By David Ney
One of the most important decisions the early Church made was the decision to embrace the Jewish Scriptures – the books we have come to call the Old Testament. This was something not everyone was prepared to do. Christians known generically as “Gnostics” – most famously, a group known as the Marcionites – found the God of the Old Testament appalling. They wanted nothing to do with him, so they crafted for themselves a god that wasn’t implicated in the messiness of human history; a God that was interested, not in helping people be victorious in the midst of history, but in helping them escape from it.
The Church, on the other hand, was not ashamed to put its faith in the God of the Jews, and the foundation of its faith was the belief that this God had revealed himself to them in Christ. This gave the Church staying power – it enabled it to offer people what they needed most; belief in a God that enters human history; a God that gives real guidance for life in the real world. This guidance, the Church claimed, came from the voice of Christ, speaking directly to them in and through the Old Testament.
In our day there are still lots of people that think they should take the Old Testament seriously, but they can’t agree about how to go about doing so. Take the story of Noah’s ark, for example. Millions and millions of dollars have been spent trying to salvage the story of a God that destroys his creatures with a great deluge, but saves Noah and his family from the carnage. Last year, Hollywood released a modern blockbuster starring Russell Crowe as Noah. The strength of the movie was that it made the ancient story palatable to modern audiences by recasting it in the familiar guise of the science-fiction epic, but predictably, it ended up creating a celebration of the human spirit that had very little to do with God, or the Bible.
Last year also marked the release of a second multi-million-dollar venture to resuscitate poor old Noah, this one in Kentucky. The young-earth creationist group Answers in Genesis announced the construction of a biblically based theme park called “Ark Encounter,” a state-of-the-art museum housed inside a 510 foot long life-sized wooden replica, complete with live animal performances and, of course – a petting zoo. Being able to touch live animals will probably have the desired effect of “bringing the biblical story to life,” but convincing tourists that every detail of the biblical account is literally true and scientifically accurate is not the same thing as helping them hear God speaking to them through the story.
Travelling to your local movie theatre, or to Kentucky will, I’m sure, prove most entertaining. But will it help you grasp how the ancient mythological story of the flood, as recorded in Genesis, can guide you in your journey back to God? Admittedly, I have my doubts.
I don’t pretend to be able to solve all the riddles of the story, or fashion it into something utterly transformative. But I think I can point us in the right direction, and I am able to do so, not because of my cunning or creativity, but because my job, as a preacher of the gospel and a servant of the word of God, is simply to pass on to you what I have received. And what I have received from God, through the Church, is a collection of 66 books written by various authors and in various guises that, when brought into conversation with one another, reveal a surprisingly comprehensive picture of God’s identity, and his work in the world.
You see, when we take the story of Noah in isolation from the rest of Scripture, we end up finding it either hopeless or useless. But when we consider it in light of the full revelation of God, God’s light shines through it, and it is able, like every other passage in Scripture, to engage our intellects, stir our emotions, and assist us in our quest to follow God, through the power of the Holy Spirit.
There are innumerable passages that we might well bring into conversation with the story of Noah’s Ark. And because of this there are innumerable interpretations of it that we can endorse in good conscience. But this doesn’t mean that any old interpretation will do.
We might, for example, in Marcionite fashion, want to argue that God was sorry for having destroyed his creatures and that he therefore promised never to do so again, and that the story therefore highlights the transformation of the aggressive and vindictive God of the Old Testament into a God of love and mercy.
Scripture, however, hinders us, from making this move. From cover to cover, Scripture teaches that with obedience comes life, but with rebellion, death. Even Christ himself says that when he comes again to his people it will be exactly as it was in the days of Noah: “Just as it was in the days of Noah,” he says, “so also will it be in the days of the coming of the Son of Man. People were eating, drinking, marrying and being given in marriage up to the day Noah entered the ark. Then the flood came and destroyed them all” (Luke 17:26).
Jesus’ difficult words shouldn’t surprise us in the least, since God never promised Noah that he would stop judging people in the first place, nor did he promise that they would no longer send natural disasters. God promised that he would bless Noah and his descendants and every living creature with him on the ark, and that this blessing would be expressed in his refusal to destroy the whole earth with water.
Well, I guess we could say that God has been true to this promise, since he hasn’t, at least since the time of Noah, covered the whole earth with a flood. But let’s not fool ourselves. In 1931, between two and four million people died in China in the worst known flooding in history. Does it really matter that this deluge wasn’t technically universal? It was universal enough to make us wonder about God’s promise, don’t you think? And the truth is, people continue to die every year from flooding, not to mention other natural disasters. Even if we haven’t yet met with a universal flood, we still meet up with some pretty nasty things. And we therefore still have to continue to ask ourselves where God is in the midst of it all.
One of the things that can help us out, though, as we try to make sense of God’s promise to Noah, is to see that it is only one of a number of promises God makes to his people in Scripture. It all begins with the so-called protoevangelium – the first hint we have that God will one day send his people a savior – God’s promise to Adam and Eve that Eve’s offspring will one day crush the serpent’s head. The specific covenants God makes with people in the Old Testament are mechanisms for preserving this original promise to Adam and Eve. God makes a covenant with Abraham, for example, because he wants to bless Abraham and his descendants. But he also has the big picture in mind; his plan is that Abraham and his descendants will preserve the original promise of salvation until the appointed time. And the same can be said of God’s covenant with Noah.
When we take the long view we can see that the story of Noah’s ark is a story about how God preserves the children he loves so that they can pass down his promise to future generations. It is on this basis that whenever early Christians paused to consider the story of Noah’s ark, they almost always saw the ark itself as a figure of the Church.
They knew that their job as Christians was not merely to enjoy the many benefits that God bestows upon his children. Their job was to faithfully pass on the promise to a people yet unborn. They saw that the Church as an ark needed to protect the gospel from the raging seas that so often threatened to envelop the whole world. And this they did very well. When powerful armies were decisively defeated and magnificent empires fell never to rise again, the Church was the last man standing—ever ready to offer the good news of Jesus Christ just as Jesus had promised it would. “I will build my church,” Jesus had said to St. Peter, “and the gates of Hades will not overpower it” (Matt. 16:18).
These words must have been a great source of comfort to Peter and the early disciples, for they were often tested to the breaking point. From the beginning Peter, like the others, was tempted to give up on the whole Jesus thing. When many people deserted Jesus, he turned to his twelve disciples and asked, “You do not want to leave too, do you?” And Peter, bravely clinging on to a single seed of hope, replied, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:67-68).
Years later Peter wrote a letter to “strangers in the world,” Christians “scattered” throughout the provinces of Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia in modern day Turkey (1 Pet. 1:1). He began his letter by urging them to rejoice, though “now for a little while” they “have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials,” because these trials “have come so that [their] faith,” which is “of greater worth than gold . . . may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed” (1 Pet. 1:6-8).
The reflections about Noah’s ark that we heard today from this letter are not the reflections of the brash and overconfident Peter that we encountered last Sunday on the mount of transfiguration. They are the reflections of an old man that knows that holding on to Jesus in the face of widespread apostasy is no easy matter, a man that knows what it is to suffer for the sake of the cross. This made him the perfect person to offer counsel and encouragement to scattered clusters of persecuted and demoralized Christians.
He comforts them by pointing out that it was the same way in the days of Noah—there were only a few people, he reminds them, “eight in all,” that were “saved through water.” And this water, he tells them, represents the baptism that now saves them by enabling them to participate in the resurrection of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 3:20-21).
For Peter, the meaning of the story of Noah’s ark is clear. In the ancient world water had been an almost universal symbol of chaos, destruction, and death. But in the story of Noah’s ark he sees God taking this instrument of death and making it, through his loving kindness, the vessel that carries his children to a new land, a new life. Since he has done it before, says Peter, we should not be surprised that God has appointed water – the water of baptism – to be the source of our new life in Christ
Like Noah we live in a time of great wickedness. It is also a time in which people are supremely confident that they can take God’s favor for granted and that the future will be, for them, better than the past. It is a time in which “People [are] eating, drinking, marrying and being given in marriage,” just like they were up to the day Noah entered the ark.”
Scripture is clear, however, that God is the source of life; and that any society that turns its back on him therefore chooses death. How foolish we are to think that we can walk away from God, as we seem to be so intent on doing, and prosper! How foolish we are to think that our society is immune to financial ruin, the carnage of war, or environmental apocalypse! The flood may yet come to us; it may not come in our lifetime; but what about our children, and our children’s children; and theirs.
And then, there is, of course, the even more immediate problem of our own personal frailty. The security we spend our lives trying to establish can be taken from us in an instant. All it takes is one bad investment, one pick slip, one fire. Newfound technologies have extended our life spans, and they have shielded us from much pain. But they have not given us access to the river of life. All it takes is one car crash; one medical prognosis; and the great flood will be upon us as well. Let’s quit telling ourselves that we’re super-heroes; that we’re immortal by right; let’s be honest with ourselves. Let’s call a spade a spade.
We spend our days searching in vain for normal; as soon as we have our sights on it, life throws us a curveball; we strike out. The tower of blocks we’ve been building comes crashing down; we’re forced to scramble about gathering up the pieces. As finite creatures we are so often at the mercy of our circumstances; tossed up and down on the floodwaters.
We must stop trying to go it alone; trying to tread water; we must seek shelter within the Ark of the Church. We must learn to pray; when the floodwaters rise; when we lack the wisdom to know how to cope; we must ask the God of all wisdom to grant us wisdom. And when we ask, we “must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts,” St. James tells us, “is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind” (James 1:6). We must put our hope in the one who alone has dominion over the waters; the one who alone has the power to stand up and rebuke the winds and the waves and make them completely calm (Matt. 8:26); the one who alone can transform the raging torrent into baptismal waters; the stream that will lead us back to God; the river of life.
The Rev. Dr. David Ney is associate professor of church history at Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pennsylvania.