Fantastic Voyage: How Could Noah Build the Ark?

To many people, Noah’s Ark sounds like a fantastic voyage that never could have happened. Ancient man didn’t have the technology. A single family would not have enough time, manpower, or resources to complete such a massive undertaking. Oh really?

Noah slapped his pen on the desk in frustration. “That won’t work either.” He buried his head in his hands and prayed. O God, help me. Stirred by his wife’s footsteps, he looked up to see her approaching.

“What’s wrong?” Emzara asked.

He sighed and raised his hands in frustration. “How can I make it strong enough to hold together in rough seas?”

“I’m sure you’ll figure it out.” She gently massaged the back of his neck. “The Creator wouldn’t command you to build the Ark without enabling you to do it.”

He patted her hand softly and nodded. “I know. There’s just so much to think through.”

Apart from the Ark’s critically important dimensions and a few other features, the Bible reveals very little about God’s instructions to Noah.

Did the Lord give him detailed plans beyond what we read in Scripture so that Noah only had to prepare the pieces and put them together? Or did Noah have to figure out most details as depicted in this fictional conversation with his wife (whose name is not given in Scripture)?

Modern skeptics frequently assume that someone living in Noah’s time would have been wholly incapable of building something as large and sophisticated as the Ark. Their views raise several interesting questions that force us to dig deeper and find truths—about God’s Word and His work in history—that we might otherwise miss.

Did Noah Have the Technology?

Scripture reveals several important facts about technology in Noah’s day.

Noah built the Ark sixteen centuries after God created man as an intelligent being, fully capable of designing and developing new technologies. Since lifespans approached a thousand years, achievements of the pre-Flood world’s best innovators could have been remarkable. We know they were capable of building cities, making musical instruments, and working with metal (Genesis 4:16–24). While the height of their prowess is unknown, we can be confident they did not possess vessels, other than the Ark, that survived the Flood.

Noah’s culture was almost certainly at its industrial zenith while he worked on the Ark.

Noah’s culture was almost certainly at its industrial zenith while he worked on the Ark. Yet, the Flood served as a technological reset, obliterating any of the inventions and writings not preserved on the Ark. Men began to rebuild after the Flood but soon suffered another, though less severe, setback because of their rebellion at Babel.

The building project at Babel was the culmination of post-Flood man’s pooled ingenuity, but the Lord confused the buildersʼ language, causing them to scatter abroad in smaller groups. Depending on where they traveled and the various skills they possessed, some factions struggled to eke out an existence while others thrived. Within a few centuries, the Great Pyramid was built. The magnitude and precision of this colossal edifice still baffles modern researchers. Elsewhere, other impressive monuments and structures were erected, such as Stonehenge, showcasing ancient man’s engineering capabilities.

What does this have to do with Noah’s ability to build the Ark? Well, if his descendants could raise such remarkable buildings shortly after two technological resets, then it is not difficult to believe that a man living prior to those setbacks could build such an enormous and sophisticated boat during his civilization’s technological peak.

Did Noah Have the Manpower?

People regularly imagine that the eight people who survived the Flood were the only people involved in the Ark’s construction. How could only eight people build such a massive structure?

This question is not as difficult as some imagine. Genesis does not tell us that Noah’s immediate family members were the only people who helped on the project. Nothing in the text rules out the possibility that they had plenty of help. Noah’s grandfather, Methuselah, died the year of the Flood, and Noah’s father, Lamech, passed away five years earlier. Surely, they could have helped out if they were in the vicinity.

Noah also may have hired a construction team to build the Ark. They may not have agreed with his message, but that would not prevent someone from working for pay.

Hebrews 11:7 states, “By faith Noah, being divinely warned of things not yet seen, moved with godly fear, prepared an ark for the saving of his household, by which he condemned the world and became heir of the righteousness which is according to faith.

Does this mean that Noah built the Ark alone? Of course not. The leader of a project may be singled out for recognition when others are involved. King Solomon built the temple according to 1 Kings 6, but we know he used detailed plans God gave directly to his father, David (1 Chronicles 28:19). Many others were involved in its construction (see 1 Kings 5:13–18; 2 Chronicles 2:17–18). The same is true with Moses and the Ark of the Covenant (compare Deuteronomy 10:3 with 31:1–11). As the leader of the Ark project, Noah can rightly be recognized as its builder even if many others assisted him.

Great Wooden Ships of the Past

Many people assume that it isn’t possible to build a sturdy ship as large as Noah’s Ark, even with modern technology. In reality, the ancient Greeks and medieval Chinese perfected the art of building massive ships on the same scale as Noah’s Ark.

Shipbuilding technology required nothing more than a strong motive to travel and trade overseas. A Greek historian describes a massive warship, called Tessarakonteres, built in the third century BC. About the same length as the Ark, it was built for speed and strength. It reportedly carried catapults and three or four thousand mariners.

During the Ming dynasty of the 1400s, the Chinese reportedly built a massive treasure ship with sails, called a junk. Westerners doubted whether the Chinese were capable of such feats, until the 1962 discovery of a rudder post in a Ming shipyard gave credence to these amazing claims.

Ancient Ships

Did Noah Have the Time?

Many Christians assume Noah had either 100 or 120 years to build the Ark, deriving these figures from Genesis 5:32 and 6:3, respectively. But these passages do not inform us that Noah began building the Ark at this time. A closer look at the biblical text reveals that he probably had less time than most people suspect.

Noah was 500 years old at the birth of his oldest son, Japheth, and he was in his 600th year when the Flood began. When the Lord instructed Noah to build the Ark, He stated, “I will establish My covenant with you; and you shall go into the ark—you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives with you” (Genesis 6:18). Of course, the omniscient Creator may have prophesied that Noah would have sons and daughters-in-law, but this message seems to have been delivered after his three sons were grown and married.

We can deduce that Noah’s wife bore Shem a few years after Japheth’s birth (Genesis 11:10). We also know that Ham was Noah’s youngest son (Genesis 9:24), but we are not told how many years passed after Shem’s birth before Ham was born. If he were two years younger than Shem, then he would have been born around Noah’s 505th year. Allowing 20 years for the boys to grow up and marry would put Noah around 525, meaning that he would have had a maximum of 75 years to build the Ark—and he may have had far fewer than 75 years to work.

Another factor must be raised. Consider the implications of building such an enormous boat out of wood over the course of many decades. Exposed to the elements, wood tends to warp and decay as it endures heat, cold, and changes in humidity. Imagine trying to complete one part of the Ark decades after another section had been built. The earliest parts of the construction might need repair by the time the Ark was finished. Of course, Noah coated the Ark inside and out with pitch, but we do not know how well this treatment could prevent warping and decay, and we do not know the qualities of gopherwood in these regards.

For the sake of argument, if Noah had only about 20 years to construct the Ark, could he still finish it in time? The Amish regularly build barns in a day, and although the Ark was much larger and certainly far more sophisticated, this example shows that with the right planning and skills large wooden edifices are often raised in a short time. Since we do not know the size of his crew or the technologies available to him, it is impossible to rule out an Ark construction period much shorter than 75 years.

Did Noah Have the Abilities and Resources?

The simple answer to this question is found in Genesis 6:22. “Thus Noah did; according to all that God commanded him, so he did.” Noah built the Ark as God instructed, so he obviously had the abilities and resources to complete the task, but how did he acquire the necessary knowhow?

What did Noah do for a living? Many Christians claim that he was either a farmer or a preacher or both. The New Testament calls him a “preacher of righteousness” (2 Peter 2:5), but that does not imply that this was his occupation. It merely tells us that Noah proclaimed righteousness. Genesis 9:20 states that Noah “began to be a farmer, and he planted a vineyard,” but this occurred after the Flood. What did he do prior to it?

People frequently assume Noah was an amateur when it came to shipbuilding, but what if Noah was already an accomplished shipwright? The Lord often calls people whom He has already equipped to perform the task, so it would not be surprising if Noah already had expertise in this area. And if he didn’t, he had plenty of time to learn the necessary skills.

Many key Old Testament figures foreshadowed Jesus Christ in some way. We are told that Jesus would be a prophet like Moses (Deuteronomy 18:18), an anointed king like David (2 Samuel 7:12–16; Acts 2:30), and the last Adam (1 Corinthians 15:45). We also know that Jesus was a carpenter like His earthly father, Joseph (Mark 6:3; Matthew 13:55). Since Noah built a huge wooden Ark, then he certainly qualifies as a carpenter, and in that sense, he foreshadows the Savior.

Noah’s task required vast resources to complete, and we can be confident that God would have made these accessible to him in some way. For example, Noah may have lived near a forest of gopherwood trees, assuming that this term refers to a kind of timber rather than some type of process to prepare the lumber. Contrary to popular traditions, Noah didn’t have to track down the animals because the Lord brought all the creatures to him (Genesis 6:20). However, the Lord did make Noah responsible for building the Ark and storing all of the food. These were huge tasks, but if Noah was a wise planner, he could easily delegate any tasks to other family members who had a knack for them.

Noah Did All God Commanded

Building the Ark was a monumental undertaking, but with God’s provision Noah was up for the challenge. He lived during a time when the world had likely reached its highest point of technological achievement. His descendants who built Babel and then scattered proved that they had the technology to build remarkable structures like Stonehenge and the pyramids. Much is implied in the words “Noah did according to all that the Lord commanded him” (Genesis 7:5). His job was to obey God and trust Him to supply what he lacked, including wisdom to build a sturdy ship and finish the project on schedule. Can you imagine what it must have felt like when the Ark was finally completed? Perhaps he had a short time to reflect on the accomplishment before the Lord told him to load the Ark.

Noah gazed across the field bustling with thousands of honking, squawking, squealing, shrieking animals of every imaginable color and shape. Beyond them, the Ark towered above the landscape, as the sun slowly sank beyond the horizon. He inhaled deeply and put an arm around Emzara. “At last. After all those years we’re finished.”

She smiled and nodded. “I knew the Almighty would help you figure it out. I just never imagined His task would be so huge.” Emzara leaned her head against him. “When do we start loading?”

Noah shrugged. “Soon, I guess. The Creator brought all of these animals here. I trust that He’ll tell us when the next stage begins.”

Tim Chaffey holds a master of divinity degree in apologetics and theology and a ThM in church history and theology from Liberty University School of Divinity. He is content manager for the attractions division of Answers in Genesis.

Lost and Found

Many people wonder how an ancient person like Noah could build a massive ship using “primitive” technology. This question is based on several mistaken assumptions about human intelligence and the rise of technology.

First, technology doesn’t refer to increasing human intelligence. It simply means each generation has access to more information than the last one.

Second, technology increases with time, regardless of intelligence. In fact, there is no evidence that modern thinkers like Albert Einstein were more intelligent than ancient thinkers like Archimedes.

Third, the Bible shows that early humans were extremely intelligent. Adam’s children became farmers, raised animals, and built a city. Within seven generations, Tubal-Cain was working with bronze and iron.

Fourth, world technology experienced two huge setbacks during the global Flood and the division of people at Babel. God’s judgments against highly advanced, rebellious societies caused major “resets” in technology. It took many years to recover.

Accumulated Technology

The pyramids were probably built about 400 years after the global Flood “reset” technology. It is reasonable to expect that the Ark could have been built after roughly 1,600 years of accumulated technology.

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Answers Magazine

July–September 2016

How did Noah build the ark? This issue explains how Noah had technology to build a massive Ark and how eight people could care for so many animals.

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