24 What the Bible really says – Noah’s Ark


Recently there has been a news story about a Bible theme park in Kentucky which is to have as its center a large reproduction of Noah’s Ark built to accord with the Biblical measurements.  The Bible talks about God’s detailed instructions to Noah in the sixth chapter of Genesis.  The measurements are given in cubits but my NIV has helpfully translated these measurements into feet and inches.  The story that is breaking, as I write, is whether the Kentucky project will ever be finished.  Clearly they are in need of  more ‘bond holders’, people who believe in the literal truth of the story to dig deep into their pockets so that the project can continue.

The great problem about all those who want to make a case for the literal truth of this story is that they never appear to have faced up to some of the problems inherent in the Genesis text.  Those who preach on the Ark story presumably have read the text and they will have noticed that the story changes direction when we go from chapter 6 into chapter 7.  In chapter 6 the account declares that God tells Noah to ‘bring into the ark two of all living creatures’.  The chapter rounds off with the statement that ‘Noah did everything just as God had commanded him’.    The account changes direction in chapter 7.  Suddenly the word for God changes to the word  ‘the Lord’ and the number of each of the animals to be taken into the ark also changes.  Instead of pairs of animals to be allowed access to the ark, suddenly the Lord commands Noah to take ‘seven of every kind of clean animal, a male and its mate and two of every kind of unclean animal, a male and its mate’.  What is going on here?  The student of Genesis who is not committed to the literal truth of the story will have no problem explaining this enormous discrepancy with the resources of critical scholarship.  I will reveal all in a moment.  But the literalist is going to have enormous problems reconciling this change of gear within the story.  The shift in style is more apparent when the original Hebrew is consulted.  The word Elohim translated as God is found in chapter 6 while in chapter 7 the more familiar word Yahweh (translated as the Lord) starts to be used.

I do not possess any conservative commentaries on this passage so I do not know how the discrepancies are explained for a fundamentalist audience.  Perhaps there were eight pairs of certain animals in the ark but I have never heard this offered as an explanation!  But I think I would be right to guess that most conservative preachers would not own up to there being any problem.  It is easier simply to leave out the ‘difficult’ section in chapter 7 and carry on with the story after the offending passage.

For those unfamiliar with the critical interpretation of the book of Genesis let me explain what main-stream scholarship has had to say about the discrepancies in the Genesis story of the Ark for the past 150 years.  My summary, while new to some, will be a massive over-simplification to others.  The discrepancies in the story can be accounted for by recognising that there is more than one source for the story.  Two different versions are given, one after the other. The first version in chapter 6 is from a early source known a E on account of the word used for God, Elohim.  The second version comes from a source known as P on account of the sensitivity over the presence of unclean animals being given equal status with the clean ones in the earlier version.  The account is called P because there is evidence that the interests of the writer reflect the concerns of priests and those devoted to the maintenance of purity laws.  The P account was probably written many centuries after the E version.  The name Yahweh for God had become normative by the 4th – 3rd century BC when the P account was written.

Liberal scholarship allows itself the privilege of reading the Old Testament as ancient literature as well as a revelation of a story of God’s self revelation to a nation.  As ancient literature, contradictions in the text can be faced and to a considerable extent explained and understood.  Without these scholarly insights we are often left with impossible conundrums and contradictions.  The conservative preacher on the other hand may have had to deceive his people and pretend that problems are solved when in reality all that has happened is that they have been censored out of sight.

If I am right that problems inherent in this Biblical text are ignored by many fundamentalist preachers, then that implies a readiness by some Christian leaders to short-change their members.  At worst it can be described as dishonesty.  Either way it arises out of the fundamentalist fantasy that sees the Bible, in spite of any contradictory evidence, as infallible and able be taken as authoritative on matters of history and fact.   This examination of the story of the Ark is given as an example of just one passage where people in the pew are not being given the full picture of what the Bible actually says.

The Kentucky theme park is no doubt the vision of people who believe they are taking the story of Noah literally and thus they have given energy, money and time to its completion.  The question has to be asked.  Did the sponsors of this massive project ever sit down and actually read the account of the story of Noah as it is set out in the Bible?  Was their understanding based on that reading or had they simply picked up a tidied-up version such as that put in a children’s version of the Bible?  It would be an interesting question to ask but I rather suspect that for the sponsors and their supporters the Bible has been read not in its original form but in a version pre-packaged  for easy consumption.   It is only in that form that a doctrine of ‘infallibility’ can be sustained and promoted with any possibility of success.


About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

16 thoughts on “24 What the Bible really says – Noah’s Ark

  1. I’m with you all the way on this. However, the idea that “people in the pew are not being given the full picture of what the Bible actually says” does invite lots of further questions about what “the full picture” and what “the Bible actually says” is….
    It’s very good to point out the critical studies on the text as you do. Few people in churches have heard about this, and the information can be liberating. But perhaps it could be good also to suggest where the point of the text might lie, if it still has one. Is there still a purpose in reading this? What can it tell us about God and ourselves? How can we value it as a story and as scripture without going down the literalist route?

    Forgive me for not offering my or any answers. Perhaps the value of this blog lies a lot in deconstructing unhelpful and authoritarian answers. That can leave a hole which can be a healing and creative space for people to have their own thoughts. Yet it is still valid and worthwhile to offer suggestions. Another post might talk about different approaches to reading the bible and interpretation. I don’t think this post covers much about what the Bible “really says” on Noah’s Ark in terms of spiritual meaning. It’s more about what it really doesn’t say.

  2. Hi haikusinenomine. Have you read the earlier postings about how a too literal interpretation of the Bible can lead to abuse of power? I ride the same hobby horse about the academic impoverishment of the congregations.

  3. I agree with this, and am glad to read it. When my husband used to sell Christian books, there was a form to fill in about returns as to your reason. Damaged and so on. Since they supplied all sorts, one of the boxes was “theology”, so that a protestant free church could return the Catholic tomes they had accidentally purchased. (A fair number would complain that they sold them at all. And on a couple of occasions, they destroyed the book and then demanded the money back!) However, my husband was mystified on checking the ISBN to discover that the theologically offending book was a baby bath book, you know, the plastic floating kind, called something like, “Noah and the floating zoo”. He politely inquired of the caller whether this was the correct number. “Yes, ” he was told, “It’s wrong. It says clearly in the Bible that the Ark had one door and one window. These pictures show two windows”! He had a similar problem with the pictures of Goliath. Lying on his back, when it says he fell on his face! But he was a bit quicker this time. “Oh, David must have rolled him over to get the armour off”!
    From the ridiculous to the sublime, if you go to the Museum of Transport in Glasgow, and look in the shipping section, there is a wonderful model of the Ark, with a card played perfectly straight, “Designer, Yahweh, Builder, Noah”

  4. I take the point made above about the importance of offering a constructive approach to what we read in a story like Noah. But I suppose that I was expressing the view that until we are able to take the critical insights seriously we will be seriously hampered in saying anything at all. To repeat what may have been said elsewhere on this blog, we need to be able to read Scripture with an open mind, ask questions and expect to get answers, not ones that have been scrutinised by a committee as to whether they are politically correct. The in-depth study of Genesis is fascinating by the way, not that I have been anywhere near it for 49 or so years. The blog is aiming to give people who have had bruising encounters with authoritarian bible teaching a sense that there is an intelligent and open approach to scripture, one that gives it a human touch and revisits the question as to how it is ‘inspired’. I would love to have a discussion as the value of the Noah story but first things first! Good to have you on board haikusinemone.

    1. Thank you for your response Stephen. I’m interested in the purpose of this site although I’m not the natural constituent here, as I don’t feel I’ve been the target of fundamentalist brainwashing or systematic abuse. I am concerned though about what goes on, as I think all should be, so I’m here to learn. And of course we all have some stories – even if some of yours English Athena are quite mind-boggling to me!

      1. I too have never been a victim of fundamentalist abuse but the topic is desperately important because there are so many who have suffered. If you want to know more of my story,I have written some of it in the ‘What the blog is about’ section at the top. I dare say more stories will come in the future.

        1. Thanks for pointing to this section. I do remember the 9 o’clock service when it was in the news.

          I think you mean, there are so many who have suffered really terribly. I’m also adding to that perhaps far more who have suffered not quite so massively, but in an everyday way through bad treatment by people in powerful positions in the church, both lay and ordained, that shouldn’t happen. So I’m thinking of some sort of continuum, even if perhaps a whole different level is reached in the dysfunctional cultures of some churches.

  5. I am really appreciating the comments on this topic. But I am troubled by the title “What the Bible really says” – isn’t this “My view is right” type of approach at the root of much abusive leadership?

    Stephen has picked on an example that many (but not all) british evangelicals will find equally risible (laughable). At (my local evangelical) church this morning the preacher (an evangelical principal of a theological training college) referred to Genesis 11 as myth. Nobody gasped….

  6. In response to your comment Dick I too would like to listen to a literate evangelical preacher, head of a theological college. Your church is not where the problems that Chris has encountered lie. There are places where ministers have not been anywhere near a college and preach sermons that rely heavily on superficial half-understood teaching about the bible. Fundamentalist teaching is widespread in the independent churches and free evangelical churches. It is a bible-lite theology that is rampant. Because this kind of theology is the norm in the States its influence is also massive here. No one knows how massive because there are no statistics. But as long as it exists anywhere it is a problem. As English Athina says, anyone who teaches with this style is likely to create victims of authoritarianism and power abuse. I have been sparing with my use of the word evangelical. Some evangelicals are fundamentalist but by no means all. I have tried to distinguish them in a previous blog post. In short we do have a problem in Britain and we have to face it. Spiritual abuse exists and it is sometimes reinforced by literalist use of Scripture.

  7. I have read the comments again. When I called the blog post ‘What the Bible really says’ I was simply talking about the fact that at one level it gives information. People do not always pick up on the detail of this. ‘What the Bible means’ is a much bigger question and will depend on many things, not least who is reading it and their background and context. My title was concerned about the factual content. Perhaps other words might have been better chosen.

  8. I was on a training weekend once, some time ago. The speaker was going to discuss the differing views of women, viz. that we are all supposed to be mimsy like Mary or sluts like Eve! I was looking forward to it. In his introduction he gave passing reference to the pastoral epistles’ not having been written by Paul. No surprise to me. But it was to a Reader, a supposedly trained lay preacher, in his audience. He completely hi-jacked the discussion with a slanging match on not believing the Bible. I think he got away with it because the chair was so astonished. It was a complete disaster. Stephen’s right. Some people who train for ministry can’t find their way around the Bible, and don’t know the difference between Corinthians and Chronicles. I apologise to any dyslexics. But if you aren’t, you should know that one is one of Paul’s letters, and the other is in the Old Testament.

  9. Thanks for the clarification Stephen. And apologies if I was too outspoken.

    Surely even then talking about “factual content” needs still more nuance? Maybe like: “Many (Liberal/Evangelical/Whatever) scholars agree that….”. Is this not potentially better? After all, even this is still only opinion.

    For me the best thing we can offer the man in the pew is for them to realise that there are no simple formulaic answers. This very approach undercuts power abuse.

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