Lesson Focus: Our sinfulness causes pain and grief in the heart of God. After the Flood, God chooses to respond to evil, not with destruction, but with love and forgiveness.
Lesson Outcomes: Through this lessons students should:
Understand that God’s reaction to creation’s infidelity is one of grief and pain.
Understand that the Flood is an act of recreation not pure judgment.
Be challenged to respond to evil like God now has chosen to respond to evil, with love and forgiveness.
Catch up on the story: Adam and Eve sinned and the world was forever changed. Men were cursed to work hard on the land in order to produce means for their survival. Women were cursed to have great pain in childbirth. But even though humanity sinned, it did not spell the end for God’s creation that was indeed, “very good”. Humanity continued to multiply and with that multiplication sin multiplied. The descendants of Adam were continually evil in their hearts and in their actions. This caused God to grieve. The world had gone its own way, a way not pleasing to God. But God had not given up on the world; rather he wished to start over. Noah, surrounded by all kinds of unfaithfulness and resistance to the good will of God, found favor with God.
The Text: This text is one of our most cherished and familiar stories. If you look in any children’s storybook bible it is sure to be included, complete with cute illustrations of elephants, monkeys, and penguins. The Flood narrative’s familiarity to us sometimes does us a disservice. While we might read the story to our children at bedtime, we often forget to probe deep enough into the text to see what is really going on. Or, we simplify the story so that it remains only about punishment for sins, or about God’s salvation for the righteous. To be sure, the story has elements of both of those things, but it is not primarily about either of those things. What is the story about?
The Setting: We are not given any specific information concerning the location or date of the Flood. To search for a concrete historical location and time for our story would distract from the narrative purpose of the story. What is clear is that the world that God had created as “very good” has turned out to be anything but good. Beginning with Adam and Eve’s first sin, humanity has begun to assert itself over the guidance and direction of God. In a fit of uncontrolled desire, Cain slays Able. Sin compounds and grows. Generations have passed since Cain and we are told that the world and the hearts of humanity are evil and that continually. The wickedness of humanity covers the whole earth.
God’s Response: Pain and Grief God decides that humanity’s evil and wickedness has spread far enough. God will now act to rectify the situation. God will act to cover the whole world with a great flood. Every human creature along with the animals of the world will be blotted out. Here the Hebrew denotes more than just to destroy those who have been evil, but to cease to remember any longer. The image has its roots in the preparation of written texts. The world will be rubbed clean in the same way a scribe might correct an error by rubbing the ink from the page. The same word will be used in 1 Kings where God will wipe away Jerusalem like a person cleans a dirty dish so that it might be used again. Mistakes will be wiped away, making space for something new.
The image is clear. There will be a fresh beginning. This is not destruction for destruction’s sake. It is not just judgment on those who have been wicked. It is the clearing of the table so that it might be reset with human actors who will not continually work against the good will of God. The chaos of wickedness and evil will be wiped away by the cleansing chaos of water.
The reason for this cleansing, however, is not what we might first expect. All too often the image of God that we have constructed for ourselves is one that is utterly unsympathetic towards disobedience and evil. This God must act immediately and swiftly deal with those who have sinned against him. While we can agree that sin and wickedness are antithetical to the nature of God and that God does indeed bring about judgment on those who work against his good purposes, that is not God’s primary motivation here.
According to the text, God’s sole motivation for this cleansing is grief, sorrow and pain. Three times in three verses we are told that God was sorry or grieved. The Hebrew word here is yatsav, and it means to hurt, feel pain or to grieve. This is the root word used to describe how humanity’s persistent wickedness affects God. In the NIV it is translated as “was deeply troubled,” in the NRSV it is translated as “sorry.” Here the NIV’s choice is probably the better one. God, in his inner most parts, felt pain and sorrow that his good creation has turned out to be so thoroughly bad. This sheds a different light on the destruction that takes place in the flood. It is not because God, in his fierce anger, must destroy what is not pleasing to him. One commentator has this to say about God’s motivation, “First, with amazing boldness the narrative invites the listening community to penetrate into the heart of God (vv. 6–7). What we find there is not an angry tyrant, but a troubled parent who grieves over the alienation” (Brueggemann, 77).
The stunning part of this narrative is not just that God would act in such a destructive way, but that God was sorry that he created in the first place. We understand this felling all too well. How often have we made decisions or a series of decisions (seemingly good ones at that) whose consequences have left us in deep pain and sorrow, longing to go back and undo what we did? Our text gives us the very distinct impression that this is God’s state of mind at the end of verse 7. Of course, at the end of the day, these word images are Israel’s best attempt at understanding God’s mind in mind in the midst of such a chaotic event.
Now you might be asking if the view taken by this narrative depicts a God who is less than all-powerful or all-knowing? How could God create something and then be sorry for it? Would that not mean that God was not in control of what he created? God, in his greatness and power, created a world founded on love, and love requires freedom. Love is always risky. From the beginning, there was always the chance that we humans would refuse to be the creation that God wanted us to be.
Our God, however, chooses to work within the bounds of love, so that love might be true love, so that we might freely turn towards God and embrace the one who embraces us first. It always takes more courage and more strength to love. We celebrate God’s power and sovereignty precisely because he created us out of the freedom of love.
The Emergence of Noah: Covenant and Re-creation In the midst of all the evil and wickedness, Noah finds favor with God. The destruction that God brings on the earth will not be total or complete. God will work through a faithful servant to bring about salvation for creation. Noah embodies a new possibility for creation. God will establish a covenant with Noah. The narrator wants us to look to Noah as one who represents a fresh alternative to the destruction that sinfulness and willful disobedience bring. The text wants us to see that, in the midst of great evil, God is always there, seeking those who are obedient, offering them freedom from the sin that destroys. Noah is obedient, and the text makes us aware of this in three different places in the Flood narrative, 6:22, 7:5, and 7:9 (Brueggemann, 80).
God could have just saved Noah and his family outright. This is not what God does. Wesley states that, “God could have secured Noah, by the ministration of angels without putting him to any care or pains, but he chose to employ him in making that which was to be the means of his preservation, both for the trial of his faith and obedience, and to teach us that none shall be saved by Christ, but those only that work out their salvation; we cannot do it without God, and he will not without us…(Wesley, 32).
So Noah, in faithfulness and obedience, sets about constructing the ark. God gathers the animals to him. Noah is faithful and his faithfulness and obedience is vindicated when the rains began to fall. Again, his obedience is vindicated when the waters rise, when they survive their time on the ark, and when the ark once again rests on dry land. Finally, Noah is commanded to open the ark and go forth to repopulate the earth.
One of the first things Noah does after he steps off the boat is to build an altar to God where he sacrifices one of every clean animal and bird. God is pleased by this offering and makes a promise to Noah. God will never again curse the ground or destroy every living creature again. This is the promise of a faithful God who knows that his creation will not be faithful. Has the flood changed humanity? No, it hasn’t. In spite of the knowledge that the “inclination of the human heart is evil from youth” (8:21) God chooses to remain faithful to that which he created. We have been and always will be deeply set against God’s purposes until we are transformed by the grace of Christ.
This is the good news for us! Despite our inclination toward evil, God has not; God will not give up on us. God’s resolve is one that always works toward re-creation and redemption. Destruction will not serve God’s redemptive purposes, only the self-giving love of God will.
So What? Rather than being a tale of God’s wrath and destruction the Flood narrative is a story of God’s covenant faithfulness with us. No amount of judgment and destruction will change the continual wickedness of humanity’s heart. God knows this. No amount of wickedness and violence will change God’s love for his creation. It is because of God’s steadfast love and faithfulness toward creation that God has set about to change our hearts in a different way. Fear cannot make a permanent change in a wicked person’s heart, but love can.
In a way that is so unlike how we respond when someone hurts or grieves us, God’s response to our wickedness is now one of love. God will not beat our sinfulness out of us. Instead he takes it on, absorbs it, conquering it with forgiveness and love. As Christians we confess that this is what happens as Jesus hangs on the cross. Jesus takes on the weight of the sin of the whole world, and the death that sin produced, and vanquishes it by refusing to retaliate. Love has won. Love wins.
The challenge for us is to live like this Jesus who is our fullest picture of God. When we are confronted with our own world-destroying evil how will we respond? Will we demand that those who have done harm to us be wiped away like food from a dirty dish? Or will we respond like the God who has covenanted with humanity to never destroy it again? Will we respond like the God who became one of us, who conquered our sin and shame through love?
This is the first week of Lent. As we journey toward the Cross and Jesus’ death may we give up our “right” to respond to evil with evil. Instead, this week, take time to intentionally pray for those who hurt you. Perform an act of kindness for a work place or school adversary. As you hear news of various kinds of violence and wickedness taking place here and aboard, pray that your thoughts and attitudes toward those who perpetrate evil might be an attitude of love.
Critical Discussion Questions:
What does God look like in this text/Who is God in this text/What is God doing in this text?
In this text, God is both faithful, but willing to discipline his creation. God shows us, by not completely wiping everything away and starting completely afresh, that he is not yet done with what he has created. He may not be happy with what we have done, or where our lives are headed, but he continues to be our God. He continues to be the God who brings fresh and new life out of the chaos of the world and our lives.
What does holiness/salvation look like in this text?
Salvation looks like recreation. Even though we have royally messed up the good world that God has created, salvation is still to be found. As we have fouled up our lives, God has promised not to just erase us and start again, but he has given us a lifeboat that brings us to the new possibility of life. Just as the Ark provided salvation for Noah, his family and the living things of the world, Jesus Christ provides salvation for us. We can know that God has promised to not give up on us. In the end, salvation looks like being obedient. Only this time we have not been instructed to build an Ark, but to live in right relationship with God and our neighbors. As we enter into relationship with Christ, we learn what it means to be obedient.
How does an encounter with this story shape who we are and who we should become?
We can rest in the knowledge that God has promised never to destroy the world again. He has done much more than that, he has given us a way and an example to live by that will create in us new life and we will once again be “very good”.
Specific Discussion Questions: Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly. Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.
Our passage begins by stating that in the time of Noah, “every inclination” of humanity was evil. Is this still the case for humanity today? If yes, why? If no, why?
We are told that it grieved God’s heart and he was sorry that he had made humankind. Why would God regret making humankind that much? Does it surprise you that God is depicted as regretting doing something? Why or why not? What does that mean?
God decides to “blot out” people from the earth. What does God hope to accomplish by doing this?
Noah finds favor with God because he is obedient. John Wesley points out that God could have saved Noah, his family and a few animals without having him build an ark. Angels could have protected Noah. Why does God have Noah build an ark?
Finally the Flood is over. Noah and his family are instructed to leave the ark. The first thing Noah does is to build an altar and offer a burnt offering to God. This is pleasing to God. God then promises that he will never again curse the ground because of humanity or destroy every living creature again. He won’t do this because the “inclination of the human heart is evil from youth.” (8:21). If the heart of humanity is evil from youth, why won’t God come to destroy like he has with the flood? Was God hoping that the Flood would change the heart of humanity?
The heart of God, post Flood, is revealed to be one that is steadfastly faithful to an evil creation. The nature of this God will be revealed to us through the loving self-sacrifice of Jesus Christ. As a group, take time to discuss ways in which you might act with steadfastly faithful love to an evil world.
Works Cited: Walter Brueggemann, Genesis, Interpretation, a Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Atlanta, GA: John Knox Press, 1982).
John Wesley, Explanatory Notes upon the Old Testament, vol. 1 (Bristol: William Pine, 1765).