The cartoonification of Noah’s Ark
How such ‘delightful depictions’ downplay the Deluge—and Christianity
A cartoon is a drawing in an unrealistic style, usually for satire, caricature or humour, and/or to appeal to children. ‘Cartoonification’ (aka ‘cartoonization’) is a recent colloquialism for the process of making something that’s real look ‘cartoonish’. I.e. drawing it in a (usually ridiculously) oversimplified, child-friendly or ‘delightful’ manner. Unfortunately, this has happened with Noah’s Ark, marker of one of the key events in biblical history. Most depictions of it have become thoroughly cartoonized!
Today’s common version of the Ark portrays it as a ridiculously-shaped small houseboat. It is mostly only able to carry a handful of the more well-known animals, with giraffes’ heads poking out of windows, and elephants’ trunks hanging down the side. This rather pathetic-looking, definitely non-ocean-going boat is featured on children’s books, celebration cards, novelty ornaments, and more. It has been made into children’s toys and, most disappointingly, put onto Sunday school walls.
The real Noah’s Ark
The Bible in Genesis Chapter 6 very clearly sets out the dimensions, purpose and shape of Noah’s Ark. God ordered Noah to construct it 300 cubits long, 50 cubits wide and 30 cubits high, with three levels, and a door on its side. All the different kinds of land animals and birds that were to come to Noah would find safety on board, along with his family, while God’s judgment came upon the earth in the form of a year-long, worldwide flood. Even using the smaller common cubit of c. 46 cm (18 in),1 Noah’s Ark would have been a massive vessel: L × W × H 137 × 23 × 13.7 metres (450 × 75 × 45 ft), more than adequate for its task.2
More a barge than a boat
The Hebrew word used for the Ark of Noah (which only had to float, not travel like a ship) is tebah (תבה) meaning box-shaped or chest. It is not the Hebrew term used for boat or ship, e.g. ’onîah (אניה) in Proverbs 30:19, or tsî (צי) in Isaiah 33:21. Its Hebrew synonym is ’arôn (ארון), used for the Ark of the Covenant, another box-shaped item or chest, emphasizing the shape of Noah’s Ark.3 Both words are translated as kibōtos (κιβωτός) in the Greek of the Septuagint and the New Testament, showing they have an overlapping semantic range. And the NT never uses kibōtos for ship or boat.
Full-size ark constructions around the world
Leading creation ministries have long been aware of the negative implications of cartoonish ‘Arks’ in their own publications; there are materials with age-appropriate Ark illustrations at creation.com/store, for example, that are far from the cartoonized distortions.
Also helping to counter the huge tide of such (mis)representations of the Ark today is a growing number of full-size reconstructions in different parts of the world.
The first appeared in 2008; a full-size concrete Noah’s Ark located close to Hong Kong Airport.1
In 2011, Dutchman Johan Huibers (after first building a smaller-scale version capable of navigating his homeland’s canals) built a full-sized Ark (fig. 3)—that floats and travels on water!2
In 2016, ‘Ark Encounter’ opened a theme park in Kentucky, USA, centred around a full-size wooden Ark (fig. 4).
Don’t help the scoffers!
With the Bible so clear on the size, purpose and shape of Noah’s Ark, its pervasive cartoonification is nothing short of amazing! Searching the average Christian bookshop’s children’s section, it is increasingly hard, if not impossible, to find any depiction of Noah’s Ark that even comes close to the biblical description. The cartoonified version is by far the dominant presentation.
Publishers have certainly made it into a delightful depiction for children, colourful and attractive—but not biblical. Pictorially, it seems to be more about Noah saving animals, rather than God saving Noah from the Flood cataclysm. And it detracts from the real history of God’s judgment on the evil of mankind; kids seem to be meant to enjoy the picture mostly because of the cute animals, rather than learning about God’s grace towards those He saved.
This cartoonification is strongly correlated with the denial of true biblical history, and the concomitant demise of Christianity. The history in Genesis is the real history of the universe, life and mankind. It chronicles our Fall into sin, leading to the ‘bondage to corruption’ (Romans 8:20–22) of the originally ‘very good’ universe (Genesis 1:31)—and to God’s judgment through the Flood. The New Testament makes clear that this history is the seedbed of Christianity, foundational to the Gospel. The Kinsman-Redeemer promised right after this Fall, the Seed of the Woman (Genesis 3:15), and further prophesied in Isaiah 59:20, is also called “the last Adam” (1 Corinthians 15:45). It is the shedding of His blood in death which will ultimately abolish the Genesis Curse of death and bloodshed (brought in by the disobedience of “the first man, Adam”), when the entire creation is restored. This Ark-cartoonification thus plays perfectly into the hands of those who seek to rubbish the history in Genesis, and with it, Christianity itself.
Consider, too—what is one of the strongest reasons for thinkers to reject the Bible (and thus the Gospel) as factual? It is the belief that fossils were formed over vast eons of time, long before people existed (and thus long before sin). Since fossils show death, disease and suffering, this emphatically contradicts the Gospel-foundational teaching that such things entered a perfect world only after sin.
And, in turn, the crucial ‘key’ to powerfully refuting this belief in ‘geological ages’ is understanding the Genesis Flood—an unparalleled catastrophe. It would have buried and fossilized countless billions of plants and animals exhibiting such ‘bad things’—after Adam’s Fall. So, making the Ark (and thus the whole Flood account) seem ridiculous through this ‘cartoonification’ is doubly effective in furthering the aims of the enemies of the faith.
In light of all this, a most pressing question that Christendom needs to ask of itself is: Why do Christian publishers, bookshops and buyers continue to publish, sell, and buy such misleading books?
It doesn’t happen in the secular world!
This process of cartoonification has not happened to other historical ships of the past. The Titanic, for example, one of the world’s best-known ships, is almost never portrayed in this way. Even when within cartoons, it looks like quite an accurately-proportioned ocean-going liner. Of course, everyone knows what it looked like, from numerous photos. Any attempt to cartoonize it would just make it look ridiculous, just as Noah’s Ark has been made to look ridiculous.
Children growing up and seeing a cartoonized version of Noah’s Ark are having a massive obstacle to the truth placed unnecessarily in front of them. Reaching children in an evolutionized world is already hard enough; let’s not make it harder by impressing upon them a mental image that conjures up questions and doubts due to its fable-like characteristics.
Realistic depictions avoid later ‘unlearning’
It is a great responsibility to have an influence on the life and development of a child. Resources should of course be attractive and high quality, but should not be cartoonized at the expense of biblical truth. Portraying Noah’s Ark in true biblical proportions means children will not have to subsequently ‘unlearn’ the sorts of ‘delightful depictions’ many currently have in their heads. It will also help to reinforce the real historical accuracy of the Bible.
Not all unbiblical ‘arks’ are modern
In Anton Koberger’s illustrated 1483 edition of the Bible in High German (fig. 5.), or in the illustrated 1493 biblical paraphrase, the Nuremberg Chronicle (fig. 6), there are inaccurate pictures of Noah’s Ark with little room for Noah and his family, never mind all the different kinds of animals.
However, there are also good early examples of realistic drawings that have attempted to adhere closely to the biblical text. For example, Pierre Mortier’s 1700 detailed depiction of the Ark being built (fig. 7), and Matthew Poole’s 1669 drawing of the Ark in water (fig. 8). Other examples include the detailed study Arca Noë (1675) by Athanasius Kircher, called in his day ‘The master of 100 arts’. Even the now-secular Encyclopædia Britannica, had a realistic Ark in its 1771 edition, which supported the global Flood (see Encyclopaedia Britannica: supporting a young earth!).
References and notes
- As opposed to the longer royal cubit, used in ancient Egypt, of c. 52 cm (~20.5 in), which would make the Ark significantly bigger. Ark Encounter’s reconstruction (see box, p. 41) is based on a royal cubit. Return to text.
- See creation.com/noahs-ark-questions-and-answers for more on the adequacy of Noah’s Ark in many respects, including size. Return to text.
- Both words are translated arca in Latin hence the modern word ‘Ark’. Return to text.
Very good article. I am an artist, and illustrate Christian topics and stories for children. They are mostly in the comic, or 'graphic novel' style, but I strive to keep a semi-realistic style within the context of the medium. I too am appalled at the 'cuddly', silly, insult to the intelligence art of most Christian books for children; and not just depictions of Noah's ark, but of the prophets and Jesus Himself!
When you see the realism and detail put into a lot of secular folk myths and war history for children, it makes me think of the quote: 'you Christians preach your fact like fiction, while atheists preach their fiction like fact'.
All that you say in the article seems correct, but I would like to add some points.
(1) Over 100 years ago, Beatrix Potter, an English author, discovered that small children love long words! Since then many other writers for children have followed her example, but many people still underestimate in other ways what children can understand and enjoy - hence oversimplified pictures in Bible story books.
(2) Most older Bible translations retain Hebrew weights and measures without even footnotes to explain them. Thus even adults - including book illustrators for children - may have no idea of how long a cubit is and have not troubled to look it up before dealing with the Bible accounts of Noah's Ark. This may be irresponsible, but it is all too common!
As I have said, you are right on what you say - for instance, that publishers no longer seem to take seriously the details of some Bible stories - especially this one! Unfortunately, also, too few Sunday School teachers bother to double-check.
God bless your important work!
The ark's depiction (sadly) has always been represented in a boat shaped fashion which may have been initially to enable 'younger minds' to understand what the purpose of the ark was!
However, the dimensions of the ark are clearly laid out in the Bible and no mention of sculpting a 'front' or 'rear' is defined so I guess its an artist's impression of what is imagined that comes to the fore! Note the Ark was never referred to as a raft,boat or ship etc.!
Excellent article as usual, however fig 7 shows about 50 people working on the Ark. Who were these people who were destined to perish in the Flood? ... May I please have a reply to this (Biblical) statement?
The article discusses the shape of the Ark, not the number of people who built it and that is context of the green tick on the figure. The Bible is silent on number of people engaged in building the Ark but it's quite possible he used hired hands. People are frequently willing to take paid employment without any compunction that they disregard the beliefs of their employers.
Following a feedback item in Creation 39(1), we have been asked to add further comment. Angelo states “Searching the average Christian bookshop’s children’s section, it is increasingly hard, if not impossible, to find any depiction of Noah’s Ark that even comes close to the biblical description. The cartoonified version is by far the dominant presentation.” I understand the pictures he is talking about are like the circled image with the cross though it next to the title of the article, as you would find in preschool books. The two books I have had for more than 20 years did not have pictures like these, but rather pictures that were realistic. One of these books is “The Picture Bible,” which is a comic version of the whole Bible. I thought that I should go to our local Christian Bookshop, Koorong, to see if his claim was true—that it would be nearly impossible to find books that did not show the ark as a “pathetic-looking, definitely non-ocean- going boat” (p. 40). I can confirm that there were many books that had the types of pictures he claims were there, however, these were only in the books targeted at preschool children. I opened no less than nine illustrated children's books, which would be targeted at children who could read, and they virtually all had what I would consider an acceptable scaling of ark size to people and animals. Quite possibly, the author should have qualified his statement as limited to Christian Bookstores in Northern Ireland because I did not find that to be the case here in Australia. I went to my local Christian bookstore and found no less than nine books with realistic proportions of the arc, after which time I stopped comparing them. Furthermore, I don't remember find one for a school age child that showed grossly improportunate pictures of the arc. In every book I looked at, the style of illustration used for the arc was the same as the rest of the book, i.e. the arc was not singled out.