Even from apostolic times the Church has regarded the ark of Noah as a symbol rich in theological significance. St. Peter himself spoke of it in terms of salvation, referring to “the ark . . . in which a few, that is eight souls, were saved ( diesothesan) through water.” He went on to speak of “an antitype which now saves ( sozei) us: baptism” (1 Pet. 3:20–21). The Epistle to the Hebrews similarly treated of the ark in reference to salvation, saying that Noah “prepared an ark for the saving ( soteria) of his household” (Heb. 11:7).
Early Christian testimonies to this understanding follow suit. For example, in the second century Justin Martyr saw the ark as a symbol of the Cross ( Dialogue with Trypho 138.2–3). In the third century Cyprian of Carthage affirmed that “the one ark of Noah was a figure of the one Church” during the flood, that “baptism of the world in which it was purified and redeemed” ( Letters 68.2). Jerome ( Letters 133) and Augustine ( Against Faustus 12.17) said much the same in the early fifth century. Various combinations of this imagery are ubiquitous in patristic and liturgical texts.
The root of such symbolism is found in the Old Testament’s own portrayal of Noah’s ark. Genesis calls it a tevah, a word used in only one other place in the Hebrew Scriptures, namely, to designate the little box in which the infant Moses floated on the Nile.
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Patrick Henry Reardon is pastor emeritus of All Saints Antiochian Orthodox Church in Chicago, Illinois, and the author of numerous books, including, most recently, Out of Step with God: Orthodox Christian Reflections on the Book of Numbers (Ancient Faith Publishing, 2019).
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