hinged above the waterline. In any case, the door would have little or no effect on the overall appearance.
The word pitch (referring to the coating on the Ark) can have several different meaning, but the LXX translation “asphalt” has only one meaning. The English word asphalt is simply a transliteration of the Greek letters. So the ark before the flood was soaked with and covered in black asphalt.
The most important word is translated in the KJV “rooms.” In the LXX, a literal translation of the two words translated by the single English word “rooms” is “foursquare nested compartments.” Most translators of the LXX find that this does not make much sense, so they translate the phrase with their own opinion, like “square timber.” (Sir Lancelot C.L. Brenton, 1851) “Foursquare nested compartments” which are “rooms” make perfect sense if you understand the ark to be a barge. This is a perfectly sensible description of an ancient shipbuilding technique still used to make river barges today. There is no keel and the internal compartments provide the structural support. It seems that this is the type of shipbuilding described in the Epic of Gilgamesh as well. Line 60 translated by R. Campbell Thompson (1928), “Did I lay down, and did I fashion; aye, six times cross-pinn’d her, Sevenfold did I divide her …, divided her inwards Ninefold: hammer’d the caulking within her, (and) found me a quant-pole.”
Noah’s Ark, if this information is correct, was a black, asphalt covered wooden barge with a roof but no deck. The door was either invisible from the outside or difficult to detect because it blended in with the overall asphalt. It was rectangular and had no keel. Perhaps the bow and aft were slanted in or perhaps they were perpendicular. There was a one-cubit opening just under the overhang of the roof, which went up and down the length and perhaps all the way around.
One final thought. “Fifteen cubits upward did the waters prevail; and the mountains were covered” (Genesis 7:20). The Lord may have miraculously revealed this to Noah, who passed this information down to Moses. Moses may have communicated this information directly by God’s inspiration. Noah and Moses may not have had any way of knowing how high the water would rise above the mountains apart from God telling them.
Or, there is a third possibility. Noah may have built the Ark on top of the highest mountain, and fifteen cubits is the draft of the ark. Noah then knew that the mountains were covered because the ark floated off the highest one.