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Genesis 7:1-24

The judgment of human wickedness by a flood and the sparing of Noah and his family had been promised in the previous chapter. Now the rains begin to fall.

Text Comments

v.1       The second “you” in v. 1 is singular. This doesn’t mean that the other members of Noah’s family were not righteous, but it does suggest that it was Noah’s righteousness — his faith and obedience — that saved his family. The Bible will have a great deal more to say about the faith of a parent or even a friend being instrumental in saving a child or a friend.

v.3       Additional clean animals and birds are added to the pairs of animals required to be taken into the ark in 6:19-20. The purpose of this will become clear later, the birds being used to reconnoiter the earth as the waters receded and the animals to be offered in sacrifice after Noah and his family were brought safely through the flood. We’ve been thinking about clean and unclean animals in our evening sermons on Leviticus. Among all the other purposes of this distinction between clean and unclean, it teaches us that everything is not the same; we must make distinctions in life. This is an important lesson for modern Americans: true is not false, right is not wrong, good is not bad. There is no monism, or the shadow of monism, anywhere in the Bible, no philosophy that makes everything the same by denying distinctions between things. God is not man and man is not God! Man is not woman; the parent not the child, etc.

v.9       The suggestion seems to be that the animals came to Noah, not that he had to round them up. In the Mesopotamian flood epics, the heroes take their silver and gold or other property on to the ark.

v.11     The precise date is a mark of historical seriousness; the date, being without any number that is obviously symbolic, suggests a plain fact, clearly remembered. [Waltke, 139]

The earth was being returned to the chaos that prevailed before the Lord God brought order to it in the creation. Now the waters above and below the firmament are mixed together to undo the creation and bring back the featureless waste of water. The ANE flood stories also have the water coming both from above and below. The prophets would later use the imagery of the undoing of creation to describe the day of the Lord’s judgment. [e.g. Isa. 24:18]

v.13     The phrase “On that very day” marks a particularly memorable occasion. Elsewhere in the Pentateuch it marks Abraham’s circumcision, the exodus, and the death of Moses.

v.16     The Gilgamesh epic, the greatest of the ancient near eastern flood sagas also mentions seven days, as here in v. 10, but takes it to be the time it took to build the ark! In any number of respects the ancient flood stories have all the literary characteristics of myths and legends. The biblical account is much more straightforward and chaste. The epics concentrate on the heroism of the hero, who is very active in the story: building the ship, telling his neighbors a story as to why, and, at the end, he shuts himself in the ark. Here Noah is presented simply as an obedient servant of the Lord; he never speaks, and God shuts him in the ark. The living God, who judges wickedness but graciously provides for the salvation of mankind is the actor in the Biblical account; heroic men and jealous and quarrelsome gods litter the ancient near eastern flood sagas. Indeed, in the old Babylonian version, the flood is a last resort to silence the rowdiness of man so that the gods might get a little sleep! The moral seriousness of Genesis is entirely absent.

v.18     That is the ark, with no means of navigation, was at the mercy of the water and wind. [Sarna, 55]

v.20     The significance of the 15 cubits is that it was a sufficient depth of water to keep the ark from running aground. In other words, there was just enough water to keep the ark safely afloat.

Some evangelicals, especially the advocates of so-called flood-geology (more on that later) argue that the mountain ranges may not have been thrust up by this time, so that the depth of the water would not have been anything like the 30,000 feet it would take to cover Mt. Everest or the 17,000 feet it would take to cover the present day Mt. Ararat. By the way, in 8:4 the text does not say that the ark landed on Mt. Ararat, it says only that it landed on the mountains of Ararat, which is the Hebrew term for the kingdom above Assyria, a large area of present day eastern Turkey, southern Russia, and northwestern Iran, that lies at the head of the Mesopotamian Valley.

v.21     The creatures are listed in the order in which they were created.

v.24     All that God promised had come to pass and the reader is left to imagine the eerie scene: the now silent devastation below the surface of the waters and the ark, with its living inhabitants riding on the surface.

The narrative of the flood is significant for many reasons. We have already spoken of the flood as history’s greatest example of the judgment of God against human wickedness, an example to which the rest of the Bible will frequently return. In the New Testament the flood serves as an anticipation of the Last Judgment. And we have spoken of it as a prime example of God’s saving grace, the most important of all biblical themes. But there is something else here of great significance: a feature of biblical revelation that will also occur repeatedly throughout the rest of the history recorded in Holy Scripture. What we have here, in the midst of human history, is what is generally referred to nowadays as the supernatural, or the miraculous. Indeed, in that precise sense, it is the first instance of this phenomenon after the creation itself.

We have here a great natural catastrophe, a flood. There is nothing miraculous about a flood per se; floods, even devastating floods, occur all the time all over the world. We have had some terrible ones over the last ten years or so. But this was a flood that happened on cue, had been precisely predicted beforehand, prepared for according to explicit instructions that God himself had given to Noah, instructions that involved the Lord’s summoning of animals to the ark, and it was a flood of unprecedented scope. In all those ways it was a supernatural, a miraculous event. It cannot be explained naturally or even as a highly unusual natural event. It was an interruption of the natural order by the power of God. The flood in this respect is like the plagues with which God afflicted Egypt, likewise catastrophes that simultaneously judged and saved. All of those calamities were events that had happened before in Egyptian life, but they were of unprecedented intensity and they happened on cue. Such interruptions and magnifications of the ordinary course of human events will occur many times throughout the biblical history to follow. They were, to be sure, never commonplace. Miracles are rare even in biblical history. In fact such miraculous events were grouped into just a few relatively short periods of history, but they marked the key turning points of salvation history. Not all miracles were like the flood, of course. There was no natural precedent for the healing of a leper or restoring sight to the blind or raising the dead. But many biblical miracles were of the sort that the flood was: a dramatic, unprecedented intensification or magnification of otherwise naturally occurring events, precisely timed to accomplish the divine purpose.

And in this skeptical day and age every thoughtful Christian must ask the obvious question: did this really happen? Or is this simply the Bible’s version of an ancient myth? But before we can answer that question, we must ask ourselves another; a question that even those with absolute confidence in the historical reliability of the Bible answer in different ways: what precisely did happen? And that question generally resolves itself into this one: was the flood worldwide or was it local? Did the waters of the flood envelop the entire surface of the earth or was the flood confined to the greater Mesopotamian region? The question is not whether there was a great flood. Anyone who regards the Bible as the Word of God must accept that the flood occurred. It is historical narrative that we encounter in these chapters of Genesis. We do not find here the language or the style or the thought world of epic poetry or religious myth; we find rather a narrative of events obviously understood to have taken place as reported, events connected before and after with figures and developments that are clearly understood to be historical and in some cases known to be historical. The Lord Jesus himself certainly took the flood to be a fact of history in the ordinary sense of that term, something that really happened.

But let’s face facts. Perhaps most people in the western world today cannot imagine that this is really history that we are reading in Genesis 7. A man building a great barge that would stand up to the demands of a year’s worth of seaworthiness, the animals showing up unbidden and in pairs to climb aboard, water deep enough to cover the mountains? For them any intelligent person will understand such a tale to be patently mythical, something not to be taken seriously by inhabitants of the 21st century. What is more, geologists almost universally discount the occurrence of a world-wide flood of such proportion that the water covered the world’s mountains to a depth of 15 feet. Such a flood should have left its mark and, so they argue, no such mark can be found in the geological record of the history of the world. The biblical flood story is a myth. They are aware of course of the impressive evidence of a tradition of a great flood in the ancient world. They are not unwilling to admit that the myth may have its origin in a catastrophic flood in the distant past, but what we have in the Bible, in their view, is simply one, even if perhaps the best version of a story that grew over time into something far larger than the original event itself.

Well, we are not convinced; not by any means. Not only is the biblical narrative dramatically different from the ancient flood sagas, not only is it found in the Bible which wears its distaste for myth and legend on its sleeve, but we have far too many other reasons for believing that, however remarkable, the biblical narrative is to be trusted as reliable history. When the great Princeton theologian, B.B. Warfield, was asked, “What is Christianity?” he replied, “Unembarrassed supernaturalism.” Exactly. Our confidence in the narrative of the flood is of a piece with our confidence in the narrative of Christ’s resurrection from the dead. Extraordinary things have happened in this world, because it is God’s world and because he is both judging and saving the people who live in it.

But we cannot leave the question there, because even Bible believers, who have no difficulty in asserting the historicity of the Bible’s account of the flood, disagree about what the Bible actually describes. Without a doubt most Christians today and throughout history have assumed that the flood described in Genesis 7 was worldwide. As a matter of course they have taken verse 19 to mean that the water covered the entire planet to a great depth. But many thoughtful Christians do not understand the text to teach any such thing. My OT professor at Covenant Seminary years ago, R. Laird Harris, educated as both a scientist and a scholar of biblical Hebrew, in his time a champion of biblical inerrancy and the Bible’s historical trustworthiness, was doubtful that the text described a worldwide flood and many of our OT professors today, likewise champions of the inerrancy and the historicity of the Bible’s narrative, believe the flood to have covered and destroyed only that part of the world where Noah and mankind lived, the Mesopotamian valley and its immediate environs.

Now as you may know, the position that one takes on the flood has become in some evangelical Christian circles a litmus test of one’s fidelity to the Bible. Young earth creationists, in particular, regard a faithful reading of the Bible to require belief in a universal, world-wide flood, not so many generations before Abraham and not so many thousands of years after the creation of the world. It seems to them that this is what the Bible plainly says and to take seriously the skepticism of modern nay-sayers, even of modern geologists, is unbelief pure and simple.

In holding this view, these advocates of a young earth and a recent, world-wide flood have developed a theory of the geological formation of the world that is nowadays known as “flood geology.” The thesis was stated in its modern form for the first time in John Whitcomb and Henry Morris’s 1961 book, The Genesis Flood. It is the position now defended by the Creation Research Institute and a number of evangelical writers on science and the Scripture and accepted by large numbers of Bible-believing Christians as the only possible position for someone who takes the Bible to be the inerrant word of God. Many folk in our own PCA circles are firmly persuaded of this view and for some of them any dissent from it is tantamount to a failure of nerve, a capitulation to modern unbelief. Did the flood leave a mark? Of course it did!

According to flood geology virtually the entire geological column, the macro-geology and topography of the earth’s crust in its present form, is the result of deposits laid down at the time of the flood. Whether we are speaking of several miles’ thickness of sedimentary rock or the Grand Canyon or the vast deposits of coal in Antarctica, the explanation or cause is the great flood reported in Scripture. The source of the petroleum being pumped from the earth today is the catastrophic mass burial of living matter, flora, by the deposits laid down by this flood which occurred, most would say, only some thousands of years ago.

Now modern geological scholarship, as you probably know, does not accept this account of the history of the physical world. I have a good friend, a faithful Christian who not only has a PhD in geology but has been for years a practicing geologist. He has made his living in one form or another of oil exploration. This is a man of the old school when it comes to the authority of the Bible. If he thought that geology and the Bible were in actual conflict, he would stand with the Bible and be sure that somehow the geologists had misunderstood the evidence.

But he does not hesitate to say that flood geology is untenable. I once asked him to give me what he would regard as his basic objections and, no doubt dumbing-down considerably to meet me on my level, he gave me three. 1) What he called “non-conformities” in sedimentary rocks, by which is meant surfaces of erosion in layers buried deep in sedimentary rocks. These, he said, are extremely common, but what they indicate is that, at one time that layer was on the top, exposed to the elements, and it was hard — it had lithified, already become rock — and then over time was eroded by natural forces before more sediment was laid on top of it, which itself eventually became rock and was eroded, and so on. But, according to flood geology, all of these layers were buried at once and there could not have been such layers that had a chance to harden and then erode before they were themselves buried by further sediment. 2) Coral reefs, indeed thick layers of coral that are found far beneath layers of rock in the earth’s crust, sometimes huge thicknesses of coral, which clearly grew there — very slowly as coral does — and was not buried with everything else all at once by a flood. 3) Immensely deep seams of coal which, by no known theory, can be accounted for as the result of the process of a single year or a few years or ten or a thousand.

He was quick to tell me that he felt it very unwise to allow the extremes to dominate the discussion and debate, as if one had to choose between flood geology and evolution. Evolutionists want you to believe you have to choose between evolution and flood geology and flood geologists want you to believe that you have to choose between evolution and flood geology. But he disagrees. I asked him about the flood and geology and his answer was that, at present, he was unaware of any geological record of such a world-wide flood. He said quickly that he wasn’t saying there wasn’t such a record, presuppositions and assumptions may be blinding geologists to what is staring them in the face, but, he was unaware of anything that could be construed as evidence of a world-wide flood.

Now for many evangelical Christians such arguments amount to putting more confidence in science than in the Word of God. The authority of the Bible is supreme, they argue, and it is mere unbelief to adjust your understanding of the Bible to accommodate modern scientific opinions. There is, to be sure, something to be said for that point of view. Science has often been wrong. Indeed, it has often been very confident in opinions that have turned out to be completely untrue. Scientists assure us that science is a self-correcting enterprise and I think that is largely true. But the fact is it can take a long time for the errors to be recognized and the corrections made. Presuppositions powerfully shape the interpretation of data and have often blinded scientists to evidence that sits right before their eyes.

Let me say, before I say anything else, “let God be true and every man a liar.” I believe that the history reported in Genesis 6-9 is true and is historically true in the ordinary sense of that word. There was a great flood and there was an ark in which Noah and his wife, their sons and their wives, were saved alive along with the animals and birds.

But the scientific challenges sometimes encourage us to read the biblical text again to see if we have, in fact, read it correctly. For centuries Psalm 96:10, “the earth cannot be moved,” was taken to disprove the rotation of the earth. Galileo was right, of course, to argue that the discoveries of the astronomers discredited only the interpreters of the Bible, not the Bible itself. That isn’t what the verse means! But we came to know that in part because of the challenge posed by extra-biblical, scientific investigations. And advances in geological understanding, even more so advances in the literary criticism of the Bible have combined to convince a number of biblical scholars who believe absolutely in the authority of the Word of God that Genesis 6-9 do not describe a world-wide flood, but rather a great flood in the Mesopotamian basin, a flood for which there happens to be considerable geological evidence.

In a previous sermon I already mentioned the apparently fatal problem posed for flood geology by the fact that the Garden of Eden is located in Genesis 2 in terms of the topography of the earth as it existed in the days of Moses, in the vicinity of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, and so on. But according to flood geology the surface of the earth was entirely different before the flood than after. Moses, however, apparently did not understand that to be the case. There are 9,000 meters — more than five miles — of sedimentary rock now lying beneath the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers, rock in which are located vast deposits of oil, rock that according to flood geologists, was all laid down by the flood on top of what used to be the Garden of Eden. But the Bible’s own geographical data indicate that the site of the Garden was on a landscape that was virtually the same as that known to Moses and to his readers in his day. Could the flood have been less universal; a local flood, not, in fact, covering the whole earth, but rather simply that part of the world?

It is a basic principle of biblical interpretation, actually of the interpretation of any written document, that a text should be interpreted on its own terms and according to the conventions of style and thought the author shared with his audience. The question thus becomes: is the universal language in the account of the flood, such language as we find in v. 19, the language of modern literalism or the language of appearance and a feature of style common to ancient Hebrew. For example, take the phrase in v. 19 “the high mountains under the whole heaven.” Taken literally, that certainly sounds as if all the mountains in the world were meant. But actually it is typical Hebrew hyperbole. Moses uses the same phrase in Deut. 2:25 when he assures Israel, about to enter the Promised Land, that he has put the fear of them on the peoples under the whole heaven. He means, and we know this because he actually lists there all the peoples the Israelites are about to face in battle, the peoples of Canaan. [J.G. McConville, Deuteronomy, 86] “Under the whole heaven,” that is, means “under Canaan,” but all of Canaan.

Or take the term “mountain” itself. As you know from your own reading of the Old Testament the term is often used in the Old Testament for what we would call a hill, sometimes even a hillock, such as the slight rise upon which the temple was eventually built in Jerusalem. You have, for example, “high mountain” again in Deut. 12:2 and elsewhere in the OT, but with reference to summits that scarcely deserve the term “mountain” in its modern usage. This kind of exaggeration for effect is a common literary technique in the Old Testament, a commonplace of ancient near eastern literary style, and we have noticed it many times in our studies of biblical books. Or consider this. Later in Genesis we will read that “all the earth” came to Egypt to Joseph to buy grain because the famine had spread “over all the land.” [41:56-57] It is, of course, possible that Moses means to say that there was no population of people on the entire planet that was not suffering from famine, but no evangelical commentator takes him to mean that. They understand him to mean only that part of the world and that part of its population that was before his view. It was the way they spoke and it is a fair way of speaking from the author’s own perspective.

Again, in 1 Kings 10:24 we read that “the whole earth sought the presence of Solomon…” Later in Acts 2 we will read that Jews from every nation under heaven were gathered in Jerusalem at Pentecost, but then we are told specifically which nations were represented, the nations of the Mediterranean basin where the Jewish diaspora was to be found. In other words, no one thinks that “every nation under heaven” has to include the Chinese or people from the Indian sub-continent, or inhabitants of North America at the time. What was intended, of course, was to emphasize with such universalistic language how many people were there and from how far afield they had gathered. In countless instances hyperbole is the language of the Bible and especially of the Old Testament. “The sand on the seashore,” “the stars in the sky,” are such instances of hyperbole. “The number of grains of sand on the seashore” is once used to describe the size of a Moabite army. The people of the ancient near east thought and spoke in extremes; many near-easterners still do today which is one reason why the diplomats of the western world and the diplomats of the near eastern world have such a hard time understanding one another.

In other words, a fair reading of the Hebrew text of 7:19 does not require us to believe that the flood produced a water-level that covered the mountain ranges of the world — only that it floated the ark above the higher elevations of that world, the world that was in the view of the biblical narrator.

Frankly, I don’t think a great deal hinges on whether you understand the flood to be universal or local. I incline myself to a local flood for the reasons that I gave you, but it will neither surprise me nor disturb me eventually to learn that I was wrong. I just want you to read the text intelligently and to speak helpfully about it to others. The miraculous nature of the event is not diminished if the flood were local and that, of course, is the real scandal of the narrative to the secular mind.

What we do know is that the Bible gives us the true record of the flood, the catastrophic flood that left its indelible mark on the literature of the ancient world. And we know why the flood was sent: to judge the wicked and to save those who walked with God. Do questions remain? Of course they do; they do at many places in the biblical record where the extraordinary acts of God interrupt the normal experience of human life. What did happen? What did it look like when Jesus healed the leper? Why did he put mud on the eyes of one blind man and not on the eyes of another? Who knows? We must live by faith and that means in such cases believing even when we cannot satisfactorily explain everything in the biblical record. It is our duty, but it is also our happy privilege to trust the utterly reliable Word of God, come wind, come weather; to prove our loyalty to the Lord by believing what he has told us even when we cannot prove its truth in a laboratory or by geological or archaeological investigations in the field. He has so many times in the past vindicated his people’s confidence in his Word; he will continue to do so, of that I have no doubt.

Pascal wrote wisely long ago: “There is enough brightness in the Scriptures to illuminate the elect and enough obscurity to humble them.” That should be good enough for us.