2 Peter 3 and the Flood
According to Peter, the world has already been destroyed. Yes, that’s right. To his mind the heavens and earth were destroyed in Noah’s day by the Flood. This does not mean Peter is a metaphysical solipsist who believes the world does not really exist. Far from it. He is highly creation-oriented. To understand his perspective we need to take a fresh look back at the Flood story in Genesis. Beginning there, however, is hasty; for the moment let’s journey to Genesis 1 for a little background.
Genesis 1: God’s Temple Project
It is becoming more well known that Genesis 1 is a story about God building his temple, i.e., the heavens and the earth, so that he might take up residence here and begin running things. The ancient Near Eastern (ANE) idea of ‘rest’ entailed just this idea. Temples in the ancient world served as the control room for everything else. Even after its construction, a temple was never complete until an image of the god was placed within and the god took up his rest there. This rest was not so much a ceasing from work as a time when things really get going. When a president takes office or a king takes the throne, to use an analogy a little more familiar to our minds, it is not to sit in the office or throne room and do nothing. No, this is the time for the show to really start running. In the same way, after the god takes up residence in the temple, the system can now begin functioning as designed. Any reader in the ancient Near East, upon hearing a story of a six-day creation with subsequent rest on the seventh day, would have immediately said, “Oh yes, I know what kind of a story this is; it’s a story about building a temple.” But the temple is not made of wood, stone, or other material—well, actually it is, but it is on a much more massive scale. The temple in Genesis 1 is the heavens and earth, the entire creation. All of creation is God’s temple. We would never conceive of reading Genesis 1 through these eyes—we just don’t think along those grooves—but strange enough to our minds, that is precisely how they would have seen it.
Time, Weather, and Food
Zooming in a little closer, we notice what in the ANE world was key. You’ve got to have time, you’ve got to have weather, and you’ve got to have food. Again and again these three elements of life occur in ANE texts as emphases. It should not surprise us, then, that when we come to Genesis 1—itself written in the ancient Near East—we see these three things, time, weather, and food.
The time part is obvious. It’s on the first and fourth days. God creates light and separates it from darkness. The light and darkness are ‘day’ and ‘night’ and are time-oriented. He also creates the sun, moon, and stars to “serve as signs for festivals and for days and years.” This purpose, viz. for time, is function-oriented, and specifically oriented to functioning for humans.
Weather here is not obvious—to us anyway. It was to them, however, because they saw the world differently. God (or gods, as was the case for the other nations) was involved in everything. “There are no natural things”; everything that happened, whether it be rain, drought, or whatever, happened because a god did it, whether that be a pagan god like Ba`al or the Israelite God, YHWH. The reason this information is significant to us presently is that it forms a link with Day 2. The “expanse” or “firmament” or “dome” as it is rendered in various Bible translations is a tricky word to translate, as we might suspect from all the differing ways translators have handled it. As Hebrew scholar Randall Buth puts it:
Most scholars see this word as reflecting a world view with a three-story universe. Some have suggested a translation “expanse, sky” in order to avoid such an implication. The translation “skyplate”, verse 8, reflects the majority view and may be argued to better fit the context of verse 20, -עַל פְּנֵי, on the face of, which suggests a surface. In any case, the Bible speaks in the language of its audience and from the common viewpoint in order to clearly present the points of God’s revelation.
This skyplate served two purposes: first, it was to keep the cosmic water up there and, second, to allow precipitation and other weather-related events to occur on the earth. It had windows, and when the god (or God, in Israel’s case) opened the windows the water would come down and water the crops. So, again, there were no natural processes according to the ANE worldview. Everything functioned because of a god, and nothing functioned without a god.
Food was also of major importance, as it still is today. Their society was agrarian, however, whereas many societies now have generally moved away from that kind of living. On Day 3 God establishes food (agriculture) for the humans (and animals) that he will create later.
So once again we have time, weather, and food; these are three things involved in creation that the reader will want to remember, as they will show up again soon in our journey.
Close the Windows or It Will Let the Rain In
Ancient Near Eastern peoples saw rain as a blessing. It caused crops to grow and gave people water to drink. But if the god (or God) held open these windows too long or too widely the earth would be flooded, and disaster would occur.
When the “windows of the sky” are thrown open in the Deluge of Noah’s day and the cosmic waters pour down through them onto the earth, something profoundly opposite to what occurred in Genesis 1 is taking place. (Remember, in creation God had separated the water: he had put some of it above the skyplate in order to serve specific weather-related functions and some of it below the skyplate.) This de-separation occurring in the Flood is a de-creation act, a reversal of his creative act on the second day. This was not creation; it was destruction, precisely what Peter terms it. And as the sources of the watery depths burst open, what used to be the distinction between ‘land’ and ‘sea’ is no more. The whole earth is now a soup of sea and ground, a massive chaos, similar to how it was in the beginning.
The very essence of God’s creative acts he reverses! He had separated out spaces for his temple; he had filled them with wonderful things. And all this creation he called “good.” Now, his temple had been defiled with filthiness, corruption, wickedness, and violence. Humans, who were created to function as the hub of his creation, standing under the creator and above his creation, had usurped and distorted their vocation as bearers of God’s image. Looking on at his ruined temple, he takes his hand away for a moment, destining it for destruction, and things fall apart. He throws open the windows in the skyplate, and demolishes his temple. At the Flood, the space called ‘sky’ is emptied. All the birds and flying creatures are dismissed from their space. The earth, another space God created, is emptied as well, of both plant and animal life. All the sea creatures are displaced from their homes, as they are no longer confined to their proper space, the sea, but are everywhere the Flood has dragged them. Most of the animals and humans are wiped out completely. Not only have all the spaces been emptied, but the distinctions between them, the separations, have been rendered non-existent. This is destruction in the most damaging sense. To a people whose worldview saw ‘creation’ as an ordering and function-giving event, ‘destruction’ is just the opposite. As we have seen, the heavens and the earth were massively destroyed in the Flood. This is precisely what Peter has in mind. And to him, this is what destruction means. It does not mean a collapse of space, time, and matter. That idea belongs to our worldview, not theirs.
The Reordering of Time, Weather, and Food
The Deluge having completely disrupted the order God had established in the beginning, now after the Flood we see our three key elements of creation-function reaffirmed. They appear here in reverse order.
For all the days of the earth, seedtime and harvest [agriculture/food], cold and heat, summer and winter [weather], and day and night [time] will not cease. ~Genesis 8:22
This statement in the covenant is recreation language. It is reminiscent of Genesis 1 as we noticed above, when God established these three key creation-elements. God is establishing equilibrium subsequent to the disruption (and de-creation) of the Deluge. Immediately afterward in our story, God blesses Noah, reaffirming to him the vocation of humans who are placed in God’s temple: in essence, “Be the image of God.” Genesis 9:1-3 is strikingly reminiscent of 1:28-29. There are a host of other fascinating parallels here which cannot be brought out at this point but have been explored in further detail by others.
New Canvas, New Colors
This new understanding brushes fresh color onto our canvas, vivid pigments which we seem to have overlooked for whatever reason in our readings of 2 Peter 3. As we now turn our gaze to the letter of 2 Peter, we must do our best to hold all this background of Genesis in our mind’s eye; we have seen creation, de-creation (destruction of creation), and recreation and renewal.
Subsequent to this recreation, it could be mentioned as an aside that there appears in the narrative (Gen 9:21-25) a mirroring of the Fall of Genesis 3. Noah is naked yet unaware, just as Adam and Eve had been in the Garden. A plant is connected with the Fall in both stories. Adam’s and Eve’s eyes are opened, and they come to know they are naked. Noah opens his eyes and learns of his own nakedness and that his son had seen it and told his brothers instead of covering it as Shem and Japheth had done. Just as God had covered the nakedness of Adam and Eve, so Shem and Japheth cover Noah’s nakedness. This intertwining here of the two narratives points us to the idea that another Fall occurred subsequent to the Flood (subsequent to the destruction and renewal of creation). And there is a curse involved here, as well, just as in Genesis 3. These two texts are interconnected in lots of other interesting ways, as well.
But back to Peter. Peter begins what we have called his third chapter by referencing some who will come after him asking, “Where is the promise of the Lord’s royal arrival?” They will say, “Ever since the previous generation died, everything has continued just as it has from the beginning of creation.” By this time we know what to think of this notion. Peter has some words to say:
They willingly overlook this one thing, you see: the ancient heavens and earth were formed out of water and through water, by God’s word—and it was by flooding the world of that time with water that it was destroyed. ~2 Peter 3:5-6
Now Peter is singing the same melody that has happened upon our ears up ’til now: the tune from Genesis chapters 1-3 and 6-9 ingeniously woven together, the tune of creation, destruction, and new creation. And we are ready to place these onto Peter’s map.
Peter’s Map of Three Worlds
As he continues, Peter sets out a clear indicator for where he is going. His is a three-fold sequence of worlds (these are really all the same world as we think of the term, but for him they are three):
- The ancient heavens and earth (v. 6), created in Genesis 1 and 2
- The present heavens and earth (v. 7), created after the Flood
- The new heavens and new earth (v. 13), to be created…
It is easy to see this connection, if we are willing. It should be noted, however, that at this point some have stopped and torn up this map into pieces: they have discarded number 1, the ancient heavens and earth with their destruction and recreation (basically and unwittingly aligning themselves with the scoffers’ objection which Peter rejects), and have taken pen and ink to the third portion, drawing over it a layout which is anything but creation-oriented and rooted-in-the-biblical-worldview-and-any-connections-Peter-is-making-here. No, just as Genesis saw the destruction and recreation of the world at the Flood, Peter sees these future events in a similar light. (Worldviews are extremely important when coming to the biblical texts. We all have one, and it affects deeply the way we read what is there. The wise thing for us to do is to take note of our worldview and seek to understand theirs. In doing so we will gain fresh insights we never knew we were missing; in fact, it is the only way we can truly be faithful to the text.)
With these three worlds (really to us they are periods in history, remember), as Peter maps them out, firmly in our purview we can first notice that Peter speaks of a coming judgment very similar to the Flood. He correlates the two; thus, the judgment to come is not a collapse of the space-time universe (which concept did not exist in a Hebrew, or biblical, worldview) but a total, cosmic upheaval of the function, placing, and organization of things (burning off the dross, if you will) in which some will survive (2 Pet 3:7, 9-14) followed by a final setting to rights, creating a new heavens and new earth “in which justice will be at home.”
Strangely, this last bit is generally ignored by some who have rent Peter’s map asunder, discarding some pieces and altering others. Just as God remembered Noah and began to reorder his creation in Genesis chapter 8, the “sources of the watery depths and the floodgates of the sky” closing (v. 2) and the waters steadily receding from the earth upon which they had encroached and returning to their proper boundaries, and just as Noah and those with him stepped out of the ark onto the ground again where humans were placed originally and always intended to be (near the soil from which we were formed but remaining separate from it), so too there will be a new restoration, a renewal, a recreation after the judgment of fire to come. The glorious heavens and earth we await are precisely this earth and these heavens, marvelously restored, renewed, and recreated for rich, image-bearing human life within, together with the creator who will finally come to dwell here fully and fill them with his glory as he has always intended to do—resting in his temple, in his world.
. . . grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and savior Jesus the Messiah. To him be glory both now and in the day when God’s new age dawns. Amen. ~2 Peter 3:18
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1. See 2 Peter 3:6. The word he chooses here is ἀπώλετο, “was destroyed.”
2. For more on this concept see John H. Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (Downers Grove: IVP, 2009).
3. Genesis 1:14, HCSB (The Holman Christian Standard Bible).
4. The fact that he called the light ‘day’ instead of ‘light’ and the darkness ‘night’ instead of ‘darkness’ should not surprise us since the focus throughout is function over against what we would tend to prefer: a modern, scientific perspective which would emphasize materiality/immateriality, composition, and other similar characteristics and categories.
6. Randall Buth, Living Biblical Hebrew: Selected Readings with 500 Friends אולפן לעברית מקראית (Zeeland, MI: Biblical Language Center, 2006) 52. Buth further writes, in a somewhat more technical analysis, “A special רָקִיעַ was once pictured as something hard and semi-clear, cf. Ezk 1:22 רָקִיעַ כְּעֵין הַקֶּרַח הַנּוֹרָא ‘and a surface like terrible ice,’ and sometimes was a metaphor for the sky, cf. Ps 19:2. The verb רָקַע יִרְקַע means to hit Q (cf. 2 Sm 22:43, Ezk 6:11, Ps 136:6) and רִקַּע יְרַקַּע means to beat metal flat Pi (Is 40:19, Ex 39:3, Nu 17:4)” (52).
7. See also Genesis 1:29-30.
8. ‘Sky’ is a better rendering for what is often rendered ‘heaven, heavens’ (reflecting the Hebrew שָׁמַיִם). It is “the normal Hebrew word to refer to the sky. Birds fly in it and God also lives there” (Buth, 52).
9. See Genesis 1:2.
10. I.e., the ‘sky’.
11. Establishing equilibrium is a term used by John H. Walton in his commentary on Genesis in explaining this concept. See The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001).
12. For the mass of details explored in Walton, see ibid.
13. The reader may know that the biblical texts were not divided into chapters until A.D. 1227; verse divisions were added in A.D. 1551 for the New Testament and A.D. 1571 for the Hebrew scriptures. See Frank Viola and George Barna, Pagan Christianity? Exploring the Roots of our Church Practices (Tyndale, 2008) 228-9.
14. In other words, “He is supposed to be coming back in judgment to set all things right here on earth, but he hasn’t returned yet. So where is he?” I have used “royal arrival” here (following the historian and New Testament theologian N. T. Wright in The Kingdom New Testament translation, whose work on this period is extensive) instead of the more familiar “coming” since this word (παρουσία) carried overtones of Caesars paying royal visits to their establishments to set things back in their proper order (according to their own Roman imperial standards, of course). The idea is that the true Lord, Jesus, of which Caesar is only a parody, will come royally to his earth to set things right again, according to the promise of which Peter is speaking here.
15. 2 Peter 3:4, KNT (The Kingdom New Testament).
16. For more on the literary recursion between Genesis 6-9 and 1-3, see Walton, The NIV Application Commentary.
17. Burning off the dross is what Peter is getting at as he discusses the fire and heat. He makes allusion to his earlier letter (1 Peter 1:6-9) and echoes the fiery judgment depicted in Malachi 3 and 4 (a cleansing of the Lord’s people). For an in-depth examination of our present text of 2 Peter 3, and for the text-critical analysis of the problem of textual variants in verse 10, see Al Wolters, Worldview and Textual Criticism in 2 Peter 3:10, Westminster Theological Journal 49 (1987) 405-13, <http://www.allofliferedeemed.co.uk/Wolters/AMW2Peter3.pdf>, accessed 15 Dec 2011.