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God instructed His faithful servant, Noah to build the ark as follows:

Genesis 6:14-16, NASB: "Make for yourself an ark of gopher wood; you shall make the ark with rooms, and shall cover it inside and out with pitch. 15This is how you shall make it: the length of the ark three hundred cubits [~450'], its breadth fifty cubits [~75'], and its height thirty cubits [~45']. 16You shall make a window for the ark, and finish it to a cubit from the top; and set the door of the ark in the side of it; you shall make it with lower, second, and third decks."

I'm unable to find any other mention of airways besides this "window". Do we know how so many forms of life could have breathed in the ark under such restricted conditions? (Perhaps it was larger than I imagined?)

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  • Just because there are no other windows mentioned doesn't mean the ark didn't have them. It would seem logical that the animals would have been kept in different stalls, but the biblical record doesn't mention it. Some details are probably not listed because they are probably not important.
    – agarza
    Commented Aug 22, 2021 at 3:26
  • @agarza Well, I wasn't going to read anything into the text since the directions seem so specific. One wonders if it would be safe to light a match from inside such a vessel. :-)
    – Xeno
    Commented Aug 22, 2021 at 3:31
  • I’m convinced that given they were far superior intellectually and were also given directives from God Himself no less, the vessel had proper ventilation to circulate air and prevent it from overheating or resulting in asphyxiation. The “window” did not serve the purpose of ventilation. And God didn’t instruct Noah to build a submarine. So it wasn’t supposed to be airtight above water, just below water and on top. Commented Aug 22, 2021 at 4:07
  • Xeno: The window was all around the ark, one cubit below the roof. Agarza has the right answer. Commented Aug 22, 2021 at 6:11
  • @NihilSineDeo I think you're right. God would have provided, otherwise the conditions in the ark would have been too severe. But, I also doubt this qualified as a luxury cruise either.
    – Xeno
    Commented Aug 22, 2021 at 13:24

3 Answers 3

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Is it the case that Noah, his family, and all the animals had but one small window to breathe through (Gen. 6:16)?

In the article "Ark" under the heading "Design and Size", the Insight on the Scriptures gives another alternative:

“You will make a tsoʹhar [roof; or, window] for the ark,” Noah was told. (Ge 6:16) Just what this was or how it was constructed is not altogether clear. Some scholars think tsoʹhar is related to light and so they translate it “window” (KJ, Mo), “light” (AS, JP), “a place for light” (Ro). Others, however, associate tsoʹhar with a later Arabic root meaning “back (of the hand),” “back (of a beast),” “deck (of a ship),” that is, the part away from the ground or water, and for this reason translate it “roof.” (AT, RS, JB) This tsoʹhar, Noah was told, was to be completed “to the extent of a cubit upward.”​—Ge 6:16.

It could be, therefore, that the tsoʹhar provided for adequate light and ventilation, not just a single cubit-square “peephole,” but an opening a cubit in height near the roof and extending around the four sides to give an opening of nearly 140 sq m (1,500 sq ft). On the other hand, while still allowing an ample opening for ventilation under the roof or elsewhere, the roof could have had slightly angled sides. Regarding this possibility James F. Armstrong wrote in Vetus Testamentum (Leiden, 1960, p. 333): “‘Unto a cubit upward you shall finish it’ is difficult to understand when sohar is translated either ‘light (= window)’ or even ‘(flat) roof’. If, however, a gable-type roof be postulated, the ‘one cubit upward’ can refer to the elevation of the crease of the roof above the level of the tops of the walls. In modern architectural terms, the ‘one cubit’ would be the height of the kingposts between which the ridgepiece is laid. . . . According to the argument that has been presented, the roof of Noah’s ark was conceived as having a four per-cent pitch (1 cubit elevation — 25 cubits from wall to ridge), quite adequate to permit the water of the rains to flow off.” [bold mine]

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Gen 6.14-16 (LEB)

Make for yourself an ark of cypress wood; you must make the ark with rooms, then you must cover it with pitch, inside and outside. And this is how you must make it: the length of the ark, three hundred cubits; its width fifty cubits; its height, thirty cubits. You must make a roof for the ark, and finish it to a cubit above. And as for the door of the ark, you must put it in its side. You must make it with a lower, second, and a third deck.

This passage is describing the ark having a single roof (or possibly a single skylight), not a single window. The underlying word, tsohar, is a hapax legomenon and can mean roof or skylight/hatch.

HALOT:

צֹהַר. hapax legomenon Gn 6:16; meaning uncertain, two possibilities: —a. from Akk. ṣēru (AHw. 1093b; CAD Ṣ: 138) back, top, hinterland, open country, steppe; Canaanite ṣuʾru, ṣūru back (AHw. 1115a; CAD Ṣ: 261b, gloss zuḫru, El Amarna letter 232:11; VAB 2:1544 zuḫru); Ug. ẓr (Gordon Textbook §19:1047; Aistleitner 2378; Driver Myths2 147b) back, top; Soq. ṭhar over; OSArb. ẓhr (Conti Chrest. 160a) and Arb. ẓahr back; JArm. *טהרא roof tt, MHeb. (Mish. Yoma 5:6; Tosefta Yoma 4:2):

roof, with many modern (scholars), including THAT 1:647; perhaps particularly a gabled roof (:: גָּג flat roof, see Armstrong VT 10 (1960) 328-333; TOB; NRSV; REB: make a roof for the ark;

. —b. from root צהר: skylight, hatch cf. Akk. nappašu small window, loophole (Gilgamesh xi:135; AHw. 740; CAD N: 311), so e.g. A. Dillmann Die Genesis6 (1892) 141; König Wb. 383a, cf. Vulg. fenestra, Tg. nēhōr opening for light; Sept., Pesh. otherwise. †

Koehler, L., Baumgartner, W., Richardson, M. E. J., & Stamm, J. J. (1994–2000). The Hebrew and Aramaic lexicon of the Old Testament (electronic ed., p. 1008). Leiden: E.J. Brill.

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The description of the ark of Noah in Genesis is best read metaphorically instead of as a design specification.

For example, the dimensions of the ark of Noah are described in Genesis 6:15 as 300 cubits by 50 cubits by 30 cubits, or 450,000 cubits^3. What is the significance of those particular numbers? Do they stand alone to intending to accurately describe a craft?

Well, there are two other verses in the Hebrew bible that call out similar dimensions. Solomon's Temple is described (1 Kings 6:2) as 60 cubits by 20 cubits by 30 cubits, or 36,000 cubits^3, and the ark of the Covenant (Exodus 25:10) as 2.5 cubits by 1.5 cubits by 1.5 cubits, or 5.625 cubits^3. It happens that 450,000 divided by 5.625 is exactly 80,000. That is, 80,000 arks of the Covenant have the same volume as the ark of Noah. And 5.625 also divides evenly into the Temple's volume as 6400 Covenant arks. Is it coincidence that they both divide evenly in this way? I think not, more likely there was an original numerological relationship between them which is no longer well understood.

We're also told that the ark of the Covenant was housed in that Temple, and that the Temple required "fourscore thousand men" (80,000) to quarry the stone for it, and the Semitic root for what the ark of Noah was described to be made of, גפר, is shared with the word for brimstone, also a quarried stone. So it seems there are some underlying concepts shared among these three objects that are not obvious from their individual stories, which only convey the parts.

The point is, many of the narratives of the Bible are allegorical in nature and are intended to convey meaning instead of pure facts. So one should be careful to not mine them too deeply for scientific consistencies.

With that in mind I want to challenge the notion that the occupants of the ark had to breath at all!

The word in Genesis 6:16 translated as "window", צֹ֣הַר, is a little tricky. In some texts (e.g. Mechon Mamre) it is translated as "light" because the root word צהר is a verb meaning "shine". But צֹ֣הַר is the Masoretic form of צוהר which is often translated as "hatch/skylight". That is, an opening in a roof that can be closed to secure the inside from the outside elements.

Curiously though, the only other reference to an ark "window" is in 8:6, חלון, which is a completely different word. Is there significance to the distinction?

I suggest that the first form was used to convey the idea that it was a roof opening which was in a closed state at the beginning of the deluge. It then remained closed until it was referred to later in 8:6 as its second form, which was to convey that it was an opening no longer acting as a hatch/skylight, i.e. it was no longer closed. That timeline of events implies that the hatch/skylight was shut for about 270 days.

We also have to consider 7:16, "And they that went in, went in male and female of all flesh, as God commanded him; and the LORD shut him in." It does not say that Noah shut the door behind himself, or that Yahweh shut the door behind him. It says Yahweh shut him in. The word used for that act, סגר, means to enclose and to do it in an especially effective way (strongly). It also has translations meaning "isolate" and "quarantine". It is the word used in 2:21 to describe how Yahweh sealed up Adam's flesh after removing a rib. By necessity that would have been a perfect seal.

So are we to believe that Noah's family and the entire animal kingdom lived their lives being bottled up in a vessel for so long with no breathable air? Of course not -- indeed there is no evidence in the ark narrative that any of the occupants lived life in any ordinary sense between Yahweh shutting them in and Noah opening the window. There is no mention of any activity at all by the occupants during that period.

Yet we do know that it was the function of the ark to "keep them alive" (6:19-20). How can one be kept alive but not living? Just think of someone who is comatose for a long period of time. They do not live life in an ordinary sense but they are kept alive for the potential that they may someday be revived.

But the ark was just a boat made of gopher wood, right? How could it accomplish that feat of life support even metaphorically?

In fact and according to the Aleppo codex, the ark is described as a תבה, which translates unambiguously as box/chest. Not boat, barge, or any other kind of watercraft. And it is composed of עצי גפר which is often incorrectly translated as "gopher wood". A more correct translation is perhaps "wood-like גפר" where גפר was an unfamiliar Semitic word to Hebrew scribes (see the answer I made to this question for a detailed explanation of this).

But, if we allow for the Klein Dictionary interpretation of גפר:

גֹּֽפֶר m.n. ‘gopher’ (a kind of wood of which Noah’s ark was made). [Of unknown origin. Perhaps related to Akka. giparu.]

and we accept it to be rooted in the Akkadian word giparu, then we start to unveil meaning. Wikipedia describes giparu as

Typically translated as 'cloister', the actual meaning of gipar includes multiple linked concepts. The giparu was originally a woven reed mat used as wedding bed. Its symbolic meaning expanded to include the idea of the generative power of fertility to create and sustain life. In this sense the giparu expressed multiple ideas of abundance, the storehouse containing abundance, as well as a point of union with the generative power itself.

Therefore עצי גפר could be interpreted as "wood-like giparu", or "substance of giparu in wood-like form", where the idea of giparu includes the power to both create and sustain life and to contain abundance. In other words, it is an abstraction in a mythological sense (it is myth after all), not concrete in a scientific one.

Therefore, a box made of the stuff of giparu would be inherently capable of sustaining life for any living occupants. Breathing would not be necessary once Yahweh sealed them inside the ark, and it could be resumed when Noah opened the window to the new world.

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