Symbolism of numbers in the story of Noah’s ark

The story of Noah who was instructed by God to build an ark is a well-known story. What is less known is that the story involves a whole game of figures and numbers. The numbers used also appear elsewhere in the Bible. These are numbers that have a symbolic meaning, such as the numbers three, forty-seven and forty-seven. The story as recorded in Genesis also uses repetitions of words to emphasize the importance of certain terms or events. For example, the word ,covenant, is used seven times.

The number seven in the story of Noah’s ark

The number seven appears frequently in the story of the flood. For example, Noah is instructed by God to take seven pairs of all clean animals into the ark. God also commands him to take seven pairs of birds. When Noah is in the ark with all the animals, they wait seven days before the rain starts. When the water has receded, Noah releases a dove. The dove returns and then Noah waits seven days before releasing the dove a second time. The dove returns again. After waiting another seven days, the pigeon is released again. Then he won’t come back.

The number forty in Genesis 7 and 8

The number forty has a special meaning in the Bible. The number symbolizes the time of penance. It is a time of introspection and reflection. At the flood it rained for forty days and forty nights (Genesis 7:4, 12, 17). This period of forty days and forty nights is also reminiscent of Jesus. He spent forty days and forty nights in the wilderness being tempted (Matthew 4:2: Mark 1:13; Luke 4:1). The people of Israel spent forty years in the wilderness before the promised land could be occupied. The Philistine warrior Goliath defied the army of Israel for forty days (1 Samuel 17:16). The prophet Jonah proclaimed that in forty days the city of Nineveh would be destroyed (Jonah 3:4). The number forty appears a second time in the story of the flood. Noah releases a raven: “At the end of forty days Noah opened the window that he had made in the ark, and sent out a raven” (Genesis 8:6-7).

The Flood ordered in the number of days

The story of Noah’s Ark is structured in periods of varying length. The story of the flood begins and ends with seven days. The number of seven days refers to God’s creation. In the first seven days ‘every living thing is destroyed’. The last seven days involve, as it were, a re-creation. Creation becomes liveable again, so that first the dove and later Noah and his entourage can leave the ark.

The chiastic structure of time

The story of Noah’s Ark is carefully constructed. The story has the structure of a chiasmus. A chiasm is a literary style in which the rhyme scheme ABB’A’ guides the deconstruction of the story. In this structure, elements A belong together, elements B and elements C, and so on. In the story of the flood, this structure can be recognized in the counting of days.

A – 7 days: The flood comes seven days after Noah entered the ark (Genesis 7: 10).
B – 40 days: The rain falls on the earth for forty days (Genesis 7:12).C – 150 days: The waters were on the earth for a hundred and fifty days (Genesis 7: 24).C’ – 150 days: After a hundred and fifty days it began the water to subside (Genesis 8: 3).B’ – 40 days: After forty days Noah opens the window of the ark (Genesis 8: 6).
A’ – 7 days: After seven days the dove leaves the ark (Genesis 8: 12).


Noah releases the dove

Forty days after the ark became stuck on the Ararat Mountains, Noah released a raven (Genesis 8:4-7). This one does not return to the ark. Then Noah sends out a dove three times and waits seven days (Genesis 8:8-12). There are seven days between the three times the pigeon is released. The third time the pigeon does not return. In the Bible the third time is often the decision, then comes the turning point. This can be seen very beautifully in the Easter story, for example. On the third day Jesus rose.

Genesis 8:8 Then he sent out a dove to see if the waters had receded any further. 9 But the dove could find no place to rest and came back to him into the ark, because there was still water all over the earth. He reached out his hand and took her and took her back into the ark. 10 He waited another seven days and then released the dove again. 11 Towards evening she came back to him with a young olive leaf in her beak. Then Noah knew that the waters on the earth had receded further. 12 Again he waited seven days, and then he released the dove again. She never came back to him.


The earth is dry again

“In the six hundred first year of Noah’s life, on the first day of the first month, the water was gone from the earth. Noah opened the roof of the ark and looked around, and the earth was dried up” (Genesis 8:13). The first part of this verse is dominated by the word ‘first’. It’s there three times. The threefold repetition emphasizes that a new period is beginning. This day is like a New Year celebration. There is a new beginning for creation.

Source: Joseph Anton Koch, Wikimedia Commons (Public domain)

The sign of the rainbow

After the flood on the earth, Noah, his family and all the animals leave the ark. Noah offers a sacrifice to God in gratitude for their salvation. Noah offered burnt offerings of all clean cattle and every clean bird. God smells the aroma of the sacrifices. “The smell of the sacrifices pleased the Lord” (Genesis 8:21). God then resolves within himself never to curse the earth again because of man. To confirm this, God makes a covenant with Noah. That covenant involves everything that lives on earth and all future generations. It is a one-sided agreement. It is a promise on the part of God. Nothing is asked of Noah in return. In this covenant, God promises that He will never again destroy all living things by a flood. The rainbow is the sign and seal of that promise of God.

Genesis 9:8 God also said to Noah and his sons, 9 “I hereby make a covenant with you and with your descendants, 10 and with every living creature that is among you, birds, livestock, wild animals, and everything that comes from the ark has come, all the animals of the earth. 11 This promise I make to you: Never again will the waters of a flood wipe out all living things, never again will a flood come and destroy the earth. 12 And this,” God said, “shall be the sign of the covenant between me and you and every living creature among you for all generations to come: 13 I set my bow in the clouds; it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth. 14 When I gather clouds over the earth and the bow appears in the clouds, 15 I will remember My covenant with you and with all flesh, and never again will the waters rise into a flood that will destroy everything and everyone. 16 When I see the bow appearing in the clouds, I will remember the everlasting covenant between God and everything on earth. 17 This, God said to Noah, is the sign of the covenant that I have made with every living creature on earth.


The power of repetition

There are many repetitions in the description of the promise that God makes with Noah. For example, the Hebrew word for promise/covenant “ beriet ” appears seven times (Genesis 9: 9, 11, 12, 13, 15, 16, and 17). There is a symbolism in this. Seven is the number of fullness. The number says that it is complete, complete and great. Another repetition is the word sign. This word appears three times (Genesis 9:12, 13 and 17). The word bow is also mentioned three times (Genesis 9: 13, 14 and 16). Through the threefold repetition the author shows that this is important. Something is mentioned three times in a row in the Bible to avoid raising doubts.

read more

  • The symbolic meaning of numbers in the Bible
  • Symbolism of numbers in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus

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