As “Bible Stories” go, the story about Noah’s Ark has few peers. Children love this story. Kids enjoy singing all those “fun” songs about the arky-arky. They have a good time playing with the various toys and puzzles that tie in with Noah’s ark. My in-laws, for instance, once had a lovely ark made out of wood with hand-crafted little animals and people. When my kids were younger, they loved to play with that ark. And of course, the sight of a rainbow still reminds children and all of us of this story.
Scholars tell us that just about every ancient culture told some form or another of a flood story. The biblical story in Genesis is about the only such tale that has survived into the modern world such that even today it is fair to say that most people, whether they are particularly religious or not, know the broad outlines of this story. Images of an ark stuffed with animals even crops up now and again in advertisements for insurance companies and the like. And whenever we endure a rainy stretch of days, some people invariably make jokes about “building an ark”.
Given how well-loved this story is, I would probably become quite unpopular if I suggested that most of that misses the main point of this story. But I wasn’t ordained to be popular so I’ll say it: most of that misses the main point of this story! The narrative details about the ark, the animals, the raven, and the rainbow are all important, of course, but in our attention to those elements of the story, we miss the central part of the tale: the heart of God. This story is first and last about what happens inside God’s heart.
It’s about Noah and his family, too, of course, but not centrally. Did you ever notice that Noah never says a single word? Only at the very end of chapter 9 does Noah open his mouth. But otherwise throughout the whole course of the story, Noah doesn’t utter a peep, nor are we given even cursory glimpses into Noah’s thoughts or what may have been going on inside his heart.
Yet over and over again we do get a rare but intimate look into what is happening inside God’s heart. God talks quite a bit in this story. More than that, God’s thought process is described in a quite detailed way. Furthermore, what we see happening inside God’s heart is the core of the whole story. Because listen: God changes. God decides to follow a different path after the flood waters dry up. He says that he will never again send a flood like this one.
Why not? Is the reason because the flood cleansed the earth of all sin? Alas, the answer to that question is “No.” If we need proof that some things have not changed, the very end of Genesis 9 grimly provides it for us. Because the last image we get is of a naked Noah sleeping in his tent on account of his having drunk too much wine. When his son, Ham, tries to help by enlisting the aid of Shem and Japheth, things get ugly fast. At the end of Genesis 9, for the first time, Noah opens his mouth to say something. And guess what: the first thing he says is a curse on his own son! Commentators have scrambled for millennia to figure out what Ham did wrong. Most have concluded that he should have quietly covered up Noah himself and not gossiped about it to his brothers. That may be the case, but Noah’s response seems a bit harsh even so.
The point, however, is that this concluding vignette is almost certainly included to show that things had not changed that much after the flood. Humans were still prone to sin. Families still fell apart. Noah was a good and righteous man whose obedience throughout Genesis 6-9 stands in stark contrast to the evil of the larger world. But he wasn’t perfect, and neither was his family. Sin and evil and temptation would continue after the flood even as they did before.
But we knew that even before end of Genesis 9. God admitted as much in chapter 8:21 when he promised that he would never again send such a flood because one thing had not changed: “every inclination of [mankind’s] heart is evil from childhood.” God himself knew that what was wrong with humanity at a very basic level was still there. So humanity was not so different after the flood. The creation itself was not particularly cleansed of anything after the flood. So what changed? God did.
Indeed, this change of divine heart is nowhere more dramatically evident than in that verse from Genesis 8:2. Because turn back two chapters to Genesis 6:5 and notice that the reason for the flood is stated there: “God saw . . . that every inclination of the thoughts of [mankind’s] heart was only evil all the time.” In the original Hebrew as in the English translation, 6:5 and 8:21 are nearly identical. The inclination of the human heart is evil, from childhood on up. That was true in chapter 6. It was true in chapter 8. The odd thing, however, is that in Genesis 6 this is the reason why God sent the flood yet in Genesis 8 this is the reason God will never send a flood again! But how can our sinful weakness be both the reason for the original flood and the reason there will never again be another flood?
By way of analogy, suppose you heard me tell my teenage daughter on a Thursday evening, “You are grounded this weekend because you always talk back to me!” And so suppose my daughter was grounded, having to skip the Friday night football game and her friends’ sleepover party on Saturday. But then imagine how confused you’d be if on the following Monday you heard me say to my daughter, “Never again will I ground you because I know you will keep on talking back to me anyway.” It’s really not an exaggeration to suggest that this is pretty much what God says in Genesis 6 and 8. God sees the same problem in chapter 8 that he saw in chapter 6. But he reacts differently.
In Genesis 9 when God makes his covenant with Noah and with all the other creatures, he does not say, “I will never again send a flood because I know you have all learned your lesson. Don’t get me riled up, don’t get my divine dander up or else! But since you know that now, I know you will be good people from here on out and so never again will I have any reason to even think about a punishing flood.” No, that’s not what God says. He knows full well they are not going to be perfect people but even so he says he won’t react to this with a flood ever again.
Why not? Maybe the answer has to do with God’s overall attitude in these chapters. Go back with me again to Genesis 6 and note with me what was going on inside of God before he let loose the flood waters. What do we see when the text lifts the lid on God’s heart so that we can peer inside? Wrath? Fury? No, hurt. You can read all four of the Genesis chapters that contain the flood narrative and not once will you find the words “anger,” “wrath,” or “fury.”
God is said to be greatly grieved. God is shown to have the biggest broken heart of all times. He is a wounded parent lamenting a wayward child. Have you ever talked with parents whose son or daughter is rebellious? Most of the time what you detect in such parents is not anger but deep, deep pain and heartache. If parents genuinely love their children, then the response to waywardness is more often tears than tirades. From the outside looking in, sometimes other people speak the language of anger and retribution. Have you ever found yourself saying to someone, “Man, if that were my kid, I’d let him have it!” Yes, but it’s not your kid, and if it were, you’d probably dissolve into tears not lash out in anger.
The creation is not going God’s way in Genesis 6. And it hurts God. These chapters speak of holy sadness, not divine wrath. Tragedy and pathos fill these chapters. So does an unspeakable amount of death. We may have grown up liking the image of all those animals tucked safely into the ark, but there’s a reason no children’s storybook has ever shown dead animals and dead people floating all over the place on the floodwaters. I myself don’t know what to make of that part of the story. Seeing God in the light of grief over against seeing God as a ruthless dispenser of divine fury helps to soften things quite a bit, but it does not remove the scandal of the cataclysm depicted here. This is finally a hard story to grasp.
At the very least we have to see it as yet another indication of how terribly serious human sin and evil are. They bring death. Sin and evil unmake creation. Whatever else we may make of the carnage of this story, it at least means this much: sin is desperately deadly. Sin cannot be wished away. It cannot be waved away. It cannot be chalked up as “no big deal” or something that God can just forget about.
That’s why the flood narrative situates God between grief and grace. Both grief and grace are responses to human sin but at the end, grace speaks the last, best word. God is not going to stop being offended and grieved by sin, of course. But from now on, God says in chapters 8 & 9, grace is going to lead the way. God is going to find a way to see our sin yet without destroying us in that sin. God will find a way, in other words, to forgive. God will find a way, to quote the New Testament, to bring about a new truth: “While we were yet sinners, God loved us and saved us.”
That salvation is still going to involve death, though: it’s just that in the biblical long run the death will be taken up by God himself. These chapters from the very first part of the Bible are like a big red arrow pointing us straight to the cross of Jesus Christ our Lord. Because the cross is ultimately the place where all the grief and grace of God meet in a startling way one dark Friday afternoon on a hill far away.
Grief and grace. Both are responses to our sin, but it is grace that will lead the way in the Bible once Genesis 9 is finished. In a way it was a mini-outburst of grace that saved Noah even before Genesis 8-9. God provided an ark to float on the same waters that brought death to others. Ever since God has been keeping his people safe through perilous waters: Moses in his little reed basket on the Nile River, the Israelites through the Red Sea and then the Jordan River, Jesus through the waters of the Jordan in his own baptism, and ultimately all of us through the waters of our baptisms.
That’s why in a real way the Church is the ark now, bobbing around on this world’s dangerous seas. As you know from your own experience, a common question people ask about this story is, “Do you think this ever really happened?” A good answer is to tell people, “It’s still happening! The storm surge of sin still rises and threatens life.” Most days many people manage to miss seeing those dangerous flood waters all around us.
Once in a while, however, the water rises so quickly that no one can miss it, as has been happening in the midst of the economic crisis that we have been enduring of late. As C.S. Lewis once observed, in times of peace and prosperity, only the truly wise can see that all of human life is lived on the edge of a cliff. But in hard times of war and recession, everyone sees this truth. And most everyone is seeing it right now. When the waters rise, people get really interested in arks of safety and reassurance.
Even though some folks mostly think they can do without an ark, they somehow know where to find it when the waters get rough and deep. It can be a little lonely in the ark sometimes. The prayers we utter in church, the work we try to do in Christ’s name, the vocabulary of gospel hope we nurture and keep alive and proclaim: most of that goes unnoticed much of the time, and it is surely not something for which people seem terribly grateful most days.
If you run into a non-believer on the average Monday morning, he probably won’t thank you for your having gone to church the day before to keep the gospel message of hope and grace alive. Most of the time people are quite content to drive past our churches, not come into them. But those of us who understand the weightiness of God’s grief but also the gravity of God’s grace know that this old world needs the ark of the Church. We need the Church not just for ourselves but for the whole creation–for all those creatures with whom God made his remarkable covenant.
Most Bibles label Genesis 9 something like, “God’s Covenant with Noah.” But look again: it’s not just with Noah but with sea lions and monkeys, with sunflowers and giraffes, too. Salvation has something to do with not just us humans but with all God’s creatures. All will be saved by the grace of God. This world needs the hope we in the church proclaim as God graciously uses us to keep his story alive. And our broken-down, fractured world needs that old, old story.
Years ago I read an article by Princeton Seminary professor Daniel Migliore. Dr. Migliore and his wife, Margaret, do a lot of work with inner-city kids in Trenton, New Jersey. One day in re-telling the Noah story to some of the children of Trenton, Professor Migliore asked the children’s sermon-like question, “Now then, boys and girls, where do you see rainbows?” “In the street!” several replied. Migliore thought they misunderstood the question so he asked them again. “No, where do you see rainbows?” Once again several children replied, “In the street!” Upon further checking, he discovered the truth: about the only place those kids, consigned to asphalt jungles and high-rise tenements, had seen a rainbow was in street puddles that had become slicked with oil from a car with a leaky engine. Their rainbows were these greasy and grimy ones in the burned-over streets and alleys of their urban world.
There’s something sad about that–a cause, you might say, for grief. But there’s maybe something hopeful there, too–an occasion, you might say, for grace. After all, where else do such children need to see the sign of God’s hope than smack in the middle of the world they call home? They don’t need a rainbow soaring over the Rocky Mountains, they need one in the greasy puddles of their everyday lives.
But that’s true for all people. We need grace in the everyday, grace where we are, grace in the midst of our pain. We need to know again and again that the Son of God died in our place so as to open up a fountain of grace that will never run dry, a good floodtide, a flood that saves. Now as much as ever, the world needs the gospel’s rainbow of hope. We, too, grieve over how things go in this world. But even our grieving is done with the knowledge of God’s overarching grace. It’s our privilege as God’s people to let that grace in us shine forth from us, displaying that rainbow of grace so that more and more may be touched by its holy radiance. Amen.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 22, 2015
Genesis 9:8-17 Commentary