Genesis 7:21 And all flesh died that moved upon the earth, birds, cattle, beasts, all swarming creatures that swarm upon the earth, and every man; 22 everything on the dry land in whose nostrils was the breath of life died. 23 He blotted out every living thing that was upon the face of the ground, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the air; they were blotted out from the earth. Only Noah was left, and those that were with him in the ark. 24 And the waters prevailed upon the earth a hundred and fifty days.
How did the people of the world benefit from this tragedy? In Hebrews 11:39-40, we are told, “And all these, though well attested by their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had foreseen something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.” The salvation of the world is done as whole for all of humanity – those people living in the past as well as those in the present and who will live in the future. Those living in the past could not be made perfect apart from those who live in the present or apart from those yet to be born. All that happens benefits future generations even if in the present we do not understand the purpose of the events we live through. The suffering of past peoples may not immediately have benefited them, but it does potentially edify and benefit us. In this we can also understand how and why the literary power of the Genesis stories is not in their literal detail and reading, but rather in the lessons and morals of the stories. The stories are a prophetic witness to God’s Lordship, will, plan and Kingdom. They reveal to us both the eschaton (what God is guiding us to) and the teleology by which God guides the universe. When we understand that God loves all His created people, we can understand how events of the past benefit us more than they benefited ancient people – we are the ones who learn the lessons from what they suffered. And our suffering today will benefit our fellow humans in the future. We are all part of the one human race and we all benefit and suffer when any humans anywhere are blessed or suffer. Our sense of absolute individualism causes us to fail to take into account just how connected each of us is to all other humans. We share a common humanity and a union with all other humans. We share a common human nature. St. Paul also uses the image that we are all members of one Body. “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body–Jews or Greeks, slaves or free–and all were made to drink of one Spirit. For the body does not consist of one member but of many … If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it” (1 Corinthians 12:12-14,26-27).
Some Patristic writers see in the story of the ark a prototype of the Church, outside of which no one is saved from the deadly flood of sin.
In St. Peter’s First Epistle, Peter has Christ upon his death descending into the nether regions to preach salvation to those “… who formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ…” (3:20-21) So though they were blotted out as a result of their wickedness by the deluge, St. Peter claims Christ redeems these people once judged by God. The judgment rendered by God on the wicked in Genesis is thus not a permanent judgment. Those who died in the flood were not condemned eternally to hell, nor were their sins considered unforgivable. In the end, God’s own mercy and love overcame even the wickedness of those whom God could no longer tolerate on earth! (Additionally, by connecting baptism to the ark, St. Peter treats the Flood story as a prefiguring of the salvation offered to the world through the Church. Formerly only a few, eight people in the ark, were saved. Now the Church as the ark of salvation is capable of having the population of the world board in order to be spared from God’s judgment.)
Only land animals and birds are included in the destruction. Sea creatures are not destroyed by the flood – in any case Noah would have lacked the technology to build a sizeable aquarium which could save sea creatures and thus preserve their seed..
“And the waters prevailed upon the earth…” When God unleashes the waters from the vaults of heaven upon the earth, He seems to be saying to the people on earth, “You didn’t like the order I imposed upon the cosmos and you prefer to follow your own disorderly and destructive ways, alright then, I will let disorder and destruction reclaim the earth. You can have your way but I will no longer protect you from the chaos, from the randomness of an ungodly universe, from the entropy described by your laws of thermodynamics. You prefer disorder in the world to my divine order, now you will see what happens when I decide not to impose my order on the universe. See if you can survive when the world ignores the divine order.” Or, as the Lord says in Deuteronomy 32, “The LORD saw it, and spurned them, because of the provocation of his sons and his daughters. And he said, ‘I will hide my face from them, I will see what their end will be, for they are a perverse generation, children in whom is no faithfulness. … For a fire is kindled by my anger, and it burns to the depths of Sheol, devours the earth and its increase, and sets on fire the foundations of the mountains. And I will heap evils upon them; I will spend my arrows upon them… destroying both young man and virgin, the sucking child with the man of gray hairs” (32:19-25).