In the narrative of the Ark, God sees the wickedness of man and is grieved by his creation, resolving to send a great flood to cleanse the Earth. However, he sees that Noah is a man "righteous in his generation," and gives him detailed instructions on how to construct a seaworthy Ark. When Noah and the animals are safe on board, God sends the Flood, which rises until all the mountains are covered and all life on Earth is destroyed. At the height of the flood, the Ark rests on the tops of mountains, the waters recede, and dry land reappears. Noah, his family, and the animals leave the Ark to repopulate the Earth. God places a symbolic rainbow in the sky and makes a covenant with Noah and all living things, by which he vows to never again send a flood to destroy the Earth.
The narrative of the Ark has been subject to extensive study by adherents of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, as well as other Abrahamic and non-Abrahamic faiths. Such studies range from hypothetical solutions to practical problems (such as the issues of waste disposal and lighting the Ark's interior), to theological and metaphoric interpretations (with the Ark being seen as the spiritual precursor of the Church in offering salvation to mankind). The account of the Ark is traditionally accepted as historical. Many continue to explore the mountains of Ararat in present-day Turkey, where the Bible says the Ark came to rest, in search of the vessel.
God observes that humanity is corrupt and decides to destroy all life. But Noah "was a righteous man, blameless in his generation, [and] Noah walked with God," and so God gives him instructions for the Ark, into which he is told to bring "two of every sort [of animal]...male and female ... everything on the dry land in whose nostrils was the breath of life," and their food.
God instructs Noah to board the Ark with his family, seven pairs of the birds and the clean animals, and one pair of the unclean animals. "On the same day all the fountains of the great deep were broken up, and the windows of heaven were opened, and the rain was upon the earth," and God closes up the door of the Ark. The flood begins, and the waters prevail until all the high mountains are covered fifteen cubits deep, and all the people and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens are blotted out from the earth, and only Noah and those with him in the Ark remain.
Then "God remembered Noah," and causes his wind to blow, and the fountains of the deep and the windows of the heavens are closed, and the rain is restrained, and the waters abate, and in the seventh month the Ark rests on the mountains of Ararat. In the tenth month the tops of the mountains are seen, and Noah sends out a raven and a dove to see if the waters have subsided; the raven flies "to and fro" but the dove returns with a fresh olive leaf in her beak. Noah waits seven days more and sends out the dove again, and this time it does not return.
When the land is dry, God tells Noah to leave the Ark, and Noah offers a sacrifice to God. God resolves never again to curse the earth, "for the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth." God grants to Noah and his sons the right to kill animals and eat their meat, but forbids meat which has not been drained of its blood. Blood is proclaimed sacred, and the unauthorised taking of life is prohibited: "For your lifeblood I will require a reckoning: from every beast I will require it and from man...Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image." Then God establishes his covenant with Noah and his sons and with all living things, and places the rainbow in the clouds, "the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth."
In the last centuries BC and the first centuries AD, the Jewish rabbis, the interpreters of Jewish law and tradition, turned their attention to the story of Noah's Ark. Their teachings were collected in the Talmud, which dates from between 200 and 500 AD. The individual volumes of the Talmud are known as Tractates.
Tractates Sanhedrin, Avoda Zarah and Zevahim relate that, while Noah was building the Ark, he attempted to warn his neighbors of the coming deluge, but was ignored or mocked. In order to protect Noah and his family, God placed lions and other ferocious animals to guard them from the wicked who tried to stop them from entering the Ark. According to one Midrash, it was God, or the angels, who gathered the animals to the Ark, together with their food. As there had been no need to distinguish between clean and unclean animals before this time, the clean animals made themselves known by kneeling before Noah as they entered the Ark. A differing opinion said that the Ark itself distinguished clean animals from unclean, admitting seven pairs each of the former and one pair each of the latter.
According to Sanhedrin 108B, Noah was engaged both day and night in feeding and caring for the animals, and did not sleep for the entire year aboard the Ark. The animals were the best of their species, and so behaved with utmost goodness. They abstained from procreation, so that the number of creatures that disembarked was exactly equal to the number that embarked. The raven created problems, refusing to go out of the Ark when Noah sent it forth and accusing the patriarch of wishing to destroy its race, but as the commentators pointed out, God wished to save the raven, for its descendants were destined to feed the prophet Elijah.
According to one tradition, refuse was stored on the lowest of the Ark's three decks, humans and clean beasts on the second, and the unclean animals and birds on the top; a differing opinion placed the refuse in the utmost story, from where it was shoveled into the sea through a trapdoor. Precious stones, bright as midday, provided light, and God ensured that food was kept fresh.
St. Hippolytus of Rome, (d. 235), seeking to demonstrate that "the ark was a symbol of the Christ who was expected", stated that the vessel had its door on the east side - the direction from which Christ would appear at the Second Coming - and that the bones of Adam were brought aboard, together with gold, frankincense and myrrh (the symbols of the Nativity of Christ). Hippolytus furthermore stated that the Ark floated to and fro in the four directions on the waters, making the sign of the cross, before eventually landing on Mount Kardu "in the east, in the land of the sons of Raban, and the Orientals call it Mount Godash; the Armenians call it Ararat". On a more practical plane, Hippolytus explained that the ark was built in three stories, the lowest for wild beasts, the middle for birds and domestic animals, and the top level for humans, and that the male animals were separated from the females by sharp stakes so that there would be no cohabitation aboard the vessel.
The early Church Father and theologian Origen (c. 182 - 251) produced a learned argument about cubits, in response to a critic who doubted that the Ark could contain all the animals in the world. Origen held that Moses, the traditional author of the book of Genesis, had been brought up in Egypt and would therefore have used the larger Egyptian cubit.
Early Christian artists depicted Noah standing in a small box on the waves, symbolizing God saving the church as it persevered through turmoil. St. Augustine of Hippo (354 - 430), in his work City of God, demonstrated that the dimensions of the Ark corresponded to the dimensions of the human body, which is the body of Christ, which is in turn the Church. St. Jerome (c. 347 - 420) called the raven, which was sent forth and did not return, the "foul bird of wickedness" expelled by baptism; more enduringly, the dove and olive branch came to symbolize the Holy Spirit and the hope of salvation and, eventually, peace. The olive branch remains a symbol of peace today.
Noah (Nuh in Arabic) is one of the five principal prophets of Islam. References to him are scattered through the Qur'an, with the fullest account being found in surah Hud (11:27–51). As a prophet, Noah preached to his people, but with little success; only "a few"[11:40] of them converted (traditionally thought to be seventy). Noah prayed for deliverance, and Allah told him to build a ship in preparation for the flood. A son (named either 'Kan'an' or 'Yam' depending on the source) was among those drowned, despite Noah pleading with him to leave the disbelievers and join him (Surah Hud, 42-43).
In contrast to the Jewish tradition, which uses a term which can be translated as a "box" or "chest" to describe the Ark, surah 29:14 refers to it as a safina, an ordinary ship, and surah 54:13 describes the Ark as "a thing of boards and nails". `Abd Allah ibn `Abbas, a contemporary of Muhammad, wrote that Noah was in doubt as to what shape to make the Ark, and that Allah revealed to him that it was to be shaped like a bird's belly and fashioned of teak wood.
Abdallah ibn 'Umar al-Baidawi, writing in the 13th century, gives the length of the Ark as 300 cubits (157 m, 515 ft) by 50 (26.2 m, 86 ft) in width, 30 cubits (15.7 m, 52 ft) in height, and explains that in the first of the three levels wild and domesticated animals were lodged, in the second the human beings, and in the third the birds. On every plank was the name of a prophet. Three missing planks, symbolizing three prophets, were brought from Egypt by Og, son of Anak, the only one of the giants permitted to survive the Flood. The body of Adam was carried in the middle to divide the men from the women. Surah 11:41 says: "And he said, 'Ride ye in it; in the Name of Allah it moves and stays!'"; this was taken to mean that Noah said, "In the Name of Allah!" when he wished the Ark to move, and the same when he wished it to stand still.
Noah spent five or six months aboard the Ark, at the end of which he sent out a raven. But the raven stopped to feast on carrion, and so Noah cursed it and sent out the dove, which has been known ever since as the friend of mankind. The medieval scholar Abu al-Hasan Ali ibn al-Husayn Masudi (d. 956) wrote that Allah commanded the earth to absorb the water, and certain portions which were slow in obeying received salt water in punishment and so became dry and arid. The water which was not absorbed formed the seas, so that the waters of the flood still exist. Masudi says that the Ark began its voyage at Kufa in central Iraq and sailed to Mecca, circling the Kaaba before finally traveling to Mount Judi (in Arabic also referred to as "high place, hill), which surah 11:44 states was its final resting place. This mountain is identified by tradition with a hill near the town of Jazirat ibn Umar on the east bank of the Tigris in the province of Mosul in northern Iraq, and Masudi says that the spot where it came to rest could be seen in his time.
Noah left the Ark, and he and his family and companions built a town at the foot of Mount Judi, named Thamanin ("eighty") in reference to their number. Noah then locked the Ark and entrusted the keys to Shem. Yaqut al-Hamawi (1179–1229) mentions a mosque built by Noah which could be seen in his day. Some modern Muslims, although not generally active in searching for the Ark, believe that it still exists on the high slopes of the mountain.
The Bahá'í Faith regards the Ark and the Flood as also symbolic. In Bahá'í belief, only Noah's followers were spiritually alive, preserved in the "ark" of his teachings, as others were spiritually dead. The Bahá'í scripture Kitáb-i-Íqán endorses the Islamic belief that Noah had a large number of companions on the Ark, either 40 or 72, as well as his family, and that he taught for 950 years before the flood.
In Hindu mythology, texts like the Satapatha Brahmana mention the story of a great flood, wherein the Matsya Avatar of Vishnu warns the first man, Manu, of the impending flood, and also advises him to build a giant boat.
The 19th century also saw the growth of Middle Eastern archaeology and the first translations into English of ancient Mesopotamian records. The Assyriologist George Smith achieved world-wide fame with his translation of the Babylonian account of the Great Flood, which he read before the Society of Biblical Archaeology on December 3, 1872. Further discoveries brought to light several versions of the Mesopotamian flood-myth, with the closest to Genesis 6-9 being found in a 7th-century-BC Babylonian copy of the Epic of Gilgamesh: the hero Gilgamesh meets the immortal man Utnapishtim, who tells how the god Ea warned him to build a huge vessel in which to save himself, his family, and his friends and animals, from a great flood by which the gods intended to destroy the world.
As the Flood rises, it wipes out the work of Creation, each month of the Flood corresponding to the matching day of Creation. Just as God on the second day of the world placed the firmament to separate the Earth from waters above and below, so in the second month of Noah's 600th year God opens the floodgates of Heaven and the fountains of the Deep and allows the waters to return; just as the work of Creation was completed on the sixth day, when all living things were ready for man, so the Flood rises for a further five months (the 150 days of Genesis 7:24) until the sixth month, when "everything that had the breath of life in its nostrils, everything that was on the earth, died"; and as God rested on the seventh day, so the Ark rests on the mountaintops on the seventh month. The "wind from God" which passed over the waters of Chaos at the very beginning of Creation (in Genesis 1:2) passes over the waters again, and the world is re-created as the waters dry from the land, until in the fourteenth month men and creatures exit the Ark, and Noah enters into the first Covenant with God.
The Ark is said to be 300 cubits long, 50 cubits wide, and 30 cubits high, and has three decks; it is therefore three times the height of the Tabernacle and three times the area of the Tabernacle forecourt, suggesting that the biblical authors saw both structures serving the same purpose, the preservation of humankind for God's plan. The dimensions betray a numerological preoccupation with the number sixty, one which it shares with the Babylonian Ark: Noah's Ark is 60x5=300 cubits long and 60÷2=30 cubits high.
Although the Book of Genesis in the Bible does not give any further information about the four women it says were aboard Noah's Ark during the Flood, there exist substantial extra-Biblical traditions regarding these women and their names.
In the Book of Jubilees, known to have been in use from the late 2nd century BC, the names of the wives of Noah, Shem, Ham and Japheth are as follows:
- Wife of Noah - Emzara, daughter of Rake'el, son of Methuselah
- Wife of Shem - Sedeqetelebab
- Wife of Ham - Ne'elatama'uk or Na'eltama'uk
- Wife of Japheth - 'Adataneses
The early Christian writer St. Hippolytus (d. 235 AD) recounted a tradition of their names according to the Syriac Targum that is similar to Jubilees, although apparently switching the names of Shem's and Ham's wives. He wrote: The names of the wives of the sons of Noah are these: the name of the wife of Sem, Nahalath Mahnuk; and the name of the wife of Cham, Zedkat Nabu; and the name of the wife of Japheth, Arathka. He also recounts a quaint legend concerning the wife of Ham: God having instructed Noah to destroy the first person who announced that the deluge was beginning, Ham's wife at that moment was baking bread, when water suddenly rushed forth from the oven, destroying the bread. When she exclaimed then that the deluge was commencing, God suddenly cancels his former command lest Noah destroy his own daughter-in-law who was to be saved.
An early Arabic work known as Kitab al-Magall or the Book of Rolls (part of Clementine literature), the Syriac Book of the Cave of Treasures (ca. 350), and Patriarch Eutychius of Alexandria (ca. 930) all agree in naming Noah's wife as "Haykêl, the daughter of Namûs (or Namousa), the daughter of Enoch, the brother of Methuselah"; the first of these sources elsewhere calls Haikal "the daughter of Mashamos, son of Enoch", while stating that Shem's wife is called "Leah, daughter of Nasih".
Furthermore, the Panarion of Epiphanius (ca. 375) names Noah's wife as Barthenos, while the ca. 5th century Ge'ez work Conflict of Adam and Eve with Satan calls Noah's wife "Haikal, the daughter of Abaraz, of the daughters of the sons of Enos" — whom some authors have connected with Epiphanius' Barthenos (i.e., Bath-Enos, daughter of Enos). However, Jubilees makes "Betenos" the name of Noah's mother. The word haykal is Syriac for "temple" or "church"; in the Georgian copy of Cave of Treasures, we find instead the name T'ajar, which is the Georgian word for the same.
Armenian tradition give the name of Noah's wife as Nemzar, Noyemzar or Noyanzar.
Patriarch Eutychius of Alexandria, writing in Arabic, also states that Shem's wife was Salit, Ham's Nahlat and Japheth's Arisisah, all daughters of Methuselah. The theologian John Gill (1697–1771) wrote in his Exposition of the Bible of this tradition "that the name of Shem's wife was Zalbeth, or, as other copies, Zalith or Salit; that the name of Ham's Nahalath; and of Japheth's Aresisia."
A manuscript of the 8th century Latin work Inventiones Nominum, copies of which have been found at the Abbey of St. Gall in Switzerland, and in a library at Albi, SW France, lists as Noah's wife Set, as Shem's wife Nora, as Ham's wife Sare, and as Japeth's wife Serac.
Mandaean literature, of uncertain antiquity, refers to Noah's wife by the name Nuraita (or Nhuraitha, Anhuraita, various other spellings).
The Miautso people of China preserved in their traditions the name of Noah's wife as Gaw Bo-lu-en.