Noah was six hundred years old when the floodwaters were on the earth. So Noah, with his sons, his wife, and his sons’ wives, went into the ark because of the waters of the flood. (Genesis 7:6-7)
While fundamentalists like to proclaim the historical accuracy of the Great Flood, the Old Testament makes so few references to it (outside of narrating the story) that one cannot conclude that the authors of the Old Testament actually considered it a factual event rather than an edifying story. The New Testament makes limited reference to the Flood, but these references do tend to treat the Flood as a story that has meaning for us – not in terms of learning history but for understanding God’s own actions and what the future holds for us all. So, the Evangelist Matthew says of the Flood story:
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)
While nothing Matthew says denies the historicity of the Flood, he actually treats it as a prophecy of the end times which teaches us to be prepared for the coming end of the world. Whether or not the Flood is history doesn’t matter, the real point of the story is the lesson we are to derive from it to prepare us for the coming eschaton.
The Apostle Peter also references the flood but treats it as typology. The Flood story helps us to understand baptism – both are about our salvation from sin and death.
… 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 … (1 Peter 3:20-21)
St Cyril of Alexandria offers several comments on the Flood narrative, accepting St Peter’s notion that the Noah story is a typology of things to come:
So the account proceeds with regard to Noah; and, since it establishes the course of events that happened as a picture and type, as it were, of the salvation through Christ, it would, in my opinion, be of immeasurable profit to the readers. Come then, and let us describe, as we are able, each detail concerning him, refining the earthiness of the literal sense, and skillfully transforming the things that occurred visibly into matter for spiritual contemplation. (GLAPHYRA ON THE PENTATEUCH Vol 1, p 81)
St Cyril sees it as his job as preacher, and our job as those hearing the Gospel to transform the literal story into spiritual benefit. If the story is mostly history, then it is about an ancient event that may not have any significance to us today. But if it is a typology, then the narrative is full of spiritual significance, and we need to discover what message God has ‘hidden’ in the text for us. Cyril accepts that the story can be read literally but wants to move us beyond that limited reading so that we can find Christ in the narrative, which for him is the significance of the Old Testament.
The discussion has now brought us to this point, and viewing it as a narrative according to the letter and in its literal sense, nothing at all, it seems to me, has been left out. So let us now go over the things that have been said to bring out the hidden, inner, spiritual meaning, and let us trace out the mystery of Christ and present Noah himself and the ingenious and mysterious arrangement relating to the ark as a picture of the salvation that comes through Christ. (GLAPHYRA ON THE PENTATEUCH Vol 1, pp 87-88)
Cyril continues his commentary and offers us some lessons we can learn from the story of Noah and the Flood:
So then, Christ preserves us by faith, and it is as though he brings the church to abide in the ark, in which we will sail over the fear of death and escape being condemned along with the world, for the righteous Noah, that is, Christ, will be with us. I think it worthwhile to investigate in detail what interpretation might be given for those who flee with Noah into the ark, who enjoy the salvation that comes through faith and water. (GLAPHYRA ON THE PENTATEUCH Vol 1, p 95)
If you are interested in reading more about understanding the biblical narrative of the Flood, see my posts Reading Noah and the Flood Through the Source Theory Lens and The Story of the Flood.