The world before the flood 6:1-8
So, we just introduced Noah at the end of chapter 5, and now we get a good background picture of the world he lived in. This is one of the most cryptic readings in Genesis. The “sons of God” (whoever they are) intermix with the “daughters of men.” We see further surrender to lust, for the sons of God pick whichever girl is most physically appealing. They made this choice without any other significant consideration than to have a pretty plaything, it seems.
One interpretation is that the sons of God refer to the descendants of Seth and the daughters of men are the descendants of Cain. If this is what is meant, then we see sin take hold in the lives of the Sethites now just about as firmly as in the Cainites’ lives. This interpretation connects to the material in the past two chapters. If this is the case, then the Nephilim of v. 4 are people of Seth’s line who have fallen away from serving God (by integrating themselves into the Cainite culture).
Another interpretation is that the “sons of God” refer to dynastic kings. Kings of pretty much any nation will claim to be divinely appointed to rule (or claim to be gods in their own right). If this is what is meant, then the kings began to build harems for themselves.
A third suggestion is that the sons of God are angels who are now mating with humans. There are Hebrew myths based off exactly this interpretation, such as the book of Enoch, which tells the tale of Enoch of the Seth line, who went up to heaven then came back down to witness the events of Gen. 6-9 in great detail. Jude 6-7 specifically refers to Enoch, and yet II Peter 2:4 parallels Jude while specifically omitting the reference to Enoch. Even though it’s interesting speculation, it’s unlikely in my opinion that the sons of God are angels.
The Nephilim (“fallen ones”) could be seen as (fallen) angels, in line with that third interpretation I just mentioned. From what the text says, though, it refers to men who became warlords through skill in battle. So, human kings were building their harems of royal playthings (dooming those young ladies to never have a lifelong husband), and warlords were taking prominence in the land.
What did God say? 6:3 says: “My spirit will not contend with man forever, for he is corrupt; his days shall be 120 years.” God intends to give a 120 year grace period before destroying humanity. Alternately, this could say “My breath [of life] will not remain in man forever, for he is mortal; his days [lifetime] shall be 120 years.” However, that doesn’t really relate to the rest of the story at all, so we should reject that interpretation. The NIV mixes it to “My spirit will not contend with man forever, for he is mortal…” but this is wrong. God’s point is not mortality (which is corruption as in being subject to physical decay and death) but rather moral corruption. In vv. 5-6 God sees how utterly terrible man has become, and decides to undo all of creation because of how grieved he is, yet Noah finds favor in the eyes of the Lord.
God Warns Noah to Prepare 6:9-7:5
The story continues in 6:9-12 painting the picture of how terrible the earth was at the time. In vv 11-12 the word corrupt occurs three times, plus two mentions of violence. This is a dark picture: the earth itself is corrupt and full of violence because humans introduced corruption and violence into the world. Remember that corruption can refer to moral corruption or to death/mortality? Well, in the reference to violence we find both. Kings ruled their city-states as the sons of the gods, and went to war every baseball season. The Egyptians are a perfect example: at first their king was seen as a divinely appointed agent of Ra, then as an actual descendant of Ra. The Egyptians were quick to conquer and plunder, to demand tribute of vassals (which they demanded yearly). Also, all other people were backwards, and they were right. It is only natural that the right rule over the wrong. They called the Euphrates river backwards because it flows “upstream when it flows downstream,” referring to the fact that it flowed south instead of north. Because each people thought they were divinely appointed to rule and had the favor of the most powerful deity, other peoples were seen as not even human. Raping a Mitanni woman is no crime for the soldiers of Pharaoh’s army, for they are not even really people. Just potential slaves. Sexual aggression and bloodlust are the two sins committed in ch. 6 that truly grieve God. Both are affronts to the act of creation, by misuse of procreation and by killing what God has made; the perversion of the beginning and ending of life.
God says, “I am going to put an end to all people, for the earth is filled with violence because of them. I will most certainly destroy both them and the earth” (6:13). God’s word for destroy there comes from the same word as corruption/corrupt that we’ve been talking about. As Hamilton says: “Rather than interrupt and impede, he allows the evil started by humankind to run to its inevitable conclusion.” God is not destroying out of divine fury; it is human sin and human destruction that brought about corruption, and God seeks to destroy this death-filled creation, because he seeks a created world that is filled with life.
Note also that God is grieved and his heart suffers pain – the same word for pain appears in Eve’s childbearing and Adam’s painful toil as he works the earth. Just as childbearing is woman’s highest joy and working hard and raising crops/cattle/kids is man’s joy, God’s joy is the raising of creation. And just as the first sin (trying to take God’s place) brought on trouble for man and woman in their greatest joys, it eventually came full circle, and sin led to pain in God’s greatest joy. God’s response to such epidemic sinfulness is not rage or indignation, but brokenness.
Two other flood stories compared with Noah
I am going to stop here before moving on to 6:14. I want to contrast the biblical flood story with another flood story. The Atrahasis epic, from no later than 1700 b.c., has a similar flood story. Humans begin to multiply on the earth and become very noisy. Enlil, the chief god, becomes very agitated and develops severe insomnia because humans are so loud! So, he plans to reduce the population with a plague. Suddenly the human Atrahasis is introduced, who, with the support of his god Enki, manages to avert the plague. Twelve hundred years later, Enlil has insomnia again because the land is “bellowing like a bull.” This time he uses a drought, but Atrahasis manages to appease Enlil and stop the drought. This happens one more time, and Atrahasis stops one more drought.
Finally, Enlil orders a flood. Enki advises Atrahasis to build a boat to weather the storm, which will last seven days and seven nights. (He takes a male and a female of each animal with him as well.) Humanity is so thoroughly destroyed that even the other gods question the wisdom of Enlil’s actions. At the end of the week, Atrahasis offers a sacrifice to the gods for his preservation. And not a moment too soon – the gods were all starving without the food sacrifices of their worshipers! So, to put a fix on the human population from then on, the gods make some women permanently barren and create a demon to “snatch away a baby as soon as it is born” (i.e. the introduction of stillbirths), and creates certain classes of priestess that are celibate. So, the gods rectify the problem by restricting human sexuality and procreation, and understandably, people are less than happy about it.
Now, another story is the Epic of Gilgamesh. Here a king finds his ancestor, Utnapishtim, who has become immortal. Gilgamesh wants to become immortal as well, but finds that Utnapishtim’s story is unique and won’t be repeated. Ut tells his progeny that Ea, wisest of the gods, came to him one day and warned him that Enlil, the chief deity, was going to destroy humanity. So, Ut builds a boat with cubic dimensions, takes a pair of each animal, and hires some professional sailors to help see them through the storm. He also takes with him plenty of gold and silver. The rain falls for seven days and seven nights, and Utnapishtim’s boat runs aground on a mountaintop. Once it’s safe, he leaves the boat and worships the gods. Then the gods notice that two mortals (Ut and his wife – did all the sailors die???) escaped death, and the gods come down. To finish the job of ridding the world of humankind, Enlil bestows immortality on Ut and his wife, thus making them technically no longer human. There. No more humans.
Now that I’m through telling those stories, I’ll note contrasts between Noah’s, Atrahasis’s, and Utnapishtim’s flood stories. Right now I’ll say that God saved Noah because Noah was good and righteous. Ea and Enki warned their champions arbitrarily, and the gods either sent a flood arbitrarily or because of insomnia, whereas God sent his flood because of moral corruption. Enlil acted out of anger and selfishness; God acts out of a desire for redemption and re-creation.
A quick run-down of Noah: he was very obedient to God (6:22, 7:5, 9, 16) and he alone was righteous in that generation (6:8-9, 7:1). His faith made him a hero (II Peter 2:5; Heb 11:7) among God’s people and gave him determination to rely on God for preservation.
God warns Noah to Prepare (continued)
Now, moving on to boat talk: God tells Noah to build a boat 450’ long, 75’ wide, and 45’ high. This is a very big boat, but the dimensions are pretty reasonable for a stable ship. In the other two epics, the gods command a boat that is cubic! That would hardly float, haha. Say, have you ever looked up the word “ark” before? Its next use is in reference to the basket that kept baby Moses safe in his little sailing trip down the Nile in Exodus 2. The word for ark is, basically, a treasure chest. It’s where you keep what is precious to you. In the Old Testament, the Ark of the Covenant is the location where the copy of the Ten Commandments is placed. Yet before Moses was even born, God sealed the one he would make a covenant with into an ark – God had an “ark of the covenant” already. This ark was where God kept his precious Noah.
How many animals did Noah bring onto the ark? Was it a single pair of each? Seven of
each? Or seven pairs of each? It’s very confusing. On the one hand, God said to take a single pair of every animal – a male and its mate (6:19-20) – but it also says to take seven of every clean animal, and of every bird (7:2-3). That could also be translated “seven pairs.” While that would make things less confusing, that seems pretty inconsistent. On one hand, God mirrors the gods in other flood stories by commanding Noah to take a single pair of each animal. However, he also seems to say take seven. We must remember that in 6:18 God said he would establish his covenant with Noah. The verse says “you will enter the ark, you, and your wife, and your sons and their wives.” How many other humans were saved? Seven. How many of each animal? Seven, except for the unclean ones. The Hebrew number seven is also the word for “oath,” and I think this is used as a wordplay here since it just mentioned how God would make a covenant with Noah. The Sheba (seven/oath) wordplay shows up again in Genesis 21:27-31, where they dug a well and named it Beersheba, which means Well of the Oath (or Well of Seven) and Abraham gives seven lambs as a witness that he will keep the oath/treaty. So, while the story is saying “literally” that Noah took a single pair of each animal, in another way we could say that through Noah’s righteousness, seven others were saved (I Peter 3:20, II Peter 2:5) of not just humans but every other kind of creature. Or we could just say that he took two of each animal unfit for sacrifice, but seven of those meant for sacrifice. See how confusing this all is? Unfortunately, I can’t give a more straightforward answer than that.
Very much of the Bible is episodic – it is written in episodes, which have their own internal storyline but may not contribute to a chronological storyline in a clearly linear way. The same is true for episodes of sitcoms and most other TV shows: there’s only a rough timeline in Friends based on who lives with who and who is dating who. In the same way, some parts of the Bible don’t necessarily try to “stick” together as one straightforward storyline. The point relates not to history, but to who God is; sometimes retelling something from a different angle will reveal more about God, and it seems that this may be another example of that.
Enduring the flood 7:6-8:12
God started the flood on the seventeenth day of the second month. When it began to rain very hard, Noah loaded his family and the pairs of animals onto the ark. It was by God’s providence that the animals naturally came in pairs; Noah did not have to gather them himself WHILE building a huge ship (7:15). Then, it says, the Lord shut him in. It was the Lord’s preservation, not the hiring of professional sailors (who somehow die) that brought Noah through the storm. The rain continued for forty days and forty nights (a length of time that symbolizes a critical time in redemptive history; see also Deut. 9:11 and Matt. 4:1-11), and for 110 more days (totalling 150), the waters flooded the earth so much that even the mountains were covered. In so doing, God completely wiped out the creation he had made on days 5 and 6.
“But God remembered Noah” (8:1). God left Noah in the boat without contacting him for the entire 150 days. I think we forget how hard that would be! God remembered him, and in the Bible that means more than just calling to mind – it means to express concern for someone or act with loving care toward someone. The rains stopped on the seventeenth day of the seventh month, and the ark came to rest on one of the mountaintops in the Ararat mountain range. We see the number seven not just in the number of people/animals Noah saved, but also in the length of time. Seven, because it is also the word for oath, symbolizes faithfulness or completeness, and here the time length is being used figuratively to refer to God’s faithfulness in preserving Noah. After the waters receded and he waited forty days, he sent out a raven, which did not return. Then, a dove, which returned because it had nowhere to land. Seven days later, he sent the dove out again, and it took an olive branch back to him – a good sign. Since olives don’t grow in high elevations, it meant the water was receding quickly. Seven days later, he sent it out again and it did not return.
God’s Decides, “Never Again” 8:13-9:17
On the first day of the new year (8:13), God granted a new beginning for humanity. In 8:15-17, after it’s completely safe, God tells Noah to come out and bring out all the creatures of the earth with him. Whereas the other stories have gods who don’t realize a human survived, God planned for that to happen, saw Noah through the whole thing, and was there to comfort Noah when he came out. God rolled out the red carpet and gave a new beginning to creation: “Bring out every kind of living creature that is with you—the birds, the animals, and all the creatures that move along the ground—so that they can multiply on the earth and be fruitful and increase in number upon it” (8:17). God reestablishes the blessings he gave creation when they were first made. The world is washed clean and becomes a new creation (and this is a symbol for baptism: I Peter 3:20-21).
At the end of the flood, Noah builds an altar and makes sacrifices, just as Atrahasis and Utnapishtim did, and what does God say? “How the heck did you survive?” No; God says “welcome home.” God is pleased and promises to never again destroy creation, unlike Enlil, and God also lifts the curse on the earth and promises never to curse it again, even though he acknowledges the complete wickedness of the human heart.
Now God turns to Noah and institutes the covenant he promised he would. While God does not grant immortality here, he does give Noah and his kin the blessings given to Adam and Eve: be fruitful and multiply! One day in chapel Stafford North asked the question “what is the greatest command?” and I stood up and said that, which made the entire auditorium laugh. I couldn’t resist. While Enlil in the Atrahasis epic solved the noise problem by giving ridiculous and unfair restrictions to human sexuality, God rather encouraged it and showed that he instead wanted humans to prosper. God gives another blessing: once more humans are reinstated as the lords of the earth (9:2-3).
God gives us direction in what we shall eat: we have all living things, plant or animal, for food. Yet, according to 9:4, we may not have blood. My NIV text note says “Lev. 17:14 stresses the intimate relationship between blood and life by twice declaring that ‘the life of every creation is its blood.’ Life is the precious and mysterious gift of God, and man is not to seek to preserve it or increase the life-force within him by eating ‘life’ that is ‘in the blood’ (Lev 17:11) – as many pagan peoples throughout history have thought they could do.”
Next, God shows his great love and concern for humanity by saying that our life is precious to him, and that God will demand an accounting of any animal that sheds human blood. We are to be the undisputed masters of creation – more like managers, with God as the Owner. In verse 7, God repeats the blessings for humanity once again, then he moves on to establish his covenant with Noah (and all creation that came from the ark) that he will never again destroy creation, and as testament to the treaty, he gives the rainbow as a sign that he will keep the covenant. This covenant is the kind called a “Royal Grant,” where a king gives something to a servant for faithful or exceptional service (and his descendants, if they show loyalty). It’s an unconditional grant, so long as the servant and his descendants do not become unfaithful. The covenant is made to Noah, and affects the rest of creation by extension through him.
The world before the flood 6:1-8