Cambridge, where I live, is very flat. People joke that Hills Road, a main thoroughfare, is named after its two humpback railway bridges. Most of the surrounding countryside is reclaimed marshes, so I can easily imagine a flood covering everything as far as the eye can see. But the idea of Noah’s flood covering the whole earth and all its mountains is much more difficult to envisage. How can six million land species be rescued in one boat? Or, if only a few thousand species were rescued, how have others evolved so fast since then? How did river and sea life survive in mixed salt and fresh water? How did land plants survive under water for a year? It wasn’t just seeds that survived because the dove found a full-grown olive tree! The account seems to pose some embarrassing questions. But before we dismiss the story, let’s take a serious look at the actual text.

I’m sure we’re all familiar with the story beloved of children’s books of a world-wide flood and a rescue mission for every land species on the planet, but is the story told like that in the text itself? The traditional version of the account isn’t necessarily wrong, but it isn’t necessarily right.

The Hebrew of the Bible text is ambiguous. The Bible describes a flood covering the eretz – a Hebrew word that can mean both ‘earth’ and ‘land’ as in the phrase ‘the land of Israel’. The text says that the water covered ‘all the earth/ land’ while mountains were visible in the distance (Genesis 8:5, 9). It also says the waters covered the land’s highest har – a word that can mean anything from a ‘mountain’ to a ‘hill’, including the small hill on which David stood and shouted to men at the bottom (1Samuel 26:13). And it says it covered the area ‘under all the heavens’ (Genesis 7:19) – a phrase that can mean both ‘everywhere’, or ‘a wide area’ (such as the lands bordering Palestine that had heard about Israel’s invasion (Deuteronomy 2:25)) – ie from one horizon to the other. Therefore the text describes a flood that either covered every ‘mountain’ on the planet ‘earth’ or covered every ‘hill’ in a large area of ‘land’. Either way, the flood was clearly awesome and devastating – it covered the highest hill by 20 feet and stretched to the horizon so that Noah could see no land even from the top of his 45-foot high boat. At that height the horizon is only nine miles away (the earth’s curvature means that even if the whole of Mount Everest stuck out of the water, it would only be seen from a distance of up to 230 miles) so the flood could possibly be limited to that extent. We simply don’t know, but the grandeur of the language implies it was a huge flood which completely destroyed that ancient civilization. Archaeologists in the 1930s found evidence of an amazingly widespread flood (or floods) which covered the whole plain of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers – an area of 140,000 square miles – before 3000 BC. This wasn’t just a shallow flood; even the silt they found deposited by this water was eight feet deep! The whole country is flat, with just a few small hills, so this flood would have been utterly devastating; there is simply no high ground to run to for hundreds of miles. The area was the homeland of the ancient Middle Eastern world and the whole population living there must have been wiped out by this flood. It was a disaster on a scale never seen anywhere in the modern world. Noah’s ordeal ended when a strong wind blew the boat towards the mountainous land of Ararat which forms the northern edge of the flooded plain (Genesis 8:1-4). No reputable Bible translation says they landed on ‘Mount Ararat’ because the Hebrew says ‘mountains of’ and ‘Ararat’ in the Bible is the name of a country (eg Isaiah 37,38). The text says distant mountains were in view, too far away for a dove to reach (Genesis 8:5-9), so they must have landed on lower ground. Winds would have soon re-colonised the land with plants and insects, but the precious animal stock – specially bred by generations of farmers – would have needed to be rescued by Noah. The date of Noah’s flood is almost impossible to work out from the Bible. Although the Bible lists fathers and sons from Adam to Jesus, it was normal to miss out unimportant generations such as the three kings that are omitted in Matthew 1.8 (see 2 Chronicles 22.1; 24:1; 25.1; 26.1). So Noah’s flood could have happened any time from 6,000 to 100,000 years ago. The earlier date is before the major human migrations, so if it had been then Noah’s descendants could subsequently have spread over all the earth. That would explain why we find flood stories similar to Noah’s preserved in ancient traditions in China, Australia, North America and other distant lands. But this concentration on the literal meaning of the text can distract us from its message – the message that God hates evil and is willing to take drastic steps to deal with it. God warned the people, through Noah, that he would not tolerate their wickedness, but they ignored him (Hebrews 11:7). Genesis says that ‘every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time’ in Noah’s day. It doesn’t describe this evil but Jesus did: ‘they were eating, drinking, marrying and being given in marriage’ (Luke 17:27). This doesn’t sound very wicked, does it? But the point Jesus was making is that this was all they were doing – ie they were enjoying a self-centred life while ignoring God and others. God’s message to Noah after the flood was a repetition of what he’d told Adam: to fill the earth and take care of it (Genesis 9:1-3). The film Evan Almighty is a funny (and silly) modern portrayal of Noah in which we see the ridicule he must have faced when building his boat. The bonus features on the DVD are worth watching because they show how the film’s green message was lived out by the production team. The film crew were encouraged to use bicycles instead of cars, and the Ark was designed to be dismantled after filming for building low-cost housing. The film’s message to us about squandering the earth’s energy is similar in many ways to the message Noah delivered to his selfish generation – especially when you factor in rising sea levels

It’s sad that the Church took such a long time to take up environmental issues. In the past, Christians have been at the forefront of other worldsaving movements, like spreading the benefits of modern medicine or tackling poverty and illiteracy. Christians have a world-rescuing message that God has saved us from the eternal consequences of sin and that he transforms our lives so we can help reverse the earthly consequences of sin.

These consequences are seen not only in prisons and hospitals but in our whole environment. Even governments now recognise that the way we live our lives can have a devastating effect on the happiness and well-being of our grandchildren. God warned the people of Noah’s generation that their self-centeredness had to stop but they ignored him. The Church in our generation needs to repeat that message loud and clear: ‘Get on board to stop the flood!’