The story of Noah's Ark is one of the most well known, yet most widely contested stories in the Old Testament. It is similar in content to many flood myths throughout history including the epics of Gilgamesh, Deucalion, Utnapishtim, Queen Cesair, Xisuthrus, Yima, Manu, Tapi, Squamish, and others from nearly every continent.

The Story

The following is a paraphrase of the text that can be found in Genesis 7, 8, and 9

During the first couple thousand years of the earth, it was not uncommon for men to live to be several hundred years old, and take on dozens of wives. After 10 generations from Adam and Eve, God saw that the earth was beginning to populate nicely, so he placed a limit on the number of years a man could live: 1201. However, this was not good enough - Jehovah saw that man was a wicked, corrupt, evil, and violent creature, constantly thinking impure thoughts. God said to Himself, "I'm going to destroy the earth and all of the people, animals, and birds on it. It makes me sick that all of this is my creation."

However, Yahweh found favor with a man named Noah. Noah was righteous and perfect in his generation, and was true to God. One day, God presented himself to Noah and said, "The end of the world is coming! Make an ark of gopher wood. It should be 300 cubits long, 50 cubits wide, and 30 cubits tall2, and be three stories. When you are done, I will bring a flood upon the earth and destroy all life. But I will make a covenant with you and save you, your wife, your sons, and their wives from a watery death. On this ark you must bring two of every type of animal, one male and one female, and keep them alive. You will need to store up provisions of food for yourself and all of these animals."

...3

After Noah completed all of the tasks given to him by YHWH, it then took him one week to herd all of the animals onto the ark two by two, after which he and his family boarded. After the seventh day (the seventeenth day of the second month), God opened the floodgates, and it began to rain. The downpour continued and the flood waters rose and lifted the ark from the dry ground. It rained and poured for forty days and forty nights, after which the deluge stopped. All the land, even the highest mountain, was covered with water. Everything that was not in the ark died.

For 150 days the ark floated on the flood waters. God did not forget Noah, so he caused a great wind to pass over the earth which caused the water to start to recede. On the seventeenth day of the seventh month, the ark came to rest on top of Mount Arafat in the land of Ararat. Unfortunately with waters covering the earth, it was still unsafe to leave the ark. On the first day of the tenth month, the first dry land was seen in the form of mountain tops.

At this time, Noah sent out a dove to see if it was safe to exit the ark. The dove could find no place to land so it returned to Noah. In another week the same test was tried, and the dove returned with an olive branch, so Noah knew it was nearly safe. He waited one more week, and released the dove again, and it did not return so he deemed it safe.

So, on the first day of the first month, Noah removed the covering of the ark and saw the earth again. It seemed the ground was still too muddy for him because he waited another several weeks for it to dry some more after which God again spoke to Noah bidding him to exit the ark and allow the animals to go free. He commanded him to be fruitful and multiply upon the earth. He did as he was told, and then built an alter and made a burnt offering to God. The Lord was pleased, and promised never again to flood the earth or kill everything in it. He continued to say, "All beasts, birds, and fish are given to you as food, as well as all the green herbs - but you are not to eat flesh that is still alive or drink blood. Neither are you to take the life or any man, or you shall be put to death. To remind myself, you, and all future generations that I shall never flood the earth again I will place a bow in the clouds. This is my token of the covenant I have made with you.

Epilogue

All in all, the group spent over one year on the ark. Apparently Noah and his family did re-populate the earth (you're here aren't you?). Unfortunately, Noah missed numerous animals such as the unicorn, sphinx, and dragon which caused them to immediately become extinct. Soon after, Noah planted a vineyard so that he could make some wine. It is said that he got drunk and threw off his clothes and passed out. His son, Ham saw this and did nothing for his father, but his other sons, Japheth and Shem, covered their father. When Noah woke up, he praise two of his sons, but cursed the son of Ham (Canaan), and this is the reason why the Israelites never got along with the Canaanites. Noah lived another 350 years and died at the ripe old age of 950.

The Arguments

Obviously when you consider doing something like this in a literal, physical world, the story is full of holes. While I definitely think that the ancient Israelites believed 100% in the validity of story of Noah's Ark, I don't think it can be taken at face value. Perhaps something like this happened. Perhaps it's just an etiology for the rainbow. Regardless, several questions arise (none of which are answered here):

  • How could you fit two of every animal on a ship only slightly larger than a football field?
  • What about carnivores? Were there extra live animals brought on board for them to eat?
  • What about other specific animals such as the Koala that eat only fresh Eucalyptus leaves?
  • If you couldn't fit all the animals on board, how can you fit the animals and their food?
  • Where did all that extra flood water come from? Where did it go?
  • How did 8 (or so) people take care of all those animals?
  • What about all the inbreeding after the flood?
  • Where is the fossil evidence?
  • What about freshwater and saltwater fish in a mixed environment?
  • What about trees and plants?
  • What about animals that died on the ark? Did they forever become extinct?
  • What about the tons of animal poop?
  • If the ark took 100 years (or even 10) to prepare and build, wouldn't it be rotten by the time it started to rain?
  • The longest wooden boat ever created in modern times was only 300ft long, and had serious problems with sagging and bowing under its own weight. It was built by professional shipbuilders and modern tools and equipment. What gives?
  • Did Noah travel to Australia, the arctic and antarctic, the Americas, etc to get all the animals there? Did he also take them back after the flood?
  • If the first rainbow occurred after the flood, how did optics work before that?
  • Why did he require a dove to check that the water went away? Couldn't he just look?
  • Where did the animals for the burnt offering come from if there were only two of each still alive?4
  • Did all the other animals (minus two for each species) deserve to die as well as the humans?
  • Add your question here.

1 Some people believe the 120 years specified in the Scriptures actually represents the number of years until God brought the flood. Either of these could be considered accurate because

  • this is the approximate time that is seen to have passed based on the numbers found in Genesis 5:32 and Genesis 7:6
  • after Noah, you can see in Genesis 11:10-32 that the average lifespan slowly decreases from several hundred years to one hundred or less

2 1 cubit is approximated to be 18in (45.7cm), so the dimensions of the ark in modern terms are 450ft x 75ft x 45ft (137m x 23m x 14m)

3 The Bible provides no details how long it took Noah to build the ark and gather the animals, but prior to the story, Noah is said to be 500 years old. It later states that Noah completed all that God had asked, at which time he is said to be 600 years old.

4 Chiisuta tells me that some versions state that the "clean" animals (i.e., those fit for sacrific) go on seven by seven. This would allow Noah to provide God a burnt offering without causing any species to go extinct.

Director: John Irvin
Writer: Peter Barnes

Features:
Jon Voight...Noah
Mary Steenburgen...Naamah
Carol Kane...Sarah
James Coburn...Peddler
Mark Bazeley...Shem
Jonathan Cake...Japhet
Alexis Denisof...Ham
Emily Mortimer...Esther

I review here the original four-hour 1999 television extravaganza, in all its terrible glory. The version now available at your local video store and in the discount bin at Wal-Mart has been cut down to a two-hour film which, allowing for commercials, means that at least a half-hour is gone. I will not sit through the edited version to see what they've cut. I'm sure it amounts to an improvement.

It also could not possibly save this film.

Here's what appears to have happened.

In a Hollywood where high concept matters far more than intelligent scripting, someone came up with the idea of making the story of Noah into a four-hour film, complete with lavish effects and extravagant hype. Why not? People lined up to see the Titanic sink. Here, they'll get to see the whole world go under! And it's a Bible story, so we can call it serious culture, and sell lots of videos to the Sunday school market.

Of course, none of these overpaid idiots bothered to read Genesis in advance. If they had, surely they would have realized that the four short chapters which tell the tale of the Deluge could not fill four hours, unless they wanted to show endless footage of Noah building a boat.

That wouldn't be very exciting: four hours of some old guy building a boat.

Instead, they threw everything they could think of into the plot and just hoped for the best. Some scenes recall Xena or Gladiator, but with less style. Others are straight out of Monty Python (at one point, a dying man even says, "it's... it's... it's...."), but again, with less intelligence. One of Noah's future daughter-in-laws gets rescued from being the guest of honour at a human sacrifice, in a scene complete with fake beards, an absent-minded high priest, and an idiotic escape plot. The set here resembles a large Taco Bell, which perhaps explains why Yahweh sends a convenient lightning bolt as soon as Noah orders one, as in, "Would you like nachos with that Wrath of God?"

The film also throws in the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Noah, it seems, lived in Sodom before the Flood. Now, this rewrites Biblical chronology, but hey-- it provides an opportunity to showcase some effects, and to demonstrate that God is a vengeful God. Noah and his wife, along with Lot and his, are the only ones judged righteous enough to escape. This is odd, because Lot's wife is presented as a screeching shrew, and Lot's ethics permit him to stop and break a ring off her finger after she has been turned into salt. Lot later turns up during the Flood as the leader of some pirates, who cruise the flooded earth in a boat straight out of Waterworld.

Elsewhere, we get an ecological lesson when Noah's wife tries to throw some insects overboard. We experience an asinine subplot about Noah's sons trying to get laid. We see Noah and his family kicking the crap out of a lot of invading pirates(before God zaps the villains with a tornado). We get the family going stir-crazy and Noah questioning his faith. Pretty much all of this, between scenes of destruction, moves with the elegant pace of a drugged snail.

The film also dodges any good explanation of how a small group could build and maintain a floating ship with two (or seven) of every living thing. Possibly, they looked at those proffered by Biblical literalists and found them too ridiculous, even for this movie. God does, however, helpfully label the timber so it could be put together like a big IKEA furniture kit. Perhaps he also provided the wire mesh later shown on the animals' cages.

We could at least hope for some good effects-- but they don't save the film, either. The Wrath of God at Sodom takes the form of some very cheesy comets. Afterwards, Noah and his family camp out on a glaringly obvious soundstage. Even the animal effects are only half-good. While real animals and CGI-generated creatures do appear, the filmmakers also matte in cut-out photographs-- unmoving, still, cut-out photographs-- into other scenes to create the appearance of large animals. They also resort to frequent use of mis-matched stock footage, perhaps covering the many times the actors could no longer keep straight faces. Only the Flood itself is somewhat impressive, but past Hollywood treatments of the subject have been equally good, so this is nothing new.

Bad acting abounds. The award for the consistently worst performance goes to Mary Steenburgen as Noah's wife. She has great hair, though. Actually, the hair is the highlight of the movie. They obviously sprung for good stylists. The women all have great hair. Even many of the men have good hair. Jon Voigt's Noah, with flowing locks and robes, looks like a member of the Jedi Council. Noah's sons fail in this obviously important area; unlike everyone else, they have army regulation cuts (and different accents from the rest of the cast). Anyway, I can safely recommend this movie to anyone who wants to see hair.

What you won't see are many signs of why God is so ticked off. Putting the human sacrifice aside, the earth's doomed inhabitants seem more annoyingly stupid than evil, a sort of antediluvian Springer audience. Sure, you or I would wipe them off the face of the earth, but that's why it's a good thing we're not gods. Since we never really see much terribly evil behavior, the film's God ends up looking like a real mean-spirited jerk. Perhaps that's what leads the film's Noah to later have doubts about God's existence.

The bizarre toying with the tale baffle me more than anything else in this film. Traditional religious types would constitute the obvious market for a film about Noah's Ark. The film-makers clearly recognized this, since the advertisements featured Ten Commandments-style music and a piously ponderous voice-over. However, the creative license they took with the Bible did not please the Church-going crowd (indeed, some church groups protested in the wake of the original broadcast; a few even demanded charges of blasphemy be brought against the producers). The shoddy quality of everything else, meanwhile, is not good enough to please anyone else. My wife suggested the film's makers were forced to go to some fire-and-brimstone Sunday School, and Noah's Ark is their revenge. Perhaps, but if you want a satiric-revisionist Noah, read Timothy Findley's Not Wanted on the Voyage, which brilliantly (if, to some religious types, blasphemously) and purposefully rewrites the Flood story. Julian Barnes did likewise, in one of The History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters ten and one-half chapters.*

Noah's Ark's message, in the end, seems to be that God will smite anyone who dares mock God. This is an obvious untruth-- or the makers of this film would be salt pillars.

*Barnes' version reads well, but remains one of the most blatant literary thefts in history. Findley considered suing, but felt legal action would do more harm than good.

A variation of this review, by this reviewer, first appeared at Bad Movie Night.

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