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What was Noah's Ark made of?
Sometimes, everyone assumes that a passuk in the Torah has a certain meaning, and it's not necessarily the case at all. For example, many people assume that the plague of frogs is written in the singular because it began with a single frog, but that's actually a Midrash; according to pshat, it's just a collective noun. Likewise, it seems that everyone believes that the Torah explicitly describes the plague of hail as consisting of fire inside the hail stones, whereas it actually speaks about fire flashing inside the hail storm.
Recently, I discovered what might be another example. Here are the three verses about the construction of Noah's Ark, with a translation from Sefaria:
עֲשֵׂה לְךָ תֵּבַת עֲצֵי־גֹפֶר קִנִּים תַּעֲשֶׂה אֶת־הַתֵּבָה וְכָפַרְתָּ אֹתָהּ מִבַּיִת וּמִחוּץ בַּכֹּפֶר׃
וְזֶה אֲשֶׁר תַּעֲשֶׂה אֹתָהּ שְׁלֹשׁ מֵאוֹת אַמָּה אֹרֶךְ הַתֵּבָה חֲמִשִּׁים אַמָּה רׇחְבָּהּ וּשְׁלֹשִׁים אַמָּה קוֹמָתָהּ׃
צֹהַר תַּעֲשֶׂה לַתֵּבָה וְאֶל־אַמָּה תְּכַלֶּנָּה מִלְמַעְלָה וּפֶתַח הַתֵּבָה בְּצִדָּהּ תָּשִׂים תַּחְתִּיִּם שְׁנִיִּם וּשְׁלִשִׁים תַּעֲשֶׂהָ׃
Make yourself an ark of gopher wood; make it an ark with compartments, and cover it inside and out with pitch.
This is how you shall make it: the length of the ark shall be three hundred cubits, its width fifty cubits, and its height thirty cubits.
Make an opening for daylight in the ark, and terminate it within a cubit of the top. Put the entrance to the ark in its side; make it with bottom, second, and third decks.
These verses follow a logical sequence. The first verse discusses the materials of which the ark should be made. The second verse describes the dimensions of the ark. And the third verse discusses the structure and internal design of the ark.
That's a very logical sequence, except that it's not actually an accurate description of the verses' contents. The first verse, in between saying that the ark is made of gopher wood and that it is coated with pitch, says that it is to be divided into compartments. But that is the part of the internal structural design, which surely belongs in the third verse!
There's another strange thing going on here. Hebrew has a perfectly good word for rooms or compartments: chadarim (cf. Prov. 20:27). Why would the word kinnim, which literally means "birds' nests" and is not used for any other animal, be used here? The earliest discussion that I found of this is in the Midrash:
קִנִּים תַּעֲשֶׂה אֶת הַתֵּבָה (בראשית ו, יד), קִילִין וּמְדוֹרִין, אָמַר רַבִּי יִצְחָק מַה הַקֵּן הַזֶּה מְטַהֵר אֶת הַמְצוֹרָע, אַף תֵּבָתְךָ מְטַהֲרָתְךָ. (בראשית רבה לא)
The Midrash here says that just as a nest of birds purifies the metzora, so too the Ark purified its inhabitants. But while this is a beautiful homiletic exegesis, it doesn't help with the pshat problem.
While I was pondering this problem, I was simultaneously reading about ancient Babylonian versions of the flood story. Of course, there are different approaches regarding how to reconcile these with the Torah's account, which are not our concern here. But I suddenly realized that they describe the ark as being made of reeds - which, in Hebrew, is kannim, the very word that our verse uses, albeit vocalized differently. And this was apparently the standard technique used for creating boats in ancient Mesopotamia - they were made of reeds, sometimes hybridized with a wooden frame for greater strength. (Note that this technique would have been unknown to later generations in other parts of the world, where boats were made exclusively from wood.)
Accordingly, by emending the vocalization of the word, the verses make perfect sense. The first verse is indeed describing the materials of which the ark was made - wood, reeds, and pitch. That is exactly how watercraft were made. (Interestingly, the only other tevah mentioned in Scripture, Moses' basket, was also made of reeds, albeit with the name gomeh.)
After discussing this with a number of academic scholars, I discovered that I wasn't the first person to think of this. It had already been proposed seventy years ago, by a scholar in Semitic languages called Edward Ullendorff. Others quibbled with this emendation, but it seems that they were unaware that reeds were the standard material used for building boats in that part of the world in antiquity.
Now, positing that the traditional vocalization of the word became corrupted is not without its difficulties. But on the other hand, it has the advantage of making the verses about the ark flow perfectly, rather than to say that there is a jarring incongruity and that it used an odd word for rooms which just so happens to be the exact same word which is used to refer to the materials that boats were usually made of and which would much more properly belong in this verse!
Meanwhile, if you're interested in the scientific challenges posed by the account of Noah's Ark, see the list of resources in this post. And in a few months, we will be opening an incredible exhibit on "The Art of the Ark" at the Biblical Museum of Natural History, featuring over sixty extraordinary artistic models of Noah's Ark from all over the world! Sign up for the museum newsletter to be notified when the exhibit is launched.
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