Specifications for an Ark

specifications ark (2)

c) Gen 6:14–16: In contrast to other Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) accounts, Noah’s salvation was neither an accident nor a thwarting of God’s plan (Gen 6:8–13).[1]

As a result, the Lord specified how to build the ark rather than leaving the plan of escape to Noah’s imagination.[2]

Moses recorded brief instructions, giving us minimal details.[3] However, they are specific enough to imply Noah’s lack of familiarity with shipbuilding.[4]

God instructed Noah, “Make for yourself an ark of gopher wood.”

The Egyptian word for a box, which we translate as an “ark,” (tēbah) occurs twenty-eight times in the flood narrative.[5]

The only other occurrence of the word appears in the description of the basket where Moses’s mother hid him when she placed him in the Nile River (Exod 2:3–5).[6]

Consequently, two remarkable biblical heroes escaped drowning in an ark.[7]

Gopher” wood does not occur anywhere else in the Bible.[8] Commentators assume that it produced resinous lumber suitable for making boats.[9]

Throughout the ANE, shipbuilders preferred cypress and cedar due to their strength and durability.[10]

Some scholars note that Moses’s mother used reeds to make his basket, the same material for the ship built by Atrahasis.[11]

The Lord continued his instructions, saying, “Nests (qēn) you shall make [in] the ark.”[12]

In this case, “nests” appears to be a figurative term for individual chambers of protection against the coming deluge.[13]

The Epic of Gilgamesh employs the same idea for the boat, saying, “Her floor plan I divided into nine parts.”[14]

An ark containing rooms and decks denotes the relative complexity of this boat compared to other ships of antiquity.[15]

People constructed the earliest boats, which measured about ten feet long, from reeds or animal skins. They could safely sail along a river or through marshes. The art of Egypt’s Old Kingdom (ca. 2500 BC) first depicted seaworthy vessels. These wooden vessels reached a length close to 170 feet.[16]

A hint concerning Noah’s lack of nautical expertise comes here, when the Lord instructed him, “And you shall cover it inside and outside with pitch.”

The phrase “inside and outside” consists of a technical construction term (Exod 25:11; 1 Ki 7:9).[17]

ANE shipbuilders routinely coated a sea-worthy vessel with pitch,[18] as it functioned like caulk.[19]

God commanded, “And this is how you shall make it: three hundred cubits in length [for] the ark, fifty cubits [for] its width, and thirty cubits [for] its height.”

A cubit was the standard measurement in Moses’s era. At eighteen inches, this ran the length from an average man’s fingertips to his elbow.[20]

These dimensions equal 440’ x 73’ x 44’.[21] Including the end zones, the dimensions of an American football field measure 360’ x 160’. The ark was eighty feet longer and approximately half as wide.

Assuming the ark featured a flat bottom, it displaced 43,000 tons of water.[22] The ark’s surface area measured three times greater than that of the tabernacle courtyard (Exod 27:9–13).[23]

This ship had an enormous carrying capacity. Its proportions would have made it seaworthy,[24] even when faced with a monstrous flood.[25]

A 17th century Dutchman constructed an ark to 2/5 scale which proved the fitness of Noah’s ark for oceanic travel.[26]

In contrast, the Epic of Gilgamesh records that the god Ea commanded, “The ship that thou shalt build, her dimensions shall be to measure. Equal shall be her width and her length…One (whole) acre was her floor space, ten dozen cubits the height of each of her walls, ten dozen cubits each edge of the square deck.”[27]

Thus, Utnapishtim’s boat formed a perfect cube of 180’.[28] It displaced three or four times as much water as Noah’s ark,[29] with five times the carrying capacity.[30]

A recently-discovered Babylonian version of the Atrahasis Epic (ca. 1750 BC) describes the boat as a round vessel constructed from palm fibers placed over wooden ribs. Bitumen covered it to provide water-proofing. About two-thirds the size of a football field with 20 foot high walls, it would have bobbed upon the water like a cork.[31]

Verse 16 begins with a word difficult to translate (tsohar), in large part because it appears in this form only here in the Old Testament.[32]

Most likely, the Lord said, “And make a vaulted roof, and complete it to a cubit from the top.”

Many translations use “roof” or “window.” However, biblical authors used different words for a flat roof (gag) and for a window (hallon) (Josh 2:6; Gen 8:6). If Moses meant one of those, he likely would have chosen a less obscure term.[33]

This leaves us with two strong possibilities. Either Noah constructed the roof to leave an eighteen inch gap where it met the wall, and/or he made the roof to overhang the wall by that amount. The latter option fits with Gen 8:13.[34]

Israelites built the roof of the tabernacle in a similar manner (Exod 26:13–14).

In addition, God commanded Noah to “place a door in the side of it. You shall make lower, second, and third [decks].” A division into three parts also occurred in the tabernacle (Exod 40:17–21, 33).

The Epic of Gilgamesh refers to similar details but on a grander scale:

“I laid out the contours (and) joined her together. I provided her with six decks, dividing her (thus) into seven parts. Her floor plan I divided into nine parts. I hammered water-plugs into her. I saw to the punting-poles and laid in supplies. Six ‘sar’ (measures) of bitu  men I poured into the furnace, three sar of asphalt [I also] poured inside.”[35]

The Genesis account mentions no rudders or sails for Noah’s boat, indicating he would not navigate it. God held Noah’s fate in his hands.[36]

Utnapishtim, however, employed a navigator.[37] As most of the gods sought to completely wipe out humanity, he could not depend upon the gods to save him.[38]

Image via Wikimedia Commons


Read Gen 6:14–16. How is the biblical account of the ark’s specifications similar to those of other ANE versions? In what ways do they differ? Why is the lack of sails or a rudder on the ark significant?





Go to A Deluge to Ruin All Flesh


[Related posts include Righteous and Blameless (Gen 6:9–10); Violence Filled the Earth (Gen 6:11–12); The End was Near (Gen 6:13); A Deluge to Ruin All Flesh (Gen 6:17); New Creatures in Christ (2 Cor 5:17); Receiving Christ’s Righteousness (2 Cor 5:21); and Author and Date of Genesis]

[Click here to go to Chapter 6: The Promise of a Covenant (Genesis 6:9–22)]


[1]Wenham, Genesis 1–15, 165.

[2]Waltke and Fredricks, Genesis: A Commentary, 135.

[3]Wenham, Genesis 1–15, 172.

[4]Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1–17, 281.

[5]H. J. Zobel, “תֵּבָה” (tebah), TDOT 15:550–552, 550–1.

[6]Wenham, Genesis 1–15, 172.

[7]Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1–17, 280.

[8]Result of Logos 7 word study on gopher.

[9]Waltke and Fredricks, Genesis: A Commentary, 135.

[10]Matthews, Chavalas, and Walton, IVPBBCOT, Gen 6:14.

[11]Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1–17, 281.

[12]Brown, Driver, and Briggs, “קֵנ” (qin), BDB, 890, https://archive.org/stream/hebrewenglishlex00browuoft#page/890/mode/2up.

[13]P. Mommer, “קֵנ” (qin), TDOT 13:45–7, 46–7.

[14]Speiser, “The Epic of Gilgamesh,” in ANET, line 62, 93, https://archive.org/stream/Pritchard1950ANET_20160815/Pritchard_1950_ANET#page/n117/mode/2up.

[15]Walton, Genesis, 312.

[16]Matthews, Chavalas, and Walton, IVPBBCOT, Gen 6:14–6.

[17]Wenham, Genesis 1–15, 173.

[18]Walton, Genesis, 312.

[19]Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1–17, 281.

[20]Matthews, Chavalas, and Walton, IVPBBCOT, Gen 6:16.

[21]Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1–17, 282.

[22]Matthews, Chavalas, and Walton, IVPBBCOT, Gen 6:16.

[23]Wenham, Genesis 1–15, 173.

[24]Waltke and Fredricks, Genesis: A Commentary, 135–6.

[25]Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1–17, 282.

[26]Wenham, Genesis 1–15, 173.

[27]Speiser, “The Epic of Gilgamesh,” in ANET, 11:28–30, 57–8, 93, https://archive.org/stream/Pritchard1950ANET_20160815/Pritchard_1950_ANET#page/n117/mode/2up.

[28]Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1–17, 282.

[29]Matthews, Chavalas, and Walton, IVPBBCOT, Gen 6:16.

[30]Wenham, Genesis 1–15, 173.

[31]H. Niehr, “ץָהֳרַיִמ” (tsoharim), TDOT 12:264–6.

[32]Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1–17, 282–3.

[33]Wenham, Genesis 1–15, 173–4.

[34]Speiser, “Epic of Gilgamesh,” in ANET, 11:59–66, 93, https://archive.org/stream/Pritchard1950ANET_20160815/Pritchard_1950_ANET#page/n117/mode/2up.

[35]Irving Finkel, “Was the Ark Round? A Babylonian Description Discovered,” https://blog.britishmuseum.org/was-the-ark-round-a-babylonian-description-discovered/.

[36]Waltke and Fredricks, Genesis: A Commentary, 135.

[37]Speiser, “The Epic of Gilgamesh,” in ANET, 11:94–5, 94, https://archive.org/stream/Pritchard1950ANET_20160815/Pritchard_1950_ANET#page/n119/mode/2up.

[38]Matthews, Chavalas, and Walton, IVPBBCOT, Gen 6:16.