9 These are the generations of Noah. Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation. Noah walked with God. 10 And Noah had three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth.11 Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence.12 And God saw the earth, and behold, it was corrupt, for all flesh had corrupted their way on the earth. 13 And God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence through them. Behold, I will destroy them with the earth. 14 Make yourself an ark of gopher wood. Make rooms in the ark, and cover it inside and out with pitch. 15 This is how you are to make it: the length of the ark 300 cubits, its breadth 50 cubits, and its height 30 cubits. 16 Make a roof for the ark, and finish it to a cubit above, and set the door of the ark in its side. Make it with lower, second, and third decks. 17 For behold, I will bring a flood of waters upon the earth to destroy all flesh in which is the breath of life under heaven. Everything that is on the earth shall die. 18 But I will establish my covenant with you, and you shall come into the ark, you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives with you. 19 And of every living thing of all flesh, you shall bring two of every sort into the ark to keep them alive with you. They shall be male and female. 20 Of the birds according to their kinds, and of the animals according to their kinds, of every creeping thing of the ground, according to its kind, two of every sort shall come in to you to keep them alive. 21 Also take with you every sort of food that is eaten, and store it up. It shall serve as food for you and for them.” 22 Noah did this; he did all that God commanded him.
I love the old preacher story about the little boy who was in the Sunday School class when his teacher asked, “What am I? I am small, brown, furry, and like to scamper up trees. What am I?” After a pause the little boy said, “I know the answer is ‘Jesus’ but I’ll be dadgum if that doesn’t sound like a squirrel.”
It is funny because it does indeed seem like “Jesus” always is the answer, no? That is because, well, He is! Christians believe that Jesus is the answer to all the questions that really matter. We also believe that all of scripture points to Jesus. For this reason, throughout the church’s history, Christians have interpreted many Old Testament passages as types or pictures of the coming Christ. Sometimes these efforts have been solid and helpful, sometimes less so.
Earlier in the church’s history, there was a method of interpreting scripture that was very popular. It was the allegorical method. In this method, the interpreter takes, say, a story from the Old Testament and allegorizes it, or spiritualizes the details of it. In so doing, these interpreters said they were mining the deeper meanings behind the surface events of the stories. Most modern Protestants are very wary of allegorizing the Bible, and understandably so. After all, some of these allegorical interpretations can be downright strange and, most importantly, it is hard to know what the rails are that keep subjective allegory from plummeting off of a cliff into pure anachronistic subjectivity. An example of this kind of odd handling of the text might be Jerome’s interpretation of the measurements of the ark:
We read in Genesis that the ark that Noah built was three hundred cubits long, fifty cubits wide and thirty cubits high. Notice the mystical significance of the numbers. In the number fifty, penance is symbolized because the fiftieth psalm of King David is the prayer of his penance. The hundred contains the symbol of crucifixion. The letter T is the sign for three hundred…No one marked with the sign of the cross on his forehead can be struck by the devil…Let us comment on the number thirty because the ark was thirty cubits high and finished above in one cubit…As a matter of fact, when Jesus was baptized, according to Luke, “he was thirty years of age.”…Fifty, and three hundred, and thirty were finished above in one cubit, that is, in one faith of God.
Well, that all seems to be a bit much and to be a bit forced! Even given such fantastic allegorizing of the text, many Protestants argue that while they reject allegory they embrace typology, by which they mean that many Old Testament stories and images are types of Christ, or were pictures of the coming of Christ. And these folks will argue that the New Testament writers themselves used typology in their handling of the Old Testament.
The line between allegory and typology can get a bit blurry at times, but, in general, allegory is seen as less open to legitimate controls whereas typological readings are always pointing to Christ Himself.
I get the caution and the concern and to a certain extent I agree. However, it has been interesting to see how a number of modern readers of the Bible are saying that we have been too hard on the allegorical method and have noted that it was the predominant method of interpretation for many of the early church fathers. And, frankly, they have a point. While allegory can indeed be dangerous, we must not throw the baby out with the bathwater.
What is behind all of this, allegory and typology? Why not just interpret the Bible in a wooden literal sense at all times. Well, all responsible interpreters of the Bible agree that the immediate historical meaning, what is called “authorial intent,” the intent of the author in writing, is of primary importance. But here is the problem: we honestly believe that Jesus is the point of the whole story, from Genesis to Revelation. Furthermore, the person and work of Jesus are the apex and unsurpassable high point of God’s plan to save His people. So that means that everything having to do with salvation before the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem must in some way be preparatory for the Christ and His cross.
In other words, there are passages of scripture that simply beg for us to see Jesus in them! Noah’s ark is certainly one of those passages. And, since the church’s beginning, interpreters of the Bible have seen Jesus and the cross of Christ in Noah’s ark.
A beautiful example can be seen in the 2ndcentury church father, Justin Martyr, who was born in the year 100 AD. In the 138thpart of his Dialogue with Trypho, Justin wrote this about the ark:
“You know, then, sirs,” I said, “that God has said in Isaiah to Jerusalem: ‘I saved thee in the deluge of Noah.’ By this which God said was meant that the mystery of saved men appeared in the deluge. For righteous Noah, along with the other mortals at the deluge, i.e., with his own wife, his three sons and their wives, being eight in number, were a symbol of the eighth day, wherein Christ appeared when He rose from the dead, forever the first in power. For Christ, being the first-born of every creature, became again the chief of another race regenerated by Himself through water, and faith, and wood, containing the mystery of the cross; even as Noah was saved by wood when he rode over the waters with his household. Accordingly, when the prophet says, ‘I saved thee in the times of Noah,’ as I have already remarked, he addresses the people who are equally faithful to God, and possess the same signs. For when Moses had the rod in his hands, he led your nation through the sea. And you believe that this was spoken to your nation only, or to the land. But the whole earth, as the Scripture says, was inundated, and the water rose in height fifteen cubits above all the mountains: so that it is evident this was not spoken to the land, but to the people who obeyed Him: for whom also He had before prepared a resting-place in Jerusalem, as was previously demonstrated by all the symbols of the deluge; I mean, that by water, faith, and wood, those who are afore-prepared, and who repent of the sins which they have committed, shall escape from the impending judgment of God.
Justin argued that Noah’s ark pointed to Jesus in these ways:
- Noah’s family represents all who are saved by God throughout time.
- The eight members of Noah’s family who were saved represent the resurrection in that they represent the eighth day, or a Sunday, which is the day Jesus rose from the dead.
- The repopulating of the earth after the flood represents the new race of people who are believers in Jesus Christ.
- The water of the flood represents baptism.
- The wood of the ark represents the cross.
To be honest, I love this! Question that interpretation as you will—and it is not beyond critique in some of its particulars—let us admit this: if Jesus is the point of the whole story and the apex of God’s plan to save lost humanity, all references to God’s saving work in the Old Testament will point to Jesus. Yes, we must be careful that we not over-spiritualize every…single…detail…but let us at least appreciate that even those church fathers and others did so from an admirable starting point: Jesus as the point of all scripture!
Whatever you want to call it—and I suspect typology would be best here—I believe that Noah’s ark does indeed point to Jesus and is, in many ways, like Jesus. Consider…