Science in Christian Perspective



How many trees did Noah take on the ark?

William F. Tanner*

Geology Department
Florida State University
Tallahassee, FL 32306-3026

From: PSCF 47 (December 1995): 260-263.

Genesis 6, 7, and 8 describe the flood associated with the name of Noah. The narrative is concerned largely with the moral and spiritual situation at one place in Noah's day, God's instructions to Noah to build an ark in order to ride out the coming catastrophe, the gathering of the animals that were to be carried on the ark, the duration of rainfall and flooding, and finally recession of the water to expose dry land again.

Several things in the story are problematical, and inherent difficulties in this kind of narrative have been exacerbated in various ways: overly-enthusiastic translators, implications that are not in the original story, and a willingness to brush factual details aside as inconsequential.

Mountains or Hills?

For example, the statement that the flood covered "all the high mountains," is a pointlessly restrictive translation of a phrase that refers, first and foremost, to "hills." It is conceivable that it could indeed identify mountains, but one does not know that as a fact, and it is not even a good probability; the unbiased and most likely translation is "hills." We infer "mountains" for the simple and sole reason that we want to do it this way.

A good analog can be found in modern Spanish, where cerro means "backbone, ridge, hill" or "rise in the ground." Dictionaries generally do not list "mountain" as one of the meanings, yet some people use it in this sense, some published maps identify mountains (rather than hills) with this word, and some translators would choose to use "mountain" rather than "hill," perhaps because the imagery is more impressive.

A very clear and helpful detail is provided in Genesis 7:20. The Septuagint, an ancient Greek text which is by many centuries the oldest version presently available, says (in a literal translation): "Fifteen cubits upward was raised the water, and it covered all the hills high." The Masoretic text (a Hebrew edition from the Middle Ages, and the one that underlies modern English versions) says essentially the same thing. Most translations use the term "mountains" without justification; then, to get around the obvious contradiction, change it to something like "upward to fifteen cubits above all the high mountains." After all, it must make sense, even if we have to delete an important fact that we do not like. (Fifteen cubits may be about 20-23 feet, or 6-7 meters.)

A water rise of 20-25 feet in the course of a flood is not unknown in modern times. If Noah and his contemporaries lived on a broad flood plain, such as that of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, this kind of flood would be disastrous. Any rise greater than 25 feet adds nothing to the destruction and does not enhance the fulfillment of divine purpose (although it would make a great movie).

Many people will say that it is possible to use "mountains," therefore one must use "mountains." Jesus made a comment on this attitude, when he specifically rejected the "pointless spectacular," and opted instead for the "purposeful routine" (Luke 4:9-12).

How much is "All"?

"All" is likewise suspect, but for a different reason. "All the numbers," early in the kindergarten year, might mean "1 through 10." For a specialist in mathematics, the meaning is quite different. The appropriate rendition may depend on the sophistication of the writer. But a common procedure in Bible study is to argue that "all" must include everything on every continent, reflecting modern knowledge, thereby removing the story from its original context. The basic idea is: If "all" does not mean 100%, then we really do not know anything. In fact, "all" has many different meanings, as is easy to verify in an unabridged English dictionary, and "100%" is only one of them.

There is a mountain much higher than Mount Everest on Mars. Was this also covered by Noah's flood? It is Olympus Mons, and it stands some 27 kilometers above the Mars datum (about 90,000 feet tall), therefore about three times as high as Mt. Everest. For those who wish to believe that "all" invariably means 100% of everything that we can think of today, the answer is "yes" (the text clearly does not say, "except on Mars," or "on Earth only," and we must stay abreast of modern knowledge).

The critical point is not the sophistication of the translator or the reader, but the extent of knowledge of the writer. Did the original writer of this part of the record really know about, for example, Fujiyama? Or Mt. McKinley? Or Mt. Everest? What did "all" mean in his vocabulary? What it means in the vocabulary of the twentieth century is of no significance here.

"All" appears again in phrases like "all the Earth" and "under all the heavens." (The latter certainly includes Mars.)

Land or Earth?

Ancient peoples had no concept of the Earth as a planet. To them, the Earth was the platform (e.g., "stage") on which the drama of life was unfolded, and planets were merely wandering (that is, erratic) stars that astronomers could distinguish from other stars that had regular behavior. (The English word "planet" was derived from the Greek word meaning to go astray, or to wander.) In ancient times there was no connection between the Earth and the planets that were seen in the sky. Galileo's "sin" was in making a rational connection.

The word "Earth" (with a capitalized initial letter) refers to our planet, an almost-spherical object suspended in space, and this word should be used sparingly, if at all, in translating ancient documents. In the book of Genesis, two different Hebrew words are rendered as "Earth" or "earth" in the flood account: (1) arets, meaning land, ground, dirt, or country, and (2) adamah, meaning ground, soil, land, region, country. Either one means "earth," (that is, dirt or soil), but neither means "Earth." To render either one as the latter is to insert a concept that did not exist then. Considering the intellectual baggage which this word carries with it today, it should not be employed in translating the flood story. It requires an implication which is not permissible.

The ancient Greek version of Genesis uses the word g*, in which the second symbol is a vowel, but not "e" or "a." It has a sound close to that in "day," "may," and "say," but not "red" or "fed," not "seed" or "need," and not "lad" or "sad." The meaning is land, dirt, plowed field, or country, but not "planet." This is the term from which we get the word "geology." We have extrapolated the latter (but not the original Greek word) to cover our planet.

The most appropriate rendition, in either case, appears to be "land," although "ground" might serve as well. Not only is the meaning, in the Genesis story, well represented by "land," but we should keep in mind that this term refers to the land as Noah knew it, not the land as it appears on some modern map or satellite image.

Words, Words, Words

Various people have discussed these points (hills, all, land) before, but it is popular to sweep logical discussion to one side, perhaps because logic, without facts, may not carry much weight. But in the present case, we have two important details that are undeniably part of the record, and they shed a great deal of light on the story.

These two specific and pertinent factual statements in the Genesis account do not depend on our ability to evaluate properly the sophistication of the writer. One is the fact (listed above) that the water rose 15 cubits (about 20-23 feet); this places a limit to flood height. The other is the statement that a dove, having been released from the ark, brought back a "freshly-plucked" olive twig (Gen. 8:11). Freshly-plucked means "green," in the parlance of today; if the leaf (or twig) were brown, "freshly-plucked" would be an error.

There is immediately a question of origin of the green leaf (or leaves). What was the location of the olive tree from which the dove got the twig? If the tree was on the ark, then Noah must have stocked the latter with a selection of trees. So, how many trees did Noah take on the ark? Was any specimen a blue spruce or a Norfolk Island pine (not known in his part of the world)? Why does the record say nothing about collecting trees?

Obviously, Noah did not think the olive tree was growing in a suitable tub on the ark. Therefore, it must have been located somewhere else. It is not permissible to infer that the olive tree, still bearing green leaves, was newly-exposed by the falling water level after some five months of submergence (Gen. 7:24). Tree leaves must breathe, taking in air (for the carbon dioxide content), and exhaling oxygen. This is done through the stomata, numerous tiny openings which are present on the underside of the leaf (as well as, for example, on the stem).

It is easy to kill a leafóand to do it quicklyóby coating the underside with paint or varnish, thus plugging the stomata. Trees, which are covered by water for much less than 150 days, die (they can't breathe). The covered leaves die almost immediately. One does not have to paint the leaves of living trees to learn this; many a modern flood has left ample evidence.

The dove was gone from the ark for a few hours because according to the Genesis account, it returned the same day. This means that the green olive tree could have been tens of kilometers away, or perhaps as much as a few hundred. At that distance, the land had not been covered by the Noachian deluge, because tree leaves were still green.

Then Why the Ark?

If safe high ground was available within reasonable walking distance (ten or a hundred kilometers), why was Noah instructed to build an ark? Walking would have been simpler. This is a theological question, rather than a scientific question, and therefore it must be approached in a distinctive way. There are at least two possible answers: (a) The ark is a model of salvation through grace, whereas "walking to safety" (or running) is a model of salvation by works; and (b) The ark is a model of how stupid all of this looks to the outsider, until it is too late; the outsiders (at the time of the flood) had had a good time, making fun of Noah and the carpentry work.

An auxiliary answer might be: If Noah and his family had walked to safety, other members of the community could have done so also, even though they were targeted for destruction. They had to be confronted with an option that appeared to be foolish "on the face of it."

These are extremely important theological statements. Many people believe that "salvation by grace" is exclusively a New Testament concept, and has no place in the Old Testament. However, the story of the ark is specifically one example of this doctrine, and it appears in the Old Testament for this theological reason, not because it would make a great novel or movie.

The green olive leaf also provides an implication about the height of the flood: olive trees, then, as now, did not live at high altitudes. Therefore the tiny bit of information about the olive twig provides limits about both extent and height, and confirms the statement that the waters rose about 20-23 feet.

With this information, one must choose "hill," but not "mountain." "Hill" is the preferred translation anyway, unless there is strong evidence to the contrary. Also with this information, one must render "all" in terms of the knowledge available to Noah and his contemporaries, rather than in terms of a modern atlas. And, finally, "land" is obviously a much better translation than "Earth."

Furthermore, it is appropriate to ask the question of why God would choose to drown the tip of Mount Everest, merely to eliminate a relatively small group of people (all more-or-less within walking distance of Noah's house) on the low-altitude coastal plain, where a flood 20-23 feet high would do exactly the same thing. It is not instructive to reply that we do not understand why God might do this or that; of course we do not understand everything, but such a remark is an evasion of our responsibility to use our minds. The comment of Jesus (Luke 4:9-12), about rejecting the spectacular, should be helpful at this point.

But is this a Miracle?

One of the greatest problems that we encounter in trying to evaluate the scope of the Noachian deluge, is the demand, by some people, for God to perform impressive Hollywood-style miracles, even when there is no such need. What are the alternatives? Will we deny the faith if we believe that, on some given day, God does something important, but he does it in a way less exciting than what a modern magician, such as David Copperfield, is represented as doing? I have been told that a person who rejects the concept of total submergence of all mountains, is not a Christianóapparently an otherwise unstated theological requirement is at stake. It seems that God must do every conceivable miracle, at the maximum scale or rate, or he is not thought to be God. Perhaps we should contemplate the problem of why he did not do any number of other conceivable miracles.

The green olive leaf, and the 20-foot rise, reduce the "global flood" of popular opinion to something less than that, but these two facts are part of the Genesis story, and should not be cast aside. If we accept the story, then we should accept these details.

Perhaps the result is a bonus: we can now concentrate on the concepts that are taught in the flood story, rather than stopping with a mere superficial admiration of a human conceptual edifice, erected by us for our own amazement. In other words, perhaps we will be able to turn away from the "cowboy story" with its gee-whizz aspects, to the theological drama. If the latter is not pre-eminent, then the narrative should not be in the Bible.

In fact, the idea of a limited flood doing precisely what it was supposed to do, but nothing more, fits well into the overall framework of the Bible (although it does not fit the popular but extra-biblical notion that everything done by God must be an extravaganza). It also fits into the history of the region, possibly the plain of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, where truly major river floods have been relatively common (perhaps every few centuries).

As a structural parallel, we may note that Paul was freed from prison in Philippi by an earthquake (Acts 16:26). It is commonly assumed that this event was a miracle. However, the prison was located in one of the two main earthquake belts of the planet: a single minor quake (the structure did not collapse) was routine, rather than extraordinary. One might as well say that every earthquake in California and in Japan is a miracle, and that natural processes have nothing to do with them. There was no miracle in the minor event in Philippi, but there may have been (depending on one's point of view) a miracle in the timing.

Type of Flood

There is one other facet that is worth mentioning. In addition to the question about "How many trees were there on the ark?" we need to ask, "What kind of flood was this?" The pat answer, of course, is that it was rain water, which at first glance appears to be both biblical and logical.

In fact, floods are of two main types: (a) Fluvial, due to one or more streams spreading out beyond their banks, and (b) Coastal, due to a severe storm, or an unusually high tide, or some combination of these two. Short-term rises in the coastal cases are a matter of only a few meters. However, the geological record is full of regional (but not global) evidence for coastal floods, much larger than this, due to the ocean spreading (very slowly) hundreds of kilometers beyond its earlier banks on a long-term basis.

Melting of the present major ice caps (Antarctica and Greenland) would raise sea level some 60-70 meters, and this would take thousands of years. The melting of the former North American and European ice sheets, between roughly 20,000 and 10,000 years ago, raised sea level by 130-140 meters to about its present position. Smaller melting events raised sea level by smaller amounts, for example 5 or 10 meters. The most recent 15-25 meter coastal flood occurred some 8,000 years ago, and the combined rise and fall were spread across three or four centuries.

There has been a good deal of public concern, recently, over possible global warming and an associated sea level rise (perhaps as much as 8-10 meters); this concern is based on the fact that such a riseóif it were to occurócould devastate places where there are large concentrations of people, from New York and London to Calcutta and Tokyo. Rises this large, and larger, have taken place various times in the geological past, and presumably will take place again. Nevertheless, no known rise was global (e.g., reaching to the tops of the highest mountains), no matter how much damage was caused locally.


Perhaps the question of possible coastal flooding, in the next few decades, is not as important as the question that arises directly from the biblical text: How many trees did Noah take on the ark? The answer should be quite clear, and it is not trivial. If the answer is "one or more," then the dove could have found a fresh leaf in a minute or two. If the answer is "none," then the next question is: What is the point of the story? Is it physiographical? Or meteorological? Or theological? If either of the first two, then the story should not be in the Bible. If the latter, then what is the doctrine? This is well worth pondering.


For Background Reading

Tanner, W. F., 1993. "An 8,000-year record of sea level change from grain-size parameters: Data from beach ridges in Denmark." The Holocene (published by Edward Arnold, England), vol. 3, pp. 220-231.