Noah the Eighth
By Professor Thomas A.W.N. MacKay
In 2 Peter 2:5 we read the intriguing words that God “spared not the old world, but saved Noah, the eighth person, a preacher of righteousness, bringing in the flood upon the world of the ungodly.” The modern versions have conspired with one accord to paraphrase this verse rather than to translate it, and to treat the words “Noah, the eighth person” as being an idiom with no literal significance. Thus, the Revised Version of 1885 tells us that God “preserved Noah with seven others.” All the most widely used translations of the present day have followed suit – the English Standard Version, the New International Version, the Good News Translation and the New Revised Standard Version.
Certainly, to speak of Noah and seven others is much more natural and understandable than to use such a quaint expression as “Noah, the eighth person.” However, it will not do. It is an interpretation and not a translation. It alters the text both by addition and by subtraction.
First, it adds by inserting a reference to “seven others,” but the wording in the Greek text has no reference to the number seven, and it speaks of no person but one, namely, Noah.
Second, it subtracts by removing a specific description of Noah, however quaint – “Noah, the eighth person.” The New King James Version also fails in its stated intention “to preserve the work of precision which is the legacy of the 1611 translators.”i Its rendering is, “Noah, one of eight people.”
By comparison, the excellency of the Authorised Version is clear. First, it follows a precise rule of formal rather than dynamic equivalence by translating as accurately as possible what is actually there. It does not change the ordinal number “eighth” in the text to the cardinal number “eight.” Second, it follows a principle of parsimony. Rather than requiring to show three words in italics for its insertions into the text, it shows but one, “Noah, the eighth person,” the minimum reasonable insertion to render fluent Greek into fluent English. Third, it does not force upon us an interpretation which excludes the possible significance of the literal text, “Noah, the eighth person.”
The rendering “with seven others” or “one of eight” is based on the premise that the expression used in the original text is an idiom which is to be understood in this way. While it has been argued that Peter’s usage reflects an underlying Hebrew usage of this kind,ii and a small number of idiomatic usages mainly from classical Greek have been cited, it is nevertheless acknowledged that such a usage would be an exception to the norm.iii The word “eighth” is not used in this way in any of its other appearances in the New Testament,iv and indeed there is nowhere in the New Testament where an ordinal number is used idiomatically as a cardinal number.
The precise literal translation provided in the Authorised Version allows us to ask, “Is there significance in Noah’s being referred to as the eighth,” and it is this question which I explore further here. The Greek rendering seems deliberate. It would have been easy and natural for it to have stated in an ordinary way in the Greek text that God saved Noah and seven others. Rather, it refers to Noah ogdoön, “Noah, the eighth.” Rendered literally into English it comes across as a particular designation, like “Louis Quinze” or “George the Third.” Might it be that the blessing and mercy of God are extended to us in this faithful rendering in our English Bible?
In considering Noah the Eighth there are meanings which we can readily dismiss. First, he is not the eighth representative of Adam. Enoch was “the seventh from Adam” (Jude 14), and Noah is the tenth. There are also significant interpretative difficulties in seeking to join the phrase to the next phrase to make it read, “Noah, the eighth preacher of righteousness.” This understanding of the meaning has recently been argued for ably by Jensenv in an attempt to overcome the acknowledged semantic and syntactical difficulties in replacing the literal ordinal term, “Noah, the eighth person” with the cardinal term “Noah and seven others” or “Noah, one of eight people.” He bases his argument on Genesis 4:26: “And to Seth, to him also there was born a son; and he called his name Enos: then began men to call upon the name of the LORD.” He argues that the verb translated “to call upon” could properly be translated as “to proclaim,” that Enos was therefore the first “proclaimer” of the name of the LORD and that Noah, who was the eighth generation after Enos, was therefore the eighth “proclaimer” or “preacher” of righteousness. This, however, involves some evident difficulties. First, since Seth lived for 807 years after the birth of Enos (Genesis 5:8), there is no reason to suggest that the calling upon the name of the LORD did not begin with Seth himself rather than with his son. Second, we are told that men in general began to call on his name, rather than any one individual in particular. Third, we are not specifically told that Enos himself was a proclaimer of the LORD’s name in any way that would merit him the title of the first “preacher of righteousness.” Fourth, we are in any event unable to assume that the representatives of the other six generations between Enos and Noah were each of them inheritors of the title “preacher of righteousness.”
Perhaps more importantly than all of these other difficulties, to construe Noah as the eighth preacher of righteousness takes from him this key distinction by which God has described him. In the midst of a godless generation he stood alone: he was a preacher of righteousness – a role which he held uniquely for the entire 120 years in which God extended his mercy to the corrupt earth (Genesis 6:3).
What other significance then might we attribute to the expression, “Noah the eighth?” When we ask questions regarding the symbolic and spiritual significance of numbers in Scripture there are two opposing errors into which we can fall. The first is to treat the subject in such a mystical way that a number is never just a number. Thus some have distorted texts to the point of fanciful speculation and private interpretation. The second is to speak as if number had no spiritual meaning at all, but served the purpose only of answering the factual question, “How many?”
The impropriety of the first error is plain. The unsustainability of the second may be easily demonstrated. If number were without spiritual significance, we would expect the numbers appearing in Scripture to follow a fairly similar distribution to their occurrence in general use. They do not. It is hardly necessary to refer to the number seven, the number of perfection or completeness, or to the number 12, the number associated with the Church and people of God, whose occurrence far exceeds anything that would occur if they had no symbolic significance. For example, in the Book of Revelation, the number seven occurs 54 times – seven churches, seven Spirits, seven candlesticks, seven stars, seven angels, seven lamps, seven seals, seven horns, seven eyes, seven trumpets, seven thunders, seven crowns, seven plagues, seven golden vials, seven heads, seven mountains and seven kings. The number 12 and its multiples occurs 32 times. By contrast, the number 11 – a number which, as with the sad situation of “the eleven” after the betrayal by Judas, always just falls short – does not appear at all, except once as an ordinal, “the eleventh,” when each of the 12 foundations of the holy city is described.
Number is divine. It derives from God. It did not arise as a human development in the course of civilisation. There was number before there was man. How do we know that God rested on the seventh day? Because he had counted the first six, and five of these were before there was a man upon the earth. Why are there seven days in a week? Or 12 months in a year? Or why do we count using a base of 10? It is because God ordained it.
The number eight is not without its spiritual significance, and it is proposed here that it provides a context for an exploration of Noah the Eighth. Eight speaks to us of a new beginning. There were seven days of creation including the sabbath. With the eighth day we are back to a new beginning. So, every week God spares us, every Lord’s Day when we gather to worship him, reminds us that God has given us eight as a new beginning. The eighth day on earth was the first day of the new week, and thus it has continued from the beginning of the world till now. Our modern idioms stand against it. It was only within very modern times that the expression “weekend” came into our vocabulary to signify the period from Friday night through Saturday and Sunday. When did that happen? When Sunday increasingly ceased to be the Lord’s day and became man’s day.
Here are three biblical “eights” that speak to us of three glorious new beginnings.
The first speaks to us of cleansing from sin and God’s full and free salvation. It is “the law of the leper in the day of his cleansing” (Leviticus 14:2). Like us, he is totally dependent on God’s mercy, for his “hand is not able to get that which pertaineth to his cleansing” (verse 32). There are seven days and seven sprinklings to accomplish full and perfect salvation. Then comes the eighth day – and what a day! The sacrifice is made, and the final cry goes up, “Clean!”
The second speaks to us of the presence and glory of God. It is the seventh month, the Feast of Tabernacles. “Seven days ye shall offer an offering made by fire unto the LORD: on the eighth day shall be an holy convocation unto you” (Leviticus 23:36). Then we come to one Feast of Tabernacles when there was a holy convocation like no other. Solomon has completed the temple. The feast has been kept. The priests have “come out of the holy place” (2 Chronicles 5:11). Then comes the holy convocation. The singers have gathered “having cymbals and psalteries and harps” (verse 11), and with them 120 trumpeters. Then as the sound of worship is lifted up, and as with one voice they praise the Lord, saying, “For he is good; for his mercy endureth for ever” (verse 13), the glory falls. Such a new beginning was it that “the priests could not stand to minister by reason of the cloud: for the glory of the LORD had filled the house of God” (verse 14).
The third provides us with the answer to all of our doubts and fears. A man bows his head in hopelessness and despair. All he has lived for upon the earth has gone. His Lord has been crucified. The rejoicing of his companions is as an idle tale, and as a merry song to a heavy heart. “We have seen the Lord.” No – not unless I see the nail prints; not unless I thrust my hand into his riven side. “And after eight days again his disciples were within, and Thomas with them.” Then came Jesus to Thomas. “Reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side: and be not faithless, but believing.” “My Lord and my God” (John 20:25-28). What a blessed new beginning on that eighth day! Do we have doubts, fears, uncertainties, afflictions? One stands with outstretched arms to us and still says, “Be not faithless but believing.”
Thus we return to Noah the Eighth. Not only does Peter provide us quite specifically with these words. He also takes the trouble to specify the word “eight” when he says “the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water” (1 Peter 3:20). The story of the flood in the Old Testament does not actually specify the fact that it was eight, so Peter counts them one by one – Noah and his wife, Shem and his wife, Ham and his wife, Japheth and his wife – and he tells us that the number was “eight souls.” “A few”’ would have sufficed to convey the meaning, but he chooses to tell us the precise number.
In telling us that eight souls were saved by water, Peter adds, “The like figure whereunto even baptism doth also now save us” (1 Peter 3:21) – not that it was the water of the flood itself that did the saving, any more than we are saved by the waters of baptism, for all water in itself does is to wash us, “the putting away of the filth of the flesh” (verse 21). However, what baptism points to is that which saves, that which gives us a new beginning, Christ, our ark of salvation. So also was the sign of circumcision, again marked by the occurrence of “eighth:” “And in the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised” (Leviticus 12:3) – pointing, not to any merit in the physical act, for “neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh” (Romans 2:28), but to a new heart: “circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit” (verse 29). Now, under the New Covenant, in Christ we are “circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ: buried with him in baptism” (Colossians 2:11,12).
“Noah the Eighth.” If ever there was a testimony to the mercy of God, surely we find it in these words. God did not need to let the world ever see the number eight again. God saw that “the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And it repented the LORD that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart” (Genesis 6:5,6). Therefore, he uttered his decree: “I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth”” (Genesis 6:7). He could have shown judgement without mercy. “But Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord” (Genesis 6:8). Noah the Eighth would be God’s new beginning on the earth. It was a merciful new beginning that would herald every new beginning to follow – the cleansing away of the leprosy of our sin, the presence and the glory of the Lord filling our souls, and the quelling of all our doubts and fears through the voice of the risen Christ.
Thus we gladly concur with the accuracy and precision or our faithful translation in the English Bible: God “saved Noah, the eighth person, a preacher of righteousness.”
Professor Tommy MacKay is at the University of Strathclyde, and is an Elder in Dumbarton Free High Church of Scotland.
i New King James Version, preface.
ii Moulton, J.H. (1906). A Grammar of New Testament Greek. Volume I: The Prolegomena (pp.97-98). Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark.
iii Bauer, W. (Ed.) (2001). A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (3rd revised edition). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
iv Lk 1.59; Acts 7:8; Rev. 17:11; Rev. 21:20.
v Jensen, M.D. (2015). Noah, the eighth proclaimer of righteousness: Understanding 2 Peter 2.5 in light of Genesis 4.26. Journal for the Study of the New Testament, 37(4), 458-469.