Noah's Ark: One Great Big Miracle?

Copyright Tim Lovett Mar 2006 | Home | Menu

Totally God, totally Noah, or somewhere in between?

 Assuming Noah's Ark and the Flood to be true, what next? Do we take the whole story as miraculous from start to finish, or do we assume Noah survived the ordeal with hard work and cunning?

Miracles are in the story, yet Noah obviously built a real ship. So how can we determine what was a miracle and what wasn't? 

> See More here  

Explaining Away the Miraculous?

One charge directed at creationists is that they are attempting to explain everything in purely naturalistic terms. For example, if Noah built the Ark in such a way that the vessel was unsinkable, or set up special systems so the animals could feed and take care of themselves, perhaps God is not even in the picture. Such comments might go something like this; 

"The way I see it, you can't study Noah's situation scientifically because the whole thing was one great big miracle."

The implications are obvious: If miraculous intervention in Noah's day overruled the laws of physics, then calculations are a waste of time. This means the details of the story will remain vague, impervious to educated guesses or "most likely" scenarios. There is no earthly way we can know any more than what scripture says (if even that much). We end up with about this much detail:

God instructed Noah (somehow) to build an Ark of 300 x 50 x 30 mysterious cubits. He built it by some means over an indefinite period of time, with or without help. He used the puzzling gopher wood, and we have no idea of his tools, the method of construction, the shape of the hull or where it was launched. The flood was produced by some unknown mechanism that caused water to spurt out of the ground at the same time as it rained. For the unknown number of animals, we don't know how much food and water was stored on board and to what degree the animals were in hibernation (if at all).  They somehow survived the flood but with no mention of caring for the animals. When it was all over Noah removed the covering (whatever that is), then they all got out - somehow. 

One easy option is to fill in all the gaps with miracles.

God miraculously gave Noah detailed instructions to how to build the Ark and miraculously helped him build it, regardless of Noah's understanding of construction. It is not important to know whether he built it all himself or he had hired help because God most likely empowered him supernaturally anyway. Gopher wood may have had extraordinary properties, and how it was fabricated into the a seaworthy wooden vessel would be have been a God thing. Not that it really mattered all that much, because God miraculously protected the Ark during the voyage. Noah probably had no idea how many animals were coming, yet they all fitted miraculously into the Ark only days before the flood. The floodwaters themselves were supernatural, so there is no explanation for where they came from, or where they went. Most likely the animals hibernated supernaturally too, so animal care was not an issue. Since God closed the door, he must have opened it, and that's how they got out.

What does the Bible say? There are obvious miracles in the Flood account, God brought the animals and he closed the door, but what about the rest of the story? Was the construction some sort of miracle? Were the animals miraculously hibernating? Can we assume the vessel was supernaturally kept afloat in the raging seas? 

Can we apply the laws of physics here, or is the story of Noah's Ark shrouded in the miraculous? (Big picture)

Definition of a Miracle

The word "miracle" is often used loosely, so we need to start with a clear definition. If a miracle is anything that God does, then the existence of the universe is a miracle as it is God who sustains it.1 So in one sense, everything is a miracle. However, this is not the normal use of the word.

Sometimes the word is used to describe things that remind us of God - such as the miracle of childbirth. The word is even used to sell products (the latest miracle diet), or to sell a story (a miraculous survival at sea). One media favorite, of course, is the "miracle of modern science".

Then we have the miracle of salvation. When a person gets saved, they are a new creation - the old has gone and the new has come. This is God intervening in an earthly life and changing it, a miracle by any reckoning . Likewise, when God gives specific guidance or revelation, it is essentially a miracle. However, these are not quite so scientifically testable as the raising of dead people after several days, or walking on water, or having an axe-head float. While God is certainly capable of performing all manner of miracles, he appears to reserve such intervention to within certain boundaries and situations.2  

Perhaps we could also define " fuzzy miracles" for those occasions when we are not quite sure whether something was a miracle or just a coincidence. If someone prays for rain, is a subsequent rainfall a genuine intervention or just a coincidence? By contrast, when Lazarus came out of the tomb, it could never be written off as mere coincidence.

A useful definition of a miracle in the biblical sense, might be "an extraordinary intervention by God in the world." or  "an addition to the normal laws of nature." 3. God sustains everything, yet he determines it to run according to (relatively) predictable natural laws. Gravity makes things fall to the ground, a natural law we treat with respect. If things were not predictable like this we could never spot a miracle when it happened. 

A simple classification might look something like this; 

Miracles: An Arbitrary Classification

Class Description Example
A An extraordinary intervention by God that overrules the normal laws of nature Raising the dead, walking on water, physical intervention. 
B An intervention by God that is not physically measurable but is a probabilistic "certainty".  Miracle of salvation, specific guidance. Gideon's fleece.
C Fuzzy miracle - could easily be a coincidence. Probabilistically uncertain.  Prayer for parking spot, general guidance. Drawing lots (Acts 1).
D Background miracle - sustaining the universe Miracle of a new day



Miracles in the Flood Account.

Where are the miracles in the Genesis Flood? From chapter six to eight of Genesis where did God interfere with the normal running of physical laws? 

Explicit miracles. 

Another type of miracle is the communication Noah received from God. Mostly instructions and warnings, but also including some commentary from God's perspective. The exact nature of this communication is obscure. It may have been anywhere in the spectrum from hearing God audibly on the one hand, to perceiving an inner prompting on the other. When God makes a commitment never to flood the world again (Gen 8:21), he does so "in his heart". Obviously God would not be speaking audibly in his heart. Was it "normal" for Noah to hear God's voice audibly? The Bible describes Moses as unusual, since he would talk to God as if talking to another person (audibly). It doesn't say this about Noah. It doesn't even say Noah walked with God like his great grandfather Enoch. What about dreams and visions? The Bible usually tells us when people hear through dreams, and since there is no mention of Noah having dreams we might exclude this form of communication. This leaves the trusty "still small voice", the art of hearing God by getting to know him, paying attention and acting in faith. That's how Christians hear God today.

However, when God pronounces the final blessing after they disembark, it makes the most sense that it was an audible message, he was addressing Noah and his sons. There is also a Biblical pattern that blessings are set in place by speaking to the recipient.   

God "spoke" to Noah at least five times;  

Noah's Role in the Flood Account.

The Genesis flood story is very clear about Noah's responsibilities. When God gave instructions he was delegating. Isn't that what instructions are for? It would be meaningless to say (Gen 6:22) that Noah did everything God commanded (build the Ark and gather the food) if these tasks were shrouded in the miraculous. If we were to invoke miracles to explain these parts of the story then we are not founding this idea on Scripture, but on our opinion. For example, if we think Noah was too primitive to build the Ark properly, then we might want to introduce a supernatural element into the construction process. Genesis does not say this. God gave the instructions and Noah did everything God commanded. So who built the Ark? Noah!

God told Noah to... 

Other things Noah did...

Storyline Summary: Who did what?

Reference Miracles (what God did) What Noah did What Happened
Gen 6:13-21 Ark building instructions (B)    
Gen 6:14-16   Build the ark  
Gen 6:21   Gather the food  
Gen 7:1-4 Boarding instructions (B)    
Gen 7:9,15 Brought the animals (A)    
Gen 6:19-7:16   Load animals and family  
Gen 7:16 Shut the door (A)    
Gen 7:10 Initiated the flood (A)    
Gen 7:17     Ark is buoyed
Gen 8:1 Brought a wind (A)    
Gen 8:4     Ark runs aground
Gen 8:15-17   Send out birds   
Gen 8:15-17   Remove covering   
Gen 8:15-17 Exit instructions (B)    
Gen 8:16,17   Unload animals and family  
Gen 8:20   Sacrifice an offering  
Gen 9:2 Animals get fear of man (A)    
Gen 9:13 Set (gave) rainbow (A)    
Gen 9:1-17 Blessed and instructed (A)    

Adding Miracles to the Story

It should be reasonable to call something a miracle when God does it, but give Noah the credit for his undertakings whenever the Bible does. 

But what do we do with the parts of the story that are not specifically mentioned? Do we add miracles, or stay confined to naturalistic solutions? I suggest that miraculous intervention is a special condition that God usually highlights in scripture, just as he does in Genesis 6 to 8. So when no miracle is mentioned, it would be safest to steer clear of miraculous solutions. Seeing miracles that aren't really there is like superstition, a mystical approach to the Bible - a blurring or miracles into magic. 

Miracle of Staying Afloat? Take the issue of the Ark surviving the floodwaters. It seems the Bible is silent about whether God miraculously sustained the Ark during the voyage, yet this is one of the favorite places to add miraculous intervention.8 

The proportions of the Ark indicate a vessel built for waves. Waterproofing is detailed. Gopher wood is specified. This seems to imply a naturalistic solution, an Ark that can ride the waves without supernatural help. If the vessel was to be suspended from the destructive forces of the flood, why would Noah be required to put in all the extra effort of an elongated shape? A shorter, wider hull gives the same space with a lot less work. With these factors pointing to a hull designed to handle a storm, a supernatural solution to seakeeping appears unnecessary. Why add it to scripture? Because shipwrights had trouble making long wooden schooners? 6

In terms of outcomes, there is no way to distinguish between a vague notion like "God kept the Ark safe", and an entirely fanciful one. (Big picture)

Miracle of Hibernation? Another suggestion by the miracle-minded is that the animals slept the voyage away. This is a handy way of dealing with the issues of animal care with a limited crew. Trouble is, the Bible doesn't actually say this. In fact, God gives a clear instruction to gather "all food that is eaten" (Gen 6:21), for Noah's family and for the animals. This means the animals had to eat, so they can't have been comatose the whole voyage. They will require some care - dealing with their water supply, food and waste.  On the other hand, Noah was instructed to build 'nests' in the Ark, so the animals weren't jumping, flapping, wriggling and roaming in all directions. Nests imply confinement. This gives us some boundaries for establishing what the animals may have been doing. They were active enough to want food, but sedate enough to nest. The animals were miraculously selected by God to enter the Ark, but the settling effect of darkness, confinement, and rocking motion is quite natural. This is also prior to animals having the 'fear of man' (Gen 9:2), which would be an obviously advantage when keeping animals in captivity. Without the 'fear of man' the antediluvian animals would have been more like the domesticated animals of today. 7  

Miracle of Construction? With his pristine antediluvian DNA, Noah's abilities would be legendary even from a purely natural point of view. Like many lead characters in the Bible, there is no doubt that Noah was empowered by the presence of God in his life. So Noah's typical day might be full of class D and C miracles, where Murphy's Law 4 is not quite so evident (instead of cutting a piece of wood too short, you just happen to think to re-check the measurement...).  This seems to be God's preference too. He'd rather work amazing things through his people by compiling a sum of little fuzzy miracles (like re-check a measurement), working through us to accomplish his will. Noah's experience is not a mystical ancient spiritual event - Noah is a real man in history whose DNA makes up 25% of our own. When God tells a Christian today to build an orphanage, we start by doing it. After all, Noah was just a human. (Gen 9:21). Noah saw some of the most dramatic supernatural interventions ever witnessed, but this does not mean we can add some extra miracles just because we think they are needed. 5 

After attempting to identify these "added miracles", a common response is;

"I believe God was looking after Noah, and that miracles did happen. I have no trouble believing that."

I am not trying to avoid miracles, or eliminate the supernatural to make it more acceptable to a non-believer. The flood story requires miracles. If this is a problem to the skeptic then sorry, but like the virgin birth, it happened. I believe in miracles, (including modern Class A ones). 

However, there are some clues that not everything was a miracle. God told Noah to build a long ship, some 300 x 50 x 30 cubits. This is very strange, because a shorter and fatter Ark of the same volume would be much easier to build. (See Why Such a Long Hull?

 Animation (Requires Flash Player)

So, if God was planning to look after the Ark during the voyage, why did he get Noah to build such a long shape - with twice the wood and twice the effort? Why specify something that looks so much like an ordinary ship, and thereby hide the miracle, or imply that it was supposed to handle the waves?

It makes more sense to assume the instructions were detailed enough for Noah to build an ocean going ship.


Legacy of Over-Presumed Miracles

After Kircher in the 1600's, Noah's Ark almost completely escaped scientific inquiry until the 1900's.  How can this be? There was no shortage of Christians and there are enough details in the Flood account to make a reasoned assessment. This is rather strange considering the significance of the story - the whole world descended though Noah! (Gen 9:19)  

My guess is that Christendom ignored the power of methodical investigation because they had shrouded the story in the miraculous. In the last few centuries the story of Noah Ark and the flood has been under attack more than almost any other portion of scripture.

How do Christians defend the survival of animals on board Noah's Ark? Glad you asked. The geological record makes it very clear that there has been massive catastrophe in the past - from the telling extent of huge layers of rapidly lain strata, to the rapid burial of live creatures in the prime of life. An historical Noah's Ark is virtually compulsory if any land animal is to survive such conditions. How are the rest of the land animals supposed to survive while this strata was being laid over whole continents?  The deluge-doubters must deny the extent of catastrophism as long as possible, their only hope is for the story to be swept under the magic carpet for another 300 years. (oops, I mean miracle carpet).


1. The miracle of existence. God sustains all of creation. Have you ever thought that when you see light you are actually seeing the direct result of God's spoken words? "Let there be light". So your retina is actually seeing God's words! While creation could be thought of as an extension of God, (since every bit of it came from him), God is not contained within the creation - he exists independently. Pantheism picks up the intimacy of God and nature, but misses the truth (by an infinite distance) when it attempts to shrink God down into the creation. (Pantheism: "God is everything and everything is God" Owen, H. P. Concepts of Deity. London: Macmillan, 1971.)  

Return to text

2. Economy of Miracles. While God is certainly capable of performing miracles left, right and center, he seems to restrain himself to some extent. An attitude of always seeking miracles is condemned as a symptom of sinfulness - seeking miracles instead of the miracle maker. 

Conversely, there is no scriptural decree that miracles died out with the Apostles. If miracles are obsolete then it would be inconsistent to make your requests known to God. How can he answer a prayer if he is not allowed to do anything?  

Return to text

3. Dr Jonathan Sarfati. Miracles and Science. Audio recording at  Return to text

4. Murphies Law, popular in manufacturing and engineering. There are many variations, but essentially "If anything can go wrong, it will". The concept behind it is to attempt to foresee problems and not to expect things to work unless you have addressed everything that might go wrong.  Return to text.   

5. John wrote some harsh warnings about adding or taking away from scripture. An awful lot of people must be banking on these words applying to the book of Revelation and not the whole Bible. 

Rev 22:18,19 For I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds to these things, God will add to him the plagues that are written in this book; and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part from the Book of Life, from the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book.

So, what is the risk that claiming a supernaturally buoyed Ark is not adding to scripture? 

Return to text.

6. The often quoted example of an over-length wooden ship; Wyoming, six masted wooden hulled schooner; L/B/D: 329.5 50.1 30.4 (100.4m 15.2m 9.3m). Tons: 3,730 tons. Built by: Percy & Small, Bath, Me.; 1909. It was one of the largest wooden hulls ever built, and had the greatest tonnage of any wooden schooner built (the only larger schooner was the steel-hulled Thomas W. Lawson, although the 1853 clipper The Great Republic was 335ft and 4555 tons), and she was the last of ten six-masted schooners built in New England. At the time of its launch in 1909, East Coast shipbuilders had launched 311 four-masted schooners, 45 five-masters, 10 six-masters, and the seven-masted Lawson. Steamships were taking over short coal routes but Wyoming escaped this fate by sailing on ever longer routes. On March 3, 1924, she departed Norfolk for St. John, New Brunswick. On the 24th she anchored off the Pollock Rip Lightship to ride out a nor'easter, but she sank with the loss of her 13 crew, including Captain Charles Glaesel.  Ref: Haskell, "Glamorous Six-Masters." Parker, Great Coal Schooners of New EnglandShips of the World Historical Encyclopedia. The ancient Greek triremes had a highly refined hull construction never seen in the European carvel hull, and in the 1400's the Chinese were building ships that were almost certainly larger than the European and American wooden ships. Compare Ships  Return to text

7. Animals and carnivory. After the flood, God gave Noah and his sons (i.e. humans) permission to eat meat (Gen 9:3). He also put the fear of man into the animals (Gen 9:2), which seems pretty logical. Did animals display any carnivorous behavior before the flood? The fossil record certainly says so. Death and bloodshed were introduced by Adam, so after that some animals learnt to eat flesh. Domestication is not related to whether an animal is carnivorous, consider dogs and cats. The 'wild animal' factor could have a strong bearing on how well they perform in captivity. Today, it is much easier to keep farm animals in captivity than some creature fresh from the jungle.  Return to text  

8.  Genesis 8:1, says "God remembered Noah" and then it goes on to talk about the wind and subsidence of the floodwaters. The word for remembered is zakar which means remembered. Funny that. It has been suggested that this phrase implies some sort of special protection, such as buoying the vessel or simply steering it away from danger. Either way, this would still be a supernatural intervention (Class A miracle), helping the Ark to do the right thing on the water. Try as I may, I can't see 'supernaturally protected' in zakar. Besides, if ever there was a need for special protection it would be during launch or beaching, not in the middle of the voyage. It seems far more reasonable to take Genesis 8:1 to mean that God's "remembering" led to the wind, since it is mentioned immediately after. (A similar verse is Gen 30:22 where God remembered Rachael and opened her womb. Obviously it wasn't open before was it?). Why not let zakar mean "remembered" like it does all the other 233 times in the Bible, and let the Ark do the floating? [Zakar: Blue Letter Bible. "Dictionary and Word Search for 'zakar (Strong's 02142) ' " . Blue Letter Bible. 1996-2002. 22 Mar 2006. <>Return to text