BIBLE HISTORY DAILY

How Did Noah Build the Ark?

Ancient biblical art depicts Noah’s ark as a box with legs

Reading the story of Noah’s ark today (Genesis 6–9), we naturally imagine that Noah, his family, and the loaded animals of all kinds survived the flood aboard a large wooden ship or other seaworthy vessel. After all, the ark was a boat, right?

How did Noah build the ark? While we typically imagine Noah building a ship to carry his family and animals, ancient biblical art depicts the ark as a simple wooden box with legs, as in this well-preserved mosaic floor found at the site of Mopsuestia in Turkey. Photo by Klaus-Peter Simon, own work, CC BY 3.0

Not so fast! Ancient biblical art depicts Noah’s ark not as a boat, but rather as a simple wooden box on legs. In his article “The Curious Case of Noah’s…Box?” in the Summer 2021 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, archaeologist Shelley Wachsmann looks at examples of ancient biblical art and examines how early translations of the Hebrew word for “ark” may have influenced, in surprising and unexpected ways, ancient depictions of Noah’s fabled seaworthy construction.

So does ancient biblical art help us answer the question, “How did Noah build the ark?” It may seem odd, but early Christian and Jewish artists of the early first millennium C.E. portrayed Noah’s ark as a box, often with legs. The earliest depiction of the ark actually comes from the pagan city of Apamea Kibotos, where coins minted during the second and third centuries show Noah and his wife standing inside a box with an open lid. Above the lid is depicted a dove, bearing an olive branch, and a raven (Genesis 8:6–12).

This Apamean coin shows Noah and his wife in the ark, which is depicted as a box with an open lid floating on water, with the name Noah written in Greek. The coin dates to the mid-third century C.E. Image by Internet Archive Book Images. Public Domain.

Noah’s ark and the biblical flood story are also recurring themes in the mosaic floors that adorned churches and synagogues throughout the ancient world. One of the best-preserved and most elaborate scenes comes from the site of Mopsuestia, Turkey, where dozens of animals surround an open chest with four legs (see image above). A Greek inscription depicted on the chest’s open lid reads “the ark of Noah the redeemer.” More recently, excavations at the fifth-century synagogue of Huqoq in northern Israel revealed a similar mosaic carpet, also showing the ark not as a boat, but as a wooden chest with legs.

So why does ancient biblical art depict Noah’s ark in this unusual way? The answer has to do with translation. While the original authors of the Pentateuch used distinct Hebrew terms to refer to Noah’s ark (tieveh) and the box-shaped “Ark” of the Covenant (aron), the Hebrew Bible’s Greek translators, who began their work in the third century B.C.E., used a single Greek word, kibotos, meaning an enclosed wooden container used to store valuables, to refer to both objects.

It seems likely, therefore, that early Jewish and Christians artists, working in the early first millennium C.E., were influenced by overly literal interpretations of the translated Hebrew Bible, which suggested to them that Noah’s ark and the Ark of the Covenant were similar in appearance.


In the free eBook Exploring Genesis: The Bible’s Ancient Traditions in Context, discover the cultural contexts for many of Israel’s latest traditions.


All-access and digital members: Read more about depictions of Noah’s ark in ancient biblical art in “The Curious Case of Noah’s…Box?” in the Summer 2021 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

Not a BAS Library or All-Access Member yet? Join today.

All-Access members, read more about Noah’s Ark in the BAS Library:

Collection: Noah and the Genesis Flood

Was Noah’s Ark a Sewn Boat?

An Ancient Coin Depicts Noah’s Ark

A Futile Quest: The Search for Noah’s Ark

Not a BAS Library or All-Access Member yet? Join today.

This article first appeared in Bible History Daily on July 21, 2021.

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4 Responses

  1. Dennis says:

    According to Genesis 6: 15, the ark dimensions were: Length 300 cubits (450 feet), Beam/Width 50 cubits (75 feet), and Depth/Height 30 cubits (45 feet). Proportionally this is closest to the dimensions of the USS Jimmy Carter (SSN-23) at 453 feet x 40 feet x 35 feet but while the Carter is 3 feet longer it is also just over half the beam and just under half the depth (this latter probably includes the height of the sail). However, while the Carter is basically a cylinder, the ark was rectangular, and most likely shaped for the largest volume. So the idea of the ark being a box shape is probably correct albeit WITHOUT legs!

    1. Ron says:

      It is likely that the ark was much larger than these dimensions or the dimensions in the excellent exhibit at Ark Encounter. Why? The people prior to the flood event were much larger, the giants mentioned in the OT? It is likely that the cubit of Noah’s world was longer than the accepted 18 inches. Even Homer explains that the leaders of the Greeks and the Trojans armies were very large warriors. “…It would take four men as men are today to throw a stone as large as that.” The length of the cubit varies through history, with the Roman cubit being nearly 4 feet long. In any event, a larger cubit would result in a much larger ark, with plenty of room for the animals, 8 people, and food for all.

  2. Carole Nieman says:

    NO !!! THE HOLY BIBLE IS THE *WORD OF GOD* !! THEREFORE ACCEPT EVERY SINGLE WORD AS TRUTH !! GOD IS NOT DEAD NOR IS HE DEAF…ASK HIM IN YOUR MIND CAUSE THE IDDY BIDDY DEVIL CANT READ YOUR MIND !! AND THE HOLY SPIRIT WILL GUIDE YOU INTO ALL TRUTH,,,,,

  3. Chuck Cooper says:

    Does this article mean that the Genesis article of Noah and The Flood is not accurate? That the Ark Encounter in Kentucky is a farce?

Write a Reply or Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


4 Responses

  1. Dennis says:

    According to Genesis 6: 15, the ark dimensions were: Length 300 cubits (450 feet), Beam/Width 50 cubits (75 feet), and Depth/Height 30 cubits (45 feet). Proportionally this is closest to the dimensions of the USS Jimmy Carter (SSN-23) at 453 feet x 40 feet x 35 feet but while the Carter is 3 feet longer it is also just over half the beam and just under half the depth (this latter probably includes the height of the sail). However, while the Carter is basically a cylinder, the ark was rectangular, and most likely shaped for the largest volume. So the idea of the ark being a box shape is probably correct albeit WITHOUT legs!

    1. Ron says:

      It is likely that the ark was much larger than these dimensions or the dimensions in the excellent exhibit at Ark Encounter. Why? The people prior to the flood event were much larger, the giants mentioned in the OT? It is likely that the cubit of Noah’s world was longer than the accepted 18 inches. Even Homer explains that the leaders of the Greeks and the Trojans armies were very large warriors. “…It would take four men as men are today to throw a stone as large as that.” The length of the cubit varies through history, with the Roman cubit being nearly 4 feet long. In any event, a larger cubit would result in a much larger ark, with plenty of room for the animals, 8 people, and food for all.

  2. Carole Nieman says:

    NO !!! THE HOLY BIBLE IS THE *WORD OF GOD* !! THEREFORE ACCEPT EVERY SINGLE WORD AS TRUTH !! GOD IS NOT DEAD NOR IS HE DEAF…ASK HIM IN YOUR MIND CAUSE THE IDDY BIDDY DEVIL CANT READ YOUR MIND !! AND THE HOLY SPIRIT WILL GUIDE YOU INTO ALL TRUTH,,,,,

  3. Chuck Cooper says:

    Does this article mean that the Genesis article of Noah and The Flood is not accurate? That the Ark Encounter in Kentucky is a farce?

Write a Reply or Comment

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