Adrian A. Durlester

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Random Musings Before Shabbat Noach 5764
Finding My Rainbow

Tomorrow, the students in our religious school are going to measure out the approximate size and shape of Noah's ark. It's an interesting exercise.

In researching for this idea, both several years ago when I first tried it, and in preparation for this year's activities, I discovered that most of the materials related to this topic is found in materials promulgated by literalists, fundamentalists and creationists, both Jewish and Christian.

Is it, I asked myself, disingenuous of me, a free-thinking, liberal Jew, working in a liberal Jewish environment, appropriate to utilize the supporting materials of those with a fundamentalist, literalist or creationist agenda, either Jewish or Christian? Is there a danger in using their information when teaching about the story of Noah to our children?

I need to find my rainbow, my signal that I have found the answer to this quest.

It's really quite interesting. The literalists, fundamentalists and creationists seem to have answers for all the hard questions. How big was the ark? Well, assuming a minimal cubit size of approximately 18 inches (though scholars argue it could have been bigger or even smaller, though likely not much smaller) the ark was 450 long by 75 feet wide and 45 feet tall. That is, according to one source, large enough to fit two Boeing 747s inside, if you remove the wings and turn them parallel to the fuselages. It's bigger than a football field. If it had three decks, then it had a total deck area equivalent to about 36 tennis courts.

How did all the animals fit on the ark? The creationists love to answer this one with some hard numbers. They say a typical railroad box car hold 240 sheep. The ark had room for 500+ box cars. So the ark theoretically had room for more than 120,000 sheep-sized animals, possibly even more. They remind us that many animals (like insects) are very small, and only a very few are really large (elephants.)

Their math and their "science" gets even more interesting. Figuring that fish and other ocean-water-dwelling animals did not need to be accommodated on board, that reduces the room needed. Then they go on to explain that "shnayim mikol" need not be two of everything, but rather just "major kinds" (i.e. just one kind of dog, one kind of cat, one kind of butterfly, etc.) so they further reduce the number of animals down to somewhere between 30-40,000 with their pseudo-science. Plenty of room, they say, on an ark that could accommodate 120,000 sheep!

Creationists, literalist and fundamentalists don't stop there. They know some kid will ask, "well, what about dinosaurs?". I'll give them credit. They don't just chicken out and say "the bible says nothing about dinosaurs so there weren't any." They realize the fossil evidence is overwhelming. So they offer explanations like "maybe Noah brought on baby dinosaurs, or even just dinosaur eggs." Some even go so far as to cite the evidence of many smaller species of dinosaurs, and say that Noah must have brought these on board. It's not entirely impossible that, during the relatively brief time on the ark, that young dinosaurs of even the largest species like T-rex and others did not grow large enough to be problematic. We assume, from a modern perspective, that Noah brought only mature breeding pairs of animals on board. We can't be certain of that, can we?

With all that room on the ark, the apparently conflicting instruction in 7:1 to bring on seven "ish v'ishto" of each clean species, and only one male-female pair of unclean species aren't problematic (although the "ish v'ishto", literally husband and wife, does support the idea that these were indeed breeding animals, thus complicating the dinosaur issue.)

The creationists, literalists and fundamentalists argue that the size and shape of the ark was exactly right for a vessel simply intended to float on a lot of water and carry a large load. They cite similar vessels built by modern engineers, like the liner Great Britain, built in 1843, the first large vessel to be screw-propelled. They criticize the vessel design found in the Babylonian tales, which they say was cube-shaped (although I know scholars of ANE literature who would debate this.) Typical of people with supercessionist agendas.

How to present all this to students without promulgating a creationist agenda is a dilemma. I want students to ask question like "but what about the dinosaurs?" Yet I also want to present a balanced picture. When a students asks "how could ancient people build something so huge?", I do want to challenge that assumption, and remind them not to assume that our ancestors were as primitive as they might think. They did build the pyramids (unless you subscribe to van Daniken's extra-terrestrial theories.) They built the hanging gardens of Babylon. They built Solomon's Temple. And my most important agenda in this regard is to always try and teach students that, while our ancestors may have been less technologically advanced, and perhaps knew fewer "facts" about the universe than modern science now teaches us, that they were certainly not primitive in their thoughts, their philosophies, their ideas. The very reason we still read Torah all these generations later is precisely because it contains the wisdom of our ancestors. The Torah has some very high-level ideas and philosophies in it.

And in this, perhaps, I discover my answer, my antidote, to the problem of using these facts and figures from the fundamentalists, literalists and creationists.

Whether you view the Noah story as literal historical truth, as metaphor, as heilsgeschichte ("salvation-history",) as myth-making, as a created "ur-history," the fact remains that it has within it lessons to be learned, ideas to be discussed an examines, philosophies to be debated.

I want to hear a child's innocent pain when they ask "why did Gd have to kill all the animals for the bad that people did?" The older child's query "what made Noah righteous in Gd's eyes?" Or even the more adult question I posed last week-"did perhaps Gd err by allowing Noah to live, thus perpetuating the flawed creation?"

Yet I also want to be willing to answer a child's challenge with "that doesn't necessarily mean that what the Torah says is true or not." Maybe the flood really happened. Maybe Gd really told Abraham to pack up and move to a place to be identified later. Maybe Gd really spoke to Moshe from the burning bush. Maybe Gd really parted the waters of the sea and Israel crossed to safety. Or maybe none of it really happened as described.

Yes, I can teach students to visualize and reality of the ark, and consider the possibility that the biblical story is true, or at least contains some truths in it. And at the same time I can teach them to question, to challenge, to ask, to be those who Yisrael, who struggle with Gd.

The challenge is in the encounter with the text. If we simply label the Torah irrelevant, historically and scientifically inaccurate, or pure fiction, and dismiss it, we lose the opportunity to learn from it what we can. And we doom ourselves to having to reinvent the wheel over and over again each day. If I impart anything to the students in my care, it is the idea that the Torah is worth encountering, no matter the end result of the encounter.

I have found my rainbow. Go find yours.

Shabbat Shalom,


© 2003 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Noakh 5766-What A Nimrod! (Revised)
Noakh 5765-A Pshat In The Dark
Noach 5763-Striving to be Human
Noach 5762-To Make a Name for Ourselves
Noach 5761-Getting Noticed
Noach 5760-What a Nimrod!

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