Genesis vi. 14-16.

July 5, 2010

Make thee an ark of timber planks: thou shalt make little rooms in the ark, and thou shalt pitch it within and without.  And thus shalt thou make it: The length of the ark shall be three hundred cubits: the breadth of it fifty cubits, and the height of it thirty cubits.  Thou shalt make a window in the ark, and in a cubit shalt thou finish the top of it: and the door of the ark thou shalt set in the side: with lower, middle chambers, and third stories shalt thou make it.

14a. Noe is commanded to make the ark

St. Chrysostom: “Consider the kindness of God, and His indescribable virtue, and His mercy transcending all our thoughts.  At once He shows His providence to the just man, commanding him to construct the ark, and at the same time ordaining the way in which it is to be constructed, its length, breadth and height, and gives him great consolation by showing him the hope of salvation by the construction of the ark: and also wishing, by the construction of the ark, to warn those who had sinned so greatly, that they might think to themselves what they had done, and, coming to their senses, might avoid His wrath.  For no little time for them to do so was given to them once more through the construction of the ark: it would have been more than long enough, if indeed they had not been too ungrateful and senseless to amend their errors.  For it was suitable that when each of them saw the just man making the ark, they would have asked the reason for its construction: and, learning of the divine wrath, they would thence have come to a realization of their sins – if indeed they had wished to.  But in truth this brought them no usefulness: not because they could not, but because they would not” (xxiv. 3.).

14b. The significance of the ark (general)

St. Augustine: “Now truly, when God orders Noe, the man just and perfect in his generation, as the truthful Scriptures say, to make an ark, in which with his wife, sons and daughters-in-law, and with the animals that entered the ark with him by God’s command, he might be saved from the devastation of the flood – this, without a doubt, is a figure of the city of God on its pilgrimage in this world: that is, the Church, which is saved by that wood on which hung Christ Jesus, the Mediator of God and Man of men.  For even the measure of its length, height and width signifies the human body, in whose truth it was foretold to men that He would come, and in which He came.  Now the length of the human body from top to bottom is six times larger than the width from one side to the other, and ten times larger than the height, whose measure is on the side, from the back to the stomach: just as if you were to measure a man lying on his back, or prone, he is six times longer from head to foot than from the right side to the left, and ten times longer than his height from the ground.  So for this reason the ark was made with a length of three hundred cubits, a width of fifty, and a height of thirty.  And the door it received in its side is without doubt the wound inflicted when the side of the Crucified was pierced with the lance: for it is by this wound that those whom come to him enter, since it is from there that the Sacraments flowed by which believers are initiated.  And that it was ordered to be made from rectangular blocks of wood signifies in all respects the steadfast life of the saints: for whichever way you turn a block, it will stand.  And the other things that are said in the construction of the ark are symbols of the things of the Church” (De civitate Dei, XV. xxvi. 1.).

St. Bede: “A many-sided mystery is contained in the construction of the ark and the approach of the flood.  First, as the Lord Himself showed by the sudden inundation of the flood, the unexpected hour of our final test is designated: And as it came to pass, He says, in the days of Noe, so shall it also be in the days of the Son of man.  They did eat and drink, they married wives and were given in marriage, until the day that Noe entered into the ark: and the flood came and destroyed them all.[1] For the building of the ark, which was carried on for a hundred years, represents the whole time of this world, in which Holy Church is instituted and led to her perfect end.  For there is no doubt that the number one hundred represents perfection: either because it consists of ten decades, or because it passes from left to right, as if expressing that action which in this life is, as it were, drilled on the left side, but in the life to come will be perfected on the right.  Just as, once the ark was built, and all who were to be saved had entered it, the flood came, and took away everything outside of it: so when all who are preordained to eternal life shall have entered the Church, the end of the world will come, and all who were found outside the Church will perish; and according to this sense it is plain that the ark represents the Church; Noe, the Lord, who builds the Church in His saints; and the flood, the end of the world, or the last judgment.  And truly, aside from the structure of the ark, in Noe also, since his name means rest, and he was to give rest to men, or to console them, it was foreshadowed that men would rest from the works and labors of their hands on the earth the Lord has cursed: and this holds an image of the Lord our Savior.  For He consoles us by the illumination of His Spirit, Who is therefore called the Paraclete, that is, the Consoler.  He has saved us from the curse of the law, having been made Himself accursed for us.  He calls laborers to their rest: Come to me, He says, all you that labor, and are burdened … and you shall find rest to your souls.[2] Truly, He was the only just and perfect Man in His generations, that is, in the whole congregation of the saints, because He committed no sin, and deceit was not found in His mouth.  Now according to another interpretation equally pious and Catholic, the ark represents the Church; the flood, the water of baptism, by which the Church herself is washed and sanctified in all her members, according to the explanation of St. Peter the Apostle: When they waited for the patience of God in the days of Noe, when the ark was a-building, wherein a few, that is, eight souls, were saved by water, whereunto baptism being of the like form, now saveth you also: not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the examination of a good conscience towards God by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.[3] Now what he says, that we are saved in baptism by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, he briefly explains what the number of the eight souls saved by water signifies mystically.  For the day of the Lord’s resurrection was certainly the third from the day of His passion, but the eighth from the day of creation.  Not a few of the Fathers also often interpret the waves of the flood as concerning the temptations of this world, by which Holy Church is beaten every day, but is not overcome; nay, rather she is trained by the temptations to be raised from earthly desires to the seeking of heavenly things.  Truly whatever is outside her is bound by those same worldly temptations, just as it is said that the multiplied and vehemently flowing waters on the surface of the earth raised the ark from the earth to the heights, while they destroyed whatever was outside the ark.  This exposition is akin to the Lord’s parable of the two houses, one built on rock, the other on sand: when they were equally beaten by rain, winds and floods, the house founded on the rock of faith was proven by temptations, while that which had placed its hope in the failing pleasures of this life, as on sand, was shaken and collapsed.  For what Noe the builder represents in the ark, the gathered sands represent in the house of faithlessness.  Therefore the ark represents the Church, the flood represents the font of baptism by which it is washed, and the end in which it is crowned.  Further, Noe, the builder of the ark, is shown forth typically either as the Lord Himself, Our Savior, or a devoted ruler of His Holy Church” (In Principium Genesis II. col. 85-87).

14c. The ark and flood both historical and allegorical.

St. Augustine: “Nevertheless no one ought to think that all this was written without purpose, or that only historical truth without any allegorical significance is to be sought here; or, on the contrary, that these are by no means historical facts, but only figures of speech; or that whatever it is, it in no way pertains as prophecy to the Church.  For who except one perverse of mind would contend that books guarded for thousands of years with such devotion and observances of orderly succession were foolishly written?  Or that only bare facts were to be seen where certainly (if I leave out all the other examples), if the number of animals required that the ark be of such size, why was it necessary to send in unclean animals by twos and the clean by sevens, when an equal number of each could have been preserved?  Or was God, who commanded what was to be kept for the restoration of the race, not able to reinstitute it in the same way He had instituted it?

“Now those who contend that these are not facts, but only figures or representations of things, first say that there could not have been so great a flood, that the water could grow to a point where it surpassed the highest mountains by fifteen cubits, because of the peak of Mount Olympus, on which it is thought that clouds cannot come together and grow, because it is as high as heaven, and so there is no thicker air there where winds, mist and rain can come forth; nor do they realize that earth, the thickest of all the elements, might have been there.  Or perhaps do they deny that the peak of a mountain is earth?  Why, therefore, do they contend that earth could be raised to the spaces of heaven, but water could not, when these surveyors of the elements, these deep thinkers, regard water as higher and lighter than earth?  What reason, then, do they bring forward as to how earth, heavier and lower than water, could have invaded the heights of heaven for so many years, and yet water, although it be granted to be lighter and higher than earth, could not do this at least at this particular time?

“They also say that the capacity of the ark could not hold so many types of animals of both sexes, two each of the unclean, seven each of the clean … But if we think of what Origen has not inelegantly contributed,[4] namely that the man of God Moses, learned, as is written, in all the wisdom of the Egyptians,[5] who loved geometry, could have meant here geometric cubits, one of which, they say, is equal to six of ours.  Who cannot see that it would be able to hold an immense number of such things? …

“… Rather it should be believed that these things were wisely entrusted to memory and to writing; and that they are facts; and that they signify something, and that this something pertains to the prefiguration of the Church” (De civitate Dei, XV. xxvii. 1-3, 5.).

14-16. The structure of the ark; issues of translation; various interpretations of the individual parts

(i) “Make thee an ark”

Cornelius: “The Hebrew teba indicates that the shape of the ark was not that of a ship, with a curved hull, and a top either open or canopied, but that of a box or chest, closed and quadrangular, flat on bottom, and even on all sides, and flat also on top, but in such a way that it could rise and fall with ease” (Commentaria, p 136).

(ii) “Of smooth wood”

St. Jerome: “Make yourself an ark of blocks of wood.[6] For blocks of wood, we read bituminous wood in the Hebrew.”

St. Bede: “It was not only men who were saved in the ark, but also animals who likewise entered it; even the very wood from which it is made mystically foretell the faithful of Holy Church.  Therefore the wood from which it was made is ordered to be smooth, because it is necessary for whoever is established in the structure of the Church so that he may come to the faith to first be cut off from the root of his former life by the instruction or reprimand of those who have preceded him in Christ, to root out everything he discovers within himself of poisonous wickedness and deformity, and conform himself completely in mind and action to the rule of the Catholic faith and truth, so that he can fittingly be set in his place and time in the order of the heavenly edifice, to be made a new man.

“Now in place of smooth wood the old translation had blocks of wood, which equally refers to the same perfection of the elect.  For whichever way you turn a block, it will stand, and will not be liable to any fall.  Thus without doubt is the mind of the elect, which remembers to keep inviolable the state of its holy intention no matter what temptations attack it” (In Principium Genesis II. col. 87).

St. Ambrose: “But now we should speak of Noe’s ark itself, in which, if one wishes to consider it eagerly and thoroughly, he will find described in its construction the figure of the human body.  For what is this that God says: Therefore make yourself an ark from blocks of wood [lignis quadratis]?  Certainly we call something a block – that is, square, or rectangular – when it stands together well in all its parts, and is fitting to itself.  In the same way God, the creator of our body and the craftsman of nature is added, and the work itself is shown to be perfect by these words.  The evident reason is that human members are rectangular, if you consider the chest of a man, the stomach equal in length and width, unless it exceeds its natural measure because of pleasures and feasts.  Now who cannot see just by looking that the feet, and hands, and arms, and thighs and shins are four-sided?  There are many of them which might not be of the same length as width, but they preserve the analogy in this way: that in them, too, a fitting measure and plan is found: the length is greater than the width, and the width greater than the height.  And just as the wood of the ark was threefold in distance – God ordered it to be three hundred cubits long, and fifty cubits wide, and thirty cubits high – so in our body there is a greatest, and middle, and smallest distance.  The length is the greatest, the width the middle, the height the smallest: and the whole body, composed of the individual members, appears rectangular.  For it is usual to call those men block-like (quadratos) who are not of enormous height and whom we reckon to be powerful of body” (De Noe et Arca, vi. 13.).

(iii) “Thou shalt make little rooms in the ark”

Cornelius: “In Hebrew and the Septuagint, thou shalt make the ark nests;[7] that is, you shall divide and distribute the ark into small enclosures, so that not only the birds, but also the other animals may have their own dwelling places.  Wherefore our text clearly expresses this by mansiunculas, little rooms” (Commentaria, p 136).

St. Bede: “All the dwellings in the ark were disposed for the sheltering of the different animals that were to enter it; likewise, in the Church there are many orders of institutions for the diversity of those who come to the Faith.  For the life or way of living of the wedded and the continent, of sinners and just, should not be one and the same … And so the Lord says even of the very reward of eternal judgment: In my Father’s house there are many mansions.[8] Therefore there are little rooms in the ark because there is not the same merit in the Church for everyone, nor have they all progressed the same in faith, although all are contained within one faith, and are washed with the same baptism” (In Principium Genesis II. col. 87).

St. Ambrose: “Also, when it says: You will make nests in the ark, that should by no means be passed over in silence.  For it is said naturally, I think, because our whole body is woven together like a nest, in such a way that the life-giving spirit penetrates all the inward parts, and pours itself out from our principle in the individual limbs.  Our eyes are a sort of nest, for our sight.  The curves of our ears are nests, by which what we hear pours itself in and drops down as if into a deep pit.  The nose is a nest: it attracts smell to itself.  The fourth nest, bigger than the others, is the opening of the mouth, by which we are suckled, until our taste matures, and whence our voice flies out … And if one considers other things, he will find even more nests in this structure of the human body.  So I think that this passage from the Psalm was said not only mystically, but also naturally: For the sparrow hath found herself a house, and the turtle a nest for herself where she may lay her young ones.[9] For in this body there is now a nest of chastity, where there was a nest of irrational concupiscence.  But where before lust fed disgraced members, there now the inheritance of becoming chastity is established” (De Noe et Arca, vi. 14.).

(iv) “With pitch [bitumen]”

Cornelius: “Bitumen was more fitting than tar[10] for cementing and solidifying the planks and for dispelling the stench from the manure of so many animals” (Commentaria, p 137).

St. Bede: “Bitumen is a boiling hot and violent adhesive, whose virtue is that wood covered with it will never be eaten up by worms, or burned by the sun, or be unloosened by the movements of wind or water: and so what is the mystical meaning of bitumen other than the constancy of faith?  The ark is lined with bitumen inside and outside, and thus is completely perfected, while the thoughts and deeds of the elect, lest they be overcome or deceived by inrushing vices, are armed in every way with the virtue of faith” (In Principium Genesis II. col. 87-88).

(v) The length, width and height of the ark

Cornelius: “One cubit is a foot and a half, or six hands; at that time, since the feet and hands of men were larger than now, cubits were also larger.  Origen here understands not the common cubit, of which I have just spoken, but one that contains six common cubits.  Isidorus Clarius and Delrio follow Origen.  In this way all the animals in the ark would have been able to dwell in the ark, not tightly and compactly, but freely and healthily.  But truly the size of the ark would then have been so enormous that it could scarcely have been bound together in one structure, and could scarcely have been sustained and moved by the waters.  Furthermore, in other places of Scripture cubits are taken as common, not geometric, as when it says Goliath’s height was six cubits and a hand – for who would believe that Goliath was 36 common cubits tall?  Therefore we are also to take the cubits here as common.  Thus Torniellus …

“It therefore follows that the interior capacity of the ark was 450,000 cubits … This was certainly large enough for all the animals and other things in the ark, so it is not necessary to take, with Origen, these cubits as geometric rather than common: for in that case the ark would have been six times larger and more capacious” (Commentaria, p 137).

St. Bede: “The length of the ark signifies the long suffering of patience, by which adversities are tolerated; the width, the fullness of charity, by which even adversities inflicted are embraced; the height, the loftiness of hope, by which eternal reward in heaven is granted.  And so it was well ordered that the length of the ark should be three hundred cubits, which number, as we have noted above, is written in Greek by the letter T.  Now this letter is written in the shape of a cross, because without doubt, while Holy Church endures unconquered and steadfast amidst adversities, she follows the footsteps of the Lord’s Passion, mindful of His words: And he that taketh not up his cross, and followeth me, is not worthy of me.[11] The width extends to fifty cubits, in which number the Holy Spirit was sent, and universal rest and forgiveness was given in the law to the people of God, for the charity of God is poured out in our hearts, not from the merit of our own actions, but through the Holy Spirit who is given to us.  And this is rest also in the forgiveness of our sins, when we love God with our whole heart, our whole soul and our whole strength, and our neighbor in God as ourselves, and our enemy for God’s sake.  The height is thirty cubits, because the one and only hope of the elect is that by the observance of the law of the Decalogue, which is perfected in the love of God and neighbor, they may ascend to the contemplation of the Holy Trinity.  For three times ten is thirty” (In Principium Genesis II. col. 88).

(vi) “A window”

St. Jerome: “Gathering together, thou shalt make an ark, and in a cubit thou shalt finish it from above.[12] For Gathering together thou shalt make an ark, the Hebrew has, thou shalt make a meridian for the ark, which Symmachus has translated more clearly as διαφανὲς, that is, thou shalt make a transparent thing for the ark: i.e. a window” (LHQG).

Cornelius: “A window – in particular referring to one, large and pellucid, probably of crystal or precious stone (for this is what is meant by the Hebrew tsohar, and the Greek διαφανὲς, as Symmachus translates).  There is nothing therefore to prevent there having been made windows all around the third story, to receive light from every direction.  The large window could have been opened: it was therefore through it that Noe sent out the dove and raven” (Commentaria, p 137).

St. Bede: “A window is ordered to be made in the ark so that, when afterwards the rains have ceased and the ark has begun to rest, Noe can send out a bird through it, to see whether the waters have stopped yet, or whether the earth has dried or sprouted; and also so that, when it is open, he could see the light of heaven.  Whence it is well that the Hebrew text is said to have meridian for window, because windows are lit up more clearly by the midday sun.  And this also fits very closely with spiritual mysteries.  For the window that only illuminated the inhabitants of the ark when the flood had passed signifies the knowledge of heavenly secrets that will after this life be more fully revealed to the baptized faithful” (In Principium Genesis II. col. 89).

(vii) “In a cubit shalt thou finish the top of it”

Cornelius: “And in a cubit thou shalt finish the top of it – the true interpretation, as is evident from the Hebrew, is as follows: “You shall make its, that is the ark’s, top, or height, of one cubit.”  In other words, “You shall make the roof of the ark not completely flat, but almost flat, in such a way, that is, that slowly and gradually it will rise only to the height of one cubit: in such a way that this cubit will be the middle height of the top of the ark, throughout its whole length.”  Thus John Buteo and Pererius from the common opinion of the Doctors; for Moses here describes the roof of the ark and its curved shape on top” (Commentaria, p 137).

St. Bede: “Because the top of the ark is presented as being finished in a cubit, it seems that at the bottom, indeed, it has a length of three hundred cubits and a width of fifty; gradually, however, the sides become closer together, and are joined in the space of one cubit at the top; that is, the ark becomes shorter in length and narrower as it gets higher.  And certainly with regard to the needs of the rain and the flood, no other shape so fitting could be given to the ark: in this way from the narrow peak of the roof the rainfall might be poured off, as long as the floodgates of heaven were open and the rain continued; but this shape of the ark also applies mystically to Holy Church.  For just as the ark is wider at the bottom, where it is believed the wild animals were kept, and narrower towards the top, where the men and birds were, finally reaching the measure of one cubit at the top – in the same way the Church has more fleshly than spiritual men in her: more who, in the manner of quadrupeds, are prone to desire earthly things with their whole mind, than those who seek heavenly things on the wings of virtue; and as much as holier men are found in her, in the same proportion are they fewer, until one reaches the Mediator of God and men Himself, who appeared as a Man among men, so that God might be blessed above all things forever” (In Principium Genesis II. col. 89).

(viii) “The door of the ark shalt thou set in the side”

“This door, through which entered both the men and all the animals that were to be saved in the ark, signifies the very unity of faith, without which no one is able to enter the Church: for there is one Lord, one faith, one baptism: one God, which it is aptly taught is indicated by the side of the ark, because without doubt it designates that door which the soldier’s lance opened in the side of Our Lord and Savior on the cross, from which immediately flowed out blood and water: and by these sacraments each and every one of the faithful is received into the society of Holy Church as into the interior of the ark” (ibid., col. 89-90).

(ix) The levels of the ark

Cornelius: “With lower, middle chambers, and third stories shalt thou make it:[13] Read and join thus, rather than refer deorsum [lower, below] to the door mentioned immediately before.  Here the sense is, Let there be one floor below, or one beneath another, as Delrio says.  Or, more fittingly with the Hebrew: you shall make in the ark a floor lower [deorsum], that is, the lowest story; a dining room or middle chamber [cœnacula], that is, the middle story, for this is where dinners are usually held; and third stories, that is, the third or highest floor.  For the Hebrew has, You shall make a lowest, second and third; and the Chaldæic, You shall make lowest, second and third dwellings in it.  Whence it is clear that the ark had three stories, or floors; for the Greeks call tristega the place where partly animals, partly food, and other articles were placed and distributed.  To these add a fourth at the very bottom, for bilgewater.  John Buteo describes each exactly in his book De Arca

First, therefore, was the bedroom of Noe and his sons, separate from the women’s apartments (for the men abstained from them throughout the flood, as is taught by St. Ambrose, Rabanus, Anselm Laodunensis, Jerome, Delrio and others); the window in the ark poured in light here.  Second was the kitchen, with furnace and hearth; third, the bakery and millstones; fourth, the place where the wood and coal were kept; fifth, the provisions, both food and drink.  On the other side were the nests of the individual birds, with their food.  There were stairs in these floors, by which they descended and ascended from one to another” (Commentaria, pp 137-138).

St. Bede: “Tristega means a three-fold roof, or the third floor, since stege means roof or floor in Greek; whence the old translators put tricamerata, three-roomed or three-floored, in place of this word.  And so in the Acts of the Apostles, when the young man that St. Paul raised from the dead is related to have fallen from the third floor, it is written in Greek that he fell from the tristega.  Now the second and third floors, or as the earlier translators said, the two-roomed level and the three-roomed level, were made in the ark so that the different species of animals might stay in their own places.  The wild beasts, as one would think, lowest down, the clean animals higher up, the men and birds at the top.  For it makes sense that where man sat, there would be the raven and the dove, and consequently the other birds as well: and this in the vicinity of the window, which is to be believed to have been at the very top of the ark.  For he sent out the previously mentioned birds to see the condition of the face of the earth.  In these floors there were also made various little rooms, as was said above, to divide the animals and birds, lest some, the more ferocious, harm their meeker fellows.  Now it is not without reason that Scripture says second and third floors, or the two-roomed level and the three-roomed level, were made in the ark, since it could have said more simply that it was divided into five floors or levels: it says two-roomed to indicate that in the Church both circumcised and uncircumcised, Jews and Gentiles, were to be saved.  It says three-roomed because of the three-fold fruit of the seed of the Gospel: thirty-fold, sixty-fold, one-hundred-fold, so that lowest lives conjugal chastity, above that the chastity of the widow, and highest the chastity of the virgin.  Now Origen says that the  two-roomed level was made at the bottom of the ark, so that the lowest region would receive the manure; the second was assigned for storage of food; and at the top was the three-roomed level, in the first part of which were rooms for the wild animals, in the second, the stables of the tamer animals, and at the highest part was the seat of the men” (In Principium Genesis II. col. 90-91).


[1] Luke xvii. 26-27.

[2] Matt. xi. 28-29.

[3] I Pet. iii. 20-21.

[4] Homilia 2 in Genesim.  See however Cornelius below, {14-16. v}.

[5] Act. vii. 22.

[6] LXX: ποίησον οὖν σεαυτῷ κιβωτὸν ἐκ ξύλων τετραγώνων.  Vetus Latina: de lignis quadratis.  DR: Make thee an ark of timber planks.  Vulgata: de lignis lævigatis, “of smooth wood.”

[7] LXX: νοσσιὰς ποιήσεις τὴν κιβωτὸν.  Vetus Latina: Nidos facies arcam.  Vulgata: Mansiunculas in arca facies.

[8] John xiv. 2.

[9] Ps. lxxxiii. 4.

[10] Latin Pice aptius erat bitumen.  Bitumen is pitch obtained from petroleum; tar is pitch obtained from plant resin.  Cornelius is presumably contrasting these.

[11] Matt. x. 38.

[12] LXX: ἐπισυνάγων ποιήσεις τὴν κιβωτὸν καὶ εἰς πῆχυν συντελέσεις αὐτὴν ἄνωθεν.  Vetus Latina: Colligiens, facies arcam, et in cubito consummabis eam desuper.  Vulgata: Fenestram in arca facies, et in cubito consummabis summitatem ejus.

[13] LXX: κατάγαια διώροφα καὶ τριώροφα ποιήσεις αὐτήν.  Vetus Latina: Inferiora arcæ bicamerata et tricamerata facies.  Vulgata: Deorsum cœnacula et tristega facies in ea.

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