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Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol. II:
City of God: Chapter 27

Early Church Fathers  Index     

Chapter 27.—Of the Ark and the Deluge, and that We Cannot Agree with Those Who Receive the Bare History, But Reject the Allegorical Interpretation, Nor with Those Who Maintain the Figurative and Not the Historical Meaning.

Yet no one ought to suppose either that these things were written for no purpose, or that we should study only the historical truth, apart from any allegorical meanings; or, on the contrary, that they are only allegories, and that there were no such facts at all, or that, whether it be so or no, there is here no prophecy of the church.  For what right-minded man will contend that books so religiously preserved during thousands of years, and transmitted by so orderly a succession, were written without an object, or that only the bare historical facts are to be considered when we read them?  For, not to mention other instances, if the number of the animals entailed the construction of an ark of great size, where was the necessity of sending into it two unclean and seven clean animals of each species, when both could have been preserved in equal numbers?  Or could not God, who ordered them to be preserved in order to replenish the race, restore them in the same way He had created them?

But they who contend that these things never happened, but are only figures setting forth other things, in the first place suppose that there could not be a flood so great that the water should rise fifteen cubits above the highest mountains, because it is said that clouds cannot rise above the top of Mount Olympus, because it reaches the sky where there is none of that thicker atmosphere in which winds, clouds, and rains have their origin.  They do not reflect that the densest element of all, earth, can exist there; or perhaps they deny that the top of the mountain is earth.  Why, then, do these measurers and weighers of the elements contend that earth can be raised to those aerial altitudes, and that water cannot, while they admit that water is lighter, and liker to ascend than earth?  What reason do they adduce why earth, the heavier and lower element, has for so many ages scaled to the tranquil ether, while water, the lighter, and more likely to ascend, is not suffered to do the same even for a brief space of time?

They say, too, that the area of that ark could not contain so many kinds of animals of both sexes, two of the unclean and seven of the clean.  But they seem to me to reckon only one area of 300 cubits long and 50 broad, and not to remember that there was another similar in the story above, and yet another as large in the story above that again; and that there was consequently an area of 900 cubits by 150.  And if we accept what Origen 855 has with some appropriateness suggested, that Moses the man of God, being, as it is written, “learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians,” 856 who delighted in geometry, may have meant geometrical cubits, of which they say that one is equal to six of our cubits, then who does not see what a capacity these dimensions give to the ark?  For as to their objection that an ark of such size could not be built, it is a very silly calumny; for they are aware that huge cities have been built, and they should remember that the ark was an hundred years in building.  Or, perhaps, though stone can adhere to stone when cemented with nothing but lime, so that a wall of several miles may be constructed, yet plank cannot be riveted to plank by mortices, bolts, nails, and pitch-glue, so as to construct an ark which was not made with curved ribs but straight timbers, which was not to be launched by its builders, but to be lifted by the natural pressure of the water when it reached it, and which was to be preserved from shipwreck as it floated about rather by divine oversight than by human skill.

As to another customary inquiry of the scrupulous about the very minute creatures, not only such as mice and lizards, but also locusts, beetles, flies, fleas, and so forth, whether there were not in the ark a larger number of them than was determined by God in His command, those persons who are moved by this difficulty are to be reminded that the words “every creeping thing of the earth” only indicate that it was not needful to preserve in the ark the animals that can live in the water, whether the fishes that live submerged in it, or the sea-birds that swim on its surface.  Then, when it is said “male and female,” no doubt reference is made to the repairing of the races, and consequently there was no need for those creatures being in the ark which are born without the union of the sexes from inanimate things, or from their corruption; or if they were in the ark, they might be there as they commonly are in houses, not in any determinate numbers; or if it was necessary that there should be a definite number of all those animals that cannot naturally live in the water, that so the most sacred mystery which was being enacted p. 308 might be bodied forth and perfectly figured in actual realities, still this was not the care of Noah or his sons, but of God.  For Noah did not catch the animals and put them into the ark, but gave them entrance as they came seeking it.  For this is the force of the words, “They shall come unto thee,” 857 —not, that is to say, by man’s effort, but by God’s will.  But certainly we are not required to believe that those which have no sex also came; for it is expressly and definitely said, “They shall be male and female.”  For there are some animals which are born out of corruption, but yet afterwards they themselves copulate and produce offspring, as flies; but others, which have no sex, like bees.  Then, as to those animals which have sex, but without ability to propagate their kind, like mules and she-mules, it is probable that they were not in the ark, but that it was counted sufficient to preserve their parents, to wit, the horse and the ass; and this applies to all hybrids.  Yet, if it was necessary for the completeness of the mystery, they were there; for even this species has “male and female.”

Another question is commonly raised regarding the food of the carnivorous animals,—whether, without transgressing the command which fixed the number to be preserved, there were necessarily others included in the ark for their sustenance; or, as is more probable, there might be some food which was not flesh, and which yet suited all.  For we know how many animals whose food is flesh eat also vegetable products and fruits, especially figs and chestnuts.  What wonder is it, therefore, if that wise and just man was instructed by God what would suit each, so that without flesh he prepared and stored provision fit for every species?  And what is there which hunger would not make animals eat?  Or what could not be made sweet and wholesome by God, who, with a divine facility, might have enabled them to do without food at all, had it not been requisite to the completeness of so great a mystery that they should be fed?  But none but a contentious man can suppose that there was no prefiguring of the church in so manifold and circumstantial a detail.  For the nations have already so filled the church, and are comprehended in the framework of its unity, the clean and unclean together, until the appointed end, that this one very manifest fulfillment leaves no doubt how we should interpret even those others which are somewhat more obscure, and which cannot so readily be discerned.  And since this is so, if not even the most audacious will presume to assert that these things were written without a purpose, or that though the events really happened they mean nothing, or that they did not really happen, but are only allegory, or that at all events they are far from having any figurative reference to the church; if it has been made out that, on the other hand, we must rather believe that there was a wise purpose in their being committed to memory and to writing, and that they did happen, and have a significance, and that this significance has a prophetic reference to the church, then this book, having served this purpose, may now be closed, that we may go on to trace in the history subsequent to the deluge the courses of the two cities,—the earthly, that lives according to men, and the heavenly, that lives according to God.



In his second homily on Genesis.


Acts 7.22.


Gen. 6:19, 20.

Next: Book XVI

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