What the Ark Encounter Reveals about Science, the Bible, and Entertainment

What the Ark Encounter Reveals about Science, the Bible, and Entertainment July 12, 2016

I have some training in public history—museums, archival work, etc.—and one thing I remember very clearly is that historical architectural reproductions should be built using materials as close to the original materials as possible, especially when it is a reconstruction (or restoration) of a specific historical building. Using tools and materials they would not have had available to them at the time changes things significantly, and is generally done as sparingly as possible. After all, it is a reproduction, and this is part of the point. Not so, it would seem, with Ken Ham’s new young earth creationist project, Ark Encounter.

Several months ago, I wrote about Ken Ham’s use of modern tools and machinery in building Ark Encounter. In that post I focused on Ken Ham’s assertion that Noah could have had sophisticated tools and machinery himself. I explained that I remember hearing this teaching when attending talks by Answers in Genesis as a teen, and I noted that Ken Ham (and other creationists) often posit that the civilization that existed before the flood of Noah’s day might have been even more sophisticated than ours, because fewer mutations would have occurred in the human genome since God’s perfect creation of Adam and Eve. I am no longer a young earth creationist myself , but I wanted to explore what I saw as a piece of internal consistency within young earth creationism in that moment.

Still, though, there’s something bothering me about this.

For me, it’s less about the tools used and more about the materials. After all, Genesis does outline what the Ark is to be constructed of. You can read it here:

Genesis 6: 14-16—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 three hundred cubits, its breadth fifty cubits, and its height thirty 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.

There’s nothing whatsoever about metal. Of course, Ken Ham has a response:

[W]here in the Bible does it say Noah didn’t use metal? In fact, in Genesis 4:22, just a few generations after Adam, we read, “And as for Zillah, she also bore Tubal-Cain, an instructor of every craftsman in bronze and iron.” So if they were using bronze and iron then, by the time of Noah people may have developed all sorts of sophisticated uses of metals. Noah may have used more metal than we do!

Okay, but there was steel used in building the Ark Encounter. Steel. That’s a hell of a lot different from bronze and iron. While the ancients occasionally made weapons out of steel, steel manufacture is complicated, and the metal didn’t attain widespread use in construction until the modern era, when new smelting methods were developed that allowed for the mass production of steel. Steel is crucially important to modernity because of its cheapness and impressive durability. Railroad tracks made of iron wore out quickly and frequently had to be replaced. Steel changed this. I am not a chemist or an ironworker, but even I know that steel is different.

Steel does not appear in the Bible, and for good reason. Ken Ham might argue that the pre-flood civilization, those long-lived, intelligent descendants of Adam and Eve, did use steel. And I’ll admit to wondering, as a teen, whether it was possible that that civilization had sophisticated technology that we could only dream of, way beyond computers or the internet. And yet, it seems disingenuous for Ken Ham to back up his decision to use steel in the ark by quoting an early Genesis verse mentioning bronze and iron. It feels rather like he’s counting on people not knowing that there is a very serious difference between steel, on the one hand, and bronze and iron on the other.

There’s something else, too. That article I quoted from above, in which Ken Ham responded to critics of his building process? It’s titled How Did Noah Build the Ark, but it doesn’t mention either gopher wood or pitch, the two things Genesis does tell us about who Noah built the Ark.

No one knows what gopher wood was, at the term was used exactly once in the Bible, and not elsewhere. Anyone other than Ken Ham might at least assume that the wood must have existed in in the area where Genesis was composed and in the same time frame, and another individual producing a reproduction might go looking for the sorts of woods used in ship construction at the time. Ham, though, can’t make that assumption. After all, he is operating on the assumption of a literal global flood, and a pre-flood civilization and climate that could have been far different from our own. In some sense, Ham approaches the pre-flood society with a sort of science fiction perspective—anything could have existed, and in some sense, everything did (think dinosaurs). In fact, given that Ham believes that fossilized prehistoric trees are actually the remains of pre-flood forests, an accurate (from his view) reproduction might well involve prehistoric timber that is now extinct.

But what about the pitch? According to the Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia:

tar and pitch, viscous, dark-brown to black substances obtained by the destructive distillation of coal, wood, petroleum, peat, and certain other organic materials. … By the application of heat, tar is separated into several materials, one of which is pitch. The terms  tar and  pitch are loosely applied to the many varieties of the two substances, sometimes interchangeably. … When ships were made of wood, tar had numerous uses, and an available supply of tar was an important factor in maritime growth. Tar made vessels watertight and protected their ropes from deterioration. … Pitch is used in the manufacture of roofing paper, in varnishes, as a lubricant, and as a binder for coal dust in the making of briquettes used as fuel. …

According to the British Museum:

Tars and pitches are black sticky substances obtained by the destructive distillation either of wood, bark, or tapped resin from soft and hardwood trees such as pine, spruce and birch. They have widely been used in the past as waterproofing agents and timber preservatives, especially in maritime contexts. In the medieval period, their role in shipbuilding and maintenance led them to acquire crucial strategic and political importance for the developing European seafaring economies and naval fleets.

Let me just throw this out there real quick: If we know that pitch was critically important to waterproofing wood ships in our historical past, and Genesis mentions only wood and pitch in speaking of the construction of the Ark, wouldn’t it be fairly safe to assume (if you believed there was a real, historical Ark) that the Ark was constructed in the same relative fashion as other ancient wood ships? In fact, some young earth creationists take the mention of pitch as proof that the Ark was a real boat, and that it would have been seaworthy, given its construction using the same shipbuilding techniques commonly in use in the ancient world. This clashes with Ham’s fanciful imaginings of the advanced technology he posits might have existed in pre-flood society, and suggests that a reproduction of the Ark should be built using the same techniques and tools the ancient shipbuilders of our archeological past used, and not cranes or metals.

And then there’s another important question—where’s the pitch?

The sides of that ship look awfully clean. And check out this video:

Yeah no, I don’t see the pitch. Pitch is like tar. It’s black and goopy and sticky.

There’s a reason old wood ships tended to be dark in color, like this one from 1628:

What’s weird is that I was not able to find any discussion of the pitch on the Ark Encounter website. You would think, given that this is one of only two materials Genesis specifies the Ark was made of, there would be at least some conversation about the role of pitch in the process. Please let me know if you find any that I missed! I did find this excerpt from a 2014 article on the Answers in Genesis website:

[T]he Bible tells us that Noah sealed the Ark with pitch, inside and out (Genesis 6:14). Was this pitch derived from an oil-producing plant, or actual petroleum generated deep in the earth’s mantle by some abiotic process?

We won’t know about the kind of pitch Noah used unless the Ark is found. But it is curious that ships are normally pitched on the outside only. What might we surmise by reading that the Lord instructed Noah to pitch it on the inside also? Is it possible that because the pitch was inside and outside, God may have intended the Ark to be preserved after its voyage?

And this from a 2013 article on the Answers in Genesis website:

The Bible specifies that Noah used pitch, just like wooden ships from ancient times to the 1900s. In addition, Noah was instructed to use pitch inside as well as out, which may have been to stabilize the wood over a long construction period.

If Noah used pitch “just like wooden ships from ancient times to the 1900s,” where is the pitch on the Ark reproduction presented at Ark Encounter? I’m not seeing it.

Let’s get this straight. Ham claims that we don’t know what sort of sophisticated technology Noah might have had, thus justifying his use of cranes. At the same time, the Answers in Genesis website (as seen above) champions the use of pitch in the text as showing that the Ark was constructed using materials and methods used in ancient wooden shipbuilding, thus making the story (presumably) more credible and believable. So which was it? Was the ship constructed with known technologies in a realistic way, thus putting it in the realm of history rather than myth (or so goes the argument)? Or was the ship constructed using technologies we may only be able to imagine, thus making the appeal to the historical realism of pitch self-defeating?

In the end, as someone who was raised to take the Bible seriously, and as someone with some training in public training—including a brief introduction to historical architectural reproduction—I am extremely bothered by the way Ham chose to construct his Ark. His lack of care at all about the materials and methods that would have been used at the time, justified by his claims about the potentially advanced technology of Noah’s day, puts his creation more in the realm of science fiction than historical reproduction. Further, his lack of any visible use of pitch, which Genesis clearly indicates was key to the construction of the Ark, combined with his use of steel, which is not mentioned anywhere in the Bible, suggests that Ham cared less about making a reproduction of the Ark than he did about building an attraction that was (a) structurally sound and (b) aesthetically pleasing.

Ham’s scientific and biblical claims are upstaged by his interest in entertainment.

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