Noah’s Flood: A Story about Judgment and Scandalous Grace
Then the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. The LORD was sorry that He had made man on the earth and He was grieved in His heart. The LORD said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, from man to animals to creeping things and to birds of the sky; for I am sorry that I have made them.” But Noah found favor in the eyes of the LORD (Gen. 6:5-8).
Nearly every culture surrounding the ancient Hebrews told their own flood stories. The similarities are interesting: a flood sent by the gods, a guy and his family that find favor and a boat that comes to rest on a mountain. It’s all pretty similar, until you get to the story behind the deluge. In the Bible, God sends the flood because people refuse to turn away from violence and corruption and turn back to God. God sends Noah to point people back to Him, but the people are hard-hearted and refuse (2 Pet. 2:5). So, a heart-broken God sends the rains to scour the earth clean from runaway violence and injustice.
Contrast the Bible’s story with other ANE Flood stories (Ancient Near East). In the Atrahasis Epic, the elder gods force the younger gods to dig out the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers, but disliking manual labor, they rebel. Enki, the god of wisdom, suggests that the gods create man as a labor force. At first the gods enjoy their life of leisure, but soon the people become prolific and make too much noise. Enlil, the king of the gods, is so annoyed by the racket that he sends famine and plagues to destroy humanity, but Enki helps the people out. Having failed to thin the herd, the king of the gods sends a worldwide deluge to wipe out all of humanity. Utnapishtim (the “Noah” in this story) and his relatives are saved, but the rest of humanity perishes in the Flood, leaving the gods without farmers to feed them and serve them beer—which they greatly lament (Joshua J. Mark, The Atrahasis Epic: the Great Flood and the Meaning of Suffering https://www.ancient.eu/article/227/the-atrahasis-epic-the-great-flood–the-meaning-of/). When I read this story, I am reminded how much the gods of the ANE were super-sized projections of humanity: fickle, capricious, prone to lashing out in anger and missing their beer! How different the God of the Bible!
Why the Flood?
When we look at the Bible, we see that the reason God brings judgment is because sin has reached critical mass:
Now the earth was corrupt in the sight of God, and the earth was filled with violence. God looked on the earth, and behold, it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted their way upon the earth (Gen. 6:11-12).
Overwhelming corruption and violence had become the norm, “…all flesh had corrupted their way” (6:11-12). Regardless of your position on the extent of the flood (local or global), the Bible is clear that the judgment was universal. Think about it, there were no survivors except for Noah and his family. If you were to read Genesis 6 side-by-side with Genesis 7, you would see that the punishment, though severe, fits the crime: Emphases mine
“Then the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great (Heb. raba) on the earth…” (6:5)
“The water prevailed and increased greatly (rabab) upon the earth…” (7:18)
“…Those were the mighty men (gibborim) who were of old, men of renown” (6:4)
“The water prevailed (gabar) and increased greatly upon the earth…”” (7:18)
The waters were great because the wickedness was great; the water prevailed because injustice prevailed. The judgment was universal.
In the next post we’ll explore views on the extent of the Flood, but before we do that, let’s try to understand the point of the story. Two timeless truths tend to get lost in the shuffle of our questions about the scope of the flood: 1) A grieving God will judge people for ruining His good creation with sin; and 2) A gracious God provides a way for sinners to be rescued from His judgment. If you forced me to summarize the point of the Flood story so that it fit on a t-shirt, my t-shirt would read: God destroys the wicked and out of sheer grace establishes a worshiping community on a new earth. Let’s push a little deeper into the story.
God has a big heart. He’s not only all-powerful and all-wise, but He is all-good. The goodness of God comes through the beauty of creation. Note the constant refrain of “it was good” and “it was very good” in the first chapter of Genesis (1:12, 18, 21, 25, 31). God created a perfect environment for Adam and Eve to flourish in. More than that, He so loved them that He gave them the greatest gift He could give—Himself. Genesis talks about this sacred intimacy with the phrase “walking with God” (3:8; 5:22; 6:9; 17:1; 24:40; 48:15). Adam and Eve enjoyed this intimacy until it was shattered by sin.
This is probably a good time to hit the pause button and ask, “What is sin anyway?” If we get this wrong, we’re likely to think that the God of the Bible is a tantrum throwing bully (like the gods of the ANE). If an all-good, all-wise and all-powerful God judges sin this way, then sin must be pretty serious!
Most people think of sin as “rule-breaking” (like doing 50 mph in a 35 mph zone), but that’s not how the Bible first talks about it. Sin is more about breaking relationships than it is about breaking rules. In Genesis, the first relationship to be broken by sin is the one between God and man. Adam and Eve were made to “walk with God”, but after sinning we find them hiding from the presence of God (Gen. 3:8).
Broken relationships are always a consequence of sin, but that still leaves us without a clear definition of sin. What is sin? I have found it helpful to define sin as rebellion against a good God. I say “good” God, because I’m an American and rebellion sounds heroic to me. Every 4th of July I risk blowing my fingers off to celebrate the rebellion against King George III. I watch every Star Wars movie because I support the Rebel Alliance against the evil Emperor. See what I mean? But what does it say about us that we rebel against a good and kind God?
Rebellion is not without consequences. Death follows sin and sucks the life out of us. Few things are as de-humanizing as sin. Sin exerts a corrupting influence on all good things. Let me illustrate this. Take a moment and circle or identify the sin or sins in the list below:
How many sins did you identify? In my opinion, none of the above are in and of themselves sin. Every single item on the list is good in its proper context. Sex is good inside marriage. God wants married couples to have a lot of it! Chocolate is good (no argument there). Beer, wine and bourbon are good. The Bible actually says that God made wine to make the hearts of men glad (Psalm 104:15). Dancing? True, some of us should avoid doing it in public, but spontaneously doing the robot might make the world a better place. Smoking is probably the only item on the list that I would be tempted to circle, but even here there is no thou shall not command in Scripture. It’s probably better to think of it as foolish.
So why is it that some of us were tempted to circle some of the good things on the list? Many of us may have circled things like beer or sex because we have seen it abused. Alcohol is good, but it has turned many men and women into a violent jerks. What about sex? Sex is God’s wedding gift to a man and a woman in the covenant of marriage, but sex outside of God’s plan ruins marriages and fuels things like the human trafficking industry. Sin de-goods God’s good creation and ruins humanity. This is why I say that few things are as de-humanizing as sin.
In Genesis 6, God does triage on the human heart and finds it hopelessly de-humanized,“…every intent of the thoughts of the heart was only evil continually” (Gen. 6:5). Notice that sin is not just outside of us—it’s in us! Russian novelist and Nobel Prize winner Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn has his finger on the pulsating throb of the human heart:
Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts (The Gulag Archipelago).
Once the glory of the universe, sin had so overwhelmed the human heart and ruined creation that God was grieved. In love He sent Noah to urge people to turn away from sin, but they would not budge (2 Pet. 2:5). It is not that people could not repent, but that they would not. This is comic treason. When the mercies of God are repeatedly scorned, what is left but certain judgment?
The whole flood story is built with God’s scandalous grace at the center: “God remembers Noah” (8:1). The God with a broken heart is also a God of grace and mercy. In fact, in the Bible God is repeatedly shown to be “compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in loving kindness” (Exod. 34:6). Judgment is His “strange” work, because He would rather bless people (Isa. 28:21). He takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked (Ezek. 18:23). Contrast this with another flood story from the ANE. In the Gilgamesh Epic, the “Noah” of the story (i.e. Utnapishtim) and his god mislead the people about the coming Flood. They’re afraid that when they hear about the deluge, they will repent and want on the boat, so when they ask Utnapishtim why he’s building a boat, he contrives a story about a private quest to stay on good terms with his god (Walton, Genesis p. 318).
How different the God of Noah! He not only sends Noah to preach (2 Pet. 2:5), but Noah’s name was like a Broadway sign flashing the word comfort and reminding people that God had promised to send someone to free humanity from the curse. When Noah was born, his Dad said, “This one will comfort us in our work and from the toil of our hands arising from the ground which the LORD had cursed” (5:29). Like Jesus, who’s name is basically the same as Joshua, meaning “Yahweh is salvation”, Noah’s name was a sign urging people to find their way back to God.
Why save Buck-naked Noah?
Of all humanity, only Noah “walked with God” (6:9), but this does not mean that he was perfect! Just turn a page or two and you will see him buck-naked and “three sheets to the wind” (9:21). “Three sheets to the wind” is a nautical phrase for unsecured rope and sail snapping wildly in the wind. One sheet to the wind is bad, but three could result in shipwreck. What a vivid way to describe intoxication! But Noah is not just a drunk, he’s a naked drunk! How is it that the Bible could stick a label like “righteous” on a man like that? Grace is a scandalous thing!
It’s important to note that Noah is not earning God’s favor or receiving His grace because he’s a good person. He may have been a “good” person compared to his neighbors, but the full story reveals that he was not without sin. In fact, Noah’s righteousness is a qualified righteousness, “Then the LORD said to Noah, ‘Enter the ark, you and your household, for you alone I have seen to be righteous before Me in this generation” (7:1). I’m not trying to disparage Noah, but one wonders if he would be a stand out in a more godly generation. In the land of the morally-blind, even a man with one good eye can be king.
Putting it all Together:
Let’s get back to the big idea of the flood story: God destroys the wicked and out of sheer grace establishes a worshiping community on a new earth. Noah was a man who took God at His word and walked with Him. He was rightly related to God by faith and demonstrated his faith by doing what God told him to do (6:13-22; 7:5). Like everyone else in Genesis and beyond, he is justified because he believes God (15:6), but like every other flawed hero, he leaves us longing for the Greater Comforter—Jesus Christ. There is one other Gospel-motif that I want to leave you to reflect on. In the story of Noah, one man’s qualified righteousness results in the salvation of others. How much more will the perfect righteousness of Jesus, the gifted-righteousness that comes from God by faith, save us?
Next Time: The Extent of the Flood