Building Noah’s Ark: instructions from Thomas Stackhouse’s “A new history of the Holy Bible” (1733)


Construction begins on the ark as mankind ignores the danger: this engraving from the 1752 edition of Stackhouse’s “A new history of the Holy Bible” clearly shows the three decks, single window and door described in Genesis

These fascinating illustrations come from A new history of the Holy Bible, written by Thomas Stackhouse and first published in 1733. We hold several editions of this work in the Cardiff Rare Books Collection, each containing different engravingsIMG_0973a depicting the design and construction of Noah’s ark as described in the Old Testament. The book of Genesis tells how God decided to undo his creation of the Earth by sending a flood to wash away the wickedness of man. Noah was instructed by God to build an ark, a large waterproof vessel that would save Noah, his family and a sample of the world’s animals from the coming storm that would soon cleanse the Earth.


The rectangular, box-shaped design is apparent here in the first edition of 1733, but the many (impractical?) windows allow us to view the animals on the decks. In his text, even Stackhouse refers to this depiction as “pure imagination”.

In Genesis 6:14-6:16, God gives Noah detailed directions for the construction of the vessel: “Make for yourself an ark of gopher wood; you shall make the ark with rooms, and shall cover it inside and out with pitch. This is how you shall make it: the length of the ark 300 hundred cubits, its breadth 50 cubits, and its height 30 cubits. You shall make a window for the ark, and finish it to a cubit from the top; and set the door of the ark in the side of it; you shall make it with lower, second, and third decks …” The length of a cubit has varied over time but Stackhouse calculated the measurements to correspond roughly to a vessel 450 feet long, 75 feet wide and 45 feet high, which, as Stackhouse readily admits, would make the ark of Noah larger than any wooden vessel ever built.

Although slightly closer to the familiar boat design, this ark also shows the single skylight in the roof as described

A more traditional view of a ship-shaped ark from Weigel's "Biblia ectypa" (1697)

A more traditional view of a ship-shaped ark from Weigel’s “Biblia ectypa” (1697)

Stackhouse and his illustrators depict the ark as having a rectangular box-like design, very different to the traditional sea-going ship with curved keel, bow and rounded hull (the Hebrew word for the ark, “tebah”, actually means box or container, as in the Ark of the Covenant). In Stackhouse’s words, Noah was commanded to “build a kind of vessel, not in the form of ships now in use, but rather inclining to the fashion of a large chest or ark”. As this ark was “intended only for a kind of float, to swim above the water, the flatness of it’s bottom did render it more capacious”. It was, Stackhouse argues, designed for protection and not for navigation.

An earlier illustration of the ark depicting the single door and triple decks (from our 1474 copy of Rolewinck's "Fasciculus temporum")

This earlier illustration of the ark is very similar to the one above and also depicts the single door and triple decks (from our 1474 copy of Rolewinck’s “Fasciculus temporum”)

Surprisingly, the box-shaped ark has resurfaced once again in 2014. Despite the apparent unseaworthiness of the design, film director Darren Aronofsky chose to depict an ark very similar to Stackhouse’s ‘floating container’ for his retelling of the flood narrative, Noah, starring Russell Crowe as the titular prophet.


One response to “Building Noah’s Ark: instructions from Thomas Stackhouse’s “A new history of the Holy Bible” (1733)

  1. Andrew Cowper-Smith

    First picture is a copy of Gerard Hoet’s artistic rendition (1728). Gerard Hoet’s depiction was generally influenced by Johannes Luyken (1703) & or Wilhelmus Goeree (1690). Specific window & door placement harkens to John Wilkins, Johannes Buteo or maybe Santini Pagninni or Martin Luther.
    Third image is also not an original but a strong influence from Agustin Calmet first publish (1707).
    I really enjoyed reading this brief article especially for the quotes from Stackhouse. From what I’m reading Stackhouse clearly understood Hebrew & or Greek which both basically define Noah’s Ark as a chest or box. If Stackhouse referred to the artistic copy of Agustin Calmet Ark on water as “pure imagination” then he would be merely objecting to minor things like the theoretical placement of the windows or the skin “coverings” and not necessarily the shape. Hebrew word Tebah does mean chest or box. The NT greek word used of Noah’s Ark is even more specific in that it is material specific “chest or box of wood”. The rectangular Ark shape hasn’t really resurfaced in the way suggested above, it’s always been understood by the textual descriptions. It’s just not common that a sharp or careful theologian is also an artist. Box and chest shaped Noah’s Arks can be found consistently back through the ages to the 2nd century A.D. As for Noah’s depicted as a boat or a ship I’ve yet to find an example older then the 4th or 5th century A.D. Not surprisingly people people from every generation tend to want to reconcile Noah’s chest with what they know to float on water i.e. a boat or a ship. As a result many if not most “arks” are actually examples of what we call Ark-in-boat examples.
    Again, thanks for the post, very interesting! I’d probably really enjoy reading Thomas Stackhouse on this subject. Any additional info on where I could access text from his writing on this would be very appreciated. -ACS

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