(Continuing my series on the Hebrew Scriptures)
The story of the Great Flood has had an incredibly long run. It was a wildly popular story in several ancient cultures well before the dawn of recorded history, and it clearly remains a blockbuster to this day.
The story line as we find it in Genesis is well known. Once again, mankind is failing to live up to God’s good plan for creation and finally God has had it. He decides to bring an end to the unrelenting corruption and violence by making an end of mankind itself. But Noah and his family are to be spared.
There is some powerful foreshadowing right before the story gets going which we tend to miss. At the end of the genealogy that bridges Adam and Noah, we find Lamach naming his son Noah and saying “Out of the ground the LORD (YWHW) has cursed, this one shall bring us relief from our work and from the painful toil of our hands” (Gen. 5:29)
The name “Noah” means “to comfort” or “rest” and in this overlooked baby naming we have foreshadowing for the story and a key to the meaning of Genesis, the Gospel, and the Jewish/Christian view of reality – out of the sin-cursed ground there will come relief, and out of the death and destruction of the flood and the consequences of our broken choices there will come life.
With this juicy piece of foreshadowing on the table, the narrative turns to the story as we know it. Other ancient versions of the flood share many common components, but the meaning of the Genesis story is very unique. Once again, the Biblical writers focus on communicating something very important about the Creator, humanity, and the relationship between them.
In preparation for the coming deluge, Noah is instructed to build his ark, then gather the animals and his family. The rains come, then go, and eventually they are set free, beginning life anew on the earth. To the ancient understanding and imagination, the “blotting out” with water is a return to chaos. In the original creation story, God shaped beautiful, useful function from watery chaos; here the process is reversed. Life on earth is not so much drowned (though that is clearly indicated), but taken over by the forces of chaos in order to be recreated into beautiful, useful function once again.
It quickly becomes apparent, however, that the new creation and first family is just as broken, rebellious, and flawed as the original set. So what has this all been about? What was the point of ending life on the earth if things are to continue on as badly as they began? And how is Lamech’s prediction to be fulfilled? How does Noah’s life and story bring relief, comfort or rest, much less redemption?
The answer to this comes from the real main character of the story – Yahweh. While we tend to focus on Noah, the ark, the water, or the animals, the really interesting action is happening within God himself.
At the outset of the story, the Bible tells us that God is sending this flood to blot out life from the earth because of the incurable wickedness of mankind. Then at the end of the story God places his bow in the sky, vowing never again to strike down all living things. The reason he gives for this promise? Because “the intentions of a man’s heart is evil from his youth.”
In other words, in a shocking twist God’s strategy towards mankind takes an entire 180 degree turn. Humanity remains the same but God’s response changes forever from “therefore, I will destroy them” to “therefore, I will never destroy them.”
There is no human repentance, promise, or evidence of change in this story – quite the opposite. What changes is God and his approach to humanity and his rebellious creation. We looked earlier at Genesis 1-11 as a series of stories that outline the tension between a loving, faithful Creator, and an uncooperative creation. The Biblical version of the flood story is setting up the final resolution: Creation will not fall into line as intended so God changes his strategy. He will not give up his plan for a good creation even in light of this grievous reality. Mankind has proven hopeless, hence hope must come only from God. Placing his bow in the sky, God commits to be faithful because mankind will always and only prove utterly unfaithful.
In this decision, and throughout the story, we see the heart of God not as an angry tyrant, but as a grieved parent. There are phrases such as “the LORD regretted…” and “it grieved him to his heart.” His choices and actions toward creation stem, the authors show us, not from disinterest but deep, pained, broken relationship. The consequences of this pain he here and finally resolves to put upon himself.
This is how we find comfort, rest, relief, and redemption in Noah’s life and story. This is where we find the key to understanding the meaning of Genesis, the Gospel, and the Jewish/Christian view of reality – God has made an irrevocable covenant with all living things and all generations, knowing full well who we are and how we will fail. He will be faithful, even when – and because – we are unfaithful. He will love and nurture even when – and because – we have hated and killed. He will rebuild even when – and because – we have destroyed.
And with this in mind we turn the page. Where will this incredible, surprising story lead next?