GEN 8.1-22: NOAH AND HIS FAMILY
Breakfast with the Bible, Chelmsford Cathedral, 15 December 2019
How seriously can we adults take the story of Noah and his ark?
Is it just a story for children – or does it contain truth?
Honesty compels us to admit that this story cannot be taken literally. E.g.
- It beggars belief to suppose that all the animals of the world could have been squeezed into the ark – even if the three storey boat’s dimensions were 450 feet by 75 feet by 45 feet.
- And even if they all could have been jammed in, then why was it that they did not eat each other, and since they did not, then how was Noah able to feed them all?
On the other hand, we cannot dismiss the story as a fairy-tale.
For what we have here is truth, albeit truth in picture form.
And because the story is a vehicle of truth, it needs to be taken seriously
But to say that we can’t take the story literally, doesn’t mean that the Biblical story of the flood is entirely the work of imagination. Historical records indicate that there was indeed a massive flood in ancient times. To quote one distinguished OT scholar (George Knight):
Memories of a great natural disaster have come down to us in the myths and legends of various peoples in Asia, Africa, the Americas, & in Polynesia. The last ice age ended & the ice retreated about 6000 B.C., and as some climatologists believe, it did so comparatively rapidly at least in the northern hemisphere. The quick melting ice would produce the widespread flooding & destruction of life, both human and animal, that the long memories of so many people record. There was a lesser cold period about 3500 B.C., sufficient to reinforce the stories of old and which were by then being recorded in writing.
Parallels are often drawn between the Biblical story of Noah and the Babylonian versions of the flood story, as if the Biblical story was but a copy of the Babylonian versions.
But the differences are far greater than the similarities: e.g.
- In one Babylonian version (the Atrahasis version) the gods bring about the flood to silence the rowdy behaviour of human beings, and in this way ensure that heaven gets a little sleep.
- In the Babylonian versions, when the flood abates, the hero disembarks and makes a sacrifice to the gods, who are by now famished by lack of offerings. So “the gods smelled the sweet savour; the gods gathered like flies over the sacrificer”. As a result heaven – and not earth – learns its lesson, and the chief instigator of the flood is rebuked. To make amends, he confers deity on the flood-hero.
Yes, the Babylonians knew about the flood, and about an ark and about it being filled with the hero’s family as also with animals. But there is one major difference. In Genesis the ark and the animals are but a detail. Just as the Christmas story is not first & foremost about wise men and shepherds, neither is the Genesis story about an ark and animals. The key to the Genesis story is not Noah, but God.
Whereas in the Babylonian legends the gods are a self-seeking rabble without a moral fibre between them, in Genesis the God of all the earth cares deeply about the world he has made and the moral state in which it finds itself.
In the Bible the story of Noah provides a stage on which fundamental truths about God and his relationship to his creatures can be told.
What are these truths? Let me briefly elaborate on three:
- GOD CARES DEEPLY ABOUT OUR SIN
Gen 6.5,6: “The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart”.
In the first instance these verses point out the magnitude of humankind’s moral depravity. Was Noah’s generation a particularly wicked generation – more wicked than ours, for instance? I suspect not. Evil has always been at the heart of humankind. You only have to read the Sunday papers to realise that ‘sin’ is endemic in the human race. Noah’s society was marked by sin – and so too is ours.
But, there is something more significant and more important. For these verses point to the suffering heart of God. At first sight these verses appear to give us a very human picture of God – the Lord was “sorry that he had made humankind… It grieved him to the heart”. Really? Surely this is sheer anthropomorphism! Yet, this is no imaginative detail. As the rest of the Biblical record makes clear, our sins tear the heart of God apart with suffering. Our God grieves, as a parent might grieve for a wayward child. He cares deeply about our sin.
It is an incredible thought that our God should care for us at all. It makes as much sense for us humans to be concerned for the fate of an ant! The Greeks used to say that God had no feelings – they talked about the ‘impassibility of God’. But in fact the God of the Bible has feelings. So Bishop David Atkinson commented: “Here we see God’s vulnerability. Here is the pain of creative love. Here is the wounded spirit of the artist whose work is rejected, the broken heart of the lover whose love is not returned“.
The flood is a story of judgement – but it is judgement with a difference. God cares deeply for those whom he condemns.
- GOD NEVER FORGETS HIS FRIENDS
Gen 8.1: “But God remembered Noah… God made a wind to blow over the earth, and the waters subsided“.
Noah is one of the great saints of the Old Testament. He was clearly a cut above most of us. According to Gen 6.9: “Noah was a righteous man, blames in his generation; Noah walked with God“. Twice we are told: “Noah did all that God commanded” (Gen 6.22; 7.5). Not surprisingly Hebs 11 regards Noah as one of the great heroes of faith: “By faith Noah, warned by God about events as yet unseen, respected the warning and built an ark to save his household” (Hebs 11.7). Spiritually speaking, Noah had a lot going for himself.
But even for a man like Noah faith in God was no passport to a trouble-free life.
True, unlike some of the heroes of Hebs 11, Noah wasn’t stoned to death, nor was he sawn in two (11.37) -but he did experience the flood – and that must have been no joking matter. Metaphorically – as well as literally – Noah must have felt all at sea; if you like, the bottom of his world instead of falling out, was now covered up.
But, one of the key lessons of the story, is that in the midst of all life’s upheavals God stands by his friends. Biblical scholars point out that the lynch pin of the story – the key turning point – is Gen 8.1: “But God remembered Noah”.
After weeks & weeks & weeks of Noah being at sea Noah could have been forgiven thinking that God had forgotten him. But God never forgets his friends. To quote David Atkinson:
Faith is the process – too frequently with pain and struggle – of learning to rest in the providence and rescue of God, even when everything else tells us that God has forgotten us. But the God of the covenant who all too often ‘moves in mysterious ways’.. is the God ‘who rides upon the storm’, holding their reins tightly in his hands.
- GOD’S LOVE IS AT THE HEART OF OUR WORLD
Gen 9.12,13, 15: “God said, ‘This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds…. The waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh’.“.
In ancient mythologies the rainbow was often the sign of the wrath of the gods, especially since the phenomenon appeared in conjunction with thunder & lightening.
But here the rainbow is a sign of God’s grace and mercy.
I find it significant that the word used here for “bow” elsewhere means a military bow. But here its ‘string’, as it were, lies flat on the ground, and so the bow is unusable.
The author of Genesis depicts God as a God who is resolved to love his creation, whatever.
The rainbow is described as “a sign” of “a covenant that is with you, for all generations” (9.12,13). God pledges his love eternally toward his creatures. George Knight wrote: “A flood may last a mere 150 days, but the rainbow reappears unendingly“.
What does this mean? It means that “at the heart of everything is God’s unswerving ‘Yes'” (Moltmann). In our disappointments, in our sufferings, even in our guilt and sin we need never doubt the love of God. We can always count on God and on his love. God loves you and me – in spite of our sin. God wants the very best for you and me – in spite of our sinfulness (see 8.21).
Precisely how a holy God can love a sinner was beyond the understanding of the author of this story. Only with the coming of Jesus centuries later was this mystery revealed – when God made a “new covenant“. For in the Cross of Christ God’s love and justice combine in awesome measure. God’s love is indeed at the heart of the universe.
But for love to be experienced, love has to be received. When the NT writers reflected on the story of Noah, they saw it as a picture of salvation offered us all in Christ. Just as Noah and his family had by faith to enter the ark to be saved, so we too by faith – expressed in the waters of baptism – need to respond to the love of God in Christ. As Peter puts it: “The few people in the boat – eight in all – were saved by the water, which was a symbol pointing to baptism, which now saves you. It is not the washing away of bodily dirt, but the promise made to God from a good conscience” (1 Pet 3.20,21 GNB).
For reflection and discussion:
- How do you respond to these word of the OT scholar Walter Brueggemann (Interpretation: Genesis, 85): “Every person knows times of the dark night of being forgotten…. But the gospel of this God is that he remembers. The only thing the waters of chaos and death do not cut through (though they cut through everything else) is the commitment of God to his creation. His remembering is an act of gracious engagement with his covenant partner, an act of committed compassion. It asserts that God is not preoccupied with himself but with his covenant partner, creation. It is the remembering of God, and only that which gives hope and makes new life possible (see 1 Sam 1.11, 19; Judges 16.28; Ps 8.4; 10.12; 74.1-3; Jer 15.5). Above all Job 14.13 articulates the conviction that God’s memory is the last ground of hope in the realm of death. Job pleads: ‘Oh, that thou wouldest hide me in Sheol, that thou wouldest conceal me until they wrath be past, that thou wouldest appoint me a set time, and remember me!’”
- What else strikes you in this story?