But God remembered Noah… (Gen. 8:1)
Nice of him, innit?
The rain finally stops and the fountains of the deep close up, and, after 150 days, the waters begin to recede. At 7 months and 17 days, the ark finally touches ground in the mountains of Ararat (150 days being about 5 months, so the ark touches ground about two and a half months after the rain ends). It takes a further two and a half months for the tops of the mountains to be seen.
Travelling back in time, 40 days after the rain begins, Noah pokes his head out the window and sends out a raven. The bird flies “to and fro until the waters were dried up from the earth” (Gen. 8:7), which I guess means that the raven never returned. Noah then sends out a dove, but the dove returns empty-taloned. He waits another seven days and then gives the dove another chance to find land (racist!). This time, the dove manages to bring back a “freshly plucked olive leaf” (Gen. 8:11), which proves that the waters have subsided. Now, this olive leaf would have spent, at minimum, 47 days under water (40 days of rain, plus the 7 days between the dove’s first and second flights – the only time markers we’re given). Somehow, it hasn’t turned to mush in that time.
Once the ground is dry, God tells Noah to leave the ark, which he does. He then builds an altar and “took of every clean animal and of every clean bird, and offered burnt offerings on the altar” (Gen. 8:20). This only makes sense if either: a) Noah followed God’s command in Genesis 7:2-3, rather than actually doing what we’re told he did in Genesis 7:8-9, or b) all the clean animals went extinct right after the flood, either because they were sacrificed or because they had no one left to breed with.
We hear once again how much God loves the “pleasing odor” of burnt offerings (Gen. 8:21) – that’s the second time, for those of you keeping count at home – and promises never again to “curse the ground because of man” (Gen. 8:21). Rather, nature will behave according to regular cycles (summer/winter, seedtime/harvest, day/night) without cease for as long as the earth remains.
There’s some question as to whether this flood should be taken to mean a literal global flood, or rather an exaggeration of a more localized disaster. James McGrath points out a rather interesting retelling of this story from Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews 1.4.1:
Now the sons of Noah were three, – Shem, Japhet, and Ham, born one hundred years before the Deluge. These first of all descended from the mountains into the plains, and fixed their habitation there; and persuaded others who were greatly afraid of the lower grounds on account of the flood, and so were very loath to come down from the higher places, to venture to follow their examples.
In this version, Noah’s family are not the only survivors – some people did manage to reach higher ground. I think it’s rather clear that there were many versions of these stories circulating around, in addition to the version that eventually made it into the canon of the Bible. The idea that we should “take the Bible literally” (as argued by groups like Answers in Genesis) seems rather absurd given this fact.