Noah’s story is familiar to most of us who grew up hearing the narratives from the Hebrew Bible. As a child, I mostly heard the story about the rainbow God placed in the sky as a sign of God’s promise.
What stands out for me as an adult who reads this text with modern eyes, however, is the unbelievability of this story. Let’s face it, how is it logically possible for a man and his sons to build an ark so big that two of every living creature, as well as Noah’s family, can not only fit on the boat, but live for as long as they did on that boat?
Perhaps it is not our place to read this with modern, scientific minds. Indeed, I think we must read it as the ancients understood it. Regardless of whether the facts of the story are true or not, and I doubt that they are, the story has something to say about the writer(s) understanding of God and God’s relationship to humanity.
There were other flood stories from other peoples of the ancient world. The ancients viewed the world as either ordered or in chaos, and floods of some size would cause them to think that chaos had taken over the ordered world. From an ancient person’s point of view, such chaos must have been caused by a divine force or being.
So, if the writer(s) of Genesis 6-9 are telling their version of a flood story, what are they trying to say about God and humanity through this story?
For one thing, the author(s) view the flood as God’s judgment, but that judgment does not come because God is capricious and loses God’s patience with humanity over petty things. God is not judging the creation over just any sin. Rather, God sees something very specific that causes God to call humanity wicked.
Genesis 6:11-13 tells us that it is humanity’s violence that has brought about God’s judgment. The earth was full of violence. For God, it seems, the wickedness of humanity is most surely seen in the violence humans carry out against other humans and even against creation itself.
The back story of why God sees violence as the grave sin of humanity from Genesis’ perspective is the creation story of Genesis 1-2. The pinnacle of that story is the creation of humans in whom God breathes the breath of life into the man, making him in God’s own image. Being made in the image of God and having received the very breath of God means that human life in the sight of God is valuable.
Violence against other human beings is the most gravest of sins because it mocks the climax of God’s creation and it attacks the very spirit and image of God that exists in every single human being. It is that the earth is full of violence that brings about God’s judgment.
Yet, what does this act of judgment say about the character of God? Does God appear to be a bit capricious in God’s judgment? Are we to view God as angered by the sin of humanity and thus God must carry out retribution against the wicked? This seems not to be the case.
In fact, in Genesis 6:6 we are told that “the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.” God was sorry. God grieved.
The word translated as grieved carries the idea of anguish. God grieves over our sinfulness. God anguishes over our rebellion. Our sin is painful to God.
This is not the anger of a parent whose child has disobeyed. This is the disappointed and sadness of a parent over the actions of a rebellious child who is deeply loved by the parent.
But notice something very important in this story. Although the flood is interpreted as God bringing destruction on the earth to rid the earth of the violence, God is not completely starting over as if God is creating a new Garden of Eden and a new Adam and a new Eve.
Yes, Noah can be seen here as a symbolic new Adam, but in finding favor with Noah, God chooses to continue God’s relationship with humanity without completely starting over from scratch.
In fact, in Genesis 8:21, God says,
It seems to me that God regrets having done what God has done in destroying the earth, for it seems that in God’s statement to Noah, God has resolved never to destroy again despite the inclination of the human heart toward sin. In a sense, God will not give up on humanity, despite the presence of human sin.
This is the thrust of God’s command to Noah to “be fruitful and multiply,” echoing the command given to Adam and Eve. God is not done with creation and God is not limiting humanity to Noah and his family. God will take a risk with humanity for generations to come, even if the human heart is inclined to sin.
What a powerful message of divine love and vulnerability. God not only grieved over the sin of humanity; God also grieved over the destruction God brought to all of creation. And, instead of wiping out all living creatures, God chose to continue in loving relationship with God’s creation.
Indeed, in Genesis 9:8-17, God enters into a covenant with Noah, his family, his descendants, and all living things to never bring destruction again. This covenant is not an agreement between two parties, as if God is agreeing not to destroy the earth again if humanity keeps its side of the covenant.
No, God establishes this covenant with Noah and all of creation solely by God’s choosing, and despite the sinfulness of humanity, God will never again bring this kind of destruction on the earth.
Of course, one of the more familiar bits of this story has to do with the sign of the covenant that God sets in the sky- the bow. Our traditional interpretation of this passage is that when we see a rainbow in the sky we are to think of God’s covenant with humanity promised to Noah. But that’s not how the text reads.
The bow in the sky is not to remind us; it is to remind God. The bow reminds God of God’s promise to Noah, his descendants, and all living things. The sign of the bow in the sky, which may be symbolic of a warrior putting away his bow, reminds God of the promise God made to never destroy creation again.
Yet, I don’t think this is God resolving to the fact that humans are evil and God must live with it. I think it is perhaps that God has faith in us; faith and long-suffering through which God is patient with humanity.
This means that God has chosen to be vulnerable and suffer through our rebelliousness and sin, but God will never give up on us. God will continue to open the divine heart of love toward all humanity.