Located in a small town in Kentucky, the 510-foot-long recreation of the great biblical vessel opened to visitors last month, complete with 265 cages containing models of the animals Noah might have brought with him on his journey. The Ark Encounter, run by an evangelical Christian ministry, also presents theories about how Noah might have disposed of the animals’ waste during his voyage, imaginative details about his family, and explanations fitting the story into the designers’ creationist worldview. To Edward Rothstein, the exhibit was imposing but unsatisfying:
The problem isn’t that it takes the story literally, but that it doesn’t take it literally enough. Leon Kass, in his analysis of Genesis, The Beginning of Wisdom, notes that for over a half-century before Noah’s birth, all nine generations of humanity, including Adam, appear to be alive simultaneously. Then, suddenly, the first natural deaths occur. Despair, confusion, and nihilism run rampant. Then comes Noah who is, Kass notes, “the first man born into the world after Adam dies.” Everywhere he looks, Noah sees death: first, humanity in frenzied rebellion against death; then, humanity perishing in apocalyptic catastrophe; and finally, after the Flood, humanity getting divine sanction to devour animal flesh and execute murderers. The account of Noah’s post-Flood drunken stupor—ignored here—makes sense. Noah has seen too much. After the Flood, humanity’s powers expanded, but so did awareness of its own limits.
Seen in this light, the Ark story is not a simple tale of sin and salvation, but a complex tale of human mortality and human primacy, issues that soon lead to the hubris of the Tower of Babel, as men seek to re-establish their own permanence and prominence. There’s something hubristic about Ark Encounter as well. But while seeming to enlarge its subject, it ends up shrinking it instead.