During this 3rd week of Great Lent, the daily scripture lessons from Genesis are focusing on the story of Noah and the great flood (Genesis 6:9-8:22). Modern American Christians are often obsessed with trying to prove the historical accuracy of the flood story, doing archaeological studies to try to find the ark, or even building arks to show it all can be done.
Interestingly the New Testament makes use of the Noah story but shows none of the interest in the Noah narrative that we see in much of fundamentalist or biblical literalist thinking. We can look at 4 New Testament references to Noah and glean what use the earliest disciples of Christ made of the Noah story.
First, we do have one instance in which the Lord Jesus Himself refers to Noah. Here we will look at the version from St. Matthew’s Gospel (there is also a parallel version in St. Luke’s Gospel). Jesus is teaching about the end times and says:
“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. Then two men will be in the field; one is taken and one is left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one is taken and one is left. Watch therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.” (Matthew 24:36-42)
Jesus uses the Noah narrative to teach his disciples to be vigilant – alertly watching for the Lord’s second coming. Jesus is using the great flood as a prophecy to prepare us for what is going to come. Jesus is using the Scriptures in the manner advocated in 2 Timothy 3:16-17: “All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” The Old Testament is profitable for many things, but its most important role is not necessarily to teach history. Jesus uses the great flood narrative as prophecy to exhort us to be prepared for the end of the world. The Noah scripture is important because the return of Christ is going to come in the same way that the flood arrived: unexpectedly. The people of old were not prepared for what happened, but we are forewarned. We see what happened to them, and we are not to be caught unawares. Thus Noah is a lesson gearing us for the future and what is coming, not mainly a way to investigate the past.
The second text comes from the Epistle to the Hebrews:
“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.” (Hebrews 11:7)
Here we have presented to us Noah as an example of a man of faith – he was faithful in preparing for what was for him the unseen future: no great flood had occurred before. Noah had no idea what was going to happen, but he was faithful to God in preparing for the future eventuality. Once again the Noah story becomes for us a lesson in faithfulness as we await the future and the coming again of the Lord. Noah give us an example as to how we are to behave now as we await the end times.
Third we have a reading from St. Peter:
“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.” (1 Peter 3:18-22)
In this reading St. Peter engages in a form of scriptural interpretation which is called typology. The flood story is significant because it tells us about something Christians now experience: baptism. The Noah narrative anticipates the salvation story of Christ and the Church. It’s significance is not in the past but in what was for it future events, including our own baptism.
Finally, a 2nd reference from St. Peter to Noah:
“For if God did not spare the angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to pits of nether gloom to be kept until the judgment; if he 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; if by turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes he condemned them to extinction and made them an example to those who were to be ungodly; and if he rescued righteous Lot, greatly distressed by the licentiousness of the wicked (for by what that righteous man saw and heard as he lived among them, he was vexed in his righteous soul day after day with their lawless deeds), 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)
The Noah story is being used by St. Peter again as prophecy – it is a lesson about God saving and rescuing godly people from the time of trial. What happened to Noah is a lesson for us to prepare us for current problems and for the future day of judgment as well. Noah’s story from the past is not there to have us look backwards in time to search more into the past, but rather to teach us how to live in the present and to prepare for the future. For the New Testament authors, the Noah narrative, inspired by God, prophetically prepares us for the future and turns our gaze not to past history but to the future eschaton.
Throughout Great Lent, the Old Testament scripture lessons are being read to help us anticipate what we are preparing for during the Great Fast: namely, the resurrection of Christ and the establishment of God’s Kingdom. Great Lent is trying to shake us from a wooden, literal reading of equating historical facts to truth, and making truth co-terminus with these facts, and replacing such thinking with an acknowledgement that Truth is eternal. Truth encompasses all the facts of the universe, but is not limited by it. Truth ultimately transforms facts by revealing their place in God’s plan of salvation. Jesus was making a cosmic claim for the universe when He declared Himself to be “the way, the truth and the life” (John 14:6).
I’ve written other blogs on the story of Noah and the great flood, including a long blog series in which I commented on and offered Patristic comments on every verse from the Genesis chapters on the flood. You can begin reading that blog series at God Questions His Creation: The Story of the Flood (a).
All of the blogs in the series on Genesis and the flood are also available as PDFs, a few of them are:
Reading Noah and the Flood through the Source Theory Lens (PDF)
The Story of the Flood (PDF)
The Conclusion of the Flood (PDF)
You can find a complete list of PDFs with links to them at Blog Series available as PDFs.