Saving the world’s biodiversity from the flood’s raging waters involved a series of mind staggering miracles.
A Wooden Giant
First of all, you might ask, where did Noach acquire the skills to build an Ark the size of a small aircraft carrier? The Torah writes that the boat’s proportions were 300 by 50 by 30 amos. Even according to Rav Chaim Naeh’s smaller amah of 18.9 inches, the Teivah was about 472 by 78 by 47 feet, making it the largest wooden boat ever constructed. In addition to its vast size, it had to be solid enough to ride out the waves of a worldwide ocean for an entire year.
The fi rst known boats of comparable size were gigantic barges Queen Hatsheput of Egypt built about 600 years later (c. 2260/1500 BCE) to move obelisks (tapering stone monuments) from Aswan to Thebes. Yet the size of the surviving obelisks suggests that the barges transporting them were only 200 to 300 feet long, half the size of the Teivah. A further 1,300 years passed before anyone built boats approaching the Ark’s size.
One of these was the Talemegos, a 377 foot river boat constructed by Ptolemy IV of Egypt in about 3560/200 BCE. Another was the 420 foot Tessarakonteres, a Greek Tireme (three decked craft) powered by 4,000 oarsmen. However, the reports of these boats’ sizes may be exaggerated. The first historically validated wooden ships approaching the Teivah’s size were constructed in the mid-nineteenth century, many of them shabbily constructed “disposable” craft built solely to avoid paying high timber taxes demanded by the English customs. After being sailed from England to North America, they were broken up and sold as planks.
The record breaking wooden vessel besides the Ark was the 450 foot Wyoming, which took its fi rst dip in December 5659/1909, whose builders “cheated” by adding ninety transverse iron cross-bracings on each side to prevent distortion. Even with this precaution, the oversized ship twisted and buckled so extensively in heavy seas that water pouring between its gaping planks needed constant pumping.
All this leaves us wondering how Noach succeeded in building a ship so ahead of the curve. For a start, the proportions Hashem gave him were ideal for the job at hand. A 5752/1992 study of the Ark using data generated by naval architects and structural engineers at the world-class ship design and research center KRISO (formerly KORDI) in Korea arrived at the following conclusions:
“In this study, the safety of Noah’s Ark in the severe environments imposed by waves and winds during the Genesis Flood was investigated. Three major safety parameters — structural safety, overturning stability, and sea keeping quality — were evaluated altogether to assess the safety of the whole system.
“The concept of ‘relative safety’, which is defined as the relative superiority in safety compared to other hull forms, was introduced and 12 different hull forms with the same displacement were generated for this purpose. Evaluation of these three safety parameters was performed using analytical tools. Model tests using 1/50 scaled models of a prototype were performed for three typical hull forms in order to validate the theoretical analysis.
“Total safety index, defined as the weighted average of three relative safety performances, showed that the Ark had a superior level of safety in high winds and waves compared with the other hull forms studied. The voyage limit of the Ark, estimated on the basis of modern passenger ships, criteria, revealed that it could have navigated through waves higher than 30 metres.” Nonetheless, where did Noach learn other skills besides the Ark’s proportions that are necessary to build a giant seafaring craft? According to a source cited by Eisenstein (Beis Medrash chelek gimel 155), he learned these wisdoms from an ancient sefer Raziel Hamalach given to Adam after he repented of his sin:
“Then Refael the holy angel was sent to him [Noach] and said to him, ‘I was sent to you by the word of Hashem to heal the earth and to inform you what you should do in order to escape.’ Then he gave him this holy sefer and explained to him how to use it… Noach took the sefer from the holy angel and after he understood the letters engraved in it, the spirit of Hashem rested upon him and he made the Ark according to its length and breadth with the knowledge he gained through this holy Name…
“And from the wisdom of this sefer, Noach learned to make the ark of Gopher wood and… to bring with him two and seven, and to bring in of every food…. After he died he gave it to Shem, and Shem to Avrohom and it went down until the sages after the prophets, etc.”
Incidentally, the Ibn Ezra (6:14) raises the question why the Teivah was not called a boat, sefi nah, and explains, “Because it did not have the shape of a boat and had no oars.” Because of this, the Torah simply calls it a box. In similar vein, the English word ark derives from the Old English word earc, which in turn derives from the Latin word arca, a large box, or chest. This is why English refers to both the Teivah and an aron hakodesh by the same word, ark.
The Ultimate Squeeze
Despite the Ark’s gigantic dimensions, the Rishonim say that it was still not large enough to hold all the animals on the globe.
“We know that there are very many animals such as elephants, the re’emim, and suchlike, and the vermin that crawl on the earth are very many,” the Ramban writes. “There are also countless many species of birds as the rabbis say, ‘There are 120 kinds of impure birds in the east and all are of one species,’ and the kosher birds are countless. Now, he had to bring of them all that they should reproduce, and if you add to them all the food eaten for a whole year, this Ark and ten like it could not hold it.” In fact, the number of animal species worldwide reaches about 1.4 billion to 1.8 billion including 293 species of pseudo-scorpions, four to twelve thousand earthworm species, and up to a billion insect species! Bird species are estimated at about 8,950, including the record sized elephant bird of Madagascar eradicated during the seventeenth century, which weighed over half a ton and laid eggs over a meter in circumference. Imagine finding room for fourteen of them (if they were kosher)!
Regarding food supplies, giant animals like elephants consume up to three hundred pounds of hay a day. Where did Noach pack away everything? The Ibn Ezra suggests that the Ark may have been much larger: “Perhaps, because Noach’s height was greater than ours, the amah too was according to his size.” The Ramban rejects this approach, arguing that if Noach was larger than modern man, so were the animals of the flood. Therefore he explains that the Ark held the animals only through the miracle of “a little containing a lot.” Since this miracle is generally found in situations of extreme sanctity such as in the Holy of Holies where the Ark took up no space, and when Moshe addressed the whole of Klal Yisroel, perhaps this is another reason the inhabitants of the Ark were commanded to conduct themselves with purity all the time they were inside.
However, asks the Ramban, if the animals fitted inside through a miracle, why did it need to be so vast? Rabeinu Bechaye asks even more. Why build an ark at all? Why didn’t Hashem save Noach, his family, and the animals, by simply suspending them in mid air?
The Ramban gives two answers. Noach was commanded to build the Ark either so that its construction should warn the people of the coming flood, or, “in order to reduce the miracle, because so is the trend in all the miracles of the Torah or Nevi’im to do with them whatever man can do, and the rest is by the hand of heaven.”
Rabeinu Bechayei explains this concept further:
“So you will fi nd with all the Torah’s miracles, if you examine them, that even when they are open miracles they include a little of nature. Thus, we find that the Torah commands warriors to go out equipped for war (chalutzei tzava), and also the verse says (Yehoshua 8), ‘Make an ambush for the town behind it.’ Since all Yisroel’s wars were through great miracles, why did they need an ambush like the nations whose wars are conducted naturally? Certainly because it was fitting for them to act in the way of nature and Hashem completed what was lacking. This is why the Torah commands how to fight battles and many similar things.”
Animals Great and Small
The Ibn Ezra raises an important question, “What did predatory birds and carnivorous animals like the lion eat?” “This is not a question,” he answers, “because one who cannot find meat, will eat grass and fruit when he hungers.”
The Radak explains: “The truth is that they did not eat meat just as they did not eat [meat] at the beginning of creation.” Even if the Radak regards the reversion of carnivores to herbivores as natural, Rashi points out that Hashem still needed to make a special bris with Noach that the huge stores of food should not rot.
The Ramban (6:20) mentions yet another miracle – that the animals came to the Ark by themselves: “’Two by two they will come to you to be kept alive.’ This informs us that they came to him two by two by themselves, and he did not have to hunt them in the mountains and islands, and then he brought them into the Ark afterwards.”
Gathering the species by hand would have indeed been a giant task since even now about ten thousand new insect species are discovered every year. In addition, each parasite species, whether tapeworm or liver fluke, needed to be transported aboard by an unwitting animal host, and who, besides Hashem, would know which animals were infested and which were not?
Amidst death and destruction, the Ark was a miraculous capsule of unbounded chesed; as the Ramban explains, all Noach’s efforts were merely a physical grounding for the nes. Later, the dove’s olive branch taught Noach never to forget this lesson. Better to receive sustenance directly from Hashem’s hand even if bitter as the olive, and never forget the true source of everything we enjoy.