People 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.
God summons us to recognise each human being as no less formed in God’s image than ourselves.
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).
More immediate causes
This sets the stage for the violence noted in Genesis 6. Because God has been so benevolent, people by this point are ignoring altogether His warnings of judgment. God ultimately makes matters stricter: those who kill others who are made in God’s image must die (9:6). That’s not because God really wants anyone to die (Ezek. 18:23, 32), but because without this rule there would be more bloodshed. God’s ideal from the beginning was not so strict, as we see with Cain, but He wouldn’t let people continue to take His mercy for granted. God summons us to recognise each human being as no less formed in God’s image than ourselves.
Another reason for the flood was the sexual immorality noted in Gen. 6:1-4. Scholars explain the sons of God mating with human women in various ways. One view is that the godly line of Seth mated with Cain’s descendants; this view seems unlikely though, since the “sons of God” here hardly sound godly. The most common ancient Jewish interpretation was that these were fallen angels mating with women, a view to which many scholars find allusions in 1 Pet. 3:19-20; 2 Pet. 2:4-5, Jude 6-7, and (much less likely) 1 Cor. 11:10. “Sons of God” sometimes does refer to angels (Job 1:6; 2:1; 38:7), and both Greeks and most ancient Near Eastern peoples had stories about gods (whom Israelites would understand as demons) raping and seducing women. Whatever the case, this account may also serve as a warning to Israel about their own conjugal practices, warning against intermarrying with worshipers of false gods, who would turn their hearts away from God (Deut. 7:3-4.)
The need for judgment
Humanity’s practice of evil spread, so that all they ever thought about was evil (Gen. 6:5). Humanity became so corrupt, with the spread of malignant evil so impossible to turn back, that God regretted having made people (6:6). The Hebrew text says that He grieved or felt pain in His heart. God had made people to be like His children (cf. the significance of being in one’s image in 5:1-3), but now things had turned out so badly that God was anguished and bitterly disappointed. His children had grown up to be murderers, apparently far beyond the level of Cain. On the premise that God knows the future, some argue that God condescends to deal with people in their real time. Clearly God is able to know more than He sometimes lets on, as in 4:9-10. But again, such questions, valuable as they might be, digress from the point of the current story.
The world does not belong to us. Even our very lives are a gift from God. When we abuse the gift of life to harm others or the world that God has made, instead of investing in serving others, we squander His gift and break His heart. We forget that we are mortal, and we must return the gift of life God has given us, and answer for how we have used it.
In this case, God took back the gift of order in creation. The refrain of Gen 1 is that God made everything “good” (1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31); humanity, however, had made itself progressively more “bad” or “evil” (6:5). God had graciously taken a primeval chaos (Gen. 1:2) and made it habitable. When He started making the world liveable, darkness was over the “deep,” and His Spirit hovered over the waters (1:2). But now, in judgment, the fountains of the “deep” erupted, inundating the earth with water (7:11). (The Hebrew term translated “deep” is significant here, since Genesis uses it only four times.) God was the one who had given the breath of life (2:7); now He took it back (6:17; 7:22).
God’s plan was always meant to lead back to Eden, to restore us to the purpose for which He made us.
The Israelites would understand such judgments, because they had seen something like this in their own experience as a people. They watched God unravel Egypt’s ecosystem with plagues, plagues that simply took back the blessings God had provided to begin with. They watched as God drowned their oppressors in the “deep” (Ex. 15:5, the same Hebrew term). They celebrated how God’s “wind” (the same Hebrew word as above) raised up the waters and cast them down, sparing God’s people while punishing those seeking their deaths (Ex. 15:8, 10). The Pentateuch uses a particular Hebrew term for “dry land” only for the flood (Gen. 7:22) and Israel’s crossing of the sea (Ex. 14:21).
But God planned a new start. One person served God and found favour in His sight, so God was going to restart humanity through him (6:8-9). Noah’s father had named him Noah, “rest,” in the hope that God would use him to reverse the curse against the soil (5:29). The Hebrew letters for Noah (“nch”) are related to the Hebrew verb for rest. Noah’s father hoped he would bring “comfort” (“nchm”), but that term, which also means “relent,” appears again when God is sorry He made people in 6:6-7. Noah’s ark, however, also “rested” in a good way after the flood (8:4). Eventually God did receive Noah’s offering and promised not to curse the soil any further (8:21).
The new start came. Just as God’s Spirit hovered over the waters in the beginning, so in Gen. 8:1 God sent a “wind” (the same Hebrew word as “Spirit”) over the earth to lower the waters of the flood. God closed the fountains of the “deep” (8:2). God had protected those with the breath of life who were with Noah (7:11).
Moreover, the narrative describes Noah as receiving a new commission, just like Adam; unfortunately, sin appears again soon afterward (9:21-25). God later chooses Abram for a new start, with a new commission, because He knows that Abram will raise his promised line rightly (18:19). God’s plan was always meant to lead back to Eden, to restore us to the purpose for which He made us. The following chart, taken from my commentary on Acts, helps us understand the similarities between the three narratives.
|Adam narratives||Noah narrative||Abraham narrative|
|Blessed (1:28a; 5:2)||Blessed (9:1)||Blessed (12:2-3)|
|After creation||Recreation after the flood||After Babel|
|“Be fruitful and multiply” (1:28)||“Be fruitful and multiply” (9:1, 7)||Promise of seed (12:2; 15:4-5)|
|Fill the earth (1:28)||Fill the earth (9:1)||Promise of the land (12:1)|
|Curse: serpent (and its seed; 3:14-15)||Curse: Canaan (9:25)||Curse: those who curse you (12:3)|
|Followed by a genealogy with about ten generations ending in three sons (5:3-32)||Preceded and followed by a genealogy with about ten generations ending in three sons (5:3-32)||Preceded by a genealogy with about ten generations ending in three sons (11:12-27)|
Even this did not restore Eden, but it was a step forward. When Israel disobeyed God, He threatened to start over with Moses’ descendants (Ex. 32:10). Although God again showed mercy, it was a promised seed to come through whom God Himself would make all things right. Ultimately, one descendant of Abraham would be a new Adam to lead us back to Eden. Conformed to His image, we become the sons and daughters of God He meant us to be.
Making Abraham’s name great (12:2) contrasts with the people at Babel seeking to make their own name great (11:4); they were scattered after seeking not to be scattered (11:4, 8-9), whereas Abraham went in obedience to God (Gen 12:1, 4).