What light does Matt 24:37-39 shed on this moment of the narrative (Gen 7:1)?

Here is the text in question: “But as the days of Noe were, so shall also the coming of the Son of man be. For as in the days that were before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noe entered into the ark, and knew not until the flood came, and took them all away; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be.” (Matt 24:37-39) We are here to understand that, at the second coming of Christ, several things will occur again that occurred in Noah’s time: (a) blithe and corrupt man will live as if he had all the time in the world, (b) a faithful remnant will be saved, while (c) destruction will come upon the rest suddenly. The Flood is the first of several scenes of total or near-total destruction: that of the Egyptians; of the Canaanites; of Israel (the northern kingdom) and then Judah (the southern kingdom); of others as well; and then, finally, of the second coming and the destruction, followed by the new creation, of the whole world.

If the food laws were not yet in existence, why is there a distinction between clean and unclean beasts (Gen 7:2)? And does this not imply that people were indeed eating animals before being specifically permitted to (Gen 9:3)?

And furthermore: does the latter passage (Gen 9:3) not imply that there was no clean/unclean distinction? This seems to be a fair question, because here we have references to “every clean beast” and “beasts that are not clean.” But let us clarify that, after the Garden, men probably stopped being vegetarians, if they were vegetarians before that. It seems likely that men began eating animals with Abel, the first keeper of livestock, especially considering that (a) he made a sacrifice, and that (b) there is a distinction in the present verse between “clean” livestock and “unclean” wild beasts, a distinction without a difference if no animals are eaten. But if this is correct, then indeed, why does God specifically permit Noah to eat “every moving thing that liveth” (9:3)? I simply do not know. God’s laws were introduced gradually. A very, very stripped-down version of a legal code is offered at Gen 9. So perhaps there was a distinction between clean and unclean animals for a long time, but there was no notion of “ritual impurity” in those early times. If so, then the clean/unclean distinction would be given a new purpose with the arrival of the purity and food laws.

Is there evidence in the text (such as that in Gen 7:2) that the author of the story meant to compare what transpired to what took place in the tabernacle?

This is an apt observation by Sailhamer. Consider: God gave instructions for building, even in terms of cubits as he gave to building the tabernacle; God distinguishes clean from unclean beasts; makes provision for sacrifice (later); invites Noah and his family into the ark “for thee have I seen righteous before me”; God shuts Noah in securely; it rains 40 days and 40 nights, even as the tabernacle serves as the vessel for God’s presence; and everything on earth dies, except for God’s anointed (so to speak), as a consequence of sin.

Why was Noah told to load seven of clean livestock and only two of unclean wild animals (Gen 7:2)?

This seems to have a very straightforward practical answer: because of the importance of the former for food, and because he would have to sacrifice some of them. Wild animals only needed to be preserved, but large and healthy herds needed to be preserved, and it seems reasonable to suppose that Noah and his family ate of those herds for the year that they were on board the Ark (by the reckoning in the ESV Study bible, 370 days). That these “clean” animals—cleanliness being a notion known to God, but not yet introduced in the Bible record to Noah—would be needed for sacrificing can be found at Gen 8:20.

What exactly is the sequence of events in Gen 7? It seems rather confusing, starting from “For yet seven days…” (Gen 7:4).

It merely requires a close reading. First, God orders Noah to start loading his family and the animals (Gen 7:1). He warns that the rain will begin in a week (7:4). Then, one week later, when the family and animals are duly loaded, the rains begin and the fountains of the deep open up (7:11). That the loading was complete is reiterated, and Noah and family are shut in by the Lord (7:16). After that, it rains 40 days and nights (7:17). The water rises and rises (“prevailed”; 7:17-19). After 40 days, or shortly thereafter, water covers all (7:20). Everything has died (7:21). Although the text does not specifically say, it was to rain for 40 days and nights, so presumably when the 40 days are over, the rains do end. Finally, the waters bury the earth for 150 days, total, from the beginning of the rains; by my calculation, that means for another 110 days (Gen 7:24). It is possible that the text means the waters continued to cover the earth for a total of 150 days after the last mountaintop was covered.

Why are there so many occurrences of the number 40 in the Bible (Gen 7:4,17)?

This is one of several “round numbers” to be found in the Bible. Four of many different things; ten plagues and commandments; a dozen tribes and apostles. The number 40 appears not a few, but quite many times in the Bible: days of Moses on Mount Sinai; years of wandering in the desert; days Jesus was tempted in the wilderness. Now, four often indicates completeness (as in the four directions of the compass, indicating every part of the land). So 40 would seem to be “a fullness of days,” but particularly days of grace in the face of testing. So, whether or not it was precisely 40 days that it rained, the number stated in the text does indicate that it rained fully as necessary, i.e., for as many days as were needed, to completely drown the world, and yet God saved Noah during that most perilous time.

What does it mean to say “the same day were the fountains of the great deep broken up” (Gen 7:11)?

This is a mystery. While “fountains” suggest springs (the Hebrew is מַעְיָן or mayan, spring), the quantity of waters suggests something else. The suggestion rather is that there was a “deep” source of water beneath, or perhaps above, the earth, and that water poured in that way. Perhaps it is consistent with this text that a giant icy comet smashed into the earth, scattering water into the atmosphere which fell for 40 days, and while the water started out on the surface, it eventually sank into the crust, at which point we were left with the continents we have today. I’m not aware of any scientific evidence for such a theory. In any event, Matthew Henry points out Ps 33:7: “He gathereth the waters of the sea together as an heap: he layeth up the depth in storehouses.” The suggestion is that in the Hebrew geology in operation, there were some manner of “storehouses” of waters of the deep, which might be different from or in addition to the oceans. Note: I will not ask all the questions that could be asked about the Flood. I could ask things like, “How did the people and the animals eat on the ark? Was such a floating zoo really possible?” and “Where did all the water go?” It requires a special study.

The ark is “lift up above the earth” (Gen 7:17) and its inhabitants will, after a year, emerge as survivors of a passage through the Flood. Does this not suggest other passages through waters?

So it does, and this is a recurring theme in the Bible. The next instance, perhaps, will be Abram’s crossing of the Euphrates into the Promised Land (cf. Gen 12:4-5; 15:18; and 31:21, with the latter establishing that the journey did require crossing this water). The most famous of course is the crossing of the Red Sea (Gen 14:22), with a similar feat repeated by Joshua (Josh. 3:15-16). These trips through water—and Noah’s specifically—were recapitulated symbolically by baptism, as Peter makes explicit (and as Henry points out): “… once 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. The like figure whereunto even baptism doth also now save us…” (1 Pet 3:20-21) The trip through water accomplishes two related things: it announces the travelers to be under God’s protection, and the passage allows them to pass forward into a new promised blessing: the new, post-Flood earth, cleansed of sin (for a short time); the Promised Land (twice); the Mosaic Covenant; and the state of grace, i.e., the salvation by the blood of Jesus and the blessedness of the Holy Spirit. It is not without significance, in this connection, that “the deep” and “floods” held terrors for the Bible writers, meaning awful death and symbolically representing a watery state of chaos before the creation. To cross over such a flood is to defeat death and chaos indeed.