Where did Noah’s dove find an olive branch so soon after the flood?

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture

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Question: How did Noah’s dove find an olive leaf so soon after the flood? The trees must have been destroyed in the flood, but the flood ordeal only lasted one year. My problem is, if it takes 4-6 years for an olive tree to mature, then the times don’t add up. Did the Bible get it wrong here?

Answer: I see three different paths through the botanical conundrum in your question, and each path preserves the inerrancy of God’s word. This is a good thing. I subscribe to biblical inerrancy, but not every person or ministry does.

Another thing to note is that the three different solutions assume different understandings of the age of the earth, but also, they are sensitive to the method we use to interpret the Bible. Some people interpret it literally and some literalistically. I lean towards literal hermeneutics — and as you will see — this will affect my answer.

When it comes to the age of the earth, however, many credible ministries maintain a young-earth position. I maintain an old-earth position. Since this difference will be reflected in the different solutions to your question, you need to know this going in.

Also, before we start, you should know what I mean by the words “literalistically” and “literally.” I use the word “literalistically” as a pejorative term. A literalistic hermeneutic deemphasizes the natural (the original) sense of the language. It sometimes takes what the original speakers meant to communicate in their culture and their idiom and replaces it with a comparatively wooden interpretation of the words based on today’s understanding of those words. The fact that people still read the Bible this way amazes me! … yet here we stand!

By way of contrast, a “literal” interpretation of Scripture (my personal choice) is sensitive to genre, context and metanarrative… so it requires us to compare Scripture with Scripture. It also lets poetry be poetry, prophecy be prophecy, mytho-historical narrative be mytho-historical narrative, historical narrative be historical narrative, apocalyptic literature be apocalyptic literature, and so on. It also “weighs” Scripture.

By “weighing” I mean that literalism understands that not every genre contributes equally to every doctrine. For example, a direct doctrinal teaching by Paul (Ephesians 2:8-10) has more doctrinal weight than a poem by Asaph (Psalms 50) — although both are equally inspired!

It’s critically important to understand the potential impact of using these different interpretive methods, so let me give you one example before we go on to the solutions.

Genesis 3:8 tells us that God was present with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. But was he physically present? That is, did he come down to earth and physically walk and talk in the garden? People who interpret the Bible literalistically would say yes, God physically was here... despite the biblical evidence that he avoided showing up personally on earth… using theophanies instead of physically appearing.

We also know through biblical and natural theology that God is — by definition — a transcendent being who is a spirit being and not a physical being (John 1:18, 4:24). Yet the “words” seem to say that he was with us in the flesh... and many people insist that he was in the garden physically.

By way of contrast, a person who interprets that passage literally considers the Bible’s metanarratives. He understands that God is a spirit being — who is a Trinity — and who came to earth in the person of Jesus Christ… but who never came to earth as the Father. He interprets God’s appearing in the garden as an anthropomorphism — a figure of speech. So, although God communicated directly with Adam and Eve, he did so without vocal cords.

The first solution I’m offering to the olive branch problem is based on a literalistic reading of Genesis chapters 5 through 9. The “advantage” of this approach (— and this is only an advantage to those who prefer a literalistic interpretative paradigm —) is that it doesn’t address the possibility that the words might mean something other than their face meaning… like words often do.

Solution 1: A God who created the universe could certainly deliver an olive branch out of season. This is because God is under no obligation to wait six years for a tree to grow... any more than he was obliged to wait for the universe to ripen. The scientific consensus (and my consensus) is that the universe is 13.8 billion-years-old, but if God created all that in just six 24-hour days as many literalistic interpreters affirm, he could certainly arrange things so an olive branch would be available in one year.

Furthermore, God is under no obligation to have submerged olive trees die in the flood. He apparently chose to use an olive branch to signal Noah that the earth was getting ready to support him and his family agriculturally again. So, what’s the problem with claiming one more miracle? — which, by definition — gets us off the hook for explaining things under the rules he laid out in Romans 1:18-20.

But note this well: you cannot look for a naturalistic explanation for the premature olive branch while insisting that the Bible be interpreted literalistically. According to the dates given in the account of Noah and the conditions on the earth, you are correct: an olive tree would not be available for the dove to find! There’s no explaining it — and you shouldn’t try!

So, for people who take a literalistic reading of Scripture, that is, for people who are okay with the idea that even though God wants us to learn about him by observing nature — despite him stealing the power of those lessons by confounding nature to provide an olive branch for Noah — this is a logical solution. God intervened. End of story.

The beauty of this solution is that, since God disregarded natural processes and made the dove come back with the olive branch via a personal miraculous intervention, we do not have to — nor can we — nor should we — explain this in terms of natural solutions.

Solution 2: Noah’s flood was local, not global… so olive trees (and everything else) continued to grow normally outside of the flood zone. But between the rain, the size of the flood — and the fact that they built this huge craft with no windows! — Noah’s family could not see the land. But when the water began to subside, they were finally close enough for a bird to find land and return… and he came with an olive branch because the flood never touched most of the world’s trees.

Most people protest that this solution molests God’s word too much. Doesn’t the Bible say plainly that the whole world was flooded? Actually... no. That’s an interpretation of the words; it is not what the words themselves are saying.

Let me ask you, when Joseph was in charge of the grain in Egypt — and “all the world came to Joseph to buy grain” (Genesis 41:57) — did that include people from the Americas? How about people in Australia or China? How about people only hundreds of miles away? Of course not! Yet, people interpret similar “all the world” wording in Noah’s story as necessarily describing a global flood. But when we compare Scripture with Scripture, we find that their warrant is shaky.

Hugh Ross, who is president of Reasons to Believe Ministries, says that there is evidence for a local flood near the Persian Gulf around 50,000 years ago. Ross postulates that the entire population of the world was in the area that God flooded — which makes sense. The Bible tells us that people did not disperse around the world until after the flood. If this were true, then a local flood would have done the job… destroying the entire human population.

Like me, Ross is an old-earth creationist, so his flood timeline is too far back for our young-earth brethren to be comfortable with, but this is a reasonable solution from a reasonable man.

Ross is an astronomer, and he holds an earned Ph.D. But more importantly, he’s a bonafide Christian. He’s written scores of books and articles containing well-documented and well-thought-out solutions to biblical problems like these… and that being said, I do not subscribe to his flood solution, but it is a solution!

Click here to see one of Ross’s articles about the flood.

Solution 3: The story of Noah was written in the mytho-historical literary genre. Under this genre, the people in the stories actually existed, but the idea was to communicate a lesson — not historical actions… although the accounts are historical to some degree. But, due to the nature of this genre, we should not press these stories for accuracy in the same way we would the overtly historical sections of the Bible.

So, what of the flood and the olive branch? The transmission of the lesson was a rousing success! The olive branch has been a symbol of peace for thousands of years. In fact, the Great Seal of the United States has an eagle holding an olive branch in one claw and arrows in the other.

Proponents of a global flood often cite the anthropological studies showing that people all around the world have independently developed flood mythology... and where would this come from except through ancestral stories of one event? I don’t agree.

We were made in the image of God, and part of that is being wired to seek fellowship with our Creator. He made us sensitive to his holiness and our sin as part of the process (1 Peter 1:15-16; Romans 2:14-15), and we understand our need for salvation on the most basic of levels — ontologically. It’s in our DNA.

He also created us as verbal. Our history shows that we have always told stories — even before we were able to archive information. I think it is therefore reasonable that people from different cultures and places will come up with some version of a flood story independent of one another. These are destruction-and-redemption kind of stories… which are salvation kind of stories — and I see the olive branch as a symbol of that salvation. Since the lesson of God’s salvation was successfully preserved in the story of the flood and the olive branch, it is beside the point whether the dove ever flew. God communicated what he wanted.

In common use, the word “myth” means something that is decidedly not true — like a fairytale — but that’s not what the “myth” in mytho-historical literature means. It refers to the literary genre; it is not claiming that the stories are false. Mytho-historical documents reflect the true historical metanarrative. But it does it by combining elements of historical narrative and ancient mythology as a literary style.

Now, since they are structured like myths, the stories should not be pressed for historical accuracy. But they are still in the Bible… so what should we do? Since God used this genre to tell this segment of his story, we should treat it like we do all other biblical genres. The reader should be aware that the genre exists in Scripture and adjust his hermeneutics accordingly. God’s word is inspired and true — even if the dove never flew.

Click here for a quick explanation of this genre by the president of Reasonable Faith, William Lane Craig.

The thing I would like you to take away from the entire answer is that there are different solutions depending on how much people are willing to change their hermeneutical stance to address the data more comprehensively. If you are a “God said these words in the King James Bible — and their direct meaning in today’s English is what God means!” kind of guy, when it comes to “solutions” designed to satisfy a scientifically literate audience, you’re out of luck. But you don’t have to be one of those. I’m not.

Thanks again for this question. I pray this discussion helped.

(Mainsail Ministries articles often have a preamble where I discuss the thinking that went into them. These are called Monday Musings — and if you haven’t read the one associated with this article — consider doing so at the following link: 20201214 No cherry picking allowed!).

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