“Hey Allen, we’re doing the story of Noah in Kids’ Church. We’ve been reading the story. It’s terrible! All those people drowning, and animals too! We can’t tell that to the children! What are we missing?”
I assured Ethan and Nicole they weren’t missing anything. They were getting it, perhaps for the first time. Do you really want your little ones picturing everyone drowning? They will be thinking about their brothers, sisters, parents, cousins, friends, neighbours … everyone they know. And people they don’t know. And the animals. All dead.
Did you even give a thought to Noah’s own brothers and sisters (compare Gen 5:30)? The flood story may be the harshest picture of God in the Bible. Why would a sovereign do that to his people?
Let’s back up and recall the story so far. When his human representatives grasped his power, the sovereign confronted them and explained the conflict they had introduced to his realm. When Cain grasped power over his brother’s life, the sovereign investigated his crime too. But murder became a way of life in the City of Enoch. Lamech bragged about killing someone and YHWH did not intervene. Have you heard victims of injustice questioning whether there can even be a God with all the violence in the world? Why doesn’t he act? Doesn’t he care? It’s his responsibility! He ought to do something!
Please think carefully before you ask for justice. What would it look like if God did act against evil … not just the injustice you experienced, but everyone’s injustice? Might there be someone who is crying out to God for justice because of your actions too? Hurt people hurt people.
On the one hand, we are horrified when God acts against evil with a great flood. On the other hand, we are horrified that God is so gracious that he does not act against injustice as we think he should. Does the flood story give you second thoughts about asking God act against evil?
The problem that precipitated the flood wasn’t just the injustice and violence in the world. Twice the narrator tells us that “the earth was filled with violence” (6:11, 13), but the violence was there in Chapter 4 as well. What’s new here is that the godly sons lost their distinctiveness. (See previous post.) Once the godly are subsumed, there is no hope. No one is “calling on YHWH” to sort things out any more; everyone is responding to violence with violence:
Genesis 6:5 (my translation)
YHWH saw that human evil had enveloped the earth, that every human heart was permanently occupied with plotting evil.
God intended us to look into human eyes and see the God who cares. Now when you look into human eyes, you sometimes fear this person may be out to get you. Instead of embodying God’s gracious governance, humans had become the embodiment of evil.
Deep grief permeates God’s heart. He questions his own wisdom in trusting humans to make him known on earth, for no one can see him now. He wears this mess as his own fault: the buck stops at the top. He cannot allow evil to persist. He must deal with it.
He has already been too patient. When the godly sons lost their distinctiveness, he kept wrestling humans for another 120 years (6:3). Now he takes his toughest decision: to wipe out the whole business as one of his worse ideas (6:7). The flood becomes the paradigmatic example that the ruler of heaven and earth is willing to act against evil, to judge his realm, to deal with injustice.
But even as he takes this horrific decision, our sovereign can’t help himself: he finds someone to salvage (6:8). He must wash evil from his realm, but he gives Noah instructions to build a boat to survive this cleansing (6:14-18). And since he originally entrusted the animals into the human care, he calls Noah to save the animals too (6:19-21). Noah obeys (6:22). YHWH saves humanity, and the humans save the animals. In his tragically corrupted realm, the sovereign has found a way for his kingdom (the God-human partnership) to survive.
What others are saying
John H. Walton, Genesis, NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), 336:
When God unleashes the chaos of the deluge as punishment for the chaos of society’s violence, his action is likewise distinguished by control and responsibility. God has the responsibility of caring for his creation. That cannot be discharged by simply letting sin run amok. Responsibility implies response. In contrast to the uncontrolled violence that characterized the antediluvian world, the chaos unleashed by God is totally under his control and is effectively accomplishing his will. Yet this is one of the most difficult aspects of God’s character for people to accept.
Thor Ramsey, A Comedian’s Guide to Theology (Revell, 2008), Chapter 3 (electronic edition):
Look, if you tell a child the story of Noah and the ark, but you leave out the part about why he had to build an ark to begin with, it’s really just a story about animals on a rainy day. You might as well reduce the story of Jesus to a guy who carries around sheep.
Read Genesis 6:5-22.