Measuring the Ark

Noah’s Ark

Some folks in Kentucky are planning to build a theme park featuring what they will advertise as an exact replica of Noah’s Ark. The story is in the news these days, because the state government is encouraging the project by offering tax breaks to the planners. I’m not going to address that controversy. But I am interested in how big their ark will be. I wonder if they are consulting the writings of Harry Rimmer.

I never heard Harry Rimmer speak—he died in the early 1950s. But he was quoted often in my youth by fundamentalist defenders of the Bible’s authority for scientific matters.

By all accounts, Harry Rimmer was a colorful fundamentalist apologist. He regularly made a public offer of $100 to anyone who could prove the Bible wrong about any scientific detail. This gesture led to a public spectacle when a religious skeptic took him to court, claiming the prize. The challenger insisted that there were multiple scientific errors in the Bible, and one of them had to do with the dimensions of the ark. Given what the Bible says about the size of Noah’s large boat, the skeptic argued, it would have been impossible to get two of every kind of animal into that space.

Here is how Rimmer countered the charge, as I heard the story many times in my youth. “And how big was the ark?” he asked the challenger. The skeptic responded by citing the account in Genesis 6: three hundred cubits long, fifty cubits wide, thirty cubits high.

Rimmer proceeded with his questioning: if that were too small for all the animals, what would the size have to be? Would it work if the ark were twice that size? That might do it, the challenger responded.

At this point Rimmer began a discussion of a cubit, pointing out that the measurement originated as approximating the fore-length of an arm. Then he went in for the kill, asking the challenger to read verse 4 of Genesis 6, that same chapter where the measurements are given: “There were giants in the land in those days.” Then the obvious questions: How big is a giant? Could it have been twice as big as the typical human being? If so, could the giants’ forearms be twice as long? And then: could a cubit have been twice as long, so that the ark could have been twice as big?

That is not my style of apologetics. But it does at least, I suppose, allow the folks in Kentucky a little wiggle room in deciding how large their replica of the ark should be.

More important for me, though, is the longstanding tradition of thinking of the church itself as the “ark of salvation.” In church architecture this has led to the idea of the “nave,” a nautical image. More broadly, Catholics are fond of thinking of ship imagery for the church as “the bark (or barque) of Peter.”

Fair enough. The church is indeed a safe place provided by the God—the “ark” that will take us to our eternal destination.  And we can learn at least this much from Harry Rimmer. We should not be content to define the ark of salvation with measurements that are too small for God’s purpose. There is much room in the ark! And if we are too feeble in our evangelistic efforts—in calling people to the ark—it may even be that we need to think more about the times past when many came into the ark because of those who were spiritual  “giants in the land in those days.”