Following the brilliantly intense Christian Associates staff conference in Budapest, my wife and I are spending a couple of weeks in eastern Turkey. Yesterday we went to see the remarkable rock structure, in the hills close to the border with Iran, that is believed by some to be the petrified remains of Noah’s ark. The archaeological site is named after the Turkish army captain İlhan Durupınar who noticed it in aerial photographs taken after it was exposed by earthquakes and heavy rain in 1948, but it is known locally as Nuhun Gemisi, “Noah’s ship”.
There appears, in fact, to be a complex geological explanation for the boat-like formation, but the coincidences are extraordinary nevertheless, and if you allow the evidence presented in the tatty little museum at the site to colour your imagination as you look down on the structure, you are almost—wonderfully—convinced that the ark finally settled here as the flood waters receded. Almost.
In the former Armenian—now Kurdish—village of Arzap about 15 miles from the ark formation is this large standing stone. Believers in the rock ark claim that it was originally a drogue stone—a sort of primitive anchor—used by the ship. A thick knotted rope would have passed through the hole in the top. It now stands in a cemetery and has several crosses carved into it. A number of similar stones can be found around the village. Chemical analysis, however, suggests that they originated in the surrounding hills, not in Mesopotamia.
In a nearby shallow pit around 500 victims of the Armenian genocide were once buried. Although most of the remains have been removed by the Turkish authorities, a human skull and jaw and other bones were scattered across the ground. Our Kurdish friend pulled half a pelvis from under a small rock. But that is another sad story altogether….
Noah does not feature prominently in narrative-historical readings of scripture, presumably because he antedates the covenant with Abraham and Israel. The original story is fascinating in its own right and for all sorts of reasons, but at the narrative level I have tended to highlight the “new creation” motif: Noah and his family are blessed and are told to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth; his descendants instead construct the city and tower of Babel in order to make a name for themselves, and it is at this point in the extended account of humanity’s repudiation of the creator—and not earlier—that Abraham is sent to be the father of a great nation. The people of God is called to be a new creation in microcosm in the shadow of empire.
Elsewhere in the Old Testament Noah is the archetype of the righteous Jew who will be saved even when Israel as a nation faces destruction (Ezek. 14:14, 20); and Isaiah likens the restoration of Israel following the judgment of exile to the promise of God to Noah that he would never again destroy the earth with a flood:
This is like the days of Noah to me: as I swore that the waters of Noah should no more go over the earth, so I have sworn that I will not be angry with you, and will not rebuke you. (Is. 54:9)
The prophetic typology is carried over into the New Testament. The story is evoked in three, possibly four, places to express the thought that when disaster comes upon Israel, the few who are righteous by virtue of their faith will be saved.
First, the parousia of the Son of Man “on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory” will occur at the climax to a series of events that will be a matter of “great tribulation” for Jesus’ disciples. It will happen within a generation, and the disciples will be able to read the signs indicating that the end is near, but Jesus cannot be any more precise about the timing: he does not know the “day and hour”. The coming of the Son of Man will be like the days of Noah—note the echo of Isaiah 54:9. People carried on their normal lives, “eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage” (Matt. 24:38), until it was too late: Noah and his family entered the ark, which he had had the foresight to build, the flood came, and humanity was swept away. So it will be when the judgment of God comes upon Israel. Some will be swept away in the catastrophe, others will survive—those “left behind” are the lucky ones (Matt. 24:40-41).
Secondly, in Hebrews 11:7 Noah is presented as an ancient example of “the righteousness that comes by faith”. We should not miss the fact that the allusion is to Habakkuk 2:4, which is quoted a few verses earlier (Heb. 10:39). The faith that is so amply illustrated in the famous chapter 11 is the faith by which the righteous person survives an eschatological crisis. The whole Letter is an exhortation to a community of Jewish believers to persevere, in the face either of persecution or of disillusionment, because God will soon establish an unshakeable kingdom (cf. Heb. 12:26-28). This is not the faith of the individual Christian hoping to go to heaven. It is the faith of the first century Jewish-Christian community hoping to be part of the future of God’s people in the age to come. Noah was righteous because he believed in God’s future—that is justification by faith. Paul’s argument in Romans is little different.
Thirdly, I have argued elsewhere that when Peter speaks of Jesus going to proclaim “to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared” (1 Pet. 3:20), he is referring to Jesus’ preaching to the Jews prior to his resurrection. He likens the period of Jesus’ public ministry to the preparation of the vessel by which a small number would be saved: Noah and his family were saved by the ark; the Jewish-Christians to whom Peter writes will be saved from the coming judgment by baptism, which corresponds to the flood, “through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 3:21).
Finally, the idea that Noah anticipates an eschatological righteousness is also found in 2 Peter 2:4-9. God judged the ungodly ancient world, but he “preserved Noah, a herald of righteousness, with seven others”. Therefore, Peter’s readers can be assured that the Lord “knows how to rescue the godly from trials, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment”. The intensely apocalyptic language of the Letter may suggest that a universal judgment is in view, rather than of Israel alone—I am not sure. But we still have to deal with an impending event, even if Peter has to address concerns about the delay of the “day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly” (3:7-10).
In the end, Noah may be the victim of too many Sunday School stories and too many archaeological fantasies—there is apparently an American team digging into the ice at the summit of Ararat as I write—to be taken seriously as an eschatological archetype. But he brings together in a way that no other Old Testament figure does the intersecting themes of eschatological righteousness and new creation, and perhaps there is more that could be made of his universal appeal. According to the Qu’ran the ark finally came to rest on Mount Judi. The Nuhun Gemisi site is close to a mountain known as Cudi Dağı in Turkish or Jabal Judi in Arabic. Another coincidence.