Searching for a meaning in the lost ark

From the time of the discovery of the wooden relic of St Jacob in the seventh century to the 18th century vision of the pastor of Bayzit, at the foot of the mountains, expeditions to what is now known as Turkey have continued, with lots of claims being made but no proof.

Searching for a meaning in the lost ark Archdiocese of Wellington A point I would like to make very strongly is that my purpose in writing on issues in Genesis is not one of deconstruction. If we do not come to terms with what has been the constant teaching of the church over the last 60 years, then we substitute so much pseudo-scientific speculation for a sound biblical teaching. Often the Discovery Channel becomes a better known source than the bible itself for information. The celebrated Mount Ararat became the site for searches for the ark that rested on top of the mountain after the famous universal deluge that destroyed previous life forms on earth: human, animal, and plant.

Ararat is a small mountain range, 13 kilometres long, found between Turkey and Armenia.  Ararat Major (5,165 metres high) is eternally snow covered; Ararat Minor is 4,300 metres in height. The first Christians in the area built a Temple of the Ark; from then searches to find the colossal ship that saved the ancestors of the new human race gained momentum. From the time of the discovery of the wooden relic of St Jacob in the seventh century to the 18th century vision of the pastor of Bayzit, at the foot of the mountains, expeditions have continued, with lots of claims being made but no proof.

An erroneous and unchecked presupposition disqualifies all these searches. The bible does not say that the ark rested on ‘Mount Ararat’ at the end of the deluge as most people interpreted. Instead, Genesis expresses that it was ‘in the mountains of Ararat’ (Gen 8:4).  For the bible, Ararat is not the name of a mountain but of a nation. This is quite clear from the three other occurrences of the name (2 Kgs 19:37; Is 37:38; Jer 51:27). The country meant is the old Urartu, present-day Armenia. That great old scholar, St Jerome, in the Vulgate, gave the correct translation as ‘the mountains of Armenia.’ Far from identifying the place, the bible gives a very vague location that can be any spot in Armenia since the whole country is on a plateau extending up to 230 kilometres.

Did the ark truly exist?

This question can be bluntly stated: ‘Does the bible pretend to narrate something that really happened or does it speak of an illustrative story?’ The details of the story favour the second approach. The size of the ark is up to the dimensions of a modern ocean-going ship of the 19th century. The story belongs to a time when the use of metals was still unknown, whether for construction or for tools. Hundreds of people were not available for the construction; only Noah and his children and their wives.

The most picturesque and hardest to admit were the details concerning the animals. How would a pair of all the existing species, gathered from the five continents, save them from extinction? 1,700 species of mammals, 10,087 of birds, 987 of reptiles, and 1,200,000 species of insects?  How could six persons create the different environments needed by each animal considering their food, climate, and other needs?

Concerning the rains

It rained unceasingly for 40 days and 40 nights (Gen 7:17). The hydrological cycle of evaporation that causes the rain is incapable of providing that much water. The mass of water in the story covered the whole earth, but that would only be possible to imagine in a world that thought of the earth as a plain disc, with a sky covering it like a dome (firmament). Is it possible that in 40 days the rains totally covered the planet, reaching seven metres above Mt Everest (8,846 metres)? For waters to reach that height all the sea water in the planet would have to rise 222 metres every day. If all the clouds present in the atmosphere suddenly precipitated, the globe would be covered by a maximum of five centimetres of water!

The inescapable conclusion

 The sheer volume of these few objections confronts us with the answer that there was no universal deluge. Of course nearly every culture will have stories of deluges that did happen in their past, but not a flood so universal to the point of destroying all forms of life over the planet. Some people feel deceived that the bible does not tell its readers how it really was, thus preventing any misunderstanding. But the fact is that the people of the time were aware of the nature of the stories they told. The very language and images were used to tell the readers that they are not reading a chronicle of an historian, but an educative story. We do not have the introductory warning of a contemporary novel that this is purely a work of fiction. We need to face the issue that the bible is precisely that, in some of its areas, and this applies especially in the realm of pre-history. This is not wrong; it is our own preconceptions that may be wrong.

What the deluge teaches

The author took a pre-existing story, with all its interesting details, to transmit a religious teaching. The first lesson was that the flood came about because of human frailty, a lesson for our own endangered planet. Sin accumulated to the point of corruption and perversion that provoked a catastrophe. With all this, the world came back to the chaos that existed before creation. The order that God has put into creation could be destroyed by human irresponsibility.

Among the many sinful people there was a just man, Noah, a man put to the test, told to build a great ship, in the middle of the desert, on firm ground. No reason is given Noah; he is told to do it and wait. Ridicule from his contemporaries would follow, and Noah’s only answer could be “God ordered me to do so. I obey.” No complaint comes from his lips over four chapters; no other biblical character is portrayed as being told so little and saying so little! Then finally God reveals the secret of the rain.

The message is very clear according to the ways of the Old Testament. If humanity obeys God’s orders, it will be saved. If it disobeys, it faces self-destruction. God specifies the measurements, materials, and form of the ark. We have to shape our lives according to God’s dimensions, and then we will transcend any storm. Those who do not listen to God’s guidance will drown. This is far more important than the historical issues mentioned earlier.  Rather than scaling Mt Ararat to look for the ark, we should scale the peaks of learning and looking to the Word of God to live out its message in our lives.

Reference: Valdes, A A

The Bible: Questions People Ask Used with permission of Claretian Press.