Genesis 8:13 In the six hundred and first year, in the first month, the first day of the month, the waters were dried from off the earth; and Noah removed the covering of the ark, and looked, and behold, the face of the ground was dry. 14 In the second month, on the twenty-seventh day of the month, the earth was dry. 15 Then God said to Noah, 16 “Go forth from the ark, you and your wife, and your sons and your sons’ wives with you. 17 Bring forth with you every living thing that is with you of all flesh–birds and animals and every creeping thing that creeps on the earth–that they may breed abundantly on the earth, and be fruitful and multiply upon the earth.” 18 So Noah went forth, and his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives with him. 19 And every beast, every creeping thing, and every bird, everything that moves upon the earth, went forth by families out of the ark.
Some who question the literal value of the story ask how it was possible for Noah to travel the earth and collect species of all the animals. He would have had to travel throughout the entire world including Australia, the Artic, Antarctic, North and South America (of which the Bible never once even acknowledges its existence. Remember in 1492 Columbus discovered a “new world”, one previously unknown to Jews and Christians). He would have to have been able to build the ark while simultaneously hunting all the species of the animals throughout the world – the bible never mentions his absence from the ark building project while traveling the world. He would have had to traverse the entire planet and transport species of all the animals of the world back to his ark. He would have had to somehow keep the animals alive and tend to them while the ark was being built over the 100 year period which the story says he had to build the ark. And then after the flood he would have had to get all these animals back to their proper habitats in every direction at the same time. While all things are possible for God, Noah still had to operate within the laws of physics and the technology of his day. The story stretches the limits of credulity which is why St. John Chrysostom warned his flock not to be overly rational about the story, but rather to look to the story for its spiritual lessons. The lack of details about how Noah could have done all of the things necessary to capture, corral and keep alive every species of animal in the world gives us come indication that the narrative is not intended to be read so scientifically or in such a detailed way, but rather is a narrative about salvation. The story is a prototypical story about a fallen world awash in sin and a God who continues to work to save some of His creation. Despite the near total corruption and depravity of the human race, God still finds those He can save in order to perpetuate humankind. God saves even animals in the story not just His favored human beings. He saves the animals because they are supposed to serve humans. The story argues that even when God is totally angry at us, when He is totally grieved by our sins and regrets having brought us into being, that His love trumps His anger, grief, regrets and judgment; He salvages His creation despite how evil humans can be. There still is no mention of Satan in the Genesis story and nowhere does it blame Satan for the evil that humans do. God has no opposite and equal. The LORD is sovereign and all powerful and He is in constant warfare with the powers of darkness and chaos which want to overwhelm the earth. But even these powers, such as the abyss, must obey God and accomplish God’s will. Neither chaos, the abyss, nor evil are more powerful than the Lord God, nor do they have any rights over human beings. Even when God uses the abyss to carry out His will, He still does not allow the abyss to totally overwhelm His creatures. God provides and saves some even from the forces He is using for judgment. The story is advocating for the goodness of God as Savior.
In the mid-2nd Century, St. Justin the Martyr (d.165) wrote the following comments on Noah. He follows in the footsteps of St. Peter in his Epistle who looked beyond the literal reading of the story to its meaning as a prototype of baptism (1 Peter 3). St. Justin wrote, “At the flood the mystery of the world’s salvation was at work. The just man Noah, together with the other flood personages, namely, his wife, his three sons and their wives, made eight in number thereby symbolizing the eighth day on which our Christ was raised from the dead, that day being always implicitly the first, Christ, the first born of all creation, has become in a new sense the head of another race, regenerated by Him, through water, through faith, and through the wood which contained the mystery of the cross, just as Noah was saved through the wood of the Ark, carried by the waters of the flood… And I mean here those who receive preparation through water, faith, and wood escape the judgment of God that is to come.” For St. Justin the story of the flood is a prototypical story that lays down a pattern of how God works so that we can recognize the work of God in Christ. Noah is saved from death as Christ is and becomes the first new man of the new creation just as Christ is the new Adam and creates in us a new human race which lives not by the flesh but by the Spirit of God. For St. Justin the full meaning of the Noah story cannot be fathomed until one understands Christ – only in seeing the fulfillment of the typology does one recognize the prophetic significance of the story.
“So Noah went forth, and his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives with him. And every beast, every creeping thing, and every bird, everything that moves upon the earth, went forth by families out of the ark.” There is no wild rush or chaotic stampede of ‘cabin fevered’ animals to flee the confines of the ark. What we have described here is a very orderly, solemn procession with each family of animals waiting their turn to join the recession from the ark. Rather like a well organized Paschal procession emerging from the church building, the ark’s passengers emerge each walking with their own kind from the ark which was their tomb into a world cleansed of sin. With reverence they disembark to enjoy their freedom, going out into the world to celebrate salvation – God’s triumph over sin and death. This is exactly what we experience each Paschal midnight when we process out of the church into the creation renewed by Christ’s resurrection from the dead and the ultimate victory over sin and death.
The story of Noah and the ark is used by our Lord Jesus Christ as a prophetic story to prepare those of us still alive on earth to be prepared for the coming judgment of God. It is exactly what use we are to make of the story of the flood, As it says in Deuteronomy 32:29: “This nation has no sense whatever, they lack all discernment all sense were they wise they would realize what happened and learn for the future” (New Skete Translation). We are to use the story of Noah and the ark to learn about the future. If we turn the lesson of the ark into a test case for biblical literalism, we end up lacking discernment and learning nothing from the story to help us deal with the coming yet future Judgment of God.