A world wiped away by wrath and time: Noah in early Christian imagination

Although early Christian literature rarely alludes to the story of Noah and the destruction of his antediluvian world, interpreters should not discount the singular hermeneutical importance of Noah’s tale for the first Christians. The Flood myth provided the primitive churches with an invaluable narrative framework through which Christian identities were shaped, Christian experiences were rationalized, and Christian hopes were forecast. As these first believers conformed themselves to the image of the righteous shipwright (and vice versa), they became Noah’s prophetic successors, heirs of his good news.

In what follows is an attempt to gleam the meaning of the Noahide legend as it was conceived by these first apocalyptic Christians.

Paul: this passing age

The apostle Paul, for his part, never refers to Noah or the primeval Flood.

This seeming lack of concern for the Flood myth is regularly undercut by Paul’s portrayal of the wrath to come, however. For Paul, this “present evil age,” that is, the current world and the people who inhabit it, are “passing away” (1 Cor 2:6, 7:31, cf. 1 John 2:17) and, in fact, “perishing” (2 Cor 2:15, 4:3, 2 Thess 2:8-12, cf. 1 Thess 5:9, 1 Cor 1:28).

Paul’s contemporaries, like the godless in the days of Noah, were set to expire as the wrath of God was worked out upon the earth both in the present (cf. Romans 1:18-32, 1 Thess 2:16) and in the immediate future (cf. 1 Thess 1:10, Romans 5:9). For their rebellion, “everyone,” Jew and Greek alike, were to receive “destruction” along with “trouble and distress… wrath and anger” on the day of the Lord (Romans 2:8-9, cf. Philippians 3:19, 1 Thess 5:3, 2 Thess 1:9). Only those who had set their hopes and allegiance upon Christ would be “saved,” that is, “preserved” and “rescued.”

(The Apostle’s apparent appreciation for the sexual threat posed by rogue angels only adds to this impression: God was about to destroy a perverse and demonic world, just as he did in the days of Noah (1 Cor 11:10, cf. Genesis 6:1-8, 1 Enoch 7).)

This grim vision of universal purification, while never explicitly linked with Noah, finds a compelling precursor in the Flood narrative.

Matthew & Luke: as in the days of Noah

Jesus compares the unexpected coming of the son of man to the deluge that came in the days of Noah.

Just as it was in the days of Noah, so will it be in the days of the Son of Man. They were eating and drinking and marrying and being given in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark. And they were unaware until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. And the flood came and destroyed them all. (Matthew 24:38-39, cf. Luke 17:26-27) 

Just as the Flood “sunk the nations in universal wickedness” long ago (Wisdom 10:4-5), so too, Jesus taught, would the arrival of the son of man transform the earth through the onslaught of sudden catastrophe. Those who were unprepared, those who had built their homes on sand rather than on worthy foundation (Luke 6:46-49), would be washed away by the flood waters. Those who had prepared accordingly, on the other hand, would “inherit the land” (Matthew 5:3), their house unshaken by the storm (Luke 6:48).

In all this, Noah’s decision to construct an eschatological vessel at God’s calling rather than participate in normal human activity was to be emulated.

1 Peter: saved through baptism

In 1 Peter 3:20-21 the deliverance of Noah through the flood waters serves to prefigure the baptism “which now saves” the believer by preparing his conscience for the great reckoning of Christ that is at hand.

In light of the author’s anticipation of an apocalyptic and destructive future (cf. 1 Peter 1:22-25, 4:5-7; 17-18), it may be that just as the ancient flood prefigured baptism, so too did baptism prefigure the flood to come. For 1 Peter, those who refused to be delivered through water in baptism in the present age would be toppled when the eschatological flood arrived to overthrow a violent and idolatrous pagan world.

2 Peter: the preacher of righteousness

Uniquely, 2 Peter praises Noah as a “preacher of righteousness” (2 Peter 2:5, cf. 1 Clement 7:6, 9:4). Apparently understood as a preacher of repentance and doom among his own “ungodly” generation, Noah was for some early Christians a prototypical eschatological prophet. Just as Noah had sound the alarm on behalf of his corrupt contemporaries, the first Christians viewed themselves as canaries in a compromised coal mine. Only those who heeded their warning by resolutely fleeing out of the defunct pagan world would survive the days to come: “remember Lot’s wife!” (cf. Luke 17:29-32).

Hebrews: judgement and inheritance

The writer of Hebrews recounts Noah’s story among other old, heroic tales.

By faith Noah, warned by God about events as yet unseen, respected the warning and built an ark to save his household; by this he condemned the world and became an heir to the righteousness that is in accordance with faith. (Hebrews 11:8)

According to the Preacher, Noah’s trust in God’s word about the future flood won him divine approval, “the righteousness that is accordance with faith.” By means of this approval Noah not only survived the cataclysm but also became the father of all the nations (cf. Genesis 10) and the recipient of God’s everlasting covenant. Even more than this, by faith Noah became the judge through whom the unrighteous ancient order was “condemned” and done away with. As the world’s righteous accuser, Noah inherited the world to come.

martin deluge

So who was Noah?

Taking these passages together, it appears early Christians found the story of the Flood particularly relevant in light of Jesus’ apocalyptic message of the kingdom. Noah’s depraved world, like their own, so they believed, was about to pass away, overwhelmed by a new age and order. Noah’s faithful witness, like their own, was about to be rewarded and publicly vindicated.

Like Noah before them, the first Christians stood on the precipice of time, awaiting a kingdom that would demolish and replace all other kingdoms; a new order established by God rather than by man. Their confession, that is, their belief in this approaching kingdom, along with all its social and religious implications, became for them an eschatological ark. Like Noah, they too would stand on the day of judgment to condemn the world that had rejected their message. And when the day of their Lord had passed, they too would exit the ark to find the world they knew wiped away by wrath and time.

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