The story of Noah's Ark has been one of the most appealing and troublesome in the Bible. There is a long tradition in Christian thought of interest in Noah as a type of Christ and in his Ark as an allegory of salvation. The redeemed were preserved in the Ark, which was not so much a ship as a kind of coffin or sarcophagus. They were kept safe from God's righteous anger and delivered to a new life beyond this symbolic death.
As well as its spiritual appeal, the story in itself is charming and compelling. Who could fail to be intrigued by Noah's work of assembling all the animals and housing and caring for his extraordinary menagerie? Who would not tremble at the fate of the cynics and scoffers, locked out of the Ark, their opportunities to repent squandered, as the Flood waters rose around them? Who could not be moved by the helpless craft, shut up for a year and afloat on unknown waters with all life on earth depending on its survival? The popularity of the story of Noah is not surprising.
Problems arose when more rational attitudes and literal interpretations raised new questions about the Ark, but at the same time they gave new significance and importance to Noah. How could an Ark possibly have contained examples of all the animals on earth, not to mention the food they would have needed to eat for a year? What effect would procreation over such a time have had on the viability of the Ark? How could it have rested securely on a mountain top? There were many more problems that demanded attention. Although the questions were numerous, detailed answers were found, and in the process Noah became variously a natural historian, a museum keeper, an astronomer, a shipwright and a navigator.
catalogue no. 31
Noah was a pivotal figure for the intellectual history of mankind just as he was for man's physical survival, and he carried the ancient knowledge of nature that had descended from Adam through his third son Seth to Enoch. Five generations separated Enoch from Seth, but such was the longevity of the patriarchs (Seth died aged 920) that traditions of learning could be constructed between them on the basis of personal knowledge. Adam lived for 930 years, so Enoch knew him. Enoch was generally credited with being the first author and making the earliest written records of the ancient wisdom. Enoch was alive on earth for only 365 years - not because he died, but because 'God took him' - so although Noah was separated from Enoch by only three generations, the chronology in Genesis makes it impossible for him to have known Enoch personally. But he would have known Enoch's son Methuselah, who lived for 967 years (for 243 years of which Adam himself was alive) and there was confidence among Biblical commentators that Noah would have inherited the learning of Enoch, especially since it had been written down.
Adam in his innocence and natural wisdom understood the voice of God, as God communicated with him in the Garden. After the Fall, only two men had that combination of wisdom and righteousness that allowed the record of Genesis to say that they 'walked with God': these two were Enoch and Noah. Little wonder, then, that it was important to extract as much natural knowledge as possible from the building and management of the Ark.
After the Flood, Noah lived to the time of Abraham, so it was not difficult to imagine the authoritative descent extending a few more generations to Moses, the author of Genesis. In connection with both Noah's expertise in astronomy and the writings of Enoch, Walter Ralegh explained things as follows (catalogue no. 30, p. 80):
... it is very probable that Noah had seene and might preserve this booke. For it is not likely, that so exquisite knowledge therein (as these men had) was suddenly inuented and found out, but left by Seth to Enoch, and by Enoch to Noah, as hath been said before. And therefore if letters and arts were knowne from the time of Seth to Enoch, and that Noah liued with Methusalem, who liued with Adam, and Abraham liued with Noah, it is not strange (I say) to conceiue how Moses came to the knowledge of the first Age, be it by letters, or by Cabala and Tradition, had the vndoubted word of God neede of any other proofe then self-authoritie.
It is interesting that Ralegh, as historian, argues to substantiate the authority of his primary author, Moses, but then points out that in any case, as scripture, the source has the authority of divine inspiration.
For the students of Noah, God designed the Ark and his servant built it according to the divine blueprint. The Genesis record of God's instructions may be sketchy, but it is clear that measurement and proportion were among God's primary concerns (Genesis 6:15-16):
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.
Apart from this, the material specified was 'gopher wood', there were to be rooms within, while inside and out were to be covered with pitch. From these few details and the people and animals to be accommodated, the commentators worked out their different designs.
catalogue no. 6
The cubit was a fundamental element in these reconstructions and much speculation was devoted to its length and to the consequent size of the Ark. Noah thus became associated with standards of measure, as a practical mathematician and a shipwright. It was generally agreed that the proportions of the Ark, more particularly the ratio of length to breadth, represented those of the human figure, an idea that reinforced the link between the Ark and the Son of Man, that is Christ and his mission of salvation (see catalogue nos. 28 and 37 ). The most influential image of Noah for natural knowledge was as natural historian and then as museum keeper. To devise a successful Ark required a complete know ledge of the natural world - not only of the species of animals, but their sizes, habits, diets and life cycles. On the basis of this knowledge, the Ark was built as a museum, arranged according to a divine taxonomy, and the effort to ascertain and even to recreate what this might have been had a profound influence on the study of the natural world.
Thus it was important to enumerate all the creatures in the Ark, both to recover Noah's natural history and to solve the problem of finding a design of vessel that would accommodate and sustain them. A further step was to describe them and their conditions of life, to recover the natural knowledge deployed by Noah, and natural histories written along these lines became associated with accounts of the Ark. Finally, it might be possible to emulate Noah himself by collecting and arranging an ark, by assembling and displaying a complete taxonomy of the kingdoms of animals, birds, reptiles, insects and fish. Early museums were often characterized as arks and their keepers as latter-day Noahs (see catalogue nos. 29 , 31 to 33, and 37 ).