And God said to Noah
Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. And God saw that the earth was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted its ways upon the earth. And God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence because of them; now I am going to destroy them along with the earth. Make yourself an ark of cypress wood; make rooms in the ark, and cover it inside and out with pitch. This is how you are to make it: the length of the ark three hundred cubits, its width fifty cubits, and its height thirty cubits. Make a roof for the ark, and finish it to a cubit above; and put the door of the ark in its side; make it with lower, second, and third decks. For my part, I am going to bring a flood of waters on the earth, to destroy from under heaven all flesh in which is the breath of life; everything that is on the earth shall die.
Let us begin by making the seemingly contradictory statement that the story of Noah’s ark, while not a factual or historical account, is a true story. The biblical flood narrative, a re-telling or polemical re-imagining of the Mesopotamian flood story (that of the Assyrian Atraḥasis and the Babylonian Ut-napishtim), was never meant to be read literally and neither was it ever intended as a children’s story. Rather, this is a mythological text — a part of a greater epic — recreated by the authors of Genesis for the purpose of speaking truth to power. The key to understanding it lies in an appreciation of the historical context in which it was written, which was — most likely — during the period of the Babylonian exile; when the cultural elite of Judah were in captivity in Babylonia after the destruction of the Jerusalem temple by Nebuchadnezzar (587 BCE).
A careful reading of the text gives the reader a clue as to the real meaning of the ark: ‘This is how you are to make it: the length of the ark three hundred cubits, its width fifty cubits, and its height thirty cubits (Genesis 6:15).’ Biblical literalists will always have difficulties with this passage because, if nothing else, it highlights God’s serious limitations as a boat designer. This design fault was known even to Michelangelo at the beginning of the sixteenth century when he painted the ark on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel as a floating building. The specifications of three hundred cubits by fifty cubits by thirty cubits gives us a pretty large cuboid, not exactly the ideal dimensions for a vessel intended to save people and animals from a global flood. Read literally, it is clear this is not a clever boat design. But it is a design for something else. It is only when we clarify what this other thing is that we can begin to decipher the rest of the allegory.
The first thing we must note is the vocabulary. God instructs Noah: ‘Make yourself an ark… (עֲשֵׂ֤ה לְךָ֙ תֵּבַ֣ת)’ and this תֵּבָה is not a boat. This is the Egyptian loan-word t-b-t, meaning a chest, a box, or sometimes a coffin and the only other appearance it makes in the Hebrew Bible is in the story of the birth of Moses (in Egypt) when his mother, in order to save him from being thrown into the Nile by the Egyptians, places him in a basket תֵּבָה (Exodus 2:3). There is a connection then between Noah’s ark and the basket into which Moses was put, and this connection is to the mythological tale of life being preserved from the deified primordial chaos sea. We also see a relationship between Moses as the lawgiver and the deliverer of Israel and the purpose of the ark in the Genesis flood narrative.
Secondly, we notice that this is a structure that God commands to be built. The ark is one of two structures God commands to be built in the Bible. The other is the temple of Yahweh in Jerusalem:
The house that King Solomon built for the LORD was sixty cubits long, twenty cubits wide, and thirty cubits high.
1 Kings 6:2
At the end of the Babylonian exile we are given a similar description when Cyrus decrees that the temple of Jerusalem should be rebuilt:
In the first year of his reign, King Cyrus issued a decree: Concerning the house of God at Jerusalem, let the house be rebuilt, the place where sacrifices are offered and burnt offerings are brought; its height shall be sixty cubits and its width sixty cubits…
It starts to become clear in this analysis that the ark in Genesis 6 is a literary representation of the temple in Jerusalem, a temple destroyed by the Babylonians in 587 BCE. Not only does it conform to the pattern of the temple described in 1 Kings 6 and Ezra 6, it is also a symbol of Yahweh’s victory over the great primordial sea monster:
On that day the LORD with his cruel and great and strong sword will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent, Leviathan the twisting serpent, and he will kill the dragon that is in the sea.
What confirms this reading is that Noah himself is a priest who offers animal sacrifices to Yahweh when the flood subsides and he and his family and all the living creatures leave the ark:
So Noah went out with his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives. And every animal, every creeping thing, and every bird, everything that moves on the earth, went out of the ark by families. Then Noah built an altar to the LORD, and took of every clean animal and of every clean bird, and offered burnt offerings on the altar. And when the LORD smelled the pleasing odour, the LORD said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done.
The ark Noah was instructed to build is a sanctuary; both a place of safety and a place of cultic sacrifice. The ark is a holy place constructed in a written text composed after the destruction of the Jerusalem temple. Knowing this, we are able to reconstruct the meaning of the allegory of the great flood in Genesis. God had ‘determined to make an end of all flesh.’ This we can only read in reference to the fates of the Hebrew kingdoms of Israel and Judah. Israel — a people of Yahweh — was destroyed by the Assyrian Empire in 722 BCE. The population of the northern kingdom was deported into exile beyond the Euphrates and so Israel ceased to exist as a political and cultural entity. The Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem, the capital of the southern Kingdom of Judah, and its temple in 587 BCE threatened the Judeans with the same fate of cultural annihilation.
The Judean exiles could explain this in one of two ways; either Yahweh is a weak deity who was incapable of protecting his people or the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple was the will of an almighty God. Understanding these events as a sign of Yahweh’s weakness would have been the end of Yahwistic religion and the exiles would have felt no need to preserve their relationship with Yahweh. So, clearly this history was explained theologically; ‘God saw that the earth was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted its ways upon the earth.’ The reimagining of Yahwistic religion from the sixth century BCE took the form of a broken covenant and divine retribution; the people of Israel and Judah had failed to keep faith with Yahweh by going after other gods and so Yahweh — ‘the God of Israel’ — sent the flood of foreign invasion, destruction, and exile. But he preserved a remnant by ordering the construction of a teva, an ark, made of words — the Torah — by which the Judeans could maintain their relationship with their God outside of the land of promise.