Genesis – Week 4: Noah and the flood

Noah and the flood: Chapters 6 to 9

Literary context

The story of Noah and the flood follows the dramatic story of the fall and its consequences narrated in chapters 3 and 4 of Genesis. Chapter 5 is the genealogy of Adam to Noah and his sons and includes the very brief stories of Enoch and Methuselah.

Chapter 6 begins with the difficult passage of the Nephilim. We will not dwell on that except to say that this is picking up from the theme of chapter 4 (the descendants of Cain, Lamech and the associated sin). The Lord decided to destroy all of the earth that he created, but Noah found favour with The Lord. The introduction to Noah contrasts his life (blameless, walking in close fellowship with the Lord) to the rest of humanity (corrupt and filled with violence). From v14 to the end of the chapter God gives Noah specific instructions.

Chapter 7 starts with the completion of the Ark, another statement relating to Noah’s righteousness and then further instructions regarding the animals that need to go into the Ark with him. This time the instructions are a little more specific – 7 pairs of each approved animal (Jewish dietary laws already present here?) and 1 pair of the others. Note the repetition of the refrain “So Noah did everything exactly as God had commanded him” – 6:22, 7:5. The rest of the chapter relates the actual flood. There seems to be an emphasis on “the whole earth.”

Chapter 8 relates the events after the period of 150 days. God remembered Noah and the animals and he sent a wind and the floodwaters began to recede, the boat came to a stop on Mt Ararat and other mountain peaks became visible. Noah opened a window and released a raven and a dove. The dove returned, but after 7 days the dove was released again, returning with an olive leaf. After another 7 days the dove was released again, but then did not return. When the earth was dry, God told Noah to leave the boat and release the animals. Noah offered a sacrifice, and God decided never to curse the ground because of the human race.

Chapter 9 starts with the command to Noah and his family “to be fruitful and multiply, and to fill the earth” and well as confirming that God has placed man in a position of power over the animals (as with Adam). Also as in the garden there is a command – this time it is not to take the blood of another man; the consequence of disobedience is the same: death. The reason given is that man is made in the image of God (this is true, even after the fall – supporting the idea that the image is still there, even if in distorted form). From v 8 God makes covenant with Noah and his descendants never to flood the earth again. The chapter ends with Noah planting a vineyard, drinking wine and getting drunk. Ham mocks his father, but Shem and Japheth deals with it appropriately. The result is that Ham and his descendants were cursed (Canaan) and Shem and Japheth blessed.

The story of Noah ends with an account of his sons’ descendants.

Historical context

(Source: Kidner, 101-108 unless where otherwise stated)

b.1 Extent and date of the flood

The debate in respect of the flood was whether it was universal (i.e. covered the globe) or whether it was local (i.e. the area where the scene played off). There is much evidence either way – all of which can be disputed in some way. Even the biblical language does not give us a conclusive answer as it is conceivable that hyperbolic language may be used when God talks about “everyone on earth”, “all living creatures”, “the whole earth” and so forth. Whatever your view on this, Kidner says that “we should be careful to read the account whole-heartedly in its own terms, which depict total judgment on the ungodly world already set before us in Genesis … the whole living scene is blotted out, and the New Testament makes us learn from it the greater judgment that awaits not only our entire globe but the universe itself (2 Pet. 3:5-7). It is very difficult, if not impossible, to give an exact date of when the flood would have occurred. Any specific statement regarding that would be mere speculation.

b.2 Flood stories outside the Bible

There are flood stories from virtually all over the world. It is only in Africa where it is rare. The normal story goes along the lines of a deluge that is sent in divine anger, and one man is warned about this. In the Greek version the Noah equivalent, Deucalion, built a vessel similar to the ark, but not the same vast size. His vessel also grounded on a mountain. Certain North American Indian tales relate pairs of animals taken on board a raft, and birds sent out as means of reconnaissance. However, the differences in the stories are more impressive than the similarities. One exception is the Babylonian legend. There are remarkable similarities between the two stories; however, when reading this, one gets the distinct impression that Genesis is the finished product of a single event related over many years.

b.3 The Ark

noahs-ark

Source: NLT Study Bible

Analysing narrative

We will not focus on a particular passage in this narrative, but rather the story as a whole. The narrative is clearly a drama, with all the elements present.

(a)       Setting the stage

The setting establishes the mood of the story and tells us where it took place in space and time.

The scene is set with the story of the Giants/Angels/Nephilites – the point here is that the morality of the human race deteriorated to such an extent that God decided to wipe the human race off the face of the earth.

(b)       Understand the characters

There are three main characters (or groups) in this scene: God, Noah and his family and the rest of the world’s population. God, is good (the hero), Noah and his family is also portrayed as a hero, and the rest of the human population is clearly depicted as evil.

We can all identify with either Noah (believer) or the rest of the world (unbelievers). There are no grey areas – this is a clear “either/or” situation.

(c)        Conflict

The conflict arises shortly after the characters have been introduced. The conflict often has phases as it becomes more complex. The conflict usually has one of three types of focal points: a test, a quest, or a choice.

Phase 1: From 6:9 we read of God’s dissatisfaction with the human race and his plans to wipe them off the earth. Noah is the exception, “the only blameless person living on earth at the time.”

Phase 2: God tells Noah to build a boat and gives him the dimensions and other detailed instructions. God also gives instructions regarding the animals. We are told in 6:22 that Noah did exactly as God instructed.

Phase3: Chapter 7 starts with God’s instruction for Noah to enter the boat together with the animals (now 7 of every approved pair and 2 of the others), and again we get the statement that Noah did exactly as God instructed (7:5).

Phase 4: When Noah and his family and all the animals were in the boat, the water started to erupt from the earth and it started raining for 40 days. At the end of the short repetition (7:13-16) we read that God closed the door behind Noah. After a while the whole earth – even the highest mountain peaks – were covered with water and all the living things on earth died.

(d)       Crisis or climax

The climax is the moment of greatest tension – there where you hold your breath and wonder what will happen next. This is of course very difficult for us as we know the story so well. Imagine that this is the first time you hear the story of the flood:

Noah and his family and all the animals are in the boat – the whole earth is under water and there seems to be no hope. What will happen next?

(e)       Resolution

Here is where we find out what happened. When you find the crisis and resolution of a drama, you usually find the main point as well.

In chapter 8 we read that God remembered Noah and all the animals, that he sent a wind to blow across the earth and that the water started receding and 5 months after the flood began, the boat came to rest on the Mt Ararat. Noah sent out birds, and after the dove did not return, two months later, they knew that the earth was dry – they were safe!

(f)        Following action

The action following the resolution of the drama often interprets the story. It may indicate the main lesson or show how the story fits into the meta-narrative of redemptive history.

Noah is instructed to leave the boat and release the animals. Noah builds an altar and offers a sacrifice to the Lord. The Lord is pleased with the sacrifice, and He vows (by himself) that he will never destroy the earth in such a way again. God commands Noah and his family – as with Adam – to be fruitful and multiply and to fill the earth. They are to take dominion over the earth, and a command is given regarding taking of human life, and there is a repetition of man made in God’s image. The covenant God made with Noah and his family is confirmed by God, with the rainbow as sign. The story ends with an epilogue describing Noah’s drunkenness and his son’s reaction to it.

Reflection

What is this passage about? Can we sum it up in one or two sentences? Remember that the aim of the reflection is firstly to be able to state what the passage is about and secondly to state what the passage says about that.

The story of Noah and the Ark is so well known that this could be difficult. However, if the basic elements are identified and read in the context of how the drama unfolds, it does make this task a little easier.

The earth was rife with sin; God judged the wicked people of the earth because of their sin; there was one man who was righteous and walked with God; God decided to save him; He instructed Noah to build a boat and Noah obeyed exactly; Noah was saved and God made a new covenant with man – symbolised through the rainbow.

Seen in such simplicity, this story is very familiar. It is a story of sin and the consequent judgment – but more importantly there is a second leg to it: Salvation from judgment through faith and obedience.

Application

There are a few aspects to the reflection outlined above that are worth noting. Before starting with that, be careful not to allegorise the ark – it is very tempting! Allegory is reading into the text symbolism that is not stated explicitly in the text. For example, a meaning will be attached to the wood, the door, the window, the three storeys and so forth. This is different from typology, where something in scripture is a type or foreshadowing of something else.

  1. The whole world was evil and deserved judgment – today, it is still the same.
  2. Noah was the person through whom God chose to bring about salvation to humanity. He was a righteous man, the only blameless person living on earth at the time, and he walked in close fellowship with God (6:9): This is very reminiscent of Jesus;
  3. Noah is obedient to God to the letter – exactly. Twice (6:22 and 7:5) we are told that he does exactly as God commanded: Again, this is reminiscent of Jesus’ obedience – “let your will be done, not mine”.
  4. The flood was judgment for the sin of the world. Peter tells us that the same judgment – this time through fire, awaits the world (2 Pet 3:6-7).
  5. It was by faith that Noah and his family was saved (Heb 11:7). Nothing is said of Noah’s family’s righteousness, but their faith – following Noah – is implied. This is reminiscent of us as Christians – as Noah’s family was saved through trusting that Noah heard God correctly and following him, we are saved through our faith in Christ Jesus.
  6. The Baptism we undergo is a symbol of our solidarity with Jesus Christ – his death, burial and resurrection (1 Pet 3:21, 4:1).
  7. In conclusion – our salvation is in Christ alone. We are only saved from God’s judgment through trusting that what Jesus has done on the cross is sufficient.

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