During the week days of Great Lent we generally do not read Scripture lessons from the New Testament. Rather, the daily readings are from Isaiah, Proverbs and Genesis. This does give us a chance to contemplate a world without Christ and the resurrection – to intensify our sense of being in exile from the Kingdom of God. We think about the world of the Fall before the coming of Christ and yet, paradoxically, our food fasting by denying us the foods of the fallen world enables us to experience the foods available to us in Paradise (Genesis 1:29, 2:16). And yet . . . we don’t ever read the Old Testament apart from Christ. We always read the Old Testament through the lens of Christ and we believe the Old Testament bears witness to Christ and is about Him. We read the Old Testament to learn about Christ, not about science or history. Jesus said of the Old Testament:
You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me . . . If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote of me. (John 5:39, 46)
Moses wasn’t writing history so much as writing about Christ! That is how Jesus Himself reads and understands Genesis. So the real question for us as Christians is not “what does Genesis teach us about ancient history?”, but what does it teach us about Christ? What was Moses trying to tell us about the Christ long before Jesus was even born? Throughout the New Testament, we see how the New Testament authors read Moses as being a prophet, writing about what God is doing and what God is going to do. Noah in this context too is a prophet, preparing us to know Christ.
So in Matthew 24:36-44 we read Jesus teaching about the end times, the eschaton:
“But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only. 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. … Watch therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But know this, that if the householder had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have watched and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready; for the Son of man is coming at an hour you do not expect.”
We read a very similar message in the parallel passage in Luke 17:26-30 where Jesus says:
As it was in the days of Noah, so will it be in the days of the Son of man. They ate, they drank, they married, they were given in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all. Likewise as it was in the days of Lot—they ate, they drank, they bought, they sold, they planted, they built, but on the day when Lot went out from Sodom fire and sulphur rained from heaven and destroyed them all— so will it be on the day when the Son of man is revealed.
The story of Noah and the flood is mentioned in the Gospels not to teach us about ancient history, but to prepare us for the future second coming of the Lord. If reading about the Flood causes you to want to go in search of the ark, you are looking in the wrong direction, for the Gospels says the narrative about Noah is to prepare us for the eschaton and the end of this world. Noah’s story looks even beyond the time of the Gospel into the parousia when Christ will come in glory. We are reading the account of Noah during Great Lent, not to learn history but to get our minds geared toward the future coming of Christ. The story of the flood is thus orienting us toward Christ and His coming again, not to some ancient event or story which may or may not have happened.
In Hebrews 11:6-7, we read:
And without faith it is impossible to please him. For whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him. By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, took heed and constructed an ark for the saving of his household; by this he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness which comes by faith.
Noah in this text is being upheld as a model of a person of faith, who doesn’t know what is going to happen, but who believes in God. Again, the lesson is being used to orient us toward this future and what God is going to do. We need to live by faith in this world in order to be righteous as Noah was righteous – we are awaiting Christ’s coming again, just as Noah had to wait to see what God was going to do.
In 1 Peter 3:18-22, St Peter connects the story of Noah to baptism to help us understand the sacrament and life in the Church. The Church is like Noah’s ark in which we are saved from the flood, but the flood is no longer drowning sinners but rather the waters are cleansing us from sin.
For Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit; in which he went and preached to the spirits in prison, 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, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers subject to him.
Finally, St Peter also interprets the scriptures of Noah and the flood as a teaching about the future Judgment of the world:
For if God . . . did not spare the ancient world, but preserved Noah, a herald of righteousness, with seven other persons, when he brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly . . . then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trial, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment, (2 Peter 2:4-9)
There is a “history lesson” to be learned from the Genesis account of Noah and the flood, but the lesson is to help us get through our current struggles in this world and to prepare us from the coming judgment day. The New Testament interprets and uses the Genesis flood story to show us God’s concern for the righteous in this world and to prepare us for the coming judgment of God. We should not be caught by surprise about events that are going to take place, because we have been forewarned about Christ’s coming again. However, if we read about Noah to learn ancient history, we are going to miss the real lesson of Genesis, which is as Christ said about Him not about the past.
And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself. . . . Then he said to them, “These are my words which I spoke to you, while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled.” (Luke 24:27, 44)