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In Longman and Walton's book The Lost World of the Flood (2018) they argue that the account of Noah's flood in the book of Genesis, although based on an historical event, employs rhetorical devices such as hyperbole. One example of this is the size of the ark. In the Genesis account, the size of the ark is put at 450 feet long, 75 feet wide, and 45 feet high (estimates vary, but that is the approximate size).

As the authors say (p. 39),

"Let's remember that the ark as described in the Bible, if taken as precise measurements of an actual boat, is larger than any wooden boat built not just in antiquity but at any time, including today. [...] the earliest vessels, rarely more than ten feet in length [...] Egyptian art [...] depicts ships that may be as long as 170 feet [...] Even once we move into Roman times [...] the most famous large vessel was the Isis [...] Remarkably, it was 180 feet by 45 feet by 44 feet - less than a quarter the size of the ark.

Moving to more recent times [...] The USS Dunderberg is often listed at the longest at 377 feet, but 50 feet of the length is a ram, so to compare to the ark we should list it at 327. The Wyoming [...] is listed at 449 feet, but this includes the jib-boom; actually it is 329 feet. These modern long wooden boats are also built with iron bolts and steel supports, something not available to Noah."

According to Longman and Walton, unlike a contemporary reader who is used to boats the size of the ark or bigger (such as cargo ships or cruise-liners - indeed, this is small compared to the largest ships nowadays - the largest cruise ship is 1,200 feet long and 210 feet wide), an ancient reader would have immediately recognized this as an unprecedentedly huge ship which would have been virtually impossible for Noah and his family to build (or perhaps even the King's navy).

Hence, they argue, it is plausible to hold an ancient reader would have readily seen this as 'obvious' hyberbole, similar to a person nowadays saying "this luggage weighs 10,000 pounds" - any listener nowadays would know that latter phrase is meant as hyperbole for effect.

What are the main responses to this type of argument? There are two main aspects here. First, do those who hold the flood story is to be understood literally hold this actually would be a practical achievement by Noah and his family, and if so how? Second, are there any common responses to the argument it is reasonable to hold this would have been seen by ancient listeners as hyperbole, who would never have seen boats of this size?

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    I don't think people didn't build massive wooden ships because it was technically infeasible, but because there was generally no advantages to doing so, because the larger the ship the more difficult propulsion and navigation were. If you just wanted a giant floating box you wouldn't have cared about these reasons. Also, Ptolemy IV built an impractically-large showoff ship, a "forty", that was ~425ft long and required 4k (!) rowers.
    – Shamshiel
    Oct 11, 2022 at 13:02
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    @Shamshiel Right, but Ptolemy IV was a Pharaoh! It was a showoff ship precisely because it would have taken a very large amount of resources to build, no? Oct 11, 2022 at 16:03
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    In this case it’s much easier to design and build the bigger ship, because you don’t need to design around speed, maneuverability, ramming, or oarsmen. It just needs to float. These were the main engineering challenges. I don’t see any obstacles to size, if that’s all you cared about.
    – Shamshiel
    Oct 11, 2022 at 18:03
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    Yes, exactly. In warships, which I know the most about, the requirements really constrained the size - the ship had to be small enough to be regularly beached to dry out and to be very fast and agile while retaining enough mass to be a devastating ram but not a good target. The 390ft temporary Russian timber ships in one answer are probably a closer model, but they were limited by the size of the river and still had to be maneuvered by oarsmen.
    – Shamshiel
    Oct 11, 2022 at 18:14
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    It's worth remembering that boat building was a craft (i.e. not science-based engineering) until Brunel's time. Boat builders learned their craft, and stuck with a library of proven designs. The client might want a few tweaks, but they got a variant on a proven design. ("Proven" means that boats of this type didn't sink too often). If the client's requirements were too ambitious, the boat builder would suggest that the client go somewhere else, but some clients couldn't be refused. Maybe Google the Vasa?
    – user59106
    Oct 12, 2022 at 5:33

3 Answers 3

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Well.

Turns out a bunch of Christians "put their money where their mouths are" and actually built the thing. I'd say that pretty well puts to rest any ridiculous claims about it being "impossible".

What about the usual arguments against?

Noah didn't have the knowledge (wasn't a shipwright) or technology

Really? Do we know that? Even if he wasn't, he had plenty of time to learn, perhaps up to 120 years, and metal-working — not just bronze, either, but iron — was known pre-Flood (Genesis 4:20–22). Another issue is that Materialists tend to be Progressives (meaning, they believe that history shows a continual "upward" trend). In fact, this notion has been fairly well debunked, and artifacts such as the Antikythera mechanism show that ancient humans were no slouches, intellectually. (Or look at the Pyramids, Colosseum, or Damascus steel.) The idea that ancient humans were "dumb", or technologically backward, is a Materialist assertion that is not only contrary to the Bible, but is often unsupported by the evidence. The idea that ancients couldn't build mega-structures is so blatantly wrong that it's absurd that anyone would believe such an idea. (Keep in mind, too, the Pyramids were built after both the Flood and Babel, two events that would have had a significant detrimental impact on the level of technology in practice.)

Comparably-sized ships aren't seaworthy

Critics like to point to the Wyoming as proof that the Ark couldn't possible be seaworthy. It's true that the Wyoming sank... after more than ten years of service. The Ark only needed to survive one, and didn't need to try to navigate. Moreover, the Wyoming was built using construction techniques that are known to be problematic (partly because those methods are fast and minimize material cost). Other methods are known to be superior, and there is evidence that ancients had comparably-sized or even larger ships. Computer modeling has also shown that the Ark would be seaworthy, even in waves up to 30m (typical tsunamis might have 10m waves), and that it could tilt as much as 60° and still right itself.

Noah couldn't have built it by himself / didn't have the budget

First off, Noah had up to 120 years to build the ark. That's a long time. Also, he had a family (including older relatives that hadn't died yet) and nothing tells us he couldn't have also hired help. (Noah might have been obscenely wealthy; we don't know. Even if he wasn't, he would have known that any wealth he or his family might have had was about to become worthless, which would have freed him to spend it... and even if that isn't the case, he still had decades in which to work.)

An ancient reader would have readily seen [the size of the ark] as 'obvious' hyperbole

That may be so... but just because something seems exaggerated doesn't mean it is. (To compare to the luggage example, I'm not aware of stable containment for neutronium, but if I tell you my suitcase weighs 400 pounds, am I exaggerating, or lugging around depleted uranium for some reason? If I tell some country hick that's never seen a brick building, much less one made of metal, that I went to the city and the buildings must have been a thousand feet high, am I exaggerating? If I tell you that some war was so bloody there must have been millions of casualties, am I exaggerating?) Anyone that stopped to think would realize that you'd need a pretty big ark to carry all the animals and their food. People close to the event (e.g. Noah's grandkids) would have realized that the recollection was impressive, but still real. To be fair, there isn't really a refutation for this, other than that sometimes reality is impressive.

Really, though, the most convincing response would be to go out and replicate Noah's construction. And we did.

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    +1 "though, the most convincing response would be to go out and replicate Noah's construction. And we did." Why do you feel this is convincing? Was it built with similar tools available to Noah? Has Ham's ark ever been sea tested? And so on. Oct 10, 2022 at 18:43
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    @OneGodtheFather, the tools aren't entirely relevant. The Bible records that pre-Flood humans had at least some metal-working, and quality of tools is usually a trade-off against time, not against what can be done. It's hard to say "you couldn't build an X" to someone standing next to an X, because such a claim is clearly absurd. No, the AA ark (why is it "Ham's" ark?) hasn't been on water, but it's been modeled and shown that the dimensions are about as good as you can get; an amazing coincidence if we were so backwards as critics would claim. (And see the Wyoming.)
    – Matthew
    Oct 10, 2022 at 18:49
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    Woodmorappe's Feasibility Study is probably the most indepth defence of the feasibility of the flood narrative, and includes a section on the construction of the ark. Of course it also has its critics, but this isn't a place to detail opposing arguments to a historical global flood.
    – curiousdannii
    Oct 10, 2022 at 21:34
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    Does the Ark Encounter Ark actually float? Is it built using techniques available at Noah's time? The about page does call it a modern engineering marvel!
    – user253751
    Oct 11, 2022 at 15:32
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    The "Ark Encounter" is not a boat. It is a wooden building with a concrete first floor. It is permanently on land. It cannot float. It is made of modern materials (laminated wood beams and plywood, outside of the concrete backbone it is built on.) It is very far from being a functional "Noah's Ark." It is an artist's concept of what the Ark might have looked like given the description in the Bible.
    – JRE
    Oct 11, 2022 at 15:37
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If you don't accept the underlying premise of this story that there is a God who interacts with his creation and is perfectly capable of doing things that would naturally be impossible (i.e. what we call miracles) then you are going to find a lot more wrong in this story than just the feasibility of building the ark. For example, how did Noah know there was a flood coming (lucky guess?), how did the animals 'know' to come to Noah, why didn't the predator animals eat the others, how did he gather and carry enough food of all the different animals' diets? The list could go on.

There are other stories in the Bible of people attaining miraculous results with limited resources - Elijah and the widow of Zarephath, Jesus feeding the 5000 to name but two.

Why would such a God not miraculously multiply Noah's efforts in building the ark, and also keep the ark safe and seaworthy during the flood itself?

You can look for a naturalistic explanation if you want to, and there's nothing wrong with this. But whether or not we find one says nothing about the credibility of the story.

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    Yes. The Flood was: 1) a local event that transformed into a legend that was incorporated into the Bible; 2) an actual event, but not involving anything supernatural; 3) an actual event, orchestrated by God. — It is far too common an argument to logically attack the second case, presenting the obvious victory as if it defeats the third. Oct 11, 2022 at 13:38
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    ...and the problem with (1) — if it was local — is that either God lied, or the bit about the rainbow is a complete fabrication. If it was local, 1 Peter 3 and 2 Peter 3 are wrong. If it was local, why was there an ark at all? 70-120 years is plenty of time to just go somewhere else. The idea of a local flood is complete nonsense.
    – Matthew
    Oct 11, 2022 at 15:26
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    If you attribute miraculous explanations for things that are naturally impossible (especially when no explicit mention of a miracle seems to appear in the text of this story), how do you differentiate true stories involving miracles from fictional or exaggerated stories?
    – NotThatGuy
    Oct 11, 2022 at 15:40
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    The issue with most attempts to debunk the events related in the Bible is that they begin with the premise that God didn't do it, and some people arguing this way don't even seem to realize that they're attacking a straw man.
    – EvilSnack
    Oct 11, 2022 at 16:40
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    @NotThatGuy (Actually in this particular case there is explicit mention of a miracle: 'So God said to Noah, “I am going to put an end to all people, for the earth is filled with violence because of them. I am surely going to destroy both them and the earth."' Gen 6:13. You'd have to read the text very carelessly to come away thinking the flood was a natural event.)
    – Ian Goldby
    Oct 12, 2022 at 7:32
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With respect to the narrow claim of feasibility, I was surprised recently to learn about the existence of Russian disposable timber ships. Wikipedia says that a belyana could be up to 390 ft long. That's not 450 ft, but it's not far off. It also says that the ships were first built without nails or pitch.

In sharing this fact it is not my intention to take a position one way or another about the historicity of the flood narrative.

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