This is not a children’s story. The animals going into the ark two by two do make a classic VBS song and it certainly makes a great flannel graph. But this story is more like a horror movie than a Disney cartoon.
The story is important for our author. It takes up more space than the creation itself and is full of repetition. Why is this that important?
The flood narrative overlaps two sections of Genesis. It is at the end of the “generations of Adam” (5:1-6:8) which carries the human line from Adam through Seth to Noah. And it is the main event in the “generations of Noah” (6:9-9:29) which starts with the approaching flood and ends with the rainbow sullied by Noah and Ham. Both of these generational stories begin with great hope but they both end with disaster. The hope is found in Adam begetting Seth (5:1-5) which recalls creation itself and is found, in the next generation, in Noah’s walk with God (6:9).
Disaster, however, follows. The line of Seth (“sons of God”) ultimately mixes with the line of Cain (“daughters of men”) and God’s good creation is filled with evil (6:1-7). Noah’s walk with God turns to drunkenness and shame (9:20-27). Both new beginnings have bad endings.
The flood story bridges these two sections in Genesis. The flood is a divine response to evil in the world, but also a new beginning. It is divine judgment but also divine renewal.
Why should the flood story figure so prominently in Genesis? Israel lived in an ancient culture that was saturated with stories about gods, creations and floods. There were multiple creation and flood stories in the surrounding cultures and many even predate Moses. Many of these flood stories are very similar to the one in Genesis. For example, the family of one human is saved, a large boat, a great flood, the release of a raven and dove, etc. Israel shared a common “story” about a past great flood with its culture.
However, there was (at least) one significant difference. The ANE stories locate the reason for the flood in the capriciousness of the gods. They are fickle and easily annoyed. They send the flood upon the earth because humans are too noisy!
That is not Israel’s God. Israel reinterprets the flood story in order to say something about Yahweh (or Elohim). Their version is a counter-story which intends to subvert ANE culture itself. The focus of the flood story is not on how many animals are in the ark or whether the dimensions are large enough for the animals. The focus of the flood story is the reason for the flood and what happened to the earth as a result.
God was not annoyed with humanity but was grieved by them (Genesis 6:6). God was so grieved that he changed his mind (regret) about how the earth would continue. Humanity interrupted God’s sabbath rest.
When God finished the sixth day of creating in Genesis 1, God “rested” (Genesis 2:1-3). This seventh day was not a twenty-four hour period of relaxation and recreation. Rather, God “rested” in the earth, communed with humanity and the rest of creation, and rejoiced over his works. The sabbath rest of God is the communion God has with the creation–it is God resting (dwelling) within the creation. The seventh day is the continued existence of creation itself.
But humanity (and “all flesh”) disrupted that rest by filling the earth with “violence.” This is an important term as its repetition highlights the rationale for God’s judgment. God saw that the earth was full of “violence” (Genesis 6:11, 13). This is the opposite of God’s sabbath shalom. Just as “all flesh” contributed to the “violence” now pervasive upon the earth, so “all flesh” will suffer consequences (Genesis 6:13, 17, 19).
The judgment is the reversal of creation itself. The “waters” (7:6-7) arise from the “deep” and from the “windows of heaven” (7:11). This language comes from Genesis 1 where the waters are given boundaries so that dry land might appear. Now God releases the chaos of the waters. He sends the earth back to its original, uninhabitable state when the waters of the deep covered the earth (Genesis 1:2). The chaos out of which God shaped a habitable earth returns to destroy “all flesh.”
Israel tells the flood story as a polemic against violence rather than as the whims of fickle gods. God judges violence through the flood. Israel takes the flood story and uses it to subvert the culture of violence that dominated the ANE (especially an Israel living in Babylon who had recently suffered from that violence). The flood story tells us what God thinks about violence in his good creation.
At the same time, the flood story tells us about the patience, forbearance and grace of God. Yahweh does not “fly off the handle” in this story. Rather, he is patient with the creation. God strives with humanity for a 120 years (plus however long before that counting began). This is no flippant decision by a whimsical deity. On the contrary, it is a deliberate decision slowly made in the wake of God’s love for the creation.
That love is not only expressed in the grace God demonstrated to Noah, but it is also expressed in God’s gracious renewal of the creation itself. Genesis 8 begins with hope: ”God remembered Noah and all the wild animals and all the domestic animals.” This remembrance is God’s gracious orientation toward humanity and the rest of creation. It is God’s determination to renew what he has just destroyed or, to put it another way, “wiped clean.”
Genesis 8 follows the path of Genesis 1. The wind (ruach) of God blows over the waters (just as in Genesis 1:2; 8:1). The waters separate–closing the fountains of the deep and the windows of heaven–so that dry land might emerge (Genesis 1:6-10; 8:2). The dry land begins to yield trees and fruit (Genesis 1:11-12; 8:11). And then the animals and humanity walk upon the dry land again (Genesis 1:25, 29-30; 8:15-119).
And God rests once again. This is an important part of the story that most miss. It is easy to miss because the connections of the Hebrew language are lost in English translation. Noah comes out of the ark and worships by offering dedicatory offerings. It is an act of thanksgiving (Genesis 8:20). Significantly, the odor of these sacrifices are “pleasing” (nichocha) to God. This is the important word. It is derived from the same root that describes God’s rest (nuach) in Exodus 20:11. The od0r is restful to God. Just as God placed (yanach; rested) humanity in the Garden (Genesis 2:15), so God now rests within the creation once again.
God’s rest in his good creation–the seventh day rest is renewed and continues–is underscored by God’s commitment to the creation. God makes a covenant that renews Sabbath rest for the creation. God will never again destroy every living creature as he did this time even if humans do not change their violent ways (Genesis 8:21-22). While chaos still exists within God’s creation (humans are there, for example!), the order of God’s creation will remain and the good creation will continue despite the chaos that surrounds it and lives within it. God will never again abandon the creation.
Israel tells this story, in contrast to the stories of the ANE, as both a judgment against violence and as a reminder of God’s commitment to the creation. God is not annoyed with humanity but rather loves them. People live within the grace of the creation even though they despoil it and often treat it violently just as they treat each other. Nevertheless, despite the violence, God will sustain the earth, graces it with his presence, and continue the seventh day through his redemptive graces.
God still grieves the sin and the violence. He grieved over Israel (Isaiah 63:10), and God grieved in Jesus over Jerusalem. But–thanks to be to God!–the new creation has begun in Jesus Christ. Raised to the right hand of God, he is the firstborn of the new creation. One day, God will renew the creation as he strips the old things (like sin, violence and death) from the earth and makes everything new. On that day, there will be no more sea (no more “waters”) and no more night (“darkness”). God will reign upon the earth and dwell (rest) with humanity in the new creation (Revelation 21:1-5). Everything will be made new again as if refined by fire.
[This is a summary of my July 3 (2012) presentation at Lipscomb University's Summer Celebration as part of the Hazelip School of Theology series on Genesis 1-11.]