WORKING TO THE END:
NOAH IN THE GOSPELS
What will you be doing when the End comes? Chances are, according to the Gospel of Matthew, you will either be having lunch, having sex, or working. And you’ll be doing it (whichever one) so intently that you’ll be completely unprepared when the Son of Man shows up in your kitchen, bedroom, or cubicle. But try not to act surprised. Hopefully, he’ll take you and leave Bill from accounting. Hopefully, you’ll be like Noah, who at least got some warning. But you may be asking what you did to deserve such an unexpected visit. You’ve been too busy to be evil—I mean, not too evil! What does your work and daily life have to do with the End?
Regardless of your stance on the Bible or your thoughts about Christianity, most would agree that any crisis occurs because we didn’t see it coming, being so focused on the workings of daily life. In some ways, the first odd thing about the story of Noah is that he received a warning and, so, did not need to be as hyper-vigilant as the Gospels recommend its readers be. He just needed to start shipbuilding. So why would Noah and his ark so briefly break the surface of the Gospels, only to submerge again into the deep?
In part, the Gospels mention Noah to warn readers to remain prepared for the unknown day of Jesus’s arrival even in the midst of life’s constant and mundane demands. The saying about Noah appears in both Matthew 24 and Luke 17:26-27, and along with all other material common to both Matthew and Luke (but not Mark), many scholars ascribe it to a hypothetical source they call “Q” (short for the German quelle, “source”), full of sayings of Jesus. Within the original context of this lost document, the Noah saying probably communicated something quite specific to its audience, assumed to be residents of Galilee in the mid-first century. By assuring readers that the End would come and punish their neighbors, it addressed the fact that some in Galilee, as well as many religious leaders from Jerusalem, declined to accept the message of Jesus and his followers and in some sense “persecuted” them. The saying promises readers that these nay-sayers will get their payback; in the ancient world, revenge and “the End” were often bedfellows—sometimes in ways we might find troubling today but which may have provided comfort for those feeling the strain of economic and social oppression. Like Noah and his family, the first followers of Jesus’s message hoped to be spirited away from what they viewed as their evil generation.
But if the saying originally provided comfort for those expecting judgment, the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, written near the close of the first century, address another pressing concern within the Jesus movement: many believers wondered why Jesus’s return was taking too long. So, the parables following the Noah passage in Matthew describe what to do if “the master is delayed.” Scholars see the notion “the delayed parousia” (that is, the belated arrival of the Second Coming) as a driving force behind many of our earliest writings about Jesus. Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, the earliest Christian text, tries to calm readers worried about why Christ hasn’t come yet. The idea of a sudden yet unknown Judgment Day simultaneously assured people that Jesus was still on his way and warned people to keep vigilant.
If Matthew’s reference to the Flood serves as a wake-up call to those who are complacent during Jesus’s delay, then we can make some sense of the description of Noah’s generation “eating and drinking, marrying and being given in marriage.” They were engaged in the big and small events of daily life when, suddenly, the flood waters came. But if they were simply engrossed in meal-planning and procreating, what did they do that was so bad that they deserved the punishment God dealt them? Genesis charges that “the earth is filled with violence because of them” (6:13) or “that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time” (6:5). “Eating and drinking” could refer not just to being distracted before disaster strikes (see 1 Samuel 30:16 or Job 1:13-18) but more euphemistically to the sort of debauchery you might find at a really good dinner party (and maybe even idolatry; see 1 Corinthians 10:7). And perhaps the reference to “marrying and being given in marriage” recalls the strange vignette preceding Noah’s tale, in which “sons of God” (angels?) take human women as wives (Gen 6:1-4), a tale famously expounded upon in the first section of the work known as 1 Enoch.
Still, the passages in Matthew and Luke seem to condemn people not for having too much fun at parties or perpetrating violence but for letting work and life distract them from the End. There is no ostensible difference between the workers who are taken and those who are left. But how do you remain vigilant when there’s all that farming, eating, and family life distracting you? Not everyone drops everything to build an ark or wander around persuading people to join the cause and prepare for a crisis. And while some passages in the New Testament ask people to abandon daily life—from work to family—to follow Jesus or spread his word, others, like Paul in 1 Thessalonians, exhort readers to keep their day jobs even though the End is imminent. In another letter, Paul councils the Corinthians to continue in their lives ostensibly as normal, yet as if not normal:
From now on those who have wives should live as if they do not; those who mourn, as if they did not; those who are happy, as if they were not; those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep; those who use the things of the world, as if they were not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away (1 Corinthians 7:29-31).
What Paul communicates here is a bit confusing yet tantalizingly inspirational. Recently, philosopher Giorgio Agamben made it the centerpiece of his book on the political aspects of Paul, The Time That Remains. It seems to suggest a sort of detachment from normal life, or a fixation on the End, on the future, so intense that it infuses every act and emotion. As if the effort required to change the structure of your day’s work would just be a distraction from what really matters. As if commitment to a new world is a change more fundamental than work, family, or even the random thoughts that constantly course through your mind. Don’t change your life, he says, change your disposition toward your life. Rather than “being engrossed” in the things of daily life, “use” them to different ends. It will all pass away soon enough, transformed into something else. Similarly, in Matthew and Luke, the believer will be taken away not because she has abandoned her work, but from within the very act of working.
Did Noah take the same course in light of the End? After all, he seems to have quit his day job and built a large boat—a fairly drastic career change from his position as (perhaps) the first farmer—see Genesis 5:29 and 9:20. As these verses indicate, he continued his agricultural innovations after the flood. He and his relatives were also able to keep their families (and, indeed, the whole race) going after the cataclysm. And while his new agreement with God restricted what and how people ate, meals continued much as before.
The Gospels envision a much more decisive end. At one point, Jesus tells a group of Sadducees that, in the resurrection, people “neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven” (Matthew 22:30, Luke 20:34-36, Mark 12:25). Elsewhere, the age to come is envisioned as the cessation of labor, as “rest” (Matthew 11:28-29, Hebrews 3-4).
Much of the New Testament expects an end that is a transformation, not simply a reboot as in the Flood. But is there more to the connection between Noah and the Gospel saying? After all, God spoke to Noah in the midst of his normal but righteous life. Noah did not need to be anything other than a farmer to be chosen as the savior of humanity. Indeed, his very work (as his very name shows) provided “relief” or “comfort” for those around him (again, Genesis 5:29). His goodness could be found within the same sort of work and family life that everyone else, ostensibly, carried on.
Does the brief appearance of the Flood in Matthew and Luke offer any advice for how to prepare for the future? While most of us no longer work the land for our survival, the demands of our life often distract us from what we would otherwise cherish as our hopes for our societies and ourselves. And, as many writers and critics have noted, the demands of work, family, and food increasingly permeate our lives in problematic ways. What we eat and drink brings to our tables and into our bodies unknown chemicals and modifications. Food is often the product of underpaid, migrant labor and the environmentally harmful practices of big agriculture and long-distance transportation. While food, when available, does bring immediate comfort and relief, today the act of eating can be complicit in devastating long-term affects. As for “marrying and being given in marriage”: traditional notions of family excludes people of diverse identities and are often in tension with the increasing demands of lower-paying jobs or threatened by economic uncertainty.
A saying of Jesus:
For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.
~ Matthew 24:37-42 (NRSV)
Does the brief appearance of the Flood in Matthew and Luke offer any advice for how to prepare for the future?
Chances are, according to the Gospel of Matthew, you will either be having lunch, having sex, or working.
Underlying most of these problems is the modern nature of work itself. When it is even available, many careers require not simply the dedication of our actions but the purity of our inner devotion to corporate and market interests. We are told to be team players without receiving a contract, a pension, health insurance, or even adequate or reliable pay in exchange. We are told to participate in social media as professionals, simultaneously sharing and censoring our innermost thoughts and “likes” so that advertisers can use us like an unpaid focus group. We are told to spend money for the sake of the economy but feel ashamed for being in debt. Far from providing “relief,” our daily lives too often dissociate us from what we otherwise cherish as our hopes and goals for a more economically secure world in which food is plentiful and wholesome, family and sex not repressive, and labor an activity that works more directly toward prosperity and justice for all, not simply increased wealth for some. Work is not just what we do while we wait for the future; it often seems (building, again, on Agamben) to delay the future, to push it past the horizon. The blurring of the line between life and work makes work its own end instead of a means toward justice, equality, and peace.
The Gospels do describe and commission those who, like Noah, would drop everything and prepare for the crisis. It often calls them “apostles,” those who wander from town to town, warning people of the End. But it also leaves a place for those who heed the warning to stay home, continue their daily lives in their communities, and redirect their work to support the new kingdom being built on a foundation of anxiety and hope, awareness of present problems and a vision of a better future, a society that looks, from moment to moment, very much like the day-to-day realities of the dominant culture, but which works toward an alternative. The flood story and its appropriation in Matthew and Luke suggest that renewal and salvation can happen within the events of everyday life, even when these events can seem “only evil all the time.” We can eat in ways that promote sustainability, access, and local economic interests; structure our households and relationships in ways open to the surprising and powerful work of love; and do our jobs, whatever they are and whenever we can, in ways that address immediate needs and broader societal patterns. Big boats and big events—new laws, court decisions, movements for equality, safety and justice—bring sudden relief in times of crisis. But our daily lives can also work toward building a larger community structured around shared values and awake to the possibilities of a coming future.
Far from providing “relief,” our daily lives too often dissociate us from what we otherwise cherish as our hopes and goals for a more economically secure world
Big boats and big events—new laws, court decisions, movements for equality, safety and justice—bring sudden relief in times of crisis. But our daily lives can also work toward building a larger community structured around shared values and awake to the possibilities of a coming future.
Let the future tell the truth and evaluate each one according to his works and accomplishments. The present is theirs; the future, for which I really worked,
~ Nikola Tesla