Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Buying An Ark

One of the underappreciated facts about the story of Noah's Ark is how difficult it would have been in most of the known world of its authors to obtain wood. 

The Hebrew Bible contains building specifications for this boat (holy scriptures are as holy scriptures do) and it calls for a lot of wood: "300 cubits by 50 by 30, approximately 137 by 23 by 14 meters (440 feet long, 73 feet wide, and 43 feet high), with three internal divisions (which are not actually called "decks", although presumably this is what is intended), a door in the side, and a sohar, which may be either a roof or a skylight." (The type of wood is a difficult translation issue with the strongest choice probably being "pitch covered" wood, a form of wood treated with wood resins traditionally used for caulking in wooden sailing vessels). 

Consider that just five cedar pillars about three feet in diameter and thirty-six feet high were considered a luxury fit for an Egyptian Pharaoh who could afford to have hundreds of retainers killed with him to aid him in the afterlife in First Dynasty Egypt (in back of napkin rough approximations about 5000 board-feet of two by four planks for the Pharaoh v. something on the order of 300,000 board-feet of two by four planks for the Ark which would require something on the order of 200 very tall, thick and straight mature cedar trees or more inferior trees, i.e. an entire small forest).  This is a very expensive purchase for a guy who has quit his job to build a boat and collect animals.

Noah's Ark resembles to a great extent a big version of the Byblos boats attested by the early Egyptian historians, which makes sense, because they were the only peoples in the Mediterranean who made open water worth ships until around the time that the Minoans came along (and they may have stolen the design from the proto-Phoenicians).

The Egyptians had to get wood of the kind called for in those plans from hundreds of miles away in Lebanon.  There were no good supplies of wood in Arabia or North Africa or Ethiopia.  The Mesopotamians had to turn to the highlands of modern day Turkey and Iran, or to Lebanon, to get decent wood supplies.

The Phoenicians became the premier maritime traders of their day in significant part because they had good supplies of wood in close proximity to a navigable coast, something that no one else in the Levant or Mesopotamia or Egypt or Libya had available to them.  Greece and Anatolia were better, but some of their best wood supplies were far from coastal areas and lots of trees in that reason were pretty scraggly.

This lends credence to the notion that the Noah's Ark element of the deluge story in the Hebrew Bible may have had a uniquely Lebanese, and hence, originally Semitic and proto-Phoenician origin, rather than being purely borrowed from the Mesopotamians without modification, although historic deluges there are far more scarce and probably never happened.


DDeden said...

kophar/sohar/gopherwood: qufa (Iraqi Tigris coracle, idem Indus R. tepa/parical/harigolu bowlboats

The Mesopotamian myths refer to a giant round boat, the urbanized Hebrew scribes rectified it to match populated sedentary society, but kept the (~ Moses) 'ark'(teba =cup in Hebrew).

terryt said...

Good post. It still amazes me that some people are still prepared to bend over backwards to support a belief that the Noah story is anything other than a myth. Perhaps with a basis in history in that it deals with survival during a local flood. The Black Sea hypothesis, searching for the remains of the ark etc. That is the really incredible part of the story lies.

DDeden said...

To 'buy an Ark' required shekels.
shekel(Heb) = siqlu(Akad)
undoubtedly etymologically related to: cycle/circle/kwekwel(PIE wheel)/igloo(Innuit term for (originally) dome hut of sod or snow)/mongolu(Mbuti pygmy term for dome hut of woven wicker shingled with large leaves)/gold(?)

andrew said...


I don't doubt that the deluge story have some root source in a historical reality, even though it was surely not literally true and mutated over time as retold by new authors making only the amendments they thought were logical.

Discerning just what those sources could have been is a useful historical exercise even if the answer can never be definitive (Maju has noted a metaphorical reading related to the influx of Semites into Mesopotamia, for example).

Myths are never just myths, even if they are also almost never literally true.