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Genesis 6-9 Noah's Flood

Chiasmus or Palistrophic Structure

The flood story has an interesting structure called a chiasmu from the Greek letter Chi that looks like an "X". The order is stated then restated in reverse order.

Introduction (6:9-10)
1. Violence on the earth (6:11-12)
  2. First speech: intent to destroy earth (6:13-22)
    3. Second speech: go into the ark (7:1-10)
      4. The Flood starts (7:11-16)
        5. The flood rises (7:17-24)
          Climax-God remembers Noah (8:1a)
        5a. The Flood recedes (8:1b-5)
      4a. Drying off of the earth (8:6-14)
    3a. Third speech: leave the ark (8:15-19)
  2a. Will not destroy earth again (8:20-22)
1a. Fourth speech: the covenant (9:1-17)
Conclusion (9:18-19), (see Anderson 1978, 38; Wenham 1987, 156)

Another Palistrophic Structure

7 days waiting for the flood (7:4)
7 more days waiting for the flood (7:10)
  40 days of rain (7:17a)
    150 days of rising water (7:24)
    150 days of receding water (8:3)
  40 days of waiting (8:6)
7 days waiting (8:10)
7 more days waiting (8:12), (see Wenham 1978, 337-39; 1987, 157)

One Year Cycle

From the first date given (7:11) to the last date mentioned (8:14) makes the flood last exactly one year and 11 days. This was a lunar year of 354 days plus the 11 days makes it equal to exactly one solar year of 365 days. Ancient people believed that the symbolic numbers held the key to the mysteries of the universe (Wenham 1987, 179). Jaubert suggests that these dates are following the calendar used in the Book of Jubilees which was 364 days which means each date falls on the same day of the week. Thus Noah observed the Sabbath and the ark stopped traveling on Friday (Ibid., 180-1). God is seen as working in a seven day cycle.

Noah’s Ark

Genesis 6:13-17

“(13) And God said unto Noah, The end of all flesh is come before me; for the earth is filled with violence through them; and, behold, I will destroy them with the earth. (14) Make thee an ark of gopher wood; rooms shalt thou make in the ark, and shalt pitch it within and without with pitch. (15) 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. (16) 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. (17) And, behold, I, even I, do bring a flood of waters upon the earth to destroy all flesh, wherein is the breath of life, from under heaven; and everything that is in the earth shall die.” (KJV)

Dimensions: The ark was 300 cubits long by 50 cubits wide and 30 cubits high. A cubit in ancient Israel was about 18 inches. This would make Noah’s ark about 450 feet long, 75 feet wide, and 45 feet high.

Ark: The word “ark” (הבת) probably comes from the Egyptian load word tbt which means “box” or “chest.” The only other story in the Old Testament about an ark is the baby Moses being placed in an “ark of bulrushes” which was daubed with slime and pitch. (Exodus 2:3,5).

Gopher Wood:  “Gopher” wood (גפר) only appears here once in the whole Old Testament. It most likely refers to a conifer tree like the pine tree or cedar tree. The Targum Onqelos translates “gopher” wood as “cedar” wood. The Septuagint (LXX) translates it “squared” timber, and the Vulgate (Vg) “smoothed” timber. “Gopher” may have come from the Sumerian word “gish gipar” meaning meadow wood which may have referred to reeds. Common reed boats in Iraq are called quffas. In ancient Mesopotamia, pine trees were used by the Sumerians in the construction of boats. (For a detailed account of ancient ship building see chapter 6 of Noah’s Ark and the Ziusudra Epic by Robert M. Best, 1999.)  

Rooms: The word “rooms” (קנים) is probably better translated “reeds” (See Gordon J. Wenham’s commentary on Genesis, p.173.) Probably the reeds were used with pitch to seal the boat and make it waterproof. 

Pitch: The word “pitch” (כפר) is only used here in the whole Old Testament. It comes from a common Akkadian word kupru meaning “bitumen” which is a tar like substance. It was coated “inside and out” with pitch. This would give the ark a black color appearance.

Window: The word “window” (צהר) is also another word that only occurs once in the Old Testament. Based on Semitic cognates, a better translation would be “roof” or “covering.” In ancient Summer woven reed matting was placed over a frame to form a canopy for boats. The roof may also have been made of cloth or skin.

Door: A door is mentioned which was most likely was just above the waterline.

Decks: The ark had three decks.

Who went on Noah’s Ark?

In Genesis 1:24-25 land animals are divided into three different kinds; cattle  (בהמה, domesticated animals), wild animals (ותיח-ץרא, literally “living creatures of the land,” root word היח) and creeping animals (רשמ;, those close to the ground, like mice, insects, and snakes). Both היח and בהמה can refer to animals in general (Genesis 1-15 by Gordon J. Wenham, p. 25). When היח is connected to ץרא it frequently refers to wild animals attacking humans as a result of God’s punishment of sin (Jeremiah 27:6, Ezekiel 14:15, 21; 34:5).  It seems that this is an exilic and post-exilic meaning. In Rabbinic literature היח is clearly referring to wild animals. The plural form refers to celestial creatures (New International Dictionary of the Old Testament Theology & Exegesis edited by VanGemeren, vol.2, 113-115).

It is interesting to note that Noah is commanded to bring in only two kinds of land animals, cattle and creeping creatures. There is no mention of wild animals (ותיח-ץרא), as in Genesis one. It seems that בהמה is used as a general term to refer to all land animals here. If you are a fundamentalist, why is there no reference to wild animals coming on board the ark? The best explanation is that Genesis one is a late addition, added to Genesis two in exilic or post-exilic times. For scholars, Genesis chapter one is believed to be written by P, the priestly source, and earlier J that favors Jehovah in Genesis chapter two.

Ancient Translations and Interpretations

Targum Translations (Aramaic)

Pseudo-Jonathan: Genesis 6:14-16 states, “Make thee an ark of cedar wood; construct on hundred and fifty cabins for the ark on the left side with thirty-six in its breadth, and ten rooms in the center, to store provisions in them, and five or water on the right and five on the left; and smear it within and without with pitch. Go to Pishon and take from there a precious stone, and put it in the ark to give you light” (The Tarums & Rabbinic Literature by John Bowker, Cambridge University Press, 1969, 152)

It also states that the animals were guided by the hand of an angel into the ark (IBID.).

Rabbinic Literature

Genesis Rabbah: XXXI:XI states, “A. R.(R.= Rabbi) Phineas in the name of R. Levi: ‘During the entire twelve months in which Noah was in the ark, he had no need for the light of the sun by day nor for the light of the moon by night. Rather, he had a precious stone, which he suspended. When the stone dimmed, he knew that it was day, and when it glowed brightly, he knew that it was night” (Genesis Rabbah by Jacob Neusner, Scholars Press, 1985, 323)

6.A. States, “You shall make a bottom, a middle, and a top floor {for the ark] (Genesis 6:16). B. The bottom floor was for the manure, the second floor for him and his family and the animals that fall into the classification of clean, and the third floor for the ones that fall into the classification of unclean” (IBID, 342).

XXXI:XII 2D. states, “When a lion came to the ark, its teeth loosed [so that it would not harm the other animals.]” (Job 4:10). 4B. Sexual relations were not permitted on the ark (IBID, 325).

XXXI:XIII 1B. R. Hoshaia states, “Even spirits came into the ark with Noah, in line with this verse: ‘And of every living thing, of all flesh’ (genesis 6:19) (IBID, 326)

2B. R. Nehemiah states, “Neither the wild ox nor its whelps [went in], but Noah tied it to the ark and it ploughed furrows in the water as long as from Tiberias to Susita, in line with this verse: ‘Can you bind the wild ox with his hand in the furrow, or will he harrow the valleys after you’ (Job 39:10).” (IBID.)

Other Rabbinic Literature

Before the flood there were great wonders in the heavens. The sun rose up in the west and set in the east. During the flood God “locked up” the sun and moon so it would not shed its light. Precious stones and pearls were brought on the ark that sparkled at night. (Myth and Legend of Ancient Israel by Angelo S. Rappoport, vol.1, p. 208-217).

Angels helped Noah build the ark. Noah planted a teak tree which grew so big in 20 years that he was able to build the whole ark out of it. (IBID, 215)

When Noah saw the Re’em (wild ox) that was 44 ½ miles long, he decided to tie its horns to the side of the ark and just let the tip of its nose into the ark. (IBID, 212)

Thunder and lightning came and “the earth trembled and was tossed about like a ship in mid-ocean; the arteries of the earth broke and spirited out water” When the flood came, “the waters of the deep were hot, burned their flesh and pealed off their skin” (IBID, 210-211).

The giant Og climbed up on top of the roof of the ark and would not leave. He promised Noah that if he could say on top, he and his descendants would be their slaves. Noah agreed and bore a hole so he could pass food to the giant. This story may help explain how there were still giants (nephilim, fallen ones; LXX, gigantes which were offspring of heaven and earth, the Titans) that survived, and that are mentioned after the flood (Numbers 13:33, Ezekiel 32:20-28?), (IBID, 212).


According to Josephus, angels of God (“Sons of God” in Genesis 6:2) took wives from mankind that produced men of strength like the Greek giants. Because of their wickedness God would destroy the world by a great flood. Josephus claims the ark was four stories high. Josephus mentions secular writers who told about the flood and of people who found ark.

Josephus states, “Now all the writers of barbarian histories make mention of this flood, and of its ark; among whom is Berosus the Chaldean. For when he is describing the circumstances of the flood he goes on thus: ‘It is said there is still some part of this ship in Armenia, at the mountain of the C(G)ordyeans (modern Kurdistan); and that some people carry off pieces of the bitumen, which they take away, and use chiefly as amulets for the averting of mischief’” (The Life and Works of Josephus translated by William Whiston p. 38, & Josephus: Jewish Antiquities Books I-IV translated by H. ST. J. Thackeray).

Next - Noah's Flood, Global or Local?