Reading: Genesis 6
The story of Noah, the ark he built and the flood, which destroyed all his contemporaries except his own immediate family is among the best known of the stories in the Bible. Inevitably it has been the subject of critical attention, particularly in relation to the coverage of the flood waters – just local to area where Noah lived, or more extensive? If you want to explore the various arguments and consider some of the technical details around this subject then Morris & Whitcomb’s “The Genesis Flood” is worth looking at.
For the purposes of this short study the historical genuineness of the characters and events as they are described in Genesis chapters 6-9 is going to be assumed. However, this is not a blind assumption lacking any credible foundation: the fact that Noah and the flood are mentioned more than once in the New Testament, including by Jesus Christ himself, is a solid endorsement of genuineness.
By the time we get to Genesis chapter 6, where Noah is first mentioned, approximately 1500 years had passed since the events recorded in Genesis chapters 1-3, which equates to about 25% of recorded human history! It is not possible to calculate with any confidence the size of the human population in Noah’s day, but conservative estimates would suggest at least several hundred million. Precisely how many there were is not important – what matters is the divine assessment of the moral state that prevailed:
‘Then the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.’ (Genesis 6:5.)
This is further elaborated a little later in this same chapter:
‘…So God looked upon the earth, and indeed it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted their way on the earth.’ (verse 12 )
And so widespread was this state of moral ‘corruption’ that the Lord resolved to intervene dramatically:
‘The end of all flesh has come before Me, for the earth is filled with violence through them; and behold, I will destroy them with the earth’. (verse 13)
So there’s a clue as to at least one of the reasons for this extreme statement of divine displeasure – it had become a world characterized by “violence”. And we all know very well just how pervasive and destabilizing violence is in our society – within the domestic home, on our National City streets, on the international battlefield. A society which exists under the continuing threat of being disrupted and even destroyed by violent outbreak – whether local or global – is a society fundamentally out of harmony with its Creator.
So, as God beheld this deteriorating state of affairs in the world which He had created “very good”, He was “grieved at His heart” (Genesis 6v6). It doesn’t require too much imagination on our part to appreciate what the Bible is saying to us here. When God created the world He did so with a purpose – that it might be inhabited by a people honouring His name and manifesting His glory. But this human creation – given right from the outset the gift of free-will – had abused this gift to the point that wanting to give God any pleasure at all was far from their thinking. Yes, we can understand God being “grieved”. However, all was not lost. There was one man who stood apart from the rest, who understood what God requires from men and women, and who tried to make his life a faithful response to his Creator:
‘But Noah found grace in the eyes of the LORD.’ (Genesis 6:8)
That such a description of Noah can be drawn from such a short verse is confirmed by what follows, where he is instructed to build a massive wooden structure intended to float, in a place which was probably a long way from any substantial body of water. The structure was almost certainly more like a modern flat-bottomed ‘barge’ than a traditional ship with a keel, as it was going to have to withstand terrific water pressures. Based on the dimensions given later in Genesis 6, the size of the ark made it the largest boat ever constructed before the 19th century – well capable of housing representatives of the animal and bird populations, and also with the capacity for more human beings than a single family of 8 people. Building this ark was a massive undertaking, especially for such a small team. But the Bible tells us that Noah did precisely what God instructed him to do, despite the undoubted jeers hurled at him by godless people who would not restrain their taunting and mockery. We can imagine them saying: “Noah must be a real madman, building this huge boat in the middle of dry land. This is going to become a permanent memorial to his madness”.
The New Testament testimonial to his faithfulness to the instruction of his God is quite striking:
‘By faith Noah, being divinely warned of things not yet seen, moved with godly fear, prepared an ark for the saving of his household, by which he condemned the world and became heir of the righteousness which is according to faith.’ (Hebrews 11:7.)
The same chapter in Hebrews has already given us the ultimate definition of faith – ‘ the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen’ (verse 1)
And here is Noah having been told about a future event i.e. the flood – ‘divinely warned of things not yet seen’ totally trusting God, now beginning this venture which would attract him so much ridicule and opposition.
But the Bible record makes it clear to us that this is not just about a building project. The apostle Peter, who also comments 3 times on the circumstances of the flood, refers to Noah as a ‘preacher of righteousness’ (2 Peter 2v5). So, whilst Noah was engaged in constructing the ark he was also preaching to his contemporaries, informing them about what God had revealed to him, and urging them to turn away from a lifestyle devoted to violence and godlessness, and respond to the invitation, embodied in Noah’s own example, to accept the challenge of righteousness. And in case we feel that this term ‘righteousness’ is just a technical religious term, see it as breaking down into ‘right-way-ness’ i.e. that which is right in God’s sight.
A little detail back in Genesis chapter 6 gives us an insight into just how long these parallel projects of boat building and preaching would last –
‘And the LORD said, My Spirit shall not strive with man forever, for he is indeed flesh; yet his days shall be one hundred and twenty years.’ (verse 3)
Even in those days of considerably longer life spans than we experience today, that is still a significant period of time to be busy on 2 fronts simultaneously. We know that Noah lived to the age of 950 (Genesis 9v29), so 12.5%, or 1/8th of his life was consumed by this work. And yet, in spite of the hundreds of thousands of people who would have heard and seen Noah during that time, the only people he was able to influence and convince was his own family – his wife, their 3 sons and their wives, 8 in total. Try to imagine how sad and frustrated Noah must have been, as his warnings about an impending catastrophe simply fell on deaf ears. But then imagine his joy and relief that, after 500 years of childlessness he and his wife have 3 sons born to them during these 120 years of witnessing and building (if you want to check the arithmetic, look at Genesis 7v6 and Genesis 11v10). This was God’s reassurance to him that his own line would be preserved through the coming destruction of the world. But it also meant that, having started to build the ark on his own (almost certainly with his wife’s assistance) there would be 3 male helpers not only sharing in the manual work but also giving him the pleasure of confirming they believed in what he was saying and doing. (As an aside, could it be possible that some of Noah’s daily audience joined in the labouring work, just for a laugh?).
There are some words of the Lord Jesus himself that shed a bit more light on what was happening here. He uses the example of the non-response of Noah’s contemporaries as a warning of how it will be in the days preceding his return to the earth:
‘But as the days of Noah were, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be. For as in the days before the flood, they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noah entered the ark, and did not know until the flood came and took them all away, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be.’ (Matthew 24:37-39)
The activities of eating, drinking and marrying are essential features of everyday life, and are not to be condemned in themselves. The point that the Lord is underlining is that the people of Noah’s day just carried on everyday life without taking any account of the urgings and warnings of the godly, righteous man in their presence. Perhaps the most chilling of the Lord’s words in that quote above are ‘and (they) did not know until…’. But there was no reason for them not to know – Noah had been telling them for 120 years – but they had chosen to ignore him.
As previously mentioned, the apostle Peter alludes 3 times to the events of the flood in his two letters. The last of these references comes in the 3rd chapter of his 2nd letter, and is preceded by these words:
‘….knowing this first: that scoffers will come in the last days, walking according to their own lusts, and saying, where is the promise of His coming? For since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation.’ (2 Peter 3:3-4). Peter refutes the claim that there has been fundamental uniformity in the cosmos by pointing out that there have been two major upheavals in the history of the world – firstly when God intervened to create, and secondly when He intervened to destroy:
‘For this they willfully forget: that by the word of God the heavens were of old, and the earth standing out of water and in the water, by which the world that then existed perished, being flooded with water’. (verses 5-6).
He then proceeds to say that the reality of two divine interventions to change the physical state of the world becomes the guarantee that there will be a third intervention, equally dramatic:
‘But the heavens and the earth which are now preserved by the same word, are reserved for fire until the day of judgment and perdition of ungodly men’ (verse 7).
And the conclusion of his appeal to his readers to learn the lessons of history takes us straight back into the life and example of Noah:
‘Nevertheless we, according to His promise, look for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.’ (verse 13)
Noah faithfully responded to God’s command that he build a huge boat on dry land, and at the same time warned his contemporaries about the judgment of God soon to be poured out on a godless world. His was a living message about God’s ‘right-way-ness’, but apart from his own family no one listened to him until it was too late. The immediate reward for his faithfulness was that he was spared the destructive flood and emerged from the ark to a new world. The fact that his example is recorded in Hebrews chapter 11 confirms that he has yet to receive his full reward – which will happen when Jesus returns to establish God’s kingdom here on earth. On which side of the door to salvation will you be found?