The story of Noah's ark is one of the best known stories in the Bible. Any Sunday School attending child would have heard this story - complete with flannel graph presentation and colouring page. It's a great story: a bunch of animals on a boat with a rainbow in the sky and a lesson about God's faithfulness. But it's not a G-rated children's story (like Bambi or The Lion King)! It's actually a horrific story. The human experiment has failed and God decides to destroy everyone through a flood, except Noah and his family, along with a few animals. Nevertheless, it has generated lots of Interest, including false claims of ark discoveries back in the 1980s, as well as a number of movies and theme parks.
Genesis 6:1-8 contains a summary of the story of Noah and the flood, which is then narrated in detail through four chapters (Gen.6:9 - 9:17). Many questions emerge from this story and the context within which it occurs, including the long human life spans before the flood (Gen.5), the identity of the 'sons of God' (Gen.6:2), as well as the 'Nephillim' (Gen.6:4), the size and extent of the flood, and what this story tells us about God. Let's work through the main parts of this intriguing story:
1. The Problem. The world that God created as 'very good' (Gen.1:31) has now become 'evil' in every way, and in a fairly short period of time (Gen.6:5). After the initial fall into sin (Gen.3), violence entered God's peaceful world (Gen.4) and it took only ten generations for the earth to be "filled with violence" (Gen.6:11-12). The trajectory was towards further disaster and death. Creation had completely failed with the program and purpose given to it by God. Humanity had refused God's ways, which lead to life, and had chosen the path to death.
We should note at this stage that there were numbers of other flood stories in existence in ancient Mesopotamia before and during this time, including the Gilgamesh Epic, a literary classic from the ancient Near East, and Atrahasis, another Babylonian flood story. There are numerous similarities between these flood stories. However, one of the crucial differences is why the flood occurred. For instance, in Atrahasis, apparently the gods sent a flood because the people had become too noisy! Only the Genesis flood story gives us a moral reason for the flood - the extensive wickedness of the human race.
2. God's Response. This story is not primarily about large amounts of water, an ark, pairs of animals and a rainbow. It brings us face to face with the God of Israel. Interestingly, what we find is not an angry tyrant but more of a troubled parent who is grieving over what has gone terribly wrong with his creation (Gen.6:6). God's world is heading in a direction totally opposite to his initial intentions - a road of total destruction. Here we encounter the deep pathos of God - grief, sorrow and disappointment.
3. The Judgment. God resolves to send a flood to judge the earth, using the destructive power of the water to turn back the corruptive power of evil (Gen.6:7, 13). Humans have been behaving in a chaotic and disorderly way, so God decides to unleash chaos on them, then to create a new order with Noah and his family. The judgment of God must always be seen in perspective. The apostle Peter tells us that God demonstrated his long-suffering, or patience, during the days of Noah (1Pet.3:20) and points out that Noah was a "preacher of righteousness" during this period when the ark was being prepared (2Pet.2:5), no doubt warning people of coming judgment.
Arguments have gone on for decades as to whether this was a global flood or a local (regional) flood, and whether the dinosaurs became extinct because there wasn't enough room for them in the ark. However, as interesting as these questions are, they are not the primary focus of the author of Genesis.
4. God's Grace. Suddenly, out of nowhere, Noah appears and he is one who found favour with God (Gen.6:8-9). He is righteous and blameless, walking closely with God. He is a model of faith who obeys God's commands without question. Therefore the theme of the narrative is: God judges the world for human sin and violence but in his grace he continues his kingdom on earth by making a new start with Noah, his family, and the animals with him.
5. A Covenant. God made a covenant with Noah (Gen.6:18). The God of creation is a God of covenant, forming relationship with people, and this theme persists throughout the Bible right up to the work of Jesus Christ. With Noah, God makes a new start with a new creation. Noah and his family are commissioned and blessed to be fruitful and multiply (Gen.9:7). New commandments are given and old ones are reiterated. The rainbow comes with a promise from God that 'never again' (Gen.8:21; 9:15) will he cover the world with a flood. God's purpose for creation continues. Of course, sin is not eradicated. Hope for the future still depends on God and his patience. We are not capable of saving ourselves. God resolves to stay with his creation. God did not abandon creation to the chaos of its disobedience.
Reflections and Discussion Questions
Jesus told his disciples that the last days would be very much like the 'days of Noah' (see Matthew 24:37-39 and Luke 17:26-27 where he highlights the unexpected coming of the flood with his unexpected coming). Let's reflect on a few aspects of the story of Noah:
1. The apostle Paul urges us to consider both the 'kindness' and 'sternness' (or severity) of God (Rom.11:22). No doubt, the story of Noah and the ark is a warning against disobedience and an encouragement to rely on the goodness and grace of God. On the cross, God's righteousness and grace come together, with grace winning out, and mercy triumphing over judgment. Noah found grace, so did Abraham and Israel, and so can we. How should all of this influence how we see and relate to God today?
2. Noah is presented by New Testament authors as an example of faith (Heb.11:7) and a preacher of righteousness to his generation (2 Peter 2:5, 9). In the same way, followers of Christ are called to preach good news to their generation and to be 'salt and light' in the world by displaying kingdom values such as love, goodness, kindness, mercy, compassion, integrity, and justice. Discuss how our current focus on SHARE can be outworked in both community outreach and personal evangelism. Reflect on the different responses people may give to the good news of Jesus Christ (see 2Cor.2:15-16).
3. One of the most moving moments in this story is just as the entire creation comes to a time of feeling forgotten as the waters surge, God remembers Noah (Gen.7:24-8:1). God's remembering is an act of gracious engagement with his creation, an act of committed compassion. This alone makes hope and new life possible (see Job 14:13). Various floods and times of chaos can overtake our life in this world. During these times, we can feel abandoned or forgotten by God. But God remembers us (see also Is.54:7). Share about a time when you felt forgotten by God. Then consider the promise of Romans 8:38-39.