Fr Stephen De Young’s invocation of the story of Noah and the Ark as critique of apokatastasis got me wondering how I might preach this story. I did in fact preach a series of sermons on it back in the late 80s at St Mark’s Episcopal Church in Highland, Maryland. I had attended a week-long seminar taught by Elizabeth Achtemeier on Preaching the Old Testament, and I came back so enthused that I began to preach on the book of Genesis over the next several years. It was also at this time that I began to read and preach the Old Testament typologically. I wonder what I said about the story of Noah back then.
How might I preach the story of Noah today? I am handicapped by the fact that my library no longer contains the many commentaries on Genesis that I used to own. They, along with two-thirds of my theological library, were given to the Immaculate Conception Seminary about a decade ago. But I still own Nahum Sarna’s JPS Torah commentary on Genesis, as well as Walter Brueggemann’s Interpretation commentary. I also picked up Fr Patrick Reardon’s little book Creation and the Patriarchal Histories a couple years ago. So I am not left totally to my own devices as I reflect on this story (thank God!).
The task of the preacher is to declare the good news of Jesus Christ; and this includes sermons whose foundational texts are from the Old Testament, for every verse of Scripture is about the crucified and risen Lord returning in glory. When reading the Old Testament, therefore, the preacher cannot remain content with critical-historical exegesis, as important as this may be. He must always be asking himself, “Where is Christ?” “What is the good news of this text for my congregation?”
The story of the deluge is, of course, a story of divine judgment. We can put aside the metaphor of the ancient law court, which is irrelevant to our reading of the story. At a basic level, it’s quite simple. God looks upon his world and descries that it has devolved to an intolerable level of degeneracy and wickedness:
The Lord saw how great was man’s wickedness on earth, and how every plan devised by his mind was nothing but evil all the time. And the Lord regretted that He had made man on earth, and His heart was saddened. The Lord said, “I will blot out from the earth the men whom I created—men together with beasts, creeping things, and birds of the sky; for I regret that I made them.” But Noah found favor with the Lord. (Gen 6:5-8 [JPS])
In only ten generations the world has descended to such a level of violence, disorder, and pollution that God’s plans for his creation have become (apparently) unrealizable. His heart is filled with sorrow, and he regrets his creation of mankind. He thus determines to destroy all living things—not just humanity but also the animals and birds. Such is the depth of the evil and corruption that now indwells the world. Should we think of this as retributive punishment? Perhaps but the text seems to imply something else, something deeper. After all, do lions, tigers, and bears really deserve obliteration (mosquitos and cockroaches are, of course, a different matter)? One gets the sense that the creation has reached a condition of brokenness that cannot be easily repaired. And note the Lord’s emotional response to this situation—he is broken-hearted. At least that is what the Hebrew text intimates. The LXX, on the other hand, emphasizes the divine wrath:
And when the Lord God saw that the wicked deeds of humans were multiplied on the earth and that all think attentively in their hearts on evil things all the days, then God considered that he had made humankind on the earth, and he thought it over. And God said, “I will wipe out from off the earth humankind which I have made, from human to domestic animal and from creeping things to birds of the sky, for I have become angry that I have made them.” Yet Noe found favor before the Lord God. (Gen 6:5-8 [NETS])
Sorrow, grief, anger are not, of course, incompatible. If we make something beautiful and precious and someone mars or destroys it, we may well feel all these emotions. But one should not, I think, construe God’s decision to blot out all life as impulsively generated. It is a considered decision made in response to the lawlessness and corruption that now characterizes the world. Nor should we think of the event as the divine Judge meting out just deserts. This is not a morality tale. It is a tale of de-creation …
All the fountains of the great deep burst apart,
And the floodgates of the sky broke open. (Gen 7:11)
… and re-creation, of endings and new beginnings.
“The Flood is a cosmic catastrophe,” Sarna writes, “that is actually the undoing of creation. But God’s chastisement and grace operate simultaneously, so that out of the disaster comes renewal. One righteous man, Noah, together with his family and representative animals and birds are to be saved in order to regenerate the world” (p. 48). God determines to give man a fresh beginning, safely bringing him through the primordial waters of chaos. But most significantly God makes a covenant with Noah in which he wholeheartedly commits himself to the well-being and salvation of fallen humanity:
And God said to Noah and to his sons with him, “I now establish My covenant with you and your offspring to come, and with every living thing that is with you—birds, cattle, and every wild beast as well—all that have come out of the ark, every living thing on earth. I will maintain My covenant with you: never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” (Gen 9:8-11)
By the Noachide covenant God decisively breaks the cycle of human disobedience followed by divine retribution. A change happens, as it were, but it is a change not within the heart of man (see 8:21-22) but within the heart of God—“never again”! As Brueggemann puts it:
We have seen that in 6:5-7:10 there is a simple structure of indictment-sentence in which God resolves to punish the guilty. But that has now been changed. The one-to-one connection of guilt and punishment is broken. God is postured differently. From the perspective of this narrative, there may be death and destruction. Evil has not been eradicated from creation. But we are now assured that these are not rooted in the anger or rejection of God. The relation of creator to creature is no longer in a scheme of retribution. Because of a revolution in the heart of God, that relation is now based in unqualified grace. (p. 84)
It should be clear that the typological resources of the story of the deluge are rich and profound. Noah as type of Jesus Christ and the ark as type of the Church immediately come to mind. But in my hypothetical homily I think I would want to expound the flood as revealing the Creator’s unconditional love for the ungodly, sealed in the cross of the incarnate Son (Rom 5:6-8). Condemnation has been turned to justification. Death has become atonement. As St Peter declares:
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. (1 Peter 3:18-20)
Only eight were saved in the ark of Noah; but in the ark that is Jesus Christ, all mankind—indeed, all creation—has been gathered. The Son has died for all, the righteous for the unrighteous. In him the sins of humanity have been judged. In him we have passed through the waters of wrath and destruction. When we look up at the sky and see a rainbow, we see the sign of the primaeval covenant, now fulfilled in the New Testament of the Crucified: bow has become cross; flood has become Pascha; ruach has become the Spirit that brings life unto the eternal kingdom of the risen Messiah.
(Go to “Debating Universalism“)