The story of Noah and the ark receives a great deal of attention in children's literature. Several books are available which use this story to teach young children to count or to identify the numerous types of animals which found refuge in the ark.
It's a story which lends itself to lavish illustration and designers of children's books tend to make the most of this possibility.
While not wanting to seem critical of one of the few places where God rates a mention in mainstream children's literature, all of this does raise the question of what we make of this story. Do we see it as merely a fable with no more connection to real events than Doctor Seuss' Green Eggs and Ham? Do we see it as merely a story about animal identification, big rainstorms and rainbows?
For early Christian writers, the story of the Deluge was a profoundly important story, one of the most important in the Old Testament. They saw it as an event which prefigured and found its fulfilment in Christ's death and resurrection. They viewed it as further fulfilled in the sacrament of Baptism. Indeed, they believed the Creation story, the Great Flood, the crossing of the Red Sea and Joshua's leading the people over the Jordan help us better understand the nature of Baptism.
The late French theologian Jean Danielou succinctly summarized the essential connection of the Deluge with the New Covenant: "The world is filled with sin; the judgment of God destroys the sinful world; one just man is spared to be the principle of a new creation" (The Bible and the Liturgy, p. 75). The story contains nothing about water as a substance for cleansing; water here is purely destructive. An old way of life is destroyed; something new will be put in its place.
Early Christian writers saw significance in all details of this story. The dove which announced new life to Noah prefigures the dove which came down upon Christ at his Baptism and the Holy Spirit which comes to us through ours. The ark is a figure of the church, outside which there is no life. The wood of the ark is a herald of the cross through which Christ brought salvation. Even the eight people on the ark are seen as a symbol of the eighth day of the week -- the day of the resurrection, the day of the new creation.
The crossing of the Red Sea is another sign of the Baptism to come in the New Covenant. Here again, water is not for cleansing, but for destruction. And there is the further element of liberation from slavery. Just as the Hebrews were liberated from subjection to Pharaoh, so are we liberated from slavery to sin.
The crossing of the Jordan further hints at the meaning of Baptism. The waters are parted so that the Ark of the Covenant and the people can enter the Promised Land. Likewise, through the waters of Baptism we enter a new way of being and begin to live as we will in our heavenly home.
But what of this way of reading the Bible? Were the early Christian writers simply projecting Catholic biases onto previous events? Or, were they uncovering a meaning that was already there, but hidden from the Hebrews?
Certainly, Scripture itself favors the latter view. During the Babylonian captivity, the Hebrew prophets announced that God would perform deeds similar to, but even greater, than those he had in the past. Matthew's Gospel is at pains to show how Jesus fulfilled -- gave wider and deeper meaning to -- the events of the Jewish Covenant. And in John 6, Jesus himself states that just as God gave manna to the Israelites in the desert, so Jesus gives us his own body and blood to eat. Moreover, his body and blood give eternal life while those who ate the manna all died.
Sacraments are signs. But these signs are not mere human conventions. They are foreshadowed in the Old Testament and given to us in their fullness by the Son of God.
So it is with Baptism. St. Paul tells us that the crossing of the Red Sea foreshadowed Baptism (1 Corinthians 10:1-4). St. Peter saw a clear sign of Baptism in the story of Noah (1 Peter 3:18-21).
The story of Noah is a good story for children. It can open them up to the story of the relationship between God and humanity. As adults, we should plumb that and other Old Testament stories at greater depth to learn about the great mystery of our salvation through Jesus.
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