How to make sense of God’s goodness vis-à-vis His judgment? Craig Keener unravels deep questions underlying the flood narrative in the Bible and attempts to answer them.
eople write about the biblical account of the Flood from different angles (even Noah – the latest movie on the theme, which, despite its departures from the biblical text, did helpfully emphasise the narrative’s theological balance of judgment and mercy). My interest, however, here is in the text’s narrative theology.
A messed up world
It’s important to start with a few chapters before the flood narrative, to catch the context of why God’s world had gotten so messed up. God intended for people to have direct access to him (cf. Gen. 2:16-22; 3:8), but sin progressively alienated us from His presence (4:14, 16). Without His presence, we ended up depending on either ourselves or our fellow humans to try to find the way, and that way can end up pretty messed up—kind of like the world we still often see around us.
Most other ancient Near Eastern cultures also had flood narratives, though the one in Genesis is shorter and simpler ways than most tales of their contemporaries. Some cultures attributed the flood to overpopulation; perhaps people were being too noisy, disturbing the gods’ rest. Genesis, however, uniquely attributes it to the one God’s dismay over the violence on the earth (6:12-13). Modern readers as opposed to ancient ones might be tempted to think God too harsh to send this flood, but God was only taking back what He had given to begin with. Only His mercy had held the destructive forces of nature at bay so long anyway.
Although God had warned that disobeying Him would bring death (2:17), He initially showed much mercy to those who had done evil. When Cain killed Abel in Genesis 4, God punished Cain by alienating him from the soil, which had received his brother Abel’s blood (4:10-11). This judgment extended the curse on the soil already declared in 3:17-19. Humans were taken from soil and so were close to it (2:7; 3:19); they would return to soil in their death (3:19). Cain loved the soil (4:2), but his farming career was now terminated (4:12); driven from the land as his parents were driven from Eden, he would wander (4:12, 14). (The implicit warning to Genesis’ ancient Israelite hearers was that sin could expel them from the holy land in the same way; cf. e.g., Lev. 18:28; Deut. 28:64).
Cain pleaded that his punishment was too great, and that someone who found him would kill him (4:13-14). Its important to pause and note here that the narrative does appear to assume that there were other people, and I have my guesses about them, but these are ultimately irrelevant. Where the killer would come from, or Cain’s later wife, or people for his city, are not important enough to the narrative’s point for the narrator to elaborate. What is remarkable here is that God shows mercy to Cain and provides him protection (4:15). Unfortunately, others exploited God’s mercy on Cain to expect that God would protect them when they killed others also (4:23-24).