Genesis 7:17 The flood continued forty days upon the earth; and the waters increased, and bore up the ark, and it rose high above the earth. 18 The waters prevailed and increased greatly upon the earth; and the ark floated on the face of the waters. 19 And the waters prevailed so mightily upon the earth that all the high mountains under the whole heaven were covered; 20 the waters prevailed above the mountains, covering them fifteen cubits deep.
Chrysostom, who like most Patristic writers looks at the Scripture as a witness to the goodness of God, speculates that the 40 day rain was used by God to give the people not in the ark the chance to repent as the waters slowly rose and before they drowned. God gives the people the chance to think about why the destruction is happening and to come to their senses like the Prodigal Son and to repent of their sins and seek God’s forgiveness. His interpretation of this verse requires us to ignore vs. 11 where in fact a giant cataclysmic Tsunami did overwhelm the earth all at once.
“and the waters increased, and bore up the ark” One is reminded of Psalm 107:23-32 : “Some went down to the sea in ships, doing business on the great waters; they saw the deeds of the LORD, his wondrous works in the deep. For he commanded, and raised the stormy wind, which lifted up the waves of the sea. They mounted up to heaven, they went down to the depths; their courage melted away in their evil plight; they reeled and staggered like drunken men, and were at their wits’ end. Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress; he made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed. Then they were glad because they had quiet, and he brought them to their desired haven. Let them thank the LORD for his steadfast love, for his wonderful works to the sons of men! Let them extol him in the congregation of the people, and praise him in the assembly of the elders.” The Psalm in turn brings Matthew 8:23-27 to mind: “And when he got into the boat, his disciples followed him. And behold, there arose a great storm on the sea, so that the boat was being swamped by the waves; but he was asleep. And they went and woke him, saying, ‘Save, Lord; we are perishing.’ And he said to them, ‘Why are you afraid, O men of little faith?’ Then he rose and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a great calm. And the men marveled, saying, ‘What sort of man is this, that even winds and sea obey him?’”
“The waters prevailed and increased…” The author of the text uses the same word for increase that was used by God in Genesis 1 when He blessed the animals and told them to increase and multiply. Now the waters are multiplying in order to overwhelm the animal life. The story portrays an undoing of the order God had imposed on the world. One thing that was increasing is that which was wrong with the earth!
Jesus uses the story of the flood as a warning about the coming judgment of God to the people of His generation and to us. Christ’s use of the Noah story is to turn it into a typology – a foreshadowing of a future event. It is not the flood itself which is important, but the role the story of the flood serves to prophetically prepare us for the coming judgment of God. “As were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and they did not know until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of man” (Matthew 24:37-39)
St. Peter in his Second Epistle also uses the story of the flood as a warning to all about the impending Judgment Day of God. He argues that those who scoff about Judgment Day are no different than the folk in Noah’s day. Peter’s reference to the flood in his verse 3:6 does seem predicated on a belief that the deluge was a historical event. “First of all you must understand this, that scoffers will come in the last days with scoffing, following their own passions and saying, ‘Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things have continued as they were from the beginning of creation.’ They deliberately ignore this fact, that by the word of God heavens existed long ago, and an earth formed out of water and by means of water, through which the world that then existed was deluged with water and perished. But by the same word the heavens and earth that now exist have been stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men” (2 Peter 3:3-7 ).
“…the waters prevailed above the mountains, covering them fifteen cubits deep.” The depth of the water (22.5 feet above the tallest mountains – Everest!) would have meant most of the space which we now consider our atmosphere would be filled with flood waters – and the air would have been displaced, but to where? The story doesn’t tell us either who made or verified these measurements for the flood water’s depth or how the narrator of the story knew these details. Even the North and South Pole would be under water to this huge depth. The height of the water would have meant both salt and fresh water would be intermixed changing the salinity of both. St. John Chrysostom (4th Cent AD) tries to navigate his flock away from just thinking about the literal claims of the text. “So, sacred scripture narrates this, not simply to teach us the flood level, but that we may be able to understand along with this that there was absolutely nothing left standing – no wild beasts, no animals, no cattle; rather, everything was annihilated along with the human race.” He does not question the veracity of the literal details, but tries to move believers beyond overly focusing on them to the point that it raises serious intellectual doubts (Chrysostom who usually attributes absolute significance to details, here downplays the exact depth of the waters preferring to focus on the destruction of the waters rather than their depth). The point of the story, he says, is to say all life except that in the ark was destroyed because God wanted to give the world a fresh start and by cleansing the world of all wickedness a renewed chance to pursue goodness. He doesn’t think the literal details are what is important. It is what the flood accomplished that is significant. He argues not to get bogged down in the details so much that you lose sight of the story’s meaning and purpose. (We can keep in mind that often when the Patristic writers speak about the “literal” reading of the Old Testament, they are telling the reader to look for its meaning – including its intended deeper meaning – not just paying attention to the plain details and then missing its meaning for a Christian understanding of God’s Word. Just think about the use Jesus and St. Peter make of the Noah story – a warning about future judgment, not simply past history).