What was the shape of Noah’s Ark? For millennia Jewish and Christian clerics, scholars, and academics, as well as others with too much time on their hands, have pondered this question.
What makes it tantalizing is the precision of the numbers in Genesis 6 (here, in the King James translation):
 And God said unto Noah, The end of all flesh is come before me; for the earth is filled with violence through them; and, behold, I will destroy them with the earth.
 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, 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.
The directions seem straightforward. But those who have tried to picture an ark built according to the numbers in Genesis have often ended up with bizarre and ugly results: a long, skinny box, or a squashed pyramid stretched on two sides, among others.
The measurements—300 cubits, 50 cubits, and 30 cubits—must be in the text of Genesis for a reason. But no one has been able to come up with a shape based on the Biblical dimensions that does not seem intuitively wrong.
This would be a trivial question if it were not linked to a greater puzzle with profound theological and ethical implications. In the Torah, the strange word tevah is used only twice: once to describe Noah’s Ark, and once to describe the fragile container made out of bulrushes in which the infant Moses was placed in the Nile before Pharaoh’s daughter found him. It has long been a mystery why the same word would be used for the wicker basket that rescued Moses and the vessel that rescued the ancestors of all present-day human beings and animals.
Until now. I have finally solved the mystery of the shape of Noah’s Ark—and discovered why it matters.
Most people in Western countries think they know what Noah’s Ark looked like, thanks to illustrations and children’s toys. The ark was a boat, a sort of plump and cuddly galleon, with the necks of giraffes rather than cannons poking out and Noah and Mrs. Noah looking down from a little house on top. Contemporary reconstruction of the ark by Protestant creationists who take the Bible literally either resemble conventional boats or long, narrow, floating coffins.
In depictions from the Roman era, Noah is often shown popping out of a chest or crate like a Jack-in-the-box. The ancient artists may have been influenced by pictures of Deucalion and Pyrrha, who survived a flood sent by Zeus in Greek mythology, and of Danae and her son Perseus, who were cast into the sea in a wooden chest by King Acrisius of Argos and washed up on the island of Seriphos.
The Roman-era artists may also have been influenced by the Greek version of Genesis in the Septuagint. The word aron is used for the sacred chest that contained the stone tablets of Moses, the Ark of the Covenant. In the Greek Septuagint translation of the Hebrew scriptures, and later in the Greek New Testament, both tevah and aron are rendered as kibotos, “box.” In the Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible, this became arca, a Latin word for box, from which the English word “ark” is derived.
Let’s try to put aside preconceptions and figure out what a tevah was, beginning with the tevah of Moses. Exodus 1:22 describes the captivity of the Hebrews in Egypt: “And Pharaoh charged all his people, saying, Every son that is born ye shall cast into the river, and every daughter ye shall save alive.” Exodus 2 tells how his mother, Yocheved, saved him: “And when she could not longer hide him, she took for him an ark of bulrushes, and daubed it with slime and with pitch, and put the child therein; and she laid it in the flags by the river’s brink.” Pharoah’s daughter finds the baby boy, whom she names Moses, because, she says, “I drew him out of the water.”
Reading Genesis without preconceptions, we might guess that Noah’s tevah—made out of “gopher-wood” and water-proofed with pitch—is a giant version of the tevah of Moses, made out of bulrushes and water-proofed with pitch (and slime!). The mysterious word “gofer” in “gopher wood” in the King James Bible occurs only once in the scriptures, in Genesis 6:14. The Greek Septuagint translation of Genesis renders “gofer wood” as “square timber.” But as the Jewish Encyclopedia notes, gofer may have been derived from the Assyrian word giparu for “reeds.” Significantly, perhaps, the word translated as “rooms” in the King James version in Hebrew is quinnim, “nests,” as in birds’ nests.
Most contemporary scholars believe that the basic motifs of the Noah story—the command to build an ark to save his family and animals, the sending out of birds to search for dry land, the ark’s coming to rest on a mountain, and a sacrifice followed by a divine promise—come directly from earlier Mesopotamian myths told about Flood heroes: the Sumerian king Ziusudra (“Life of Long Days”), the Akkadian king Atra-hasis (“Exceeding in Wisdom”), and the Babylonian king Utnaphishtim (“He Found Eternal Life”), who describes the Flood to Gilgamesh in the Epic of Gilgamesh. It is interesting, therefore, that reeds play a role in the directions given by the god Enki to Atra-hasis, the Babylonian Noah:
Wall, wall! Reed wall, reed wall!
Atra-hasīs, pay heed to my advice,
That you may live for ever!
Destroy your house, build a boat…
This makes sense only if Atra-hasis tore down his reed house, of a kind common to this day among the marsh Arabs of Iraq, and used the material in constructing his ark.
A lot of contextual evidence, then, supports the view of the Ark as a giant version of the basket of the infant Moses. But there is a problem, in the form of three numbers. Recall Genesis 6:15: “And this is the fashion which thou shalt make it of: The length of the ark shall be three hundred cubits, the breadth of it fifty cubits, and the height of it thirty cubits.”
The length-to-width ratio here is 300 cubits to 50 cubits, or 6 to 1. That seems to describe a long, skinny, rectangular or oblong boat. Which is a problem for the theory that the tevah in the Noah story is a giant basket.
Enter Irving Finkel.
In 2009, the British Museum received the donated fragment of an ancient cuneiform tablet that contained a hitherto-unknown Akkadian version of one of the Babylonian Flood myths with detailed ark-building specifications that preceded and influenced the story in Genesis. As he relates in his entertaining and erudite 2014 book, The Ark Before Noah: Decoding the Story of the Flood, Irving Finkel, the British Museum’s authority on Mesopotamian cuneiform writing, used the detailed instructions in the “Ark Tablet” to reconstruct the ark of Atra-hasis as a circular structure made out of coiled ropes that were waterproofed by being covered with pitch. In 2015, PBS aired a documentary in which a smaller-than-life-size reconstruction of the round ark of Atra-hasis, made to Finkel’s specifications, was built and launched. It took on water and was saved from sinking by pumps.
Contrary to the sensational headlines that his book inspired, while Finkel argues that most of the arks of Babylonian, Akkadian, and Sumerian legend were circular, he agrees with those who believe that Noah’s Ark in Genesis is a rectangular or oblong watercraft. Finkel is the greatest, and possibly the only, member of the category of erudite individuals who are not evangelical Protestant creationists but have nevertheless spent years thinking about the shape of Noah’s Ark. I read and enjoyed The Ark Before Noah when it appeared in 2014, and I took it on his authority that the question was settled. Many if not all arks in earlier Mesopotamian myths were circular, but Noah’s was not.
Having come across various competing ark designs during my recreational reading in ancient theology and legend (a harmless hobby if pursued in moderation), I was reminded of the scholar Dan Shapira’s wonderful Tablet essay exploring fantastic visions of imaginary temples and cities in Jewish lore, “The Floating Space City of the Jews,” published on May 26, 2022. After I read Shapira’s article, I found myself again pondering the question of the shape of Noah’s Ark.
At the center of the puzzle are the numbers combined with the Hebrew words for height (qomah), width (rochab), and length (orek): 30, 50, 300. I wondered if there could be any mathematical significance to the peculiar 6-to-1 ratio of length-to-width in Noah’s Ark. What, if anything, in geometry has a ratio that is approximately 6-to-1? The answer: The ratio of the circumference of a circle to its radius is 6.28 to 1.
Let’s plug in the numbers for width and length. If 50 cubits is the radius of a circle, this gives us a circumference of 314 cubits. Not exactly 300, but close. And 3 rather than 3.14 was often used as an approximation of pi in antiquity, by the Babylonians among others.
Could Noah’s Ark have been round after all? Could the Hebrew word rochab mean radius, instead of width? Could “orek” mean “circumference” instead of merely “length” in Genesis 6:15?
Before these possibilities occurred independently to yours truly, they had already been explored by Robert Sheldon, a physicist and biblical literalist, in his 2017 multivolume work The Long Ascent: Genesis 1–11 in Science & Myth, in which he tries energetically if unpersuasively to prove the accuracy of Genesis by invoking the tale of Atlantis, as well as Greek, Egyptian, Sanskrit, Norse, and other mythologies. To answer the question of whether Noah’s Ark could have been round, Sheldon went to the trouble of comparing ratios of the lengths and widths of various objects in Genesis, Exodus, Deuteronomy, and other books, and concluded that the few examples with a ratio close to 6:1 did not support the hypothesis that the words rochab and orek could have been used in ancient Hebrew to describe a round object.
But that does not settle the matter. Most contemporary scholars agree that Genesis splices together at least two versions of the flood story by different authors, which in turn modify earlier Mesopotamian myths. The priestly author (or P) is thought to have been responsible for the measurements of Noah’s Ark. The pagan sources of the flood story that were modified by the Jewish authors probably were Babylonian, because Genesis in its current form is thought to have been put together following the return of Jewish leaders and priests from exile in Babylon, around 500 BCE.
Could “width” and “length” in Hebrew have been attempts at translating “radius” and “circumference” from another language, probably Babylonian? Are there Babylonian words that plausibly might have been translated into Hebrew in this way?
Please now turn to your well-thumbed copy of Joran Friberg and Farouk N.H. Al-Rawi’s New Mathematical Cuneiform Texts (2017), page 258: “[T]he (length of the) arc of the semicircle is simply called uŝ ‘length,’ possibly because uŝ was routinely used as the name for the unknown in Old Babylonian quadratic equations.”
Bingo. In Old Babylonian, the word uŝ for “length” could be used to describe the circumference of a circle or the arc length of a semicircle. What about radius? Let’s turn to Friberg and Al-Rawi again, page 252: “From a linguistic point of view, the use of Akkadian matnu ‘string’ in § 1b as an Old Babylonian word for ‘radius’ comes as a big surprise. No word for ‘radius’ has ever appeared before in any known mathematical cuneiform text …”
Radius of the lost arc? (Sorry.)
If the Babylonian term for radius was obscure even to Babylonian speakers, and the Babylonian term for length could have referred to a straight line or an arc length or the circumference of a circle, then the case that the original meaning of geometric terms got lost in translation into Hebrew—or even lost in paraphrase in Babylonian—seems stronger.
On rereading, several of Finkel’s arguments in The Ark Before Noah in favor of a rectangular or oblong Noah’s Ark, unlike the circular ark of Atra-hasis, seem weak to me. For example, describing what he calls “a breakdown of the specs,” Finkel defines tevah as “unknown word for rectangular boat.” But this is smuggling the conclusion into the definition. Whatever a tevah was, it was the same kind of thing in the stories of Noah and Moses. In Akkadian legend, the infant Sargon was rescued from a container in a river. So was the infant Karna, a hero in the Hindu epic Mahabharata. Both Sargon and Karna were found floating in reed baskets, so it seems unlikely that Baby Moses floated past Pharaoh’s daughter in a long, narrow canoe.
Finkel notes that an Akkadian tablet mentions some kind of boat called a tubbu and speculates: “I think that the Judeans encountered the Akkadian boat word tubbu used for the Ark … and Hebraised it as tevah.” When he goes on to conjecture that tubbu is “ancestral” to the English word “tub,” however, he loses me.
Finkel devotes considerable space in The Ark Before Noah to arguing that the 300-by-50 dimensions of Noah’s rectangular Ark were derived by complex mathematical reasoning from the measurements of Atra-hasis’ circular ark by the author of the description in Genesis. In the Ark Tablet, Ea tells Atra-hasis: “Let her flood area be one field …” A “field” or iku in Akkadian and Babylonian was 120 cubits by 120 cubits. Finkel takes this to mean that the area of Atra-hasis’ circular ark was 14,400 square cubits—the area of an iku. He notes that when you multiply the 50-cubit width by the 300-cubit length of Noah’s Ark, you get 15,000 square cubits. Finkel argues that the author of the Genesis description, having decided that an oblong ark would be more seaworthy than a circular one, came up with the 50-by-30 dimensions in order to keep the same floor area found in the older source (14,400 square cubits), even though the shape was different:
What is more remarkable—and assuredly no coincidence—is that the base area of Noah’s Ark is virtually identical to that inherited from cuneiform (within 4%) at 15,000 cubits, revealing it unmistakably as a reworking of the same original Babylonian idea, to construct on the same basis a boat of another shape altogether, one typical of practical, heavy-duty, riverine cargo barges.
This raises a lot of questions. Why would P have considered the area of the ark of Atra-hasis to be significant? If the goal of P in Genesis was, for whatever reason, to make sure that the floor area of Noah’s Ark matched the 14,400-square-cubit floor area of the Ark of Atrahasis, why not make the dimensions of Noah’s Ark 200 by 75, or 150 by 100, each of which would lead to a more conventional oblong boat shape with an area of 15,000 square cubits, instead of 50 by 300? And I find it hard to imagine that the author of the P account in Genesis paused in his work of revising Mesopotamian mythology in the service of Jewish theology and morality to ponder the nautical qualities of various boat shapes.
In an apparent contradiction, Finkel elsewhere in his book writes that the ark “is the size of a Babylonian field, what we would call an acre,” and he also writes that “the coracle’s floor area comes out at 3,600” square meters. But 3,600 square meters is only about half of the area of an iku.
To sort this all out, let’s look at the god Enki’s instructions to Atra-hasis, followed by the statements in Atra-hasis’ own voice, in Finkel’s 2014 translation of the Ark Tablet:
Draw out the boat that you will make
On a circular plan;
Let her length and breadth be equal,
Let her floor area be one field, let her sides be one nindan high …
I set in place thirty ribs
Which were one parsiktu-vessel thick, ten nindan long.
Here is the same passage from the Ark Tablet, translated by Nathan Wasserman in The Flood: The Akkadian Sources (2020):
The boat which you will build, I will draw it out (for you)—a circular plan:
Her length and breadth should be equal, her base should be one iku, her hull (lit. walls) should be one nindanu (high) …
I put up thirty ribs which are one parsiktu-vessel thick, ten nindanu long.
The best way to understand the terse account in the Atra-hasis epic, I think, is to conclude that the iku or field refers not to the deck or a floor of the ark itself as completed, but to the area of the preliminary design to be drawn on the ground. Following Enki’s instructions, Atra-hasis has his workers mark out an iku on the ground, creating a square of 120 cubits by 120 cubits with a total area of 14,400 square cubits. Next the workers connect the midpoints of each opposing side of the square, to form two transverse diameters—“Let her length and breadth be equal.” As it happens, The Ark Before Noah contains an illustration of a cuneiform tablet showing a circle inside a square just like this.
Having used the two crossing lines to find the center of a circle with a diameter of 120 cubits (and an area of 11,309.7 square cubits, for what it’s worth), the workers then lay down 30 ribs, each a nindan long. A nindan was 12 cubits, so that 10 nindan equal 120 cubits and each rib is as long as the diameter of the circle. According to Finkel and Mark Wilson, his adviser in the technical appendix of The Ark Before Noah, the thickness of a parsiktu-vessel corresponds roughly to a cubit.
Following a description of a modern coracle from the region of ancient Mesopotamia, Finkel and Wilson assume these 30 ribs are made of wood. But the ribs might have been long, flexible cylinders of bundled palm fronds and reeds, of the kind that to this day are bent by the marsh Arabs of Iraq into arches to form the ceiling of a mudhif, a ceremonial hall. Picture a Quonset hut made of reeds. This may explain Enki’s command to Atra-hasis to tear down his royal reed house, so the arches could be recycled as ribs of a gigantic coracle.
Finkel and Wilson suggest that the ark of Atra-hasis resembles a guffa, a modern Middle Eastern coracle woven of plant materials covered with bitumen. This seems plausible. The shape of a guffa has the profile of a doughnut or an automobile tire’s inner tube, which, I can attest, makes a nice flotation device (the inner tube, not the doughnut).
If we assume that the ribs curve up to completely reinforce the hull of a guffa-shaped craft, then it is easy to deduce the actual diameter of the ark of Atra-hasis:
… let her sides be one nindan high …
I set in place thirty ribs
Which were one parsiktu-vessel thick, ten nindan long …
According to the Ark Tablet, the sides of the ark are one nindan or 12 cubits high. Assuming that Finkel is correct and the ribs support a guffa-shaped ark, then presumably a one-nindan portion of each of the 30 ribs at each of its ends is raised vertically to support the 12-cubit-high side. The 8 nindanu between these two raised ends remain horizontal, supporting the flat bottom of the ark.
Eight nindan equals 8 x 12 cubits or 96 cubits. Because the 12-cubit sides need to bend out slightly, as in a guffa, we can add a few cubits to 96 to account for the outward curves of the walls on each side. Whatever the precise measure, the diameter of the ark of Atra-hasis at its widest point will be approximately 100 cubits.
Finkel and Wilson note in the technical appendix to The Ark Before Noah that each rib will run “approximately 8 ½ nindan along the base of the boat.” Eight and a half nindan add up to 102 cubits. To put this in perspective, 100 cubits is around 150 feet, a little less than the 160-foot width of a U.S. football field.
Intent on deriving the 50 cubits and 300 cubits in Genesis from their product, 15,000 square cubits, Finkel has overlooked an astonishing fact: If the diameter of Atra-hasis’ ark is roughly 100 cubits, then the radius of the ark is 50 cubits and the circumference is 314 cubits, which we can round down to 300, because the Babylonians and others in the ancient world sometimes used 3 as an approximation for pi.
We now have 50 cubits and 300 cubits, two of the three numbers in Genesis 6:15. It turns out that the measurements of the radius and circumference of a hypothetical circular Noah’s Ark are identical to the measurements of the radius and circumference of the circular ark of Atra-hasis, deduced from the recently rediscovered Ark Tablet first translated by Finkel.
Coincidence? I think not.
Does this mean that Noah’s Ark is Atra-hasis’ ark? No. The ark of Atra-hasis is 12 cubits (one nindan) high and has two levels, while Noah’s Ark is 30 cubits high and has three levels. Assuming that Noah’s Ark is a literary descendant of the Atra-hasis epic’s ark, how did the height change from 12 to 30 cubits?
Here’s my hypothesis: Once again, the thirty 120-cubit ribs described in the Ark Tablet provide the key to unlocking the mystery.
Let’s imagine that a later Babylonian priest or scribe is retelling the Atra-hasis epic. He, or some predecessor, has spelled out the radius, diameter, and circumference of the ark of Atra-hasis in cubits, 50 and 100 and 300—numbers that are not explicit but can be deduced from the text of the Atra-hasis epic.
From a version of the Atra-hasis story similar or identical to the one we possess, our hypothetical story-reteller understands that the flexible 120-cubit ribs curve up to support the hull of the ark. But he doesn’t understand the peculiar inner-tube or doughnut shape of the guffa-style coracle. He envisions the ark of Atra-hasis as a simple bowl with a circular rim, like an open umbrella standing upside down. He assumes that the edges of the flexible 120-cubit reed-bundle ribs curve up to attach to the perimeter of a circle that is 100 cubits in diameter.
What is the height, or depth, of the bowl thus created by the simple curve of the 30, 120-cubit ribs? The cross-section of a bowl is a circle segment. If you know the length of the segment’s chord (the rim-to-rim diameter of the bowl) and the arc length (the length of the curve from one rim down to the bottom of the bowl and then up again to the other rim), then you can calculate the height or “sagitta” of the arc. Our Babylonian author knows both numbers. The chord is 100 cubits and the length of the arc of the hull is 120 cubits. We have calculators to do these operations, but a few notched strings would have let him do the job, and Babylonian astronomer-priests were the math jocks of antiquity
The answer? Drum roll, please.
Thirty cubits. That’s the height of an arc whose chord is 100 cubits and whose arc length is 120 cubits. Actually, the height is 28.2 cubits, but we’ll round it off to 30.
Another coincidence? I think not.
We now have derived all three numbers found in Genesis 6:15—300 cubits, 50 cubits, and 30 cubits—from the dimensions of the original circular ark of Atra-hasis. The numbers 50 and 300 are derived accurately, in the case of the ark’s radius and circumference, while the number 30 for the ark’s height is derived by mistake, as a result of an easy-to-understand misreading of the older text.
It is in this presently lost retelling of the Atra-hasis epic, I suggest, that a third floor is added to the two original floors of the ark, because there is room for another level in a bowl-shaped coracle that no longer resembles a guffa. As for the 1-nindan or 12-cubit height of the sides in the original text, our hypothetical reteller presumably ignored that detail after failing to understand it and adopting the 30-cubit height instead.
It may be that this hypothetical Babylonian version of a bowl-shaped ark of Atra-hasis with three levels and a height of 30 cubits, a radius of 50 cubits, and a circumference of 300 cubits was the one known to P, the Jewish composer of the description in Genesis. P may have been fluent in Babylonian and used the Hebrew words rochab and orek as approximations for radius and circumference, respectively, because Hebrew at the time lacked technical terms for those measurements. Or he may have misread his Babylonian source or sources to mean width and length in the conventional sense.
But there is another possibility. There may have been another version of the Mesopotamian flood story, between my hypothetical version, with its 30-cubit high, bowl-shaped ark, and the text of P that was incorporated into Genesis.
Berossus (330-250 BCE?) was a celebrated Babylonian priest and astrologer who founded a school of Eastern astrology on the Greek island of Cos, rather as a celebrity guru might open his own ashram in modern-day California or London. Berossus wrote a three-book history of Babylon in Greek that he dedicated to Antiochus I, one of Alexander’s generals who had won control of Mesopotamia during the battles that followed Alexander’s death. According to descriptions of his lost history by other authors, the bicultural Berossus described how the god Chronus instructed Xisuthrus (a Hellenized version of the Sumerian Ziusudra) to build an ark to escape the coming flood. The Jewish Roman historian Josephus cited the work of Berossus as proof of the historicity of the Noah story in Genesis.
For our purposes, we need only note that Syncellus says Berossus gives the ark a length of 5 stades and a width of 2 stades, while Eusebius, relying on another author, Alexander Polyhistor, claims that Berossus said the ark was 15 stades by 2 stades, with a ratio of 7.5 to 1. The latter is close to the 6-to-1 ratio of length to width of Noah’s Ark which, I have argued, reflects the circumference-to-radius proportions of the original circular ark of Atra-hasis. Berossus’ history was full of prodigies—he traced history back 400,000 years—and his ark was vastly bigger than all the others. A stade was a Roman stadium, so five stades was a modern kilometer or six-tenths of a mile, and 15 stades would have been nearly two miles.
John Day, a distinguished biblical scholar and emeritus professor at Oxford, has drawn attention to a number of parallels between the accounts of the flood in Berossus and the P account in Genesis and suggests that both accounts drew on a common source—a version of the Atra-hasis epic. If he’s right, then it may be in this hypothetical shared source that the tradition of a circular ark was lost altogether. Also lost at this stage might have been the the detailed instructions for building the ark of Atra-hasis, including any mention of the 30 ribs and their length of 120 cubits or 10 nindan. All that might have remained might have been 30 cubits for the height, 50 cubits for the radius, and 300 cubits for the circumference.
Why would this hypothetical intermediary text have included a width of 50, from the radius, rather than a width of 100, from the diameter? Because, according to historians, the Babylonians calculated the areas of circles by two main formulas, both used to this day: one-twelfth the circumference squared, or pi times the square of the radius. To save space (and clay!) in a cuneiform tablet, it was sufficient to describe a circle with radius and circumference alone.
Encountering the numbers 50 and 300 in the source he drew on, even a Babylonian author might have misunderstood the arcane and ambiguous mathematical terms for radius and circumference and assumed that they meant the width and length of a rectangular boat. If that is the case, then both Berossus and P in Genesis may have taken the numbers they found in a shared Babylonian source in which all traces of a round ark had been lost. To impress his Greek-speaking audience, Berossus might have inflated the length and width measures in the common source by a factor of 20 or so.
Irving Finkel was right: The numbers for the width and length of Noah’s Ark are indeed derived from the dimensions of the ark of Atra-hasis. But if I’m correct, his explanation of how they were derived is mistaken. The numbers 50 and 300 were not chosen by a Jewish author to ensure that the floor area of Noah’s Ark matched that of the ark of Atra-hasis, even though their shapes were different.
The alternative explanation I present here makes more sense. Note how one number leads to others. The oldest version of the Atra-hasis story may have simply said that his ark was as big as a field (iku). A later storyteller, wishing to add details for verisimilitude, made each rib of the ark 120 cubits (10 nindan) in length, a number suggested by the length of the side of a square iku. Bending a 120-cubit rib to fit a guffa-shaped, two-level ark that was one nindan or 12 cubits in height all around produced the ark in the Ark Tablet, with a diameter at its widest of about 100 cubits, a radius of 50 cubits, and a circumference of 300 cubits. A subsequent chronicler got the radius and circumference right, but mistakenly believed that the ark was shaped like a bowl reinforced by 120-cubit ribs and therefore necessarily must have a height of 30 cubits. At some point, possibly in a later Babylonian source used by both P and by Berossus, or possibly in the work of P himself, the 120-cubit ribs dropped out of the story altogether and the numbers 50, 300, and 30 were completely detached from the original context of a circular ark and equated with width, length, and height, puzzling people to this day.
It may seem like a stretch to argue that a round inner-tube-shaped ark metamorphosed, thanks to a series of misreadings, first into a bowl-shaped ark and then into a long, skinny rectangular ark. But the Epic of Gilgamesh provides a parallel. Ever since that Babylonian epic was rediscovered in the 19th century, scholars have been baffled by the shape of the ark of the story’s flood hero, Utnapishtim. It is a perfect cube: 120 x 120 x 120 cubits. Finkel argues persuasively that the author misunderstood the directions in the Atra-hasis epic or an equivalent, and accidentally turned a circular ark into a giant floating cube. The cube has seven stories, presumably put there by the author to fill up all that space. In the same way, a third level may have been added to the ark of Atra-hasis when, as I have conjectured, it was accidentally transformed by a later writer from an inner tube into a bowl.
Quod erat demonstrandum.
What is the real shape of Noah’s Ark? Even if we ignore the parallels with other versions of the flood myth, most of the evidence in Genesis itself, apart from Genesis 6:15, suggests a round basket like the ark of Atra-hasis or a giant equivalent of the basket of Moses. If I had to depict Noah’s Ark, I would translate rochab as radius and orek as circumference and portray it in the form of my hypothetical bowl-shaped version of the ark of Atra-hasis, with its 30-cubit height and three levels. And I’d add a shallow conical roof slanting up to a cupola through which Noah could release the raven and the dove to search for land. But if literalists refuse to read width as radius and length as circumference, that is their right, given that the text in Hebrew literally says width, length, and height.
Does any of this matter? If it lacks any moral or spiritual significance, the shape of Noah’s Ark is of no more importance than the number of oars on the Argo or the number of seagulls that carried the giant peach in Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach across the Atlantic to its landfall atop the Empire State Building.
The author or authors of the Genesis account borrowed stories that were long familiar in their Middle Eastern neighborhood and rewrote them to express Jewish ethics and theology. The possible ethical significance of the parallel between the tevah that contained Noah’s family and the rescued animals and the tevah that saved Moses by drifting along the Nile has often been noted in Jewish and Christian commentary. In The JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis (1989), Dr. Nahum Sarna writes, “The use of tevah is intended to emphasize that the fate of occupants is to be determined solely by the will of God and not to be attributed to the skill of humanity.”
According to Genesis 7:16: “And they that went in, went in male and female of all flesh, as God had commanded him: and the Lord shut him in.” Noah and his family may stroll on the deck of a ship in Hollywood movies and modern fiction, but Genesis makes it clear that they were shut inside the ark before the flood and emerged only afterward. Noah is not a heroic sailor, like Odysseus or Sinbad or Horatio Hornblower. He is an elderly man of great piety, locked behind a door that was closed from the outside by the Lord himself, huddling with his terrified family and frantic animals in a giant container that bobs up and down on the waves like a buoy.
That is why it matters that the ark is not a boat that can be steered, but a passively drifting basket. Among other things, the story of Noah in Genesis is about being faithful during terrible events, in spite of being powerless to help yourself and those whom you love.
Michael Lind is a columnist at Tablet and a fellow at New America. His most recent book is The New Class War: Saving Democracy from the Managerial Elite.