We begin today the narrative of the flood, one of the most definitive events in the history of the world. “Whereas the narrator races through the millennia between Adam and Noah, and between Noah and Abraham, he slows the action to a standstill and devotes a full [chapter] to the six-hundredth year of Noah’s life.” [Waltke, 121] We will have more to say about the flood as an climatological and geological and geographical event next time, but for now we take note of the fact — a fact reiterated throughout the Bible — that the flood was both divine judgment brought against the wickedness of mankind and divine salvation by which the human race was delivered to live on in the world.
v.9 As we have learned already, “These are the generations of…” is the title of a new chapter in the book of Genesis, in this case a chapter that will extend to the end of our chapter 9.
v.11 Take note of the fact that what God chose to mention about the evil of mankind was their lack of regard for the welfare of one another. Violence is the hatred of other people. And man’s sinfulness before the all-knowing God is as much a matter of thought and attitude as it is of action.
v.12 Once again we have God gathering the evidence. His judgment is always based on an exhaustive knowledge of the facts of the case.
Take note of this fundamental fact of biblical revelation. Noah is a saint, a righteous man and blameless; he was so described verse 9. Those terms here, as throughout the Bible, refer to a person’s manner of life, his conduct. The rest of mankind was wicked in thought and life. The difference between them was in this way the difference between white and black. That is true even though Noah was, as all mankind since the fall, beset by moral frailty and failure, a fact of which the Bible will remind us at the end of its narrative of Noah’s life. How some sinners can be described as righteous while other sinners are corrupt and evil is something the rest of the Bible will explain and every Christian must learn. But take the point. Noah was not “wise” as are the heroes of the Mesopotamian flood epics; he was righteous, he was a morally good man.
v.13 The remainder of the chapter is a divine monologue, spoken to Noah. The Lord takes this good man into his confidence and tells him of his plans and the reasons for them. In the Mesopotamian flood epics the gods keep their plans to themselves and the emphasis falls on the hero who has to respond to the catastrophe with his own wisdom and exploits. Here the emphasis falls on God’s intentions and plans.
The point is that what God decided to destroy, had virtually destroyed itself already. The words “corrupt” and “destroy” in vv. 12 and 13 are the same Hebrew verb. “The idea is that humankind cannot undermine the moral basis of society without endangering the very existence of its civilization. In fact, through its corruption, society sets in motion the process of inevitable self-destruction.” [Sarna, 51] This is not the last time a civilization would be destroyed as a consequence of its moral corruption, destroyed from the inside out as it were! We are witnessing the same thing today!
v.14 The Hebrew word translated “ark” occurs fourteen times in the flood narrative and but once elsewhere in the Bible, for the basket in which the infant Moses was hidden by his mother. To stick with the word “ark” in modern English translations reflects a failure of nerve on the part of the translators. They realized you did not what to read about Noah’s “barge.” You wanted to hear about Noah’s “ark.” Scholars suppose that it is an Egyptian loan-word meaning “box” or “chest.” The use of the term emphasizes the sole purpose of this vessel — it is not called a ship — to protect and preserve those who enter it. Nothing is said of its having a rudder, sail, or any other means of navigation. It will not “sail” anywhere; it will float, that is all. [Sarna, 52]
The word “gopher” is, in fact a transliteration of the Hebrew word. No one knows for sure what kind of wood this was, though cypress was widely used in ancient ship-building because of its resistance to rot. [Sarna, 52]
v.15 The ark was a huge box, 450′ in length, 75′ in width, and 45′ in height. The narrator tells us nothing about its shape, whether, for example, it looked at all like a ship. It is supposed to have had a flat bottom rather than a keel. [Wenham, 173] The ark in the parallel Babylonian flood stories was a 180 foot cube and about four times larger in volume than Noah’s barge. [Waltke, 136] Buildings of such size were not unknown in antiquity and, of course, it did not require launching. There is truth to the quip: “Noah was an amateur; the Titanic was built by professionals!”
v.16 “finish to within 18 inches of the top”, one commentator calls “the most obscure remark in the flood story.” [Wenham, 173] It may mean that an opening of that depth was to be left at the top, under the roof, as in some buildings of the ANE (an opening for daylight perhaps); others suggest it could refer to the distance the roof was to overhang the walls of the ark.
v.18 The immensely important term “covenant” appears here for the first time in the Bible. The term translated “establish” actually suggests that a covenant between the Lord and Noah already existed and is here being renewed.
v.20 “according to their kinds” echoes the creation account in 1:20-23.
v.22 The narrator calls attention to Noah’s faith and obedience, but casts a veil over all that he had to do in order to obey the fantastic instructions he had been given, the labor required, the time it took, the fortune it must have cost, the skill required, and the reaction of his neighbors to what he was doing no-doubt for years on end. The ancient flood stories focus on the hero and his actions; the Bible focuses on God’s purposes and Noah’s obedience.
We have said repeatedly in our study of the early chapters of Genesis that we are here being taught the most basic and fundamental principles of human life, of human history, and of salvation. The foundation for the rest of the Bible and of a true understanding of reality is being laid. And this is as true of the narrative of the flood as it is of everything else we have read so far.
We have learned already of the corrupting nature of human sin, of its alienating and violent tendencies, and here again we learn, as we had already in chapter 3, of the fact and the ferocity of divine judgment against human beings for their sin. These are, of course, realities that will receive ample elaboration in the rest of the Bible and be confirmed times without end throughout human history. Indeed the reality of divine judgment for sin becomes the great presupposition of the unfolding story of salvation told in the remaining books of the Bible. Our sin pays a terrible wage unless we are redeemed from its guilt and delivered from its power. On a number of occasions, as you remember, the flood is used in the Bible as the supreme illustration of the reality of divine judgment.
But we have also seen that this history reveals and illustrates the faithfulness of God to his promises. Immediately after the fall God promised a descendant of Eve would crush the head of the serpent. The entire account of Noah and his preservation and that of his family is the first of many demonstrations in Holy Scripture of the lengths that God will go to remain faithful to that promise of salvation. The Exodus will be another such demonstration, and the cross, of course, is the greatest of them all. God promised salvation through a human deliverer and he kept his word: kept the line of the promised seed alive in the world until the time for his appearance had fully come. Here at the flood for the first time we have God preserving the seed of the woman and so his promise of that promised offspring who would bring deliverance to mankind. These fundamental themes of divine judgment and divine faithfulness to the promise of redemption are fundamental to the narrative of the flood, and in this way this narrative is completely unlike the other flood stories of the ancient world.
But when we have considered these subjects we are still not done with the fundamental perspectives that are being disclosed for the first time in this history of the catastrophe that God brought upon mankind so early in its history. Even judgment and salvation do not exhaust the meaning of the history of the flood!
There is also in this account of Noah and the ark the first clear and comprehensive disclosure of a fact that God’s people live in a world of sinners. Considering the genealogy of Cain in the second half of chapter 4 and then the genealogy of Adam through Seth in chapter 5 you might have come away with the impression that these two peoples, these two communities lived apart from one another. But it was not so. Saints and sinners jostle together on the earth no matter that a chasm separates them that is so wide and so deep that on one side is death and separation from God and on the other God and his everlasting love. Men and women who believe live in one sense cheek to jowl with unbelievers, but in another far more important sense they live, as Augustine put it in two completely different cities or societies or communities, each with a radically different destiny.
Here is the great fact but also the great challenge of believing life in the world. What made Noah so godly and so righteous? We live in the same world with those whom God will judge and reject. We may, and rightly, abhor their behavior in many particulars, though we must abhor so much of our own behavior at the same time, but we live in so many ways a life that is indistinguishable from theirs. We wear the same clothes, we eat the same food, we work the same sort of jobs, we keep much the same schedule, we marry and have children, we may even indulge in some of the same entertainments. And yet for so many who look and talk and behave in many ways like those who believe in and walk with God a catastrophic punishment awaits, as all unbeknownst to them the flood was about to descend upon this generation of the human race. While at the same time salvation is prepared for those who walk with God.
True enough, the difference between the righteous and the wicked can be more or less obvious. If you read William Manchester’s dismal portrait of so-called “Christian” Europe during the Middle Ages, you will think, if the truth is only half what he claims, human life could hardly have sunk much lower, however much there no doubt were, at that same time, men and women like Noah, gracious and godly and high-minded people scattered among the beasts. We read here in Genesis of the violence of the world in Noah’s day. But medieval Europe was almost unbelievably violent. Murders were commonplace — not least because they were almost never punished — mass murder hardly uncommon. Sexual misbehavior was accepted virtually without comment or complaint. The coarseness of life takes one’s breath away. One manual of manners instructed people not to break wind while sitting at the table, not to spit on the floor, not to pick their noses, not to look for lice in their hair, and men were not to fondle the breasts of the women sitting next to them at table. And this of men and women made in the image of God! There are many places in the world where it is just as bad today, or where it is just as bad for other reasons, and our own culture is headed the same way, with only a thin veneer of respectability blinding us to that fact! How must all this bestiality appear to a holy God. [Manchester, A World Lit Only By Fire, 6-7, 67ff. passim]
Here lies one of the most fundamental differences in outlook between Christian believers and unbelievers. There are two populations rubbing shoulders in this world and, so far as it really matters, only two. The Bible, in passing spiritual judgment upon a person, pays no attention whatsoever to a person’s ethnic background, or his race, or his socio-economic condition, or to the language that he speaks. The world may divide us up into many groups and think the differences of great importance, but the Bible always and everywhere divides the human race in two, only in two! That is what makes the narrative of the flood so instructive. Some are destroyed in the judgment that God sent; some are delivered from it. And thus nothing else can be as remotely important in human life as the question: to which community do I belong? What will God do with me? And throughout the Bible that question is pressed home to the conscience, that question above all others: do you walk with God, as Noah did, or are you corrupt in God’s sight as everybody else was at that time. And the question must be pressed precisely because judgment looms. You can’t avoid the issue because it is God himself who divides the human race in two: he will either find you, as he found Noah, a righteous man; or he will find you among the wicked. It matters not what you think about yourself; what matters is what God thinks. The race is divided in two, so the pressing question facing every human life is: on which side am I?
But facing that question, as the rest of the Bible relentlessly reminds us, is difficult to do precisely because there is so much that unites believers to unbelievers. Don’t make Noah a stone. Indeed, the Scripture makes a point of telling us that he was a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time. With his simple summary in v. 22 — and the total absence of any narrative of Noah’s own experience after being given such remarkable instructions — the narrator virtually demands that we imagine what all of this must have meant for this good man and what others must have thought of him as he began to build this immense box on dry land probably far from water.
He was a good man and like all truly good men, he was a man who loved others and was loved by others. You still find that to be true today. The best human beings have many friends. He was a man of tender affections and deep feeling, a man, no doubt, with many friends. Many of those who loved him and whom he loved, he left behind when he entered the ark. His own brothers and sisters, perhaps. His wife’s family. His cousins, his nieces and nephews, aunts and uncles. His neighbors; perhaps those who had worked for him over the course of his life. He was ordered to shut the door against all those people when he entered the ark.
But, what is almost more certain is that they had long since shut the door against him. It is not said in so many words, but these were human beings with a human nature, disposed to disdain, to look down on other human beings. How else could the world be as violent as it was? That same human nature is with us today. We recognize it, we are familiar with it. It is hardly difficult for us to imagine what life was like for Noah during the years it took to build the ark. “Noah’s folly!” they would have called it. Look at that crazy fellow now; a real Chicken Little with his endless talk about how the sky is about to fall! How they must have laughed at him. And what is more, imagine how it was at the last. We will read in 7:10 that Noah and his family entered the ark and shut the door a full week before the rains began. Whether they hooted at him or pitied him, we have it from our Savior’s own lips that they paid his message no mind.
“For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away.” [Matt 24:38-39]
What a fool he must have appeared to them, how silly, even bizarre his “righteousness” must have appeared to them then. No, when God’s commandment came to Noah and when he believed what God told him, it was the end of his comfortable life in the world, the end of his ordinary associations with so many who were not righteous as he was, who did not walk with God as he did. This is what the Lord Jesus would thousands of years later call “bearing the cross.” “Unless a man take up his cross and follow me he cannot be my disciple.” And he also said such things as these: “I came not to bring peace but division” and “If they hated me they will hate you also.” And his apostles, who knew from bitter experience what they were talking about, said similar things.
“Anyone who would live a godly life must suffer persecution.” “Through many tribulations it is necessary that we inherit the kingdom of God.” “Come out from among them and be separate.” And, “[through Christ and his cross] the world has been crucified to me and I to the world.”
But, in all of these famous statements of the division, the genuine opposition and antagonism, the adversarial relationship that exists between the world and the true followers of Christ, we have only the repetition, the reiteration of a view of believing life that goes all the way back to Noah and the flood. Noah was just the first. So it is with all believers whose lives are reported in Scripture as an example for us. Abraham, because he was a man of faith and a friend of God, had to be a pilgrim in this world, a stranger, an alien. And, using Abraham as an example, the Bible teaches all believers that they must be the same; that they cannot make this world their home and, if they would be faithful Christians, the world won’t allow them to settle with them. True Christians must be pilgrims, looking for a home elsewhere.
From time to time readers of John Bunyan’s spiritual classic, Pilgrim’s Progress, wonder about what Christian did. How, they ask, can it have been right for him to have left his wife and his children to go on that journey to the Celestial City? How can it have been right for him to leave his wife and children behind in the City of Destruction? But the wise and discerning, and even the little children among them, after a little thought realize their mistake. For Bunyan’s Christian made his entire pilgrimage — that years-long, difficult, painful, and costly journey — in and out of the Slough of Despond, through the wicket gate to Interpreter’s house, down into the Valley of humiliation, through Vanity Fair to the dungeon of the castle of Giant Despair, into the Delectable Mountains, on to the Enchanted Ground and at last to the River — I say, Christian made that entire trip while living in his own home, seated at his own fireside, and at his own table with his family gathered around him. But it was as if he took leave of his family, because they had refused to join him in his pilgrimage and he knew that it was a trip he absolutely had to make.
And so it was from the day that Noah entered the ark — God’s faithful ones have had to turn their backs upon this world, its fellowship, affection, its approval and its acceptance, and live as strangers and aliens in the land. It isn’t so obvious, is it, that it should have been so? After all, this is God’s world and we are his people. Why should we, of all people, be the strangers here? Why should it seem that the wicked and the unbelieving belong and we do not? Why should we be excluded and not they? But such is what sin has done to the world. It has stood it on its head and made it, for us, a hostile environment, a place to pass through but not place to make a home.
So it was for Abraham and Moses, for David and Jeremiah, and so it was for our Savior himself who was despised and rejected of men precisely because he walked with his Father in heaven. So it was for Paul, who suffered all manner of trouble from the world. Remember Paul? Do you remember what the Lord said to Ananias, the disciple of the Lord who lived in Damascus? Saul was sitting blinded in a house on Straight Street in Damascus where he had gone after his encounter with the Lord on the road from Jerusalem. And God told Ananias to go to Saul and tell him “how much he must suffer for my name.” What a beginning to the life of a Christian: to hear how much he must suffer for the Lord’s name! But the entire life of Paul was suffering as we read in Acts and his own letters and, especially, in 2 Corinthians chapter 11. It wasn’t Christians who threw him into prison on more than one occasion there to languish for years on end. And it was suffering because of the opposition of the unbelieving world.
And so it has been ever since. The more faithful a Christian, the more the world turns away from him, the more it finds cause to mock and scorn. Tertullian, in the third century, wrote, “We get ourselves laughed at for proclaiming that God will one day judge the wicked.” No doubt they laughed at Noah and they certainly still laugh today. Hardly anyone of your acquaintance who is not a Christian, likely not a single one, is reckoning to any degree, to any measure with the judgment of the Lord. Mostly they never give a thought to the question. But if they do, they scoff and say,
“Where is this ‘coming’ he promised? Ever since our fathers died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation. But they deliberately forget that long ago by God’s Word the heavens existed and the earth was formed out of water and by water. By these waters also the world of that time was deluged and destroyed. By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men.” [2 Peter 3:3-7]
No, you can count on this: just as it was with Noah, so it will be with you if you would be righteous and blameless in God’s sight. You must believe and speak, you must think and behave in a way that must forever separate you from many that you know and even from some that you love. What is more, you must think and speak and behave in a way that — however completely and utterly true — the world will take to be the purest foolishness and stupidity, and if the unbelievers around you don’t say it to your face, it is only because they are too polite to tell you what they really think. And there are so many of them and so comparatively few of us. What a hard thing this is: to be a few among the many who cannot see what we see. To walk with God and be thought fools for doing so! But this is the calling of righteous men and women and has been from the beginning. To believe what God tells you and to act upon it, even though it may be a very long time before God’s word is proved true and during which time you may seem to many the fool for believing what you believe and acting on your faith. The fact of the matter is nobody else was clamoring to get into the barge. Our faith is weak, here in particular, and we are always tempted to lay down this cross and assure the world that we have more in common with them than they thought.
But here is the end of the matter. It is this conviction that makes us Christians. They are wrong! The rains did come; the waters did rise; the unbelievers perished. And it will be so again. “For do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day.” [2 Pet. 3:8]
One last question: Were there some who repented of their sin before the floods came and who sought forgiveness from God and then knocked on the door of that ark for the right reason? No there was not a single one who did that. How do we know that? Because the Bible teaches us that God will always welcome faith and repentance and always reward it with his salvation. Had there been those who confessed their sin and sought God’s grace — like Christian’s wife and children eventually did in Pilgrim’s Progress Part Two — Noah would have been instructed to open the door of the ark and let them in, even if that meant having to divide the food they had carried on board with more people. I said at the beginning that there is a great chasm separating the two peoples in this world, a chasm so deep and so wide that no human being can ever cross it by his own wits or his own power. But it can be crossed. The rest of the Bible is all about what God will do to make that crossing possible. The rest of the Bible also is a relentless summons to cross to the right side, to Noah’s side, to the side of those who are delivered from the judgment of God. Here is Charles Spurgeon:
“Ah! The Bridge of Grace will bear your weight. Thousands of big sinners have gone across that bridge, yea, tens of thousands have gone over it. I can hear their tramping now as they traverse the great arches of the bridge of salvation. They come by their thousands, by their myriads; ever since the day when Christ first entered into his glory, they come, and yet never a stone has sprung in that mighty bridge. Some have been the chief of sinners, and some have come at the very last of their days, but the arch has never yielded beneath their weight. I will go with them trusting to the same support; it will bear me over as it has borne them.” [Cited in I. Murray, The Forgotten Spurgeon, 164]