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TITLE: The Unsinkable Noah
By Douglas Sowers
08/08/07
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I am not interested in hearing whether you agree with reeds or believe in wood. Would Skeptics find this satisfying? Would believers find it useful? Is it interesting and a compelling read?
The Unsinkable Noah’s Ark
After a traditional Christian presentation on Noah’s flood, I was listening to two scientists friends disparage the whole event. Since I had no scientific answer, I remained quiet. One scientist continued his diatribe by shifting to the Ark itself. He said, “What about that boat? After 5,000 years of perfecting wooden boat building, no one figured how to build such a large wooden boat especially for stormy seas. Anything over 300 feet tended to leak like a sieve while boats over 350 feet were likely to break in half. It is impossibly big!” The Christian answer that God miraculously taught Noah how to build a 450 foot wooden boat is just a copout.
This, I thought, was a fair assessment of the problem of the Ark. Being a scientist and a Biblical Scholar, I wanted to have an answer for them. Was a 450 foot (300 cubit) boat buildable? First, I had to research the history of building giant wooden boats. I also needed to study the Biblical passage to see exactly what it said. Finally, I would compare the ark to archaeological studies of ancient boats.
The History of boatbuilding describes a variety of boats. During the first dynasty in Egypt, possibly 2900 BC, the Egyptians started making boats with planks sewn together, as long as 80 feet. The Greeks had 60 foot cargo ships and 115 foot triremes for the Aegean, but not usable in the Atlantic. The Vikings used lapstrake construction where the boards were lashed to a frame to make 60 - 120 foot boats. The frame was used for additional strength, enabling Atlantic sailing. Finally, the Europeans developed caravel construction where the frame was the center of the strength and the boards were nailed on and met end to end rather than overlapping sides like the Vikings. This radical change allowed the boats to grow from the relatively small caravels like Columbus used to the giant American clipper ships. The largest clipper ships lke the Great Republic at 334 feet long needed extra steel support. The few other long ships in the 300 plus category tended to bend in the middle (called hogging) and leak in heavy seas and were lost or abandoned after one or a few trips across the Atlantic.
There are a few other ships worth mentioning. One is Caligula’s giant ship (really a barge) at 341 feet and speculated to have transported the obelisk in St. Peter’s Square from Egypt (smooth seas only). Another is the Zheng He, a 233 ft treasure ship of the type mentioned in the book 1421. In 1421, the author claims some were nearly 500 feet long. A Dr Davies states that 400 feet is the best translation but experts think the largest were under 300 feet. The Al-Hashemi-II is a 275 ft model of a Dhow that is only meant as a restaurant. These were all considered to have pushed the limit of what is possible in different types of wooden ships.
One problem with wooden ships was leaking. Whether the wood was sewn, lashed, or nailed, all had seams where planks were joined together. To reduce the leaking to a minimum, tar was typically used to caulk the seams but only the seams. The statement that Noah was to coat the Ark inside and out with tar and pitch is the first hint we get that we are not dealing with a wood ship. Tar was quite valuable, so using tar unnecessarily was not done. Why was it coated inside and out? The boat was also painted to stop wood boring worms, algae and barnacles. One might coat the outside with tar if no decent paint was available, but why inside?
To understand that, we need to look at the next clue, the word Ark. It is only used one other place in the Bible in reference to a watercraft. In the story of Moses, his mother makes an ark of Papyrus reeds and coats it with tar and pitch. In both cases, there were perfectly acceptable words for boat, but instead these two passages used the word ark. A correlation here could solve a problem. The Bible states that the Noah’s Ark is made out of Gopher wood. No one knows what kind of wood it is and Sumer was notoriously lacking is trees. Could Ark refer to some non-wood craft? Moses’ Ark was made out of Papyrus reeds. So, by correlation, did Gopher mean papyrus?
The verse on Gopher wood says, Make an ark of gopher wood, make it with compartments and coat it with pitch. There are two more hints here. The word “wood” is also used of for stalks of flax. It comes from a root used for trees and a person’s spine. It means to make stiff. Could it be saying make it of stiffened gopher? The other clue comes from a common Hebrew writing style most visible in Proverbs. There the writer said the same thing twice in different words. When one looks at the word translated compartments, it means upright and comes from the root meaning reeds. In Sumer, Papyrus reeds did not grow. A very different marsh reed currently called Bardi Reed grows there. The translation could reasonably be changed from make it of gopher wood and make it with compartments to make it of gopher (or Bardi) made stiff, make it of reeds.
Archaeologists support this conclusion several ways. First, they have unearthed an ancient shipbuilding site in Sumer. Many chips of tar were found, apparently they recycled them. Some chips had grooves the exact size of the Bardi reed on one side and barnacles on the other. Next, ancient Sumerian merchant documents refer to reed boats of the 100 and 300 types. This might refer to the weight of cargo (e.g. 300 tons) or the size, 300 cubits. They were documented to have carried huge loads to places we think were Bahrain, Yemen, and Pakistan. Also ancient drawings of boats better fit reed boats than wooden ones. Another source was that even in the Sumerian story of the flood, the hero is told to tear down a reed hut and make his ark. Finally, even in modern times, there was a clan of Iraqis that made reed houses and reed mosques.
Thor Heyerdahl made three reed boats to demonstrate their seaworthiness. RA I was a papyrus boat made loosely and didn’t quite reach America. RA II was a papyrus boat made stiff and sailed to America easily. In The Tigris Expedition, he wrote how the Tigris was made of Bardi reeds and he sailed it for months around the Indian ocean. Since tar was too stiff and cracked off and pitch was too penetrating, he didn’t use either, but saw the usefulness if the owner wanted years of use.
The amazing thing is that the very drawback to large wooden boats was a strength of reed boats. Thor Heyerdahl saw his reed boats flex tremendously in the waves. Waves could inundate the boat and it would let the water flow out. They could be any size and travel on the roughest oceans and still remain unsinkable. Since water was allowed to wash over the whole ship, it lasted longest if it was coated inside and out with tar and pitch. Where a 450 foot wooden ark would have been the worst choice for the storm of the century, the 450 foot reed boat was the best choice.
I now had an answer for my scientist friends. We translated the passage as wood because history had forgotten about the existence of reed boats for thousands of years. We used the best translations we knew, but this resulted in scientists doubting the accuracy of the Bible. When we use the right translation, the Bible remains accurate, and the scientists have no objection. Thus the Ark and the Story of the flood are truly unsinkable. Could we do the same for the question of how many animals?
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