Out of the ark

21st March 2003 at 00:00
The story of Noah has everything - a global disaster, rescued animals, a happy ending. Gerald Haigh shows how to use this biblical tale in the classroom

The Old Testament story of the great boat that Noah built to save humanity and all the animals from a global flood is always fascinating. It has a particular appeal to children who are beguiled by the thought of the animals processing up a ramp into the Ark under the benign eye of Noah as the rainclouds gather overhead. You'll find it in Genesis chapters 6 to 8.

There are Christians who want to take the story literally, which they are free to do. Other teachers will treat it as one of the myths that define our common culture, and will want to introduce it to children as a good story in itself and because of the message that it carries of a covenant between God and His creation.

A story to read to children

As the population of the earth increased, humanity became more and more wicked and violent. So God decided it was time to destroy all the life He had created and start again. He would do this by making it rain for many days, so that floods would rise and the earth would be covered in water.

However, God was pleased with Noah and said he and his family would be allowed to live so they could continue the human race after the flood. Not only that, but Noah and his family would be given the job of saving enough animals to make a new start when the flood waters went down.

God told Noah that in order to save the animals, he had to build a huge wooden boat - an Ark. So Noah built the great Ark and he, his wife and his three sons and their wives all went inside, together with two of every kind of living creature. Then came continuous rain for 40 days and nights until the earth was covered in water and all other life had drowned. But floating on the vast expanse of water was the Ark with Noah and his family and two of every living creature.

After it stopped raining, Noah sent out a dove to see if it would find a place to rest. But it did not find anywhere to land, so it returned. After seven more days, he sent the dove off again and this time it came back with a leaf from an olive tree in its beak, so Noah knew that the flood waters were going down. After yet another seven days he sent the dove off again and this time it did not return and Noah knew it had found a new home.

Eventually the Ark came to rest on the Mountain of Ararat and all the animals came out and went to find places to live. God said to Noah that he now wanted human beings to be obedient to Him, and to look after all of His creation. In return, God promised never to flood the earth in such a way again. And as a token of this promise he set his rainbow in the sky. So when we see the rainbow we take it as a sign of God's promise to us.

Activities and discussion points

REPSHE:does God get angry with people?

Most religious people, of whatever faith, think that God - or the gods - sometimes become impatient with the way we behave. After all, according to the rules of just about every faith, we're supposed to be helpful to each other, to be peaceful and to look after the earth we live on - and we certainly don't always do those things.

Pupil activity: make a list of actions - as individuals, or groups, or nations - that would cause annoyance to a god who was responsible for us.

History: the search for evidence

The Bible says that the Ark ended up on "The mountains of Ararat" and people have never tired of trying to find it on Mount Ararat in Turkey.

There have been supposed aerial and satellite photographs of it, and some people have claimed to have been to the Ark and even walked around on it.

The whole subject is muddied by hoaxes and by wishful interpretation of ambiguous photographs.

To believe that the Ark can exist needs a lot of faith and wishful thinking. One website that summarises all of this is at www.noahsarksearch.com, but remember to take everything you find on the web about this with a big pinch of salt.

Geography: fear of flooding

As long as the earth has existed, there have been floods, destroying crops, animals, homes and human lives. We need water to drink and for our crops, but we can't always control it and keep it in its place. At the same time, flooding can deposit silt and rejuvenate the soil, which is why river flood plains and deltas are fertile. The River Nile floods every year, irrigating the lands beside it, and depositing fertile soil. Since the earliest times, this flooding has supported the people along the length of the river.

Flooding can be controlled by dams, such as the Aswan Dam in Egypt, which allow water to flow downstream at a pre-determined rate. Millions of people across the world, including a significant number in the UK, are at risk of flooding when there is more rain than usual and rivers overflow. Last year, floods caused the following:

* 40,000 Prague residents were evacuated from their homes.

* 2300 million of damage was done to Italian farms.

* At least 60 people were killed by flash floods on the Russian Black Sea coast.

* Much of Dresden, Germany, was inundated by floods from the Danube.

* 1,000 buildings were flooded in Salzburg in Austria.

* 360,000 people were made homeless by heavy rains and mudslides in Indonesia.

Pupil activity: do you need an Ark? What are the dangers of flooding in your area? Look at the Environment Agency's website to find out www.environment-agency.gov.uksubjectsflood.

What was the Ark like?

Size: in the Bible, the measurements of the Ark are given in cubits - 300 cubits long, 50 cubits wide and 30 cubits high. A cubit is the length of an adult's arm, from the elbow to the fingertip, and it's usually reckoned to be about half a metre.

Shape: it didn't have to be a streamlined boat shape, and could have been just a great big wooden box or barge.

Windows: only one window is mentioned in the Bible.

Decks: the Bible says the Ark had three "storeys" inside. It doesn't seem to have specified an outside deck that could be used, just a "cover" on top.

Inside: the Bible says there were "rooms". There must have been a lot for the various animals, birds and insects.

Pupil activity: draw scale plans of the Ark - one view from above, and one from the side. Remember we only have the details we've been given in the Bible, so your drawings will be different from each other. You can add ideas of your own, but then discuss whether you think your ideas are sensible.

Literacy: flood myths

Investigate the phrase "Noah's Ark" - it is interesting to discover how often it is used as a name for animal refuge and rescue projects. A bit of research on the web will turn up lots of examples.

Just about every civilisation and culture has its flood myths. Some have taken this as evidence that there was a shared experience of a great flood.

Others say that they don't all have to be the same flood and that any great flood, such as the incursion of the North Sea that drowned 137 people on the east coast of England in 1953, will live on in memory.

Many of the myths have common features: that the gods become weary of the misbehaviour of humans, for example, and decide to destroy them and start again. It's also relatively common for a story to include a rescue vessel of some kind.

Here, for example, is a Sumerian flood story: "The gods decided to destroy mankind. But the priest Ziusadra was told to build a big ship and fill it with beasts and birds. Sure enough, the rains and the floods came. After seven days, the sun appeared, and was worshipped by Zuisadra. When he reached dry land he made a sacrifice to the sun, and because he had protected the human race and the animals he was given eternal life in a land where the sun always shines."


No one knows for certain what the Ark might have looked like, but this is artist Mark Bergin's idea, with a cut-away section to show how the inside might have looked. The Bible says the Ark was 300 cubits long, 50 cubits wide and 30 cubits high. A cubit is about half a metre. In modern measurements, the Ark would be 150 metres long, 25 metres wide and 15 metres high. The Bible says the Ark was box-shaped, with a great door, compartments for the animals inside and a single window. If you were going to make an Ark, what would yours look like? How could you fit all the animals in, given the biblical dimensions?

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