“And the Waters Bore up the Ark:” Genesis 7:17 as a Foreshadow of the Cross
“The flood continued forty days on the earth; and the waters increased, and bore up the ark, and it rose high above the earth.”
-Genesis 7:17 (NRSV)
Recently, I had occasion to complain to a friend about the elasticity of the word “literal” when wielded in discussions concerning hermeneutics. The word is frequently used as a placeholder for vapid personal interpretations derived in absentia of authorial intent, historical context, and the traditions of the Church. Medieval biblical exegete Nicholas of Lyra (1270-1349) argued for the duplex sensus literalis (“double-literal sense”) of the Bible. This view allows readers of Scripture to engage the text on the literal-historical level while also allowing for engagement on a prophetic level that makes room for a typological reading which sees the real, historical events recorded in Scripture as pointing to a grander, ultimate Reality (see Levy, Introducing Medieval Biblical Interpretation: The Senses of Scripture in Premodern Exegesis, 281-5). This helpful hermeneutic can guide us to encounter Scripture in a deeper, more canonical way. One fascinating example of the duplex sensus literalis is Genesis 7:17.
Genesis 7:17 details the great flood and the ark being lifted up by the waters. On a literal-historical level (however you might apply that term to what occurs in Genesis 1-11), this describes the magnitude of the flood, emphasizing the height of the ark above the earth because of the destructive waters. The Greek verb for “bore up” in the LXX is ύψοω (hypsoo). This is the same Greek word used in John 3:14-15, “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” and John 12:32, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” (emphasis added).
From the beginning, Christians have seen parallels between Noah’s Ark and Christ. 1 Peter 3:18b-21 uses the Ark as a parallel to Christ’s work and the sacrament of Baptism:
He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you—not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Christians took this to heart; it even influenced the architecture of churches. The central part of the church building became known as the nave which is a derivative of navis, a Latin word meaning “boat.” They did this because they understood that the Church, the institution established by Christ, to be an Ark which was keeping them safe from the destruction of sin in the outside world.
Augustine advanced his interpretation of Noah and the flood still further, even making use of the dimensions of the structure of the Ark as recorded in Scripture (Contra Faustum, XII, 14):
Noah, with his family is saved by water and wood, as the family of Christ is saved by baptism, as representing the suffering of the cross. That this ark is made of beams formed in a square, as the Church is constructed of saints prepared unto every good work: for a square stands firm on any side. That the length is six times the breadth, and ten times the height, like a human body, to show that Christ appeared in a human body. That the breadth reaches to fifty cubits; as the apostle says, “Our heart is enlarged,” 2 Corinthians 6:11 that is, with spiritual love, of which he says again, “The love of God is shed abroad in our heart by the Holy Ghost, which is given unto us.” Romans 5:5 For in the fiftieth day after His resurrection, Christ sent His Holy Spirit to enlarge the hearts of His disciples. That it is three hundred cubits long, to make up six times fifty; as there are six periods in the history of the world during which Christ has never ceased to be preached — in five foretold by the prophets, and in the sixth proclaimed in the gospel. That it is thirty cubits high, a tenth part of the length; because Christ is our height, who in his thirtieth year gave His sanction to the doctrine of the gospel, by declaring that He came not to destroy the law, but to fulfil it. Now the ten commandments are to be the heart of the law; and so the length of the ark is ten times thirty. Noah himself, too, was the tenth from Adam. That the beams of the ark are fastened within and without with pitch, to signify by compact union the forbearance of love, which keeps the brotherly connection from being impaired, and the bond of peace from being broken by the offenses which try the Church either from without or from within. For pitch is a glutinous substance, of great energy and force, to represent the ardor of love which, with great power of endurance, bears all things in the maintenance of spiritual communion.
In light of these connections, Genesis 7:17’s parallels with John 3:14-15 and 12:32 are all the more interesting. The Ark anticipates the lifting up of Christ on the cross.
What is the significance of the connection between the Ark and the crucifixion of Christ? St. Athanasius’ book On the Incarnation is helpful in answering this question. Explaining why Christ died the exact way he did, Athanasius makes some wonderful points about symbolism. He explains that Christ died the way he did because he had to be killed by enemies in public with witnesses (53-4). According to Athanasius, he was specifically crucified for two reasons. First, in crucifixion his arms were outstretched “that He might draw His ancient people with the one and the Gentiles with the other” (55). The other reason, which he connects to John 12:32, is that Christ had to be lifted up because: “the air is the sphere of the devil, the enemy of our race.” The devil, fallen from heaven:
Endeavours with the other evil spirits who shared in his disobedience both to keep souls from the truth and to hinder the progress of those who are trying to follow it…the Lord came to overthrew the devil and to purify the air and to make ‘a way’ for us up to heaven, as the apostle says, ‘through the veil, that is to say, His flesh.’ He cleansed the air from all the evil influences of the enemy. (55)
The cross is a symbol of Christus victor because, even in his death, Christ purges the air (Eph 2:2) from Satan’s influence, ultimately causing the defeat of Sin and Death.
Understanding the duplex sensus literalis can aid readers of Scripture in seeing the patterns and rhythms of God on display, as he continuously intervenes in time and space. Nothing in Scripture is there by accident. The Bible is not a haphazardly compiled collection. Much like an artist uses similar strokes, colors, subjects, lighting, etc. in their work, so God used and continues to use discernible types and figures to bring about the salvation of all things (2 Cor 5:19). As we encounter these types, we can expect them to point to Christ (Col 2:17). The Ark is no exception. Noah and his family were saved by being on the inside of the Ark as the flood waters purged the earth of life. Likewise, those who find themselves in Christ will be saved from their sins. In both the lifting up of the Ark and the lifting up of the Son of Man, God is glorified because of his salvific actions on behalf of his Creation.