God’s Memory and Ours Gen 8:1-22


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Genesis 8:1-22

At the end of chapter 7, we read that “Only Noah and those with him in the ark were left.” This is the first instance of the phenomenon of “the remnant” in the Bible, the true people of God as a small company in the world. It will not be the last.

Text Comment

v.2       The word “wind” is the same word translated “Spirit” in the creation account in Gen. 1:2. There are several other terms in the first two verses here that are also found in Gen. 1:2: including “earth,” “waters,” and “deep.” [Waltke, 128] And throughout the narrative there are further explicit parallels with Genesis 1. The parallels are obviously intentional. A point is being made of the fact that the world is being re-created after being destroyed.

Interestingly, in the Babylonian flood sagas, the gods were terror-struck at the forces they had themselves unleashed. They were partially subservient to the forces of nature, not in complete control of them. They were as frightened by the flood as human beings had been. [Sarna, 56-57] Here Yahweh is in complete control, calmly exercising his will and accomplishing his purpose.

v.3 “Waters receded” is exactly the same phrase used of the waters of the Red Sea returning to their place and the waters of the Jordan River likewise, the other two great acts of salvation associated with bodies of water in the OT.

v.4 Literally “the mountains (or hills) of Ararat, the ancient kingdom of Urartu, perhaps the area around Lake Van, if the maps in your Bible identify that large Lake to the NW of Mesopotamia. The reference is too imprecise to specify a particular landing spot.

v.11     In the Gilgamesh Epic, the greatest of the mythical ANE flood stories, the hero sends out a dove, a swallow, and only then a raven. The difference in sequence is one more illustration of the superiority of the biblical account. A raven is a stronger bird and can fly greater distances, which explains why it made repeated forays from the ark.  It would naturally be the first to be sent out, before the “gentle, timid, and low-flying dove.” [Waltke, 141] The fact that the dove came back at evening suggests that it had found resting places during the day. “In ancient times mariners would take birds aboard and use them to determine their proximity to land.” [Sarna, 57]

v.11     Plants were growing again. That is suggested by “freshly plucked.” In other words it was not flotsam, debris floating on the surface. [Sarna, 58]

v.14     We might well imagine Noah hurrying out of the ark as soon as it was possible, but he waits patiently for the Lord to tell him that it was time to leave the ark. As we might expect, in the Mesopotamian flood stories the hero decides himself when to leave the ark. As Calvin comments, “How great must have been the fortitude of the man, who, after the incredible weariness of a whole year, when the deluge had ceased, and new life has shone forth, does not yet move a foot…without the command of God.” [Cited in Waltke, 141-142]

v.17     Again the language mimics that of Gen. 1 and suggests the renewal of creation.

v.21     That God’s anger was appeased by the sacrifice is the point of the phrase “pleasing” or “soothing aroma.” The sacrifice was no doubt also an expression of thanksgiving on Noah’s part. Even so early a fully developed doctrine and practice of sacrifice was part of true worship. The promise God now makes is clearly related to the sacrifice that had been offered to him. Noah’s sacrifice brought blessing to all mankind and was in that a prototype of the sacrifice the Lord Jesus would eventually offer for the world’s salvation.

A sacrifice is also part of the Mesopotamian flood stories, but in them the gods gather “like flies” around the sacrifice. The flood had deprived them of food and they were starving. This was the theory of sacrifice in the ancient near east. They literally were food for the gods. The moral dimension, uppermost in the biblical account, is utterly lacking in the pagan sagas because the so-called gods of the ancient near east were nothing like Yahweh, they were simply projections of human life in an imagined universe.

The flood narrative had begun with the observation that man’s sin “grieved the Lord to his heart.” Now, though the Lord acknowledged that man’s thoroughgoing sinfulness would continue to be a feature of human life, he resolved never to punish mankind again as he did at the flood, at least not before the end of history. The curse is not lifted, but God promises patience in the face of man’s continual rebellion. “From his youth” reminds us that Adam’s sin is passed down from parents to children. It is an interesting and important fact to observe: the world was not fundamentally changed by the flood. Mankind was taught in this way the seriousness of his sin and the reality of divine judgment: the very lessons he must always learn and re-learn and that he is so unwilling to learn.

v.22     The promise didn’t abolish natural catastrophes, but did localize and limit them. Christians must never embrace the doomsday mindset of some environmental activists who warn of the end of the world. Absolutely we must be responsible stewards of the earth, authentic environmentalists, but we must never forget that we are only stewards. This is God’s world and its future is in his hands and he has already spoken about how it will end.

As I mentioned in a previous sermon, for some one hundred and fifty years the scholarly study of Genesis has been dominated by the theory that the book is a patchwork of earlier sources combined into its final form by an editor at or around the time of the Babylonian exile. It has been widely thought in unbelieving scholarship to be comparatively easy to identify the various original sources by such things as which divine name is used (Elohim or Yahweh), by verbal repetitions or doublets, and so on. This is so much the case that one influential commentary on Genesis discusses separately the flood story of one such putative source [J] — composed of a few consecutive verses here and there, single verses here and there, even half verses here and there among the verses of chapters 6-9 — and then the flood story of another [P], as if there were two distinct flood stories, each with its distinctive point of view. [Von Rad, 118-130] I won’t bore you with the details. One commentator of this opinion regards the flood narrative as a particularly striking example of the phenomenon of the combination of different sources into a somewhat clumsy unity.

“The resolution [he means the separation] of the compound narrative into its constituent elements in this case is justly reckoned amongst the most brilliant achievements of purely literary criticism…” [J. Skinner in Waltke, 125]

But times are a-changing! At the same time this scholarship became popular in OT studies, the second half of the nineteenth century, similar theories were applied to other ancient literature — such as Homer’s two epic poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey, — but the entire exercise was eventually abandoned as entirely too subjective, as likely to tell us more about the opinions of the modern scholar than about Homer or the origin of his poems. As Mark Twain quipped at the time, “The Iliad was written either by Homer or by another man with the same name.” Well the same skepticism about the scholarship of the last century and a half is finally altering the face of Old Testament scholarship as well.

A new generation of biblical scholars has begun to see that features once thought to be characteristic of different sources are, in fact, marks of the author’s literary style, of a highly sophisticated literary style. It is now widely admitted that the flood narrative is not a patchwork quilt of various sources, each telling the story in its own way, combined into a not altogether consistent narrative. It is rather a history carefully organized and gracefully written according to the conventions of ANE literary style whose very structure serves to call attention to its theological meaning.

What we find in Genesis 6-9 is a palistrophe, or a chiasmus; in fact a rather complex chiasmus. Chiasmus, as we have learned over the years in our study of the books of the OT, is an inverted parallelism, an ABCCBA arrangement, in which various sections of a narrative or a poem are paralleled by others in an inverted relationship, a common feature of ancient near eastern and biblical literary style. Some examples of this chiastic structure have an unparalleled pivot in the center, others do not. But the flood narrative does. The chiastic structure is more complicated and more precise than this, but rather than bury you in the details, let me simply identify the basic structure of 6:9-9:17 for our purposes as: Noah and his world before the flood, God’s covenant, embarkation, rising waters, falling waters, disembarkation, God’s covenant, Noah and his world after the flood. Again the chiasmus or palistrophe is more complex than that, more details are precisely paralleled to one another in the literary arrangement of the material, but you get the point. Whatever sources Moses may have used to compose the book of Genesis — and we have no reason to doubt that he used literary sources — the flood narrative is a brilliant performance of Hebrew literary style and the sources, if sources there were, have been completely hidden in the finished composition. Gordon Wenham refers to the flood narrative as a “palistrophe on a grand scale.” [“The Coherence of the Flood Narrative,” Vetus Testamentum (1978) 336-348; Com. 156-158]

Now what is particularly interesting and important in the literary structure imposed on the narrative is the fact that the inverted parallelism turns on a central pivot. There is one section in the middle of the structure that has no parallel. And that middle pivot is the sentence with which our chapter 8 begins: “But God remembered Noah…” Palistrophic or chiasmic arrangements like this one are intended to draw attention to and to emphasize what lies in that unparalleled center section. For example the elaborate chiastic structure of the Song of Songs has a similar central pivot, an unparalleled middle, located in the exact center of the poem, 111 lines before it and 111 lines after it, and it describes the joyful sexual consummation of the wedding night. Progress to that consummation is the subject of the poem from the beginning to the middle forwards and from the end to the middle backwards. The structure of the Song, in other words, highlights the theme of the poem: how to get to the wedding night in moral purity.

Well, here in the flood narrative, the structure does a similar thing, drawing attention to the personal, covenantal commitment of the Lord God to his faithful servant. But God remembered Noah… In the midst of this catastrophe, in this midst of God’s ferocious judgment of sinful mankind, God remembered Noah.

Now, unlike our English word “remember,” which usually suggests that something has first been forgotten but is now being recollected, the Hebrew word, especially when used in reference to God, signifies acting on a previous commitment to a covenant partner, to a person to whom God had made a promise. [Waltke, 140] In the early chapters of Exodus we will read that Israel was delivered from slavery in Egypt because Yahweh remembered his covenant with Abraham. To say that God remembered someone or something, of course, is another vigorous anthropomorphism, of which we have had many in the chapters of Genesis so far, a way of speaking about God as if he were a human being. God doesn’t think discursively, one thought following another, and he certainly never forgets anything. His knowledge is infinite like everything else about him. He knows all things at once; past, present, and future are equally present to his mind. Unlike us he never has to dredge up a thought from the recesses of his mind. I was at a wedding last weekend and was greeted by a former college classmate who, I regret to say, I had no recollection of whatsoever. Fortunately she introduced herself and spared me the embarrassment. Such is my memory. But not God’s!

So to say that God remembered Noah is to say that God acted on the commitment that he had made to Noah; God kept his promise to save him and his family alive while the rest of mankind was destroyed. [Sarna, 56]

It is, you see, not simply that Noah and those with him in the ark were delivered from death and that the life of mankind continued because they were. All of that happened because of the Lord’s personal commitment to and interest in that man and his family. As human beings it is natural for us to think that the narrative of the flood is a story about Noah, and, to be sure, in one sense it very definitely is a story about Noah and his family. But first and foremost it is a story about God; it is indeed another important piece of the identification and description of God that we are given in these early chapters of the Bible. And fundamental to that revelation of the Almighty is this simple sentence to which the structure of the narrative draws our attention: “God remembered Noah.”

There are lots of lessons to be learned from the narrative of the flood. But more than anything else it refines our knowledge of God, the knowledge of God that needs more and more to shape our daily life. If you know God aright — if you know who he is, if you know what he is — you’ll never go far wrong in your knowledge of anyone or anything else because God is the key to everything.

Francis Schaeffer characteristically referred to God as the “infinite personal God.” It was a description intentionally chosen to address both of the principal errors in thinking about God that bedevil modern western life: 1) that God as a person is more similar to us than he is; and 2) that God is simply a name we give to natural law or human aspirations or the principles of truth and beauty, or the life-force that surges through us; all those parts of human life and experience that lie beyond scientific explanation. But to describe God as both infinite and personal, is to confess both that the living God is impossibly beyond our understanding, that he transcends our comprehension, that he is the omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent creator of heaven and earth, the ruler of everything, the judge of all men, whose majesty no one has seen or can see, and that, therefore, he is the only one capable of delivering us from the power of sin and death; and that God is someone who knows and can be known, someone who loves and can be loved, someone who is a moral being and must be related to as a moral being, someone who can meaningfully be described as our father, our friend, and our king. “If you can grasp it, it isn’t God,” said Augustine in one of his sermons. On the other hand, no one has ever given such beautiful expression to genuinely personal relationship with God as did Augustine in his Confessions! There, near the beginning, he asks the fundamental question: “Who then are you, my God? And his answer:

“Most high, utterly good, utterly powerful, most omnipotent, most merciful and most just, deeply hidden yet most intimately present, perfection of both beauty and strength,” and on and on in a succession of descriptions of both God’s insupportable majesty and his tender love. [Chadwick, 4-5; I, iv]

That is Augustine thinking about God in both his infinity and his personality, the two characteristics of God that we must always hold together and which we almost never do. At any moment in your life at any hour of any day, your problem, yours and mine, is that you have lost touch with either God’s personality or his infinity or both. The religions of the world typically embrace one or the other of those conceptions of God, though each without the other each must be understood in a severely diminished or attenuated form. There was plenty of personality in the ancient world’s idea of the gods, but not much infinity, moral or otherwise! In the eastern faiths, monistic and pantheistic as they are, there is a certain sort of infinity that attaches to God but no personality. In Islam, there is some personality, but the infinity of God is emphasized at the expense of his personhood. In secularized western society in general, people who believe in God — most people in fact — have a personal view of God but a seriously diminished view of his infinity, a view of God not unlike that of ancient near eastern idolatry. God becomes a kind of avuncular figure, even happy-go-lucky, charming enough perhaps, one about whom we may even smile in a condescending fashion, but he is neither to be feared nor really to be loved. He is a tame, unthreatening figure who would never categorically demand obedience or destroy the world with a flood to punish disobedience. He is there, perhaps, if you need him, though you can’t absolutely rely on him to be able to help; but he will not pursue you, introduce himself to you, or take you for a friend. In other words, God is neither infinite nor personal in any deep sense.

But the God of the Bible is both utterly infinite and profoundly personal; he is infinity and personality together; he is both to be feared and to be loved; he is both beyond our knowing and stoops to know us and to introduce himself to us. That infinite personal God is the God we meet here at the flood. A being of terrible power who could and would destroy the world he had made and then make it again. But as well a person of such moral perfection as to be deeply offended by the sinfulness of mankind, so offended as to punish the world for its rebellion against him. But, still more, at the same time a person who will remember one of his creatures and act to deliver him from the judgment that consumed everyone else. As Noah gently brought the exhausted dove by his hand back into the ark, so the living God tenderly cared for Noah.

In a very real way the entire story of salvation in the world is summed up in that simple phrase in the dead center of the flood narrative: But God remembered Noah… God remembered that he had promised to bring Noah and his family safely through the flood that would destroy the rest of mankind. And so he did. And God remembered that he has promised that the sin that had ruined human life would be destroyed by some future descendant of Eve. And the story of the rest of the Old Testament is the continuing story of God remembering his people and the promises he made to them. The identity of that coming descendant through whom the entire world would be blessed becomes step by step clearer and clearer: first he would be a descendant of Abraham, then a descendant of Jacob, then of Judah, then a descendant of David, who would be at once a prophet, a priest, and a king, God himself and yet true man. So when Jesus was born in Bethlehem those thousands of years after the flood, it was simply God again remembering Noah and all those who like Noah whom God had loved and promised to save.

It is here, in the narrative of the flood, that we first learn that God makes a distinction between people and promises to save those who walk with him. It is here that we first learn that God takes such a personal interest in such people. It is here that we first learn that those who worship God in a manner consistent with his nature and who give thanks to him for his mercy and help will find peace with God and will be spared when others are punished. Sometimes, to be sure, we read that God loved the world or that Christ loved the church and gave himself for her. In this way we are reminded that salvation is not something that has been given to a few but to a great company. But again and again throughout the Bible we are also reminded that God remembered Noah, that he takes a personal interest in individual people; that he loves them and saves them one by one. God remembered Noah. What we read here as the climax of the flood history — that God remembered Noah — is what we will read about God throughout the Bible. In one way or another we will learn that God remembered this man or this woman, and again and again we learn his or her name. God remembered Joseph and Judah, Moses and Aaron, Rahab and Hannah, a long line of individual men and women, boys and girls whom God remembered and whom God saved from the judgment to come.

As C.S. Lewis reminds us in Mere Christianity [147]:

“God is not hurried along in the time-stream of this universe any more than an author is hurried along in the imaginary time of his own novel. He has infinite attention to spare for each one of us. He does not have to deal with us in the mass. You are as much alone with him as if you were the only being he had ever created. When Christ died, he died for you individually just as much as if you had been the only man in the world.”

That is how personal is God’s love. And that is just what the Apostle Paul said: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.”

It is that intensely personal nature of the infinite, fearsome God’s relationship with those who walk with him as Noah did that is the centerpiece of the flood narrative. The life of mankind had become a moral cesspool, disgusting in God’s sight, offensive. Sad as it made God, it also provoked him to wrath, to the exercise of his holy justice. And so he laid plans to destroy the world. But he had already promised the world’s salvation through a descendant of the woman. He had made man to have a future with him, to live with him in holy love. And so he prepared the judgment and the deliverance of mankind together. And as the judgment reached its consummation, the high God, the mighty Lord,  remembered Noah and brought him safely again to dry land and in him secured for human life a future and for his people eternal life in heaven. together with him.

And so it remains today and will to the end of the world. God’s judgment can be seen wherever we look, but so too his salvation. Again and again, in this way and in that, God is always remembering his promise to be our God and the God of our children after us. And he is always remembering each one of us; again and again he remembers you and me by name, each in the circumstances of our individual lives.

To say that “God remembered Noah” is a short way of describing the love God has for and the loyalty he will demonstrate to his people, to each and every one.

“Can a woman forget her nursing child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. Behold I have engraved you on the palms of my hands; your walls are continually before me.” [Isa. 49:15-16]

That is just another way of saying that God will remember us! He will never forget you. That is what God, the living God is like! The most important thing you know or that anyone can know is who God is and what God is like. It is the key to all knowledge and to all happiness. You cannot remember often enough, you cannot ponder carefully enough the fact that the Lord remembers you, the high God, the infinite God, remembers you by name. The whole glorious, mysterious but wonderful message of the Bible and its impossibly grand understanding of the living God himself, are summed up in that simple phrase: “God remembers you.” And that is what we are remembering in this happy season of the year. God remembered us and so sent his Son into the world to secure our safety from the judgment that is going to overwhelm everyone else someday.