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Home > Bible Studies > BibleJourney > Genesis > Issue 13

BibleJourney: Genesis

Issue 13

ISSN 1535-5187

Building and Floating [When It Rains, It Pours]
—Genesis 6.9-8.22
by Winn Griffin, D.Min.

Genesis

Observing the Stuff

The Flood
By the generation of Noah, human evil had reached despair. Moral pollution was so great that the limits of divine tolerance had been reached. As we have seen the judgment and grace of God in the past stories, the story of the Flood also demonstrates the judgment and grace of God.

This story has caused endless discussions, usually centered around the other flood stories of the ancient world, including questions about the size of the ark, where its remains are today, and the size of the flood. Was it universal or local? This drive of the Western mind to think in segments and its scientific focus often causes the reader of this story to miss the theological implications.

In this story there is a continual comparison between the present situation of humankind and its bend to undermining the creation of God as described in the first chapters of Genesis. Humankind and its sin had put the world in a reversal mode from the original purpose of God. The ark that Noah was directed to build was the new template for the new creation of God. Like Adam and Eve in the garden, Noah lived in harmony with the animals. While the flood would destroy humankind as it had become, God's creation would continue because of God's grace and mercy. We must always keep in mind that these stories are set against the backdrop of polytheism. As mentioned before, there were other flood stories in the ancient world in which the gods brought judgment on humankind because of such things as making too much noise. The Genesis Flood story demonstrates that the God of creation did not like his creation reversed. The core of sin is to reverse what God had created; therefore he took control over his creation and brought it under his destructive hand. It was his to make, his to judge, and his to destroy.

This story seeks to answer some basic questions: What is going to happen to humankind? Will it get away with practicing immorality and enjoying its baser nature? The answer is a clear resounding No!

Background of Flood Story
Moses told this story against the backdrop of what happens when God judges. This was an important story to help the Hebrews understand what the consequences were for disobeying God by not keeping the stipulations of the Covenant given to them at Mt. Sinai.

In the ancient world there were many stories about floods. In the Akkadian story, it is the Atrahasis Epic. This Epic recounts a flood that was sent by the gods to destroy man after the gods had been unable to control him. Atrahasis was given directions by the creator god Enki to build a boat and escape with his family, treasures, and animals. The flood lasted seven days. After Atrahasis left the boat he offered a sacrifice to the gods who gathered around it like flies.

In the Babylonian account of the story there are also elements that are common to the biblical account. There is the presence of a hero who builds a boat, a devastating flood, birds sent to survey the surface of the earth, and a sacrifice that was made when the survivors left the boat.

However, even though the frame in which the story is set serves both stories, the reason for the flood, the reason humans are spared, the purpose of the sacrifice, and the number of gods are different. As an example, in the Babylonian account of the flood, the gods wanted to destroy humankind because of their noise. I guess the gods couldn't get any sleep with the constant chatter from humankind.

This account of the flood is another attempt at the hand of Moses to help the Hebrews understand that there was only one God who was responsible for judgment, not a variety of gods who at their whim decided to judge. The God of Genesis was not impotent before the flood, like the gods of Babylon, but in total control, sovereign in judgment and mercy.

The author of Genesis considers the flood as the great dividing point in the early part of his storytelling. It was, in fact, an act of de-creation or deconstruction. The flood returned the earth to a primeval watery chaos not unlike that which the storyteller described in Genesis 1.3. There was water everywhere and all life as it was known was destroyed.

In the original story (Gen. 1) and in this story, the spirit/Spirit of God was sent over the earth to begin the process of a new creation. One might say that the world was born for a second time. Noah emerges as the head of the human race as he emerged from the ark. Like Adam and Eve before him, he was told to "Be fruitful and increase in number. Noah is an early second Adam.

The literary design (symmetry of the story) of the story emphasized the act of de-creation and re-creation.

de-creation

re-creation

 Noah's sons (6.10)

 Noah's sons (9.18-27)

 Enter the ark (7.1)

 Leave the ark (8.16)

 Seven days (7.4)

 Seven days (8.12)

 Seven days (7.10)

 Seven days (8.10)

 Forty days (7.17)

 Forty days (8.6)

 Mountains covered (7.20)

 Mountains uncovered (8.5)

 Flooding for 150 days (7.24)

 Water receding for 150 days (8.3)

 God remembered Noah (8.1)

 

The Story's Main Point
Noah is identified as a righteous man who walked with God, a man not contaminated by the wickedness and sin of his day. He is directed to construct an ark in which he and his family along with other created creatures would enter to escape the judgment of God on the world (Gen 6.9-17). Next, God establishes a covenant with Noah (6.18-7.10Gen. ). Then, the flood came. It rained for forty days. Everyone except the occupants of the ark is wiped out (Gen. 7.11-24). Finally, the flood ended and God commanded Noah, his family, and the entire company of occupants to leave the ark. Never again will such disaster come to mankind even though his heart was not changed by the event.

There has been an usual attempt to understand this story by trying to prove it scientifically. In the last century it was particularly fashionable to try and discover the ark, with the pure motivation to prove the story of Scripture "true" to a scientific certainty so that all who now live on the earth would know that the Bible is true.

As one might reason, this is not the purpose of this story. Its purpose is distinguishable by discovering the relationship that God had with his creation. It is a story of judgment because of sin and a new start for humankind because of God's grace. See in the character of God both judgment and mercy and you will take a visit close to the heart of this story.

Interpreting the Stuff

Noah is identified as a righteous man who walked with God, a man not contaminated by the wickedness and sin of his day. He is directed to construct an ark in which he and his family along with other created creatures would enter to escape the judgment of God on the world (Gen 6.9-17). Next, God establishes a covenant with Noah (Gen. 6.18-7.10). Then, the flood came. It rained for forty days. Everyone except the occupants of the ark is wiped out (Gen. 7.11-24). Finally, the flood ended and God commanded Noah, his family, and the entire company of occupants to leave the ark. Never again will such disaster come to mankind even though his heart was not changed by the event.

There has been an usual attempt to understand this story by trying to prove it scientifically. In the last century it was particularly fashionable to try and discover the ark, with the pure motivation to prove the story of Scripture "true" to a scientific certainty so that all who now live on the earth would know that the Bible is true.

As one might reason, this is not the purpose of this story. Its purpose is distinguishable by discovering the relationship that God had with his creation. It is a story of judgment because of sin and a new start for humankind because of God's grace. See in the character of God both judgment and mercy and you will take a visit close to the heart of this story. Interpreting the Stuff

Genesis 6.9-12 . The first verses of Genesis 6 provide an account, which helps the reader to understand the reason for the Flood. It provides a clear-cut reason for the flood. The sons of God see how beautiful the daughters of men were and the result of their action was sinful. The Lord sees how terrible the earth has become. The problem of sin was not only what was done, but it was so pervasive that even humankind's thoughts were evil. The actions and the thoughts of humankind had become evil.

Genesis 6.5-8 is one of the most negative statements about the human race as a whole. Sin had infected every aspect of life, and nothing short of a new beginning would suffice. Sin had engulfed the whole of humankind. God saw how the human race had grown progressively more violent and wicked. Sin had pervaded every pore of humans. The result of fallen mankind grieved God. His regret led him to a decision an action, which was to destroy them. He decided to eliminate sinful humankind by a flood saving one man and his family, a living community. Through this process God would save a remnant to begin again.

Among his peers, Noah stood out as a righteous, blameless man who knew how to walk with God. The favor of God given to Noah was not something that he earned by his right living, but something that he found by the gracious hand of God.

So he and his immediate family were spared to make a new start. This is an important point to recognize that while God used an individual, he was a part of a community. The community was saved for the sake of the world. There community was eight people, Noah and his wife, his three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth, and their three wives. The favor of God on Noah was not something that Noah earned. It was what God gave which result could be seen in the way Noah lived. The family of Noah becomes the means by which a gracious God preserved the human race. In addition, it demonstrates that a just and good God can and does distinguish between faithful and disobedient persons.

In addition to the human community there were two members, a male and a female, of each division including birds that were on the ark. To this was added twelve extra creatures and vegetable food presumably for food and sacrifice.

Throughout the Flood story God is the speaker and Noah is the listener and follower. Noah is given instruction to build an ark.

Genesis 6.13-22. God commands Noah to build an ark, which was about 450 feel long, seventy-five feet wide, and forty-five feet high. Anyone who has constructed pictures or models of the ark into which the family of Noah entered have read into Genesis extra construction details. The ark would be approximately the size of one and a half American football fields in length (not including the ten yards behind each goal) and approximately half the width of a football field (American football field is160 feet wide), and about the height of a four-story building.

The Hebrew word for ark only appears here in the Flood narrative and in Exodus 2.3-5 where it is the basket in which the mother of Moses places the infant. It is interesting that two remarkable persons in the Old Testament are spared from drowning by means of an ark. The "ark" mentioned in the "Ark of the Covenant" is a different Hebrew word. No one knows what kind of wood Noah's ark was constructed from. The word, which describes the wood, appears only here in the whole of Scripture. The ark was a seaworthy vessel and was not designed to be navigated. There is no mention in the text about rudders or sails. One might conclude that the community aboard the ark was left in the hand of God for its eventual fate.

Into the ark Noah was to take all kinds of animals so that animal life would be preserved. Distinction was made between those animals that were clean and those that were unclean. For preservation of life Noah was to take two of ever kind of animal on board the ark with him. It should be noted that Noah did not have to go and gather the animals. The text tells us that the animals would "come" to him. It was God's job to direct the animals toward the ark.

God made a covenant with Noah (Gen. 6.18) that may be a reference to the actual covenant made with Noah after the Flood, which was sealed by God with a rainbow (Gen. 9.9-17). The main feature of the covenant was that it was entirely instituted by God. It applied to Noah and to his progeny and all living creatures. It was an unconditional covenant, which is different from the covenant given to Moses in Exodus. Never again would God destroy all creation with a flood. Two features can be pointed out in this story at this point. First, God is the judge of the whole earth. Second, God made provision for the recipients of his grace.

Genesis 7.1-10. God repeated his direction for Noah to enter the ark as God confirms his belief about Noah's character. In addition to himself, Noah is to take his complete family. Noah was commanded to take seven of every kind of clean animal and two of every kind of unclean animal. This is additional information given to Noah by God (6.19-20). To preserve animal life Noah brought two of every kind (see above) of animal; for food and sacrificing he brought seven pairs of each kind of clean animal. The classifications of clean and unclean were not classifications of diet but sacrifice.

It might be interesting to note that Noah is given a week's warning before the flood was to begin. He accomplished all that he was asked to do and entered the ark.

The narrator uses an interesting outline as he explains the actual flood:

7 days after God spoke to Noah the flood began
   40 days it rained
       150 days the water covered the earth
   40 days later Noah opened the window of the ark
7 days later Noah dispatches a raven

This 7-40-150-40-7 sequence is a device to help the hearer of the book understand the story as it was being told to him or her. It does not necessarily represent a literal period of time in which these events must have happened.

There is not any convincing archaeological evidence of a massive biblical flood. It may be thought that the boundaries of the flood were the boundaries of how far humankind had spread. We often read the story as a total inundation of the globe with water. But, if understood from the perspective of Noah, a somewhat smaller flood might have occurred, but was universal for him.

Noah entered the ark with his family and animals and the floodgates were opened. The term floodgate is not scientific language, but reflects the perspective of the observer. It is much like in our own speech we might say, "the sun is setting."

Genesis 7:6-24. It is God who commands the group to enter the ark (Gen 7.16a), but the Lord who shut them in (Gen 7.16b). There is a subtle change in the language as the storyteller shifts to the more personal name of God that may suggest that God is the protector of the ark. The waters rise (Gen. 7.17-24). The focus of Genesis 7.13-16 in on the action inside the ark, while the focus of Genesis 7.17-24 is on the outside of the ark. One might observe that the storyteller is making a comparison with the garden. Salvation is found inside the ark and is total. Destruction is found outside the ark and is also total.

Genesis 7.11-16. The narrator of the Flood repeats and summarizes again. He tells us that the family of Noah entered the ark. However, he does not tell us anything about their character. These verses focus on getting into the ark. God commands the group into the ark (v. 16a) and closes the door behind them (v. 16b). The latter use of the word "Lord," the personal name of God, indicates that he was the protector of the ark and its occupants. In essence, the Flood un-created the earth and returned it to a pre-creation condition. The water fell from above and sprang from the deep. This fits with the ancient mindset that the flat earth they lived on was completely surrounded by water. We must constantly remember that God used what they understood to speak to them. This is not a story to prove some scientific belief. Rather, it is theological.

Genesis 7.17-24. These final verses of Chapter 7 focus on what was happening outside of the ark. Inside the ark there was salvation, that is, their lives were saved from destruction. Outside the ark, there was total destruction. This part of the story ends with a statement about how many days the water flooded the earth. One might notice the parallel between being inside the garden and inside the ark. Inside there is life with God. Outside there is devastation. Inside there is life. Outside there is death.

Conclusion. We cannot overemphasize that the primary value of the book of Genesis is theology, as it is with all Scripture. Westerners spend an inordinate amount of time, energy, and money trying to investigate the incidentals of the Flood story and miss the theological impact. The story is crystal clear. God does not like sin. He will judge it, bring redemption, and give new life. We are pre-occupied with all the details such as the size of the ark, or what was the specific kind of wood that it was made from, or how did they feed all those animals and dispose of the refuse. These incidentals and many others in the story are really non-issues. History is important. However, it is the theological significance of the event that is overriding. We often are led to live in the wrong story and need to find the correct story to live in as the people of God.

Genesis 8.1-5. In this chapter we see a progression of land, vegetation, birds, animals, and humankind reappearing on the earth. God remembered Noah and the animals with him. It is recorded that God "remembers" seventy-three times in the Old Testament. This does not mean that God recalled, but that his attention is focused on an action. God remembering was thinking that led to action. In this case, it was the sending of a wind over the earth. One Hebrew word is translated by either "wind" or "spirit." In Genesis 1.2, the spirit is hovering over the water. The picture may be the same here. The divine Spirit encounters the water in the first account and restrained it. In this account he encounters the water and evaporates it. We should take note that the "greater light" or the sun as we call it played no role in drying the water. In all the polytheistic myths the sun dries the earth. Again with the polytheistic backdrop it is one of the deities (the sun) that causes the land to dry. Here again we can see the storytellers' urgency to let the Hebrews know that there is only one God.

In the Genesis account It is the one and only God who causes it to dry. Finally, the ark comes to rest on the mountains of Ararat (somewhere in today's Eastern Turkey). Noah and his family remain in the ark for a long period after the ark came to rest before they disembarked.

Genesis 8:1-22. Noah was faced with determining whether the waters had receded sufficiently for the land to be dry. To determine if the flood had receded, Noah sent out a raven. The raven could feed on dead or decaying flesh on the mountaintops. The text says that the raven flew back and forth until the ground was beginning to dry. Then Noah sent out a dove to determine if the low lands had dried out. The dove was a valley bird that would feed from food in the lower areas that would be the last to dry out. On the second attempt, the dove returned with an olive leaf. This indicated that perhaps the waters had fallen enough for the foothills, where olive trees grow, to be dry. This also helped him determine that there had been enough time for the olive tree to begin growing after the devastation. When he sent out the dove for a third time, it did not return. This indicated that it was time to leave the ark. Noah did not leave the ark until God told him to leave it. God, and only God, can give the green light. When God commanded such, they followed his command.

After leaving the ark, Noah made a sacrifice to God. In the ancient world sacrificing at an altar was believed to be offering food for the deity to eat, since sacrifices were popularly understood as providing a meal for the gods. Again the storyteller draws a distinction between the stories of the many gods and the story of the one true God. The sacrifice was pleasing to God. It may be more important to note what the text does not call the sacrifice. It is neither a sin offering, nor specifically designated a thank offering. Noah's response to the ordeal that he had just undergone was worship. Despite the sinfulness of humankind, God promised to never bring another flood to destroy humankind. As in the garden narrative, humans are told to multiply, rule the creatures, and receive provisions from the earth.

Genesis 8.6-14. Noah was faced with determining whether the waters had receded sufficiently for the land to be dry and leave the ark. To ascertain this, Noah sent out two birds, first a raven and then a dove. He sent out the dove two times. The raven could feed on dead or decaying flesh on the mountaintops. The text says that the raven flew back and forth until the ground was beginning to dry. God does not speak to Noah and tell him if the ground was dry. Noah had been told about when the flood would begin and was given specific specifications on how to build the ark. But here God is silent. So, Noah moved from being a passive recipient of the revelation that God had given him to an active analyst of what the next move could be. The raven returned finding no food that could sustain it.

Then Noah sent out a dove to determine if the low lands had dried out. The dove was a valley bird that would feed from food in the lower areas that would be the last to dry out. On the second attempt, the dove returned with an olive leaf. This indicated that perhaps the waters had fallen enough for the foothills, where olive trees grow, to be dry. This also helped him determine that there had been enough time for the olive tree to begin growing after the devastation. There are two words for "dry" in verses 8.13 and 8.14. The first means to be free from moisture while the second means to be completely absent of water.

When he sent out the dove for a third time, it did not return. This indicated that it was time to leave the ark. Noah did not leave the ark until God told him to leave it. God, and only God, can give the green light. When God commanded such, they followed his command.

Genesis 8.15-22. We draw your attention to the fact that in this whole episode God is the only one who is speaking. Noah simply listened and carried out the commands of God. We may say that in all of the stories of the Old Testament that the human characters are sub-characters to the main character of the Old Testament who is God. Two times in these verses God speaks once to Noah (8.15-17) and once to himself (8.21-22). Between the two speeches by God, Noah leaves the ark (8.18-19). For the first time Noah hears the divine voice from inside the ark. Think about it. He had done all that God had commanded. He was secure in the ark with his family and the animals. Then God was silent.

While Noah was being an active analyst of his present condition by sending out the raven and doves, he did not move from the ark until God spoke to him and told him it was okay to do so. We can certainly draw a wonderful application from this process. While we are to be active to discover our present circumstance, we should not move ahead until God gives the "green light."

What would be the first thing that Noah would do as he reoriented himself to dry ground after floating for about a year? He engaged in worship by building an altar. This is the first reference in Scripture to an altar. This does not mean that Noah did not previously worship God or that altars were not built before this time. The point is that the first act of Noah indicated his thanks for what God had done for him, his family, and the animals. This early building of altars for worship was before the institution of the priesthood in the worship of Israel. Altars were erected mainly to commemorate some event in which the person building the altar had had dealings with God. There is no information about how they were constructed.

When Noah sacrificed, the text says that God smelled the pleasing aroma. The Old Testament refers only a few times to the "senses" of God such as seeing, hearing, stretching out his hand, etc. Such references should be understood as anthropomorphisms (sorry about the big word). Anthropomorphism is a figure of speech in which an attribute of God, such as mentioned above, is described in human terms of quality. The storyteller shares that God creates predictability in the natural world. The predictability was a gracious gift from God. This would suggest that no rites associated with the fertility cults of polytheism could bring about this condition. It was from the one and only God.

After leaving the ark, Noah made a sacrifice to God. In the ancient world sacrificing at an altar was believed to be offering food for the deity to eat, since sacrifices were popularly understood as providing a meal for the gods. Again the storyteller draws a distinction between the stories of the many gods and the story of the one true God. The sacrifice was pleasing to God. It may be more important to note what the text does not call the sacrifice by name. It is neither a sin offering, nor specifically designated a thank offering. Noah's response to the ordeal that he had just undergone was worship.

Despite the sinfulness of humankind, God promised to never bring another flood to destroy humankind. As in the garden narrative, humans are told to multiply, rule the creatures, and receive provisions from the earth.

Impressions (metaphors)
What does this story teach about God?

  • God the covenant maker. In this story we find the first covenant in Scripture. It is made with Noah. For the Hebrew at Sinai to understand that the one and only true God was a covenant-making God would go a long way in helping them understand the faithfulness of the one who they had made covenant with. The idea of God as a covenant-making God demonstrates his ongoing desire to be faithful to his children.
  • God the judge. As in the early stories (Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel) God demonstrates his judgment characteristics. We should be continually reminded that God is serious about his relationship with his children. To breach that relationship will often bring the judgment of God. This should not be a surprise to his children.
  • God of mercy. Remember, the flip side of the judgment coin, is the grace/mercy side. Herein, again God is not only a judging God but also a God of mercy. He reaches out to Noah and shares his mercy/grace in the midst of his judgment.
  • God as savior. Inside the ark was salvation. This is a beginning picture of God who brings salvation, not on the merits of the individual receiving salvation, but entirely on his grace and mercy. (Incidentally, being in the ark has nothing whatsoever to do with the so-called rapture of the Church, even though it is often taught in this way).
  • God as designer. Again we see the concept of God as a creator. Only this time he does not speak it into existence, he provides the blueprints as such and Noah has to actually partner with God to build the ark.
  • God grieves, smells (anthropopathism). Anthropopathism (the attribution of human feelings to things not human, in this case God) is the storytelling device to help the readers identify with the creator God of the universe. The human emotions attributed to God in this story would help the Hebrew know that God was not just some foreign-to-real-life God, but one who really cared and understood his own creation.
Doin' the Stuff!
  • When God gives you directions, how thorough are you in carrying them out?
  • How does sin in you un-create what God has done? Be specific.
  • Why is being inside, where God's presence is, better than outside? List five reasons.
  • Why do you think Westerners spend so much time and energy trying to find the ark? Is that important?
  • What is the theological conclusion of this part of the story?
  • How often do you start something that God has directed you to do before the light is green?
  • When God is silent what should you do?
  • How does an anthropomorphism help you better understand God?
  • How has God provided you with assurance after he has disciplined you?
  • How do the insights on "rainbow" help you understand God's peace?

BibleHandbook: Resourse Stuff!

Read the following Dictionary Articles from Easton's Bible Dictionary, or the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. Easton's is about a century old, therefore, some of the information is not current with newer Bible Dictionaries. ISBE is about seventy-five years old. You might read the articles off-line in a number of different Bible Dictionaries. If you do not own a Bible Dictionary, I would recommend New Bible Dictionary 3rd Edition. If you like lots of color pictures, try The Revell Bible Dictionary now out of print but still can be ordered from amazon.com. One of these should suit your personal needs.

Genesis

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Copyright © 2003, Winn Griffin. All rights reserved. BibleJourney: An Almost Weekly Bible Study is a service of SBL Ministries. Unless otherwise stated, scripture quotations are from the International Standard Version (ISV) of the Bible®. Copyright © 2001 by The ISV Foundation, 2200 N. Grand Ave., Santa Ana, CA 92705-7016. Used by permission of Davidson Press, Inc. All rights reserved internationally.

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