Every so often, a headline appears online or in newspapers about a research team that believes they have discovered evidence of Noah’s ark. Could it be that the ark that is described in the Book of Genesis factually existed? It’s possible. However, whether or not the story of Noah’s Ark is factual, Catholics embrace the story as true. That’s because something can be true without necessarily being fact. Let’s back up just a bit.
The story of Noah’s Ark, Genesis chapters 5 through 9, recounts a devastating flood that destroyed the world and all living creatures except for a just man named Noah, his family, and the pairs of living creatures that he brought on board with him before the rain fell for 40 days and 40 nights. Interestingly enough, there are a number of epic stories of a great flood that can be found in various cultures around the world. No doubt, the story of Noah is based on a factual event since archaeologists have found evidence of great floods that took place during biblical times. This does not mean, however that every detail of the story of Noah’s Ark is factual. We have no reason NOT to believe that a just man named Noah saved his family and many living creatures from a flood that devastated the known world at that time. However, it is hardly conceivable that a simple man like Noah could build an ark of such huge proportions and then gather two of every known living creature – one male and one female – and house them safely within it and feed them and dispose of their waste over a period of 40 days. That’s quite a zoological fete! The less-than-factual character of this story, however, in no way diminishes the truth and sacredness of its message. At times, biblical authors, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, used figurative language to communicate God’s truth. It is indeed possible for something to be truthful but not necessarily factual. When Scripture says that “God is my rock,” (Psalm 18:2) we are not to believe that God is literally a rock. The image, while not intended to be literal, expresses a truth about God using figurative language – like a rock, God is strong, steadfast, solid, and can be leaned on! Likewise, the story of Noah’s Ark employs a great deal of figurative language to express an absolute truth about God and our relationship with him: when we sin, it is as if we are drowning, however, God will spare us if we live justly as Noah did.
For a more in-depth understanding of how the Church teaches us to read Scripture, especially those parts that employ figurative language, be sure to read The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church issued by the Pontifical Biblical Commission.