How Did Noah’s Ark Rest on the Mountains of Ararat?
by Eric Lyons, M.Min.
In Genesis 8:4, the Bible indicates that Noah’s ark rested “on the mountains of Ararat.” This statement, like so many others in Genesis 6-9, has come under attack by critics. For example, in his two-part article on the Flood, skeptic Dennis McKinsey asked: “How could the Ark have rested upon several mountains at once?” (1983, p. 2). Three months later, McKinsey commented on the passage again, saying, “Gen. 8:4 says ‘mountains,’ plural, not ‘a mountain,’ singular.... Apologists repeatedly say one should read the Bible as one reads a newspaper, which is what I am doing. I assume the book says what it means and means what it says” (1984, p. 3). How could the ark rest on more than one mountain?
Although the ark was a huge vessel, it obviously did not rest on more than one of the mountains of Ararat. So why then does the text literally say “the mountains of Ararat?” The answer involves the understanding of a figure of speech known as synecdoche. Merriam-Webster defines this term as “a figure of speech by which a part is put for the whole (as fifty sail for fifty ships), the whole for a part (as society for high society)...or the name of the material for the thing made (as boards for stage)” (2008, italics in orig.). Just as Bible writers frequently used figures of speech such as simile, metaphor, sarcasm, and metonymy, they also used synecdoche. As seen above (in the definition of synecdoche), this figure of speech can be used in a variety of ways (see Dungan, 1888, pp. 300-309):
A whole can be put for the part.
A part may be put for the whole.
Time might be put for part of a time period.
The singular can be put for the plural.
And the plural can be put for the singular.
In Genesis 8:4, the plural obviously was put for the singular. Only a few chapters later this same figure of speech is used again. Sarah asked, “Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? For I have borne him a son in his old age” (Genesis 21:7, emp. added). Anyone who knows much about the history of the Old Testament and the genealogy of Christ knows that Sarah had but one child (Isaac). In certain contexts, however, one might use a synecdoche and speak of one child (as did Sarah) by using the word “children.” Often, when I call for the attention of my two sons and one daughter, I refer to them as “boys and girls.” I actually have only one daughter, but summoning my children with the expressions “boys and girl” or “boys and Shelby,” simply does not flow as well as “boys and girls.” Thus, I frequently use the plural (“girls”) for the singular (“Shelby”). The emphasis is not on the singularity or plurality of the nouns, but on particular categories (“boys” and “girls”).
Another apparent example where Bible writers used “the whole for the part” or “the plural for the singular” is found in Matthew 27:44 and Mark 15:32. In these passages, Matthew and Mark claimed that “the robbers” (plural) who were crucified with Christ reviled Him. Luke, however, mentioned that “one of the criminals who were hanged blasphemed” Christ (23:39, emp. added). Luke then went on to document the humble attitude of the penitent thief. So why did Matthew and Mark indicate the “thieves” (plural) reviled Jesus? Although the penitent thief could have reviled Christ earlier, it is feasible that Matthew and Mark were using the plural in place of the singular in their accounts of the thief reviling Christ on the cross. The emphasis, once again, would be on a particular category, and not the number of a noun. Just as other groups reviled Christ (e.g., passers-by [Matthew 27:39], Jewish leaders [Matthew 27:41-43], and soldiers [Luke 23:36]), so did the “robbers” (Matthew 27:44; Mark 15:32)—not necessarily a plurality of robbers, but the category known as “robbers,” which included at least one thief who reviled Christ (Luke 23:39).
Although skeptics may dislike the Bible writers’ use of figures of speech, if critics are honest, they must acknowledge the possibility that Moses, Paul, and others occasionally used figurative language (just as people do in modern times). Once a person recognizes the use of figures of speech (e.g., synecdoche) in Scripture, he cannot deny that a very plausible explanation for the use of “mountains” in Genesis 8:4 is that it is written in the plural form, even though it is referring to a single “mountain.”
Dungan, D.R. (1888), Hermeneutics (Delight, AR: Gospel Light, reprint).
McKinsey, Dennis (1983), “Commentary,” Biblical Errancy, pp. 1-2, November.
McKinsey, Dennis (1984), “Letters to the Editor,” Biblical Errancy, p. 3, February.
Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary (2008), [On-line], URL: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary.