Joanna Lumley: The Search for Noah’s Ark
This is a 2-part TV program of BBC One, that premiered in the UK on 23 and 30 December 2012, and was shown in Australia on ABC1-TV Compass on 10 and 17 March 2014.1 It is presented by veteran film actress Joanna Lumley.
She asks concerning the story of Noah: Is it a myth, a fairy tale, a parable, or did it actually happen? Her method of answering this question is to show different ideas about Noah and the Flood from different religions.
A British Victorian view
Joanna first takes viewers to the Church of St Mary in Tissington, Derbyshire, that has a stained-glass window of an ark that comprises a moderate-size, 2-storey-plus-attic house on a boat. This is nothing at all like the Ark described in the Bible (137 metres long x 23 metres wide), so obviously whoever made the stained-glass window did not bother to read Genesis. While it’s not quite as small as a bathtub ark, it would have been just as ineffective. She says: “This is a Victorian view of it … the kind of British way of looking at Noah’s Ark and his story.” Bible-believing Brits would certainly not agree.
An anchor stone
After quoting from the Bible that the Ark rested on the mountains of Ararat, and that Noah is mentioned in the Islamic Quran (or Koran) as a prophet, Joanna travels to Mt Ararat in eastern Turkey. Here she meets Mustafa Arsin, a mountain guide who shows her a massive stone with a hole at the top, said to be a drogue or anchor stone, claimed in local legend “to be one of many carried on the Ark and used to stabilize the ship and control its progress through the floodwaters”.
We share her skepticism of this, as a vessel as large as the true size of the Ark needed no such thing. It had the capacity of 520 railcars. Furthermore the Ark didn’t progress anywhere; it just had to float. It was extremely stable, more so than modern ships. It was designed by God for capacity, and for stability in the water. Any local ‘Christians’ who “went as far as to bury their dead here, believing that those laid to rest so near to the stone would go straight to heaven” were, we suggest, in for a big surprise in the next life (cf. Acts 16:31).
Joanna then tells viewers: “I must climb Mt Ararat. In the Bible this is where Noah’s Ark is said to have landed. Can it be true?” Well not quite, actually—the Bible says “the mountains of Ararat” (Genesis 8:4), which is a much wider area, not a particular mountain. And there are good reasons why the current Mt Ararat cannot have been the landing place of the Ark about 4,500 years ago; not the least that it is probably a post-Flood volcano. See Where is Noah’s Ark?
She then says: “The interest in finding Noah’s Ark came about when Charles Darwin published his theory of evolution, Origin of Species. Ever since then those who believe in God’s creation of the world in seven days [sic] have been trying to prove Darwin wrong.” Actually, interest in Noah’s Ark goes back at least as far as the Jewish historian Josephus (AD 37–c.100) who, in his Antiquities of the Jews (written c. AD 94), after recounting the Genesis account of Noah and the grounding of the Ark, wrote: “…the Armenians call this place Αποβατήριον [apobatērion] The Place of Descent; for the ark being saved in that place, its remains are shewn there by the inhabitants to this day.”2
Now all the writers of barbarian histories make mention of this flood and of this ark; among whom is Berosus the Chaldean; for when he is describing the circumstances of the flood, he goes on thus:– “It is said there is still some part of the ship in Armenia, at the mountain of Cordyæans; and that some people carry off pieces of the bitumen, which they take away and use chiefly as amulets for the averting of mischiefs.” Hieronymus, the Egyptian, also, who wrote the Phœnician Antiquities, and Mnaseas, and a great many more, make mention of the same.
Joanna asks a local inhabitant at Mt Ararat: “Do you believe the Ark will ever be found?” His reply was probably the best and truest statement in the whole program: “If God permits it, they will find it. If God doesn’t, they won’t. So long as God doesn’t allow it, it won’t be found.” As we have said, it would not matter much if it no longer existed, perhaps because the eight people aboard, comprising Noah and his family, probably recycled the timber. It would not disprove the Ark account at all; for comparison, the wreck of HMS Endeavour has not been found, but it doesn’t disprove Captain Cook’s voyages.
Viewers are shown a boat-like ground-shape on the slopes of Mt Ararat, large enough to have been claimed as the Ark by Ark-hunter, Ron Wyatt, in 1977, inspired by a photograph taken by a Turkish pilot in 1959. We then meet Hasan Ozer, Curator of the local Museum, who shows Joanna the photo, and says it is the Ark. However the local people don’t seem to share his enthusiasm, as no one has thought it worthwhile to be buried there, as at the anchor-stone location. Last of all, we meet eminent geologist Professor Murat Avci who says the shape is not the Ark, but was a block of land and ice that fell down the mountain during a landslide and became lodged in its present position. The mudslide raced around it knocked the corners off, leaving it shaped like a ship, he said.
We agree that this shape is not the Ark, and for much the same reasons. For our comprehensive article on this, see Special report: Amazing Ark exposé, originally published in Creation 14(4):26–38, 1992.
Not being a scientist, Lumley has not concluded that if the above land shape is not the Ark, then the real Ark could be somewhere else. She ends Episode 1 with: “I want to find out if there was a flood, because it’s been so widely reported. The Ark, I think it’s elusive. I think it’s lovely that people want to believe that that’s the Ark, because kind of in our heads there’s nothing good or bad, but thinking makes it so. If people believe that is the Ark, I think that’s actually fine. But my new quest now is for the Flood.”
The biblical record
This is probably a good place to set the record straight regarding the account in the Bible, which covers chapters 6, 7 and 8 of Genesis. Here is part of that—chapter 6, verses 11 to 22 in a modern translation. Readers will note that it begins with the reasons why God sent the Flood, it contains the exact dimensions of the Ark,3 and it says that the animals would come to Noah, i.e. God sent them.
11Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. 12And God saw the earth, and behold, it was corrupt, for all flesh had corrupted their way on the earth. 13And God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence through them. Behold, I will destroy them with the earth. 14Make yourself an ark of gopher wood. Make rooms in the ark, and cover it inside and out with pitch. 15This is how you are to make it: the length of the ark 300 cubits, its breadth 50 cubits, and its height 30 cubits. 16Make a roof for the ark, and finish it to a cubit above, and set the door of the ark in its side. Make it with lower, second, and third decks. 17For behold, I will bring a flood of waters upon the earth to destroy all flesh in which is the breath of life under heaven. Everything that is on the earth shall die. 18But I will establish my covenant with you, and you shall come into the ark, you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives with you. 19And of every living thing of all flesh, you shall bring two of every sort into the ark to keep them alive with you. They shall be male and female. 20Of the birds according to their kinds, and of the animals according to their kinds, of every creeping thing of the ground, according to its kind, two of every sort shall come in to you to keep them alive. 21Also take with you every sort of food that is eaten, and store it up. It shall serve as food for you and for them.” 22Noah did this; he did all that God commanded him.
Noah and Islam
Episode 2 begins with presenter Joanna Lumley visiting a mosque in Cizre, Turkey, that claims to have Noah’s tomb. We see a huge coffin, and a sign which says “Noah’s real name was Abdul Gaffar”. The Bible refers to him only by the name of Noah and says: “All the days of Noah were 950 years, and he died” (Genesis 9:29). The Bible does not say what happened to his remains.
Joanna asks a Muslim professor and scholar of Islam if he believes there was a flood. He replies: “Yes. The Quran doesn’t give an exact location for the flood. It doesn’t specify a place. However, it is possible to say from different texts in the Quran that the flood might have happened in Mesopotamia.”
This, of course, could not have been the worldwide Flood of the Bible. There was no reason whatsoever for Noah to build an Ark to escape a local flood. It took him and his family about 70 years to build it. In that time they all could easily have migrated to anywhere at all, and certainly they would not have needed to save any birds in a ship. Genesis 6–9 also repeatedly stresses the universality of the deluge.
There are other stark differences between the cogent biblical account of the Flood and the piecemeal Quranic verses on it, too. E.g., the Quran (Sura 11:42–43) claims that one of Noah’s sons refused to board the Ark and so drowned, and sets forth Noah’s wife as an example of an unbeliever (Sura 66:10). The Bible however, says: “Noah and his sons, Shem and Ham and Japheth, and Noah’s wife and the three wives of his sons with them entered the ark” (Genesis 7:13). And then after the flood: “God said to Noah, ‘Go out from the ark, you and your wife, and your sons and your sons’ wives with you’” (Genesis 8:15–16).
Noah and Judaism
Joanna next meets Julia Neuberger, a Jewish Rabbi at the West London Synagogue, and a member of the British House of Lords, who shows her Hebrew scrolls of the five books of Moses, and translates a portion that describes Noah as a righteous man in his generation (Genesis 6:9). This leads to a discussion of the raven sent out from the Ark by Noah, and then Joanna chats with bird specialist Lloyd Buck about the intelligence of ravens. Her highly probable conclusion from this is that “if anybody was going to find land, a raven will”.
According to Genesis, the raven didn’t return to Noah, and he sent out a dove which returned on the first occasion; then on the second occasion, with a freshly plucked olive leaf in its beak; and finally, on the third occasion, it did not return (indicating to Noah that the earth was now habitable).
The Epic of Gilgamesh
At the British Museum we meet Alan Miller, Professor of Ancient Semitic Languages, who briefly relates the Gilgamesh story, and agrees that it is very similar to the Genesis story of Noah, but earlier. For our in-depth rebuttal of these claims, with a detailed comparison of Gilgamesh with Genesis, see Noah’s Flood and the Gilgamesh Epic.
For example, the alleged Gilgamesh vessel, portrayed as being cube-shaped, would have been totally impractical. It is the Genesis Flood record in the Bible that predates flood stories such as Gilgamesh. The Noah story in Genesis reads as an eye witness account. After the Flood, Noah’s family’s descendants multiplied but remained in the land of Shinar (Genesis 11:2), the alluvial plain of Babylonia, until God confused their language at Babel and “dispersed them over the face of all the earth” (Genesis 11:9). This occurred in the days of Peleg (Genesis 10:25).
Noah’s son, Shem, is the ancestor of Abraham and the Israelite nation into which Moses, the writer/compiler of Genesis, was born. So there is a direct line from Moses to Noah and to the true record of the Flood passed down from generation to generation. See Did Moses really write Genesis? Note also, as pointed out before, because of the enormous lifespans, “between Adam and Abraham there needed to have been only two intermediaries, e.g. Methuselah (or perhaps Lamech), and then Shem.”
Flood stories from around the world
Joanna travels to India and hears a flood story involving the Hindu god Vishnu. Accounts of the Flood are not restricted to the Middle East or Central Asia, but are truly worldwide, including Europe, China, North America, South America, Africa, and Pacific countries such as Australia, New Zealand, Fiji Islands, etc. These include aspects of the Genesis account (some more, some less), and we would say they are corruptions or portions of the true story. See Flood! And Australian Aboriginal Flood Stories.
Joanna concludes by expressing her surprise that: “All the way through this, we find scientific facts backing up this—kind of fairy story if you like.” And her summary of what she has found is: “If you’re bad you’ll be wiped out, so be good.”
So we will conclude with what the New Testament has to say about Noah’s Flood.
- Jesus taught that just as people didn’t expect the Flood, His coming will be sudden and unexpected (Matthew 24, Luke 17), and it will be too late for those who didn’t believe while there was still time.
- The Apostle Peter used the Flood story to teach that God is equally capable of judging sin and preserving the righteous in today’s world, as He was in Noah’s day (2 Peter 2:9 10).
- Peter went on to denounce “scoffers”, who would “deliberately overlook” the fact that “the world that then existed was deluged with water and perished.” He warned that the coming judgment by fire would be every bit as real (2 Peter 3:3–7).
References and notes
- Produced by Burning Bright Productions, that describes itself as “an independent production company with backing from BBC Worldwide”. Return to text.
- Josephus, F., Antiquities of the Jews 1(3):5–6; in The Complete Works of Josephus (translated by William Whiston), Kregel Publications, Michigan, 1981, p. 29. Return to text.
- A cubit was the length of a man’s arm from the elbow to the extended middle finger, or 18 inches, so the Ark measured 450 x 75 x 45 ft (137 x 23 x13.7 metres). Return to text.