A Great Volume of Lumber

The Building of Noah's ArkJohn D. Morris, President of the Institute for Creation Research, has a new book – called The Global Flood. I’m not entirely sure to what extent this book is supposed to be a successor to Whitcomb and (Henry) Morris’ 1961 tome with a similar name (The Genesis Flood), but I don’t get the impression that this was the intent. That’s not important, however. More relevant is that John Morris’ usual Acts & Facts column has been replaced this month by an excerpt “adapted” from the book, entitled An ‘Impossible’ Task?

Forced to pick the most implausible part of the Flood story, it is easiest to talk about the ark itself. The ark is supposed to have been a very large, wooden ship that was supposed to hold a very large amount of animals for about a year in what had to have been, factoring in your favourite hypothesis for how the flood itself worked, some extremely rough seas. For their part young Earth creationists have done their best to try to justify aspects of the account – whole books have been written about the topic. The excerpt here is one example, and if it’s in any way representative of other attempts then the YECs are in a bad way indeed:

By any estimation, the building of Noah’s Ark was a monumental task. Assuming an 18″ cubit, the Ark was 450 feet long, 75 feet wide, and 45 feet high. Could Noah and his sons have accomplished it? By making reasonable assumptions, we can perhaps determine whether the task was too great.

Morris’ “reasonable assumptions” are, of course, of the “just make up a number and call it a conservative estimate” school of educated guesswork. For example:

First, the prophecy of coming judgment was given 120 years in advance of the Flood (Genesis 6:3). Let’s assume that Noah had the full 120 years warning.

In the KJV, the cited verse reads:

And the LORD said, My spirit shall not always strive with man, for that he also is flesh: yet his days shall be an hundred and twenty years.

In their New Defender’s Study Bible (NDSB, linked above) the ICR interprets this like so:

6:3 hundred and twenty years. This prophecy was apparently given, perhaps through Methuselah, just 120 years before the coming Flood. The prophet Enoch had already been translated. Shem, Ham and Japheth had not yet been born and God’s specific commands to Noah (Genesis 5:32; 6:10,13,21) not yet given.

Needless to say, this is not the standard interpretation of the verse. It instead seems to mean that God is finally going to get around to shortening man’s lifespan to a more reasonable length. I have found in the past that the ICR’s interpretations have been a little off-base – this one nearly takes the cake.

Having given himself a good 120 years to play with, he goes on:

Next, consider that in the immediate post-Flood time, man probably had remarkable intelligence, because early civilizations built monumental structures like the pyramids. Tantalizing clues suggest humans explored and even mapped the entire globe back then, indicating they may have had shipbuilding skills from even earlier years. Perhaps Noah was a shipbuilder by trade.

Each and every claim in the above is, at the very least, suspect. Morris implies that people who lived thousands of years ago must have been much smarter than we are now. This has undertones of the same logic that drives people to conclude that the pyramids were built by aliens, for example (that is to say, anyone but the primitive savages they considered the people living nearby in modern times to be).

About the only true “worst-case scenario” in Morris’ article is where he decides to use only four people to build the ark:

Consider the workforce. Noah’s three sons began to be born 100 years before the Flood (cf. Genesis 5:32 with 7:6) and were able to help. There may have been other helpers, for Noah’s father, Lamech, and grandfather, Methuselah, were alive during almost the entire project. It may also have been that Noah hired construction workers, but again we have no knowledge of these details. All we know is that only eight people—Noah and his wife, their three sons and their wives—constituted the faithful still living when the Flood finally came (Genesis 7:13; 1 Peter 3:20).

Let’s assume the worst-case scenario, that only Noah and his three sons were available to build the ship.

He goes on to say:

In Scripture, we are only told the gross dimensions and that the vessel was to have three decks and an 18-inch “window” on top (Genesis 6:15-16). Thus, the overall volume of the Ark was [1 million, 520 thousand cubic feet, or 43000 cubic meters.]

Remember that Morris is using the 18 inch (45.7 cm) cubit. This is probably the best value to use, but he has in the past used the value of 20 inches where expedient. Because of the way volume scales, plugging the 20 inch cubit into the equation produces a volume of more than 2 million cubic feet (nearly 59000 cubic meters), or more than a third again of the original. Needless to say, the margin of error here is huge – especially since this equation assumes a perfectly rectangular ark.

But any structure consists mostly of open space. Most houses are over 95 percent open, less so for large ships. But recognizing that this ship had to be structurally strong, let’s assume that 20 percent of the Ark’s volume was worked lumber, and that the four men had to gather that lumber, transport it to the construction site, and do the necessary shaping and installing.

The “20 percent” assumption is perhaps the most baseless in the article – where does he pull that from? You should see by now that Morris is going to use the volume of wood, of all quantities, to calculate the time taken to build the ark. This ignores the fact that there is more to building a ship than processing a certain volume of lumber. Some creationist sources, for example, would even have you believe that Noah used metal strengthening in the construction (which would be necessary to keep it afloat, judging from modern experience).

Remember, the Ark didn’t have to win any beauty contests or speed races, it just had to be strong and float. It probably more resembled a rough barn in workmanship. The generations so soon after the “very good” (Genesis 1:31) creation, living in an ideal environment with long lifespans and less chance for harmful genetic mutations, were no doubt intelligent and capable. It hardly matters if the family was initially experienced in construction technique, for within a year or so they would have been true professionals. An experienced crew of four could have installed, we assume, an average of 15 cubic feet of wood per day. If anything, this estimate seems low, but this is the worst case!

It seems that the “worst-case scenario” of four people doesn’t even directly figure into the equation, merely the “15 cubic feet of wood per day” (how that is calculated I don’t know). And here lies the problem with using volume: wood is not like putty, capable of being moulded into place, but instead tends to manifest in long planks (originally from tree trunks). 15 cubic feet isn’t much on the surface (less than half a cubic meter), but if we decide that, say, our planks are 15 cm wide and 3 cm deep – as reasonable an assumption as anything here – we find that Noah and sons would have had to work with nearly a hundred meters (in length) of wood per day. This no-longer seems so reasonable, and shows just how malleable the numbers are here.

By using his 15 cubic feet/day figure, and assuming that the crew only worked 6 days a week, 52 weeks in a year, he calculates a rate of 4,680 cubic ft per year. He could have squeezed another 800 out of them, but that would be blasphemous. At long last:

It’s now easy to calculate how long it would have taken.

This comes out as 65 years. He concludes:

Sixty-five years under this worst-case scenario! A big job, yes, but Noah was a faithful man and accomplished the task. As we see, the Bible makes sense, and simple calculations can enhance our faith in God’s Word.

But of course, that’s not really the “worst case scenario.” As I said, these numbers are very malleable – changing solely the length of the cubit to the aforementioned 20 inches we can jump this up to 89 years if we so desired, meaning that Noah would have started when his son Shem was only 9 years old, and too young to help (thus pushing the date even further back). Assuming that they worked every day of the year we can bring that back down to 76 years, but adding to that, if Morris was slightly wrong about his 20%, and it was really 25%, we find it took 95 years. The true worst-case scenario by tweaking these variables – 20 inch cubit, Sundays off, 25% volume – comes out at 111 years, before any of Noah’s children were supposedly born.

My point is that not only is the volume of lumber not the quantity that should be used here, but that with the apparent licence to make things up that Morris enjoys in this calculation any conclusion that is desired could be drawn. In addition, this is a bit of a bait and switch as the length of time taken to build the ark is hardly the biggest objection to its existence. This is the kind of scholarship that supports the historicity of the ark, but it is as seaworthy as the boat itself.

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