Dare to be a Noah: Calvin on Gen. 6.5-22
"In a few words, but with great sublimity, Moses here commends the faith of Noah." Thus comments Calvin on Scripture's record that "Noah... did all that God commanded him" (Gen. 6.22). The terseness with which Scripture registers Noah's obedience is remarkable in light of the proportions of that obedience; what Noah "did" was devote "more than a hundred years" of his life to building a "triple story" boat of sufficient size to house and preserve his own family as well as select pairs of birds, mammals, creepers, and crawlers, from a flood of world-wide extent.
Interestingly, Calvin finds principally a commendation of Noah's faith, rather than his labors per se, in Scripture's record of Noah's accomplishments. Obedience of the kind exercised by Noah necessarily rests on a firm foundation of confidence that God will be true to his promise of both pending judgment and salvation. "Whatsoever... was worthy of praise in this holy man... sprung from this fountain." The nature of Noah's faith requires greater detail, but first it's worth noting the obstacles Noah would have encountered in his ark-building endeavors, and so to be impressed by how extraordinary Noah's faith and the obedience stemming from it actually were.
Calvin identifies five obstacles in particular. There was, first of all, the sheer enormity of the task itself. "The prodigious size of the [proposed] ark might have overwhelmed all his senses, so as to prevent him from raising a finger to begin the work." Noah, in other words, might have balked from the job entrusted to him upon considering "the multitude of trees to be felled, ...the great labor of conveying them, and the difficulty of joining them to together." The time scale for this building project was also rather intimidating: "the holy man was required to be engaged more than a hundred years in most troublesome labor."
There was, secondly, the snickers and insults of Noah's peers to deter him from his work. Noah's contemporaries can hardly have failed to have taken him to task for his "promising himself an exclusive deliverance" from the wrath to come. Calvin reckons that the "natural ferocity" of Noah's contemporaries may have been compounded by concerns on their part regarding the depletion of natural resources resulting from Noah's doings: "Noah, by felling trees on all sides, was making the earth bare, and defrauding them of various advantages." No doubt some evangelicals today would be pleased to think that Noah's iniquitous peers constituted the world's first tree-huggers, but Calvin appears to suppose that Noah's contemporaries wished to exploit earth's riches for their own (sinful) purposes, not to preserve them as such, and for that reason (rather than environmental concerns) took offense at Noah's apparent hoarding of the same.
There was, thirdly, the ironic truth that God commanded Noah to reserve "a two years' store" of food for both human and non-human ticket-holders for the ark after effectively calling him to trade in his farming career for that of a ship-builder. Noah was "disengaged from agriculture in order to build the ark," a fact which necessarily rendered difficult "the providing of food for [the] animals." Indeed, Noah might "have suspected that God was mocking him" on this score.
There was, fourthly, the difficulty involved in gathering all the wild animals together as such -- "as if, indeed, he had all the beasts of the forest at his command, or was able to tame them; so that, in his keeping, wolves might dwell with lambs, tigers with hares, lions with oxen." A background in zoo-keeping might have proved beneficial in this regard; there's little evidence to suggest Noah had one.
Fifthly, and most substantially, there was the rather dire reality of actually entering the ark once it was complete and thus voluntarily depriving himself "of air and vital spirit." Calvin likens Noah's entrance into the ark to a descent "into the grave." His abhorrence at the thought of what it was like to actually inhabit the ark is informed by attention to its relatively limited dimensions, its lack of translucent windows, the presence of animals, and the apparent lack of a latrine for either human or animal use. "The smell of dung alone, pent up as it was in a closely filled place, might, at the expiration of three days, have stifled all the living creatures in the ark." The repulsion thus expressed by Calvin at the thought of being in the ark may reveal more about his own psyche (perhaps betraying degrees of claustrophobia, scotophobia, and/or scatophobia?) than anything else.
Calvin discovers several practical exhortations for believers in the narrative of Noah's obedience, particularly so with reference to the obstacles that Noah actually faced in fulfilling God's instructions to him. So, for instance, we are reminded by Noah that we must set our sights firmly on our heavenly inheritance -- the eternal fellowship with the Triune God and other believers that awaits us in the world to come -- if we are to persevere in obedience in this world. Calvin feels quite certain that Noah kept heaven in his sights, rather than temporal life beyond the flood, as he built the ark, because -- quite frankly -- the temporal life he (re)inherited after the flood was hardly worth the bother of building the ark. "Better to die a hundred deaths, than to undertake a work so laborious, unless he had looked to something higher than the present life."
On this score, however, Calvin is keen to emphasize that Noah's heavenly inheritance in no way depended upon his obedience in that particular task assigned to him on earth. Noah, like Enoch before him in Gen. 5, was judged righteous on the basis of the coming Seed's right-doing before he embarked on any right-doing, or in this case ark-building, of his own, a point Calvin finds reflected in the first words said about Noah in Gen. 6.5: "Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord." Noah built an ark in keeping with God's instructions because he had already been accepted by God and given the extraordinary gift of a heavenly inheritance, not in order to secure that acceptance or heavenly inheritance.
Another lesson we learn from Noah is the importance of regularly hearing and clinging to God's promises; indeed, it was God's promises -- both those of pending judgment and those of salvation through the ark -- that fueled Noah's faith, which faith in turn fueled his extraordinary obedience. "Let us therefore know, that the promises of God alone are they which quicken us, and inspire each of our members with vigour to yield obedience to God; but that without these promises, we not only lie torpid in indolence, but are almost lifeless, so that neither hands nor feet can do their duty. And hence, as often as we become languid, or more remiss than we ought to be, in good works, let the promises of God recur to us, to correct our tardiness."
In sum, then, "a remarkable example... of obedience is here described to us." But a proper learning from Noah's example will not lead us immediately to ark-building or any other act of supposed obedience which God solicits from us. A proper learning from Noah's example will lead us to set our sights on that eternal fellowship with God secured for us by the Seed that crushed the Serpent's head, and to have regular recourse to God's promises, which should inspire faith within us, and so ultimately obedience to whatever ordinary or extraordinary (and potentially even smelly) task God requires of us.
Aaron Clay Denlinger is professor of church history and historical theology at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, Florida.
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