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B'resheet/Genesis 7:18 And the waters increased and multiplied over the earth and the ark floated on the face of the waters.
This verse, identified by Gerhard von Rad and other scholars as being from the Priestly version of the flood narrative, neatly splits in two: the first half concerned with the waters and the second half focused upon the ark. The verse comes almost as the beginning of a small narrative block, verses 17-24, which share some repeated words and concepts. The words that the Torah uses tell us a number of important things and make a critical observation for today.
The first half of our verse contains two phrases, each of which starts with a vav-conversive verb. is the Qal 3mp prefix form of the root , "to be or become strong, mighty, powerful; to increase (of water)" (Davidson), so here "and they increased". is the Qal 3mp prefix form of the root , "to be or become many, numerous, to multiply" (Davidson), so here "and they multiplied"; David Stern suggests "grew deeper" (CJB). In both cases, the subject is the word between the verbs, , the waters. TheRadak points out that it is "not merely that the waters 'grew more powerful' (as the first verb might be interpreted) but that the amount of them increased as well. In the previous verse they grew strong enough to float the ark; now they moved it hither and yon." Rashi suggests that the waters increased "by themselves", with Mizrachi clarifying that the increase was not as a result of the rain, which according to verse 17 had stopped after 40 days.1 The waters continued to increase and grow all by themselves.
TheRamban reports on the way is used elsewhere in the Scriptures. The author of the book of Job puts it in the mouth of Elihu, commenting upon the kings of the earth, "[G-d] declares to them what they have done, and that their transgressions are excessive" (Job 36:9, NJPS), while the Psalmist uses it to describe a life-span of 80 years that exceeds the biblical "three-score years and ten" (Psalm 90:10, KJV). On the other hand, he then surmises, "it could be that 'might' here implies great physical force and that the waters of the flood uprooted trees and destroyed buildings." Gordon Wenham proposes that "the waters do not merely multiply greatly, they triumph. , which occurs four times in this scene (vv. 18, 19, 20, 24) is a military word for succeeding in battle (e.g. 'whenever Moses held up his hand, Israel prevailed; but whenever he let down his hand, Amalek prevailed' (Shemot 17:11, NJPS). The ark does not merely lift off, but it travels over the waters."2 Bruce Waltke concurs, saying, "this key word expresses "triumph [in battle]". The terrible, chaotic waters, which originally covered the earth, are implicitly likened to hostile warriors attacking and undoing G-d's creation. The rhythmic repetition of this term with the crescendo of the waters and the repetition of 'every living thing' mimics the rising of the waters and the pitching of the ark."3 A number of English versions choose 'prevailed' to translate this verb (e.g., ESV, NASB, NKJV), the goes as far as 'overcame', while the CJB suggests that "the water overflowed the earth." Perhaps Noah and his family needed to get their sea-legs quite quickly!
RabbiHirsch bridges from the second phrase of the first half into the second half of the verse, alerting us to the presence of a miracle in the narrative: "The ark had been built, be it ever so strong, the danger would be immediately very imminent that, at a flood which demolished everything, it would be dashed to pieces at the first cliff or mountain it encountered. So, immediately, the protective foresight of G-d was necessary." On this basis, he changes his translation of the whole verse to read: "Only when the waters swelled and increased greatly over the earth, did the ark go upon the surface of the waters." The Sforno anticipates this explanation, commenting, "And the ark drifted - pushed by the strong gush (of water) which came from below." Nahum Sarna supports this idea, writing, "'drifted' - literally, "it went"; that is, the vessel, having no steering gear, was entirely at the mercy of the flood waters."
That discussion, then, leads us to consider the verb in the second half of our text, variously translated 'drifted' (NJPSNJB) and 'floated' (CJB, ESV, NASB, NIV). is the Qal 3ms prefix form of the root , most frequently translated as "to walk, go", hence the older KJV (and Nahum Sarna in the last paragraph) translation "went". Literally, the text tells us that the ark walked on the water! Most translators are unhappy - and, probably, quite rightly so - with such a degree of anthropomorphic language, attributing the action of walking to an inanimate object such as the ark, which clearly has no legs! In doing so, however, something is lost by way of a precedent for the supernatural. Fish, of course, swim in water, but do not float on it unless they are dead. Some birds, but not all by any means, can land on water and float on it while using their (webbed) feet to paddle. Some animals - such as dogs, rats, some big cats and polar bears - can swim in water, although needing to keep their heads above water in order to breathe. Man too, although usually needing lessons, can often learn to swim in water and, by lying carefully with the ears tucked under the surface, to float in a horizontal position. There is, however, no life-form - apart from some light-weight insects - that can walk on water; their weight is always to great for surface tension to make that possible. There is, of course, also, the time that Elisha's disciples were cutting wood and an iron axe-head fell into the Jordan. Elisha "cut off a stick and threw it in, and he made the axe head float" (2 Kings 6:6, NJPS) so that it could be retrieved, but that's not exactly the same thing.
Walking on water is limited to just two people in the Bible: Yeshua, who had walked half-way across the sea of Galilee to join the disciples in the middle of the night after a hectic day of ministry; and Peter, briefly, to join Yeshua before they both got into the boat in which the disciples had been crossing the lake. Matthew, Mark and John have the first half of the story: "And about the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea" (Mark 6:48, ESV; also in Matthew 14:25 and John 6:19), while only Matthew records that "Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Yeshua" (Matthew 14:29, ESV). A number of scholars and popular authors have written about this piece of narrative from both a scholarly and motivational point of view. John Ortberg, for example, makes the point that "if you want to walk on the water, you have to get out of the boat" and talks about recognising G-d's presence, discerning between faith and foolishness, expecting problems, accepting fear as the price of growth, mastering failure management, learning to wait on G-d and other good things.4 None of these, however, quite address the point that the Torah is making.
Imagine that you live in a house that has a stream or a river at the bottom of the garden and that one evening after a day of heavy rain the water starts coming up the garden and advancing towards the house. The water level is rising quite fast as the garden floods; just another three inches and the water will reach the top of the steps from the house down into the garden and then it's all down hill - through the house! That's a very physical example, but many people repeatedly find the same thing happens in their spiritual or emotional lives. Do you get overflowed and is your life full of water? If so, then you need to learn the lesson of the ark.
The word , 'ark', here with a definite article prefix, 'the', is used just twenty seven times in the Tanakh, twenty five in the flood story (B'resheet 6-9) and twice - there usually translated 'basket' - in Shemot 2 to carry Moshe as a baby on the waters of the Nile. In both cases, the 'ark' provides a means of safety over the waters that otherwise brought death and destruction. Here, the ark was built according to G-d's instructions: flat-bottomed, covered in pitch and watertight; "The L-rd shut the door behind Noah" (B'resheet 7:16). It floated free and clear on the surface of the water, so that "a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water" (1 Peter 3:20, ESV) to be G-d's seed for re-starting human life on the earth There, it was a "wicker basket ... caulked ... with bitumen and pitch" and Moshe's sister "put the child into it and placed it among the reeds by the bank of the Nile" (Shemot 2:3, NJPS). It kept Moshe safe and dry so his life was saved and he was "adopted by Pharaoh's daughter and brought up as her son" (Acts 7:21) to be God's leader to bring our people out of Egypt. Through unforeseen twists and turns, but always in G-d's plans, the ark is the means of preserving life against impossible odds: flood, water and death. G-d told our people, "When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you" (Isaiah 43:2, ESV), because we are safe in Him.
Today, Yeshua is our ark. He is the one who preserves us against fire and flood, against the attacks of the enemy and will bring us safe to our promised land: "For this is the will of My Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in Him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day" (John 6:40, ESV). "According to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God" (Acts 2:23, ESV), He came into this world, took on human flesh, lived among men for thirty years, bore our sins on the cross and was resurrected as He defeated death itself to be the firstfruits of all those who would believe and trust in Him. His is the only "name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:12, ESV). But do you know the way the ark works? Like Noah, you have to be in the ark and the door has to be shut. You have to come to the ark-keeper and be taken into the ark; you have to trust that the ark-keeper knows what he is doing and has been commissioned and empowered to do the whole ark thing. Otherwise, you might find yourself on a refugee boat that is overloaded, already leaking and doesn't have enough fuel to get to the other side, with an unregistered captain who hasn't actually ever done this before!
1. - A super-commentary on Rashi's Torah Commentary, by Elijah Mizrachi of Constantinople, 1455-1526 CE, the Grand Rabbi of the Ottoman empire.
2. - Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 1-15 Word Biblical Commentary I, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1987), page 182.
3. - Bruce K. Waltke with Cathi J. Fredricks, Genesis: A Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), page 140.
4. - John Ortberg, If You Want to Walk on the Water You Have to Get Out of the Boat (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), pages 13-29.
Further Study: Psalm 69:14-18; 2 Corinthians 12:8-10; Acts 10:39-43
Application: Do you know the ark-keeper and have you checked out his credentials? Is your ark watertight and made according to G-d's instructions, or were you handed what looked rather like a second-hand life-jacket and a bag of hard-tack when you boarded? Yeshua will never let you down and has earned His Master's ticket for the whole journey.
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© Jonathan Allen, 2019
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