Guests: Alden Thompson and Jody Washburn
Relevant Verses: Genesis 6
Theme: A World Under Water
Leading Question: If God asked for your opinion before opening up the floodgates, what advice would you give? How might you have responded to “the wickedness of human beings on earth” (Genesis 6:5)?
Genesis 6–9 presents a story that challenges our assumptions not only about the nature of God but also about the biblical text and how it relates to other ancient flood stories. For example, the biblical flood story has numerous rival myths from many cultures in the world, including ancient documents that report striking parallels to Genesis 6–9. Perhaps, the most famous document is the Babylonian “Epic of Gilgamesh,” which tells the story of a man by the name of Utnapishtim. The gods decide to destroy the earth, there is a great flood, and because Utnapishtim is the favorite of the god Ea, he is saved. Here are some of the similarities that the Epic of Gilgamesh and the biblical flood story share:
- A divine commitment to destroy most of humanity
- The focus on a named flood survivor
- Building an ark or boat that is described in detail in the narrative
- Animals being put on board to preserve their species
- The flood itself
- Sending out birds to see if the flood waters have receded
- Post-diluvial sacrifices with regard to the new relationship between humanity and the divine
While the similarities have drawn much attention, there are important differences:
- The different number of gods involved, which reflects the polytheism of Mesopotamia; in contrast is the monotheism noted in the biblical account.
- The depiction of the storm. In Genesis, the storm is hardly mentioned, while the depiction in Gilgamesh is vivid and violent.
- The subplot of Ea, the god of wisdom, plotting to save Utanapishtim, his favorite in Gilgamesh, is completely missing from Genesis. Noah is not arbitrarily saved. He is a “righteous man, blameless in his generation. Noah walked with God” (Gen 6:9).
- The warning to of the flood. In Genesis, God warns Noah explicitly of the coming destruction, but in Gilgamesh, Ea tells Utanapishtim to couch his prophecies in riddles.
Question: How does the fact that there are many flood stories from different cultures in the world affect your understanding of the biblical account?
The biblical story of the flood has traditionally been understood as a unified narrative about God’s punishment of fallen human beings for their great inclination or propensity to sin. However, Genesis 6–9 presents details and perspectives that do not always flow easily. For example, in Gen 7:1–17 one could understand that the flood lasted for 40 days, but then in verse 24 we read that it was 150 days. Another detail is about the number of animals that were to be taken aboard the ark, according to Gen 6:19 it was one pair of each, but according to 7:2 it was one pair of the unclean and seven pairs of the clean animals. One more example is about the birds. Did Noah release a raven which “went to and fro until the waters were dried up” (Gen 8:7), or a dove which on the third occasion “did not return to him again” (Gen 8:8–12), or was it both? Despite the variations, the story in Gen 6–9 forms a unified whole, such that biblical scholars see in it a chiasm, that is a literary structure in which the first item matches the last, the second the second-last, and so on.
Question: How could God destroy his own created world? What kind of God is that?
Genesis 6 presents us with two reasons for the flood. The first is stated in vers 5: “Then the LORD saw that the wickedness of man [ha-adam; “humankind, humanity”] was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” God’s response to this innate moral condition is, “The LORD was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart” (v. 6). The LORD’s emotion translated as being “sorry” or “he regretted” comes from a deeper place than what the English translations are able to convey. The Hebrew word, nacham, used in this verse pictures God taking deep breaths, sighing, even panting as a woman panting and gasping in order to find relief during labor pains in childbirth. Such a deep emotional portrayal of God surely averts from the idea that God would send the flood purely as a punishment for humanity’s sins. God is not just sending down the waters to destroy the earth, no, the LORD is present and gasping for air in the world of evil human beings. Furthermore, God is accompanied by another one who is gasping as well. His name, Noah, conveys that very meaning in the original Hebrew Noach. His father Lamech thought he would be the one to change the course of life on earth, and so “he called his name Noah [noach], saying, ‘This one will give us rest [nacham; “provide us relief”] from our work and from the toil of our hands arising from the ground” (Gen 5:29). Humanity’s evil heart provoked the LORD to “breathe deeply,” “to gasp,” and then pair up with Noah, who himself “gasped.”
Question: How does the LORD’s reaction to an evil world change your perception of God?
Note the parallel lines in Genesis 6:6 that are best read as follows:
“The LORD gasped, for He had made the earthling on earth,
And He was grieved to his core.”
Question: Why was it necessary to destroy the entire planet along with humanity?
To describe the nature of the earth’s corruption the Bible uses two words in Gen 6:11–12: the earth was “corrupt” or “ruined” (shachat) and filled with “violence” (chamas). The verb “to be ruined” is used five times in Genesis 6. “To be ruined” refers not only to the moral corruption of human beings but to the destruction of the planet.
The world does not belong to us. Even our very lives are a gift from God. When we abuse the gift of life to harm others or the world that God has made, instead of investing in serving others, we squander his gift. In the flood story, we are told that God took back the gift of order in creation. The refrain of Gen 1 is that God made everything “good” (Gen 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31). When God started making the world liveable, darkness was over the “deep,” and his Spirit hovered over the waters (Gen 1:2).
Humanity, however, had managed to ruin God’s world. As a result, God acted in judgment, and the fountains of the “deep” erupted, inundating the earth with water (Gen 7:11). (The Hebrew term translated “deep” is significant here, since Genesis uses it only four times.) God was the one who had given the breath of life (Gen 2:7); now he took it back (Gen 6:17; 7:22).
Genesis firmly anchors the meaning of the flood in the context of God’s intervention to stop humanity’s headlong slide into evil. God doesn’t take pleasure in the flood. Rather, Genesis highlights how the wickedness unleashed by the Fall caused God sorrow and grief. His heart was broken.
Read through the prism of our current climate crisis, as floods and other weather-related crises threaten our very survival, one can read the lawless violence of humanity in our days as an affront to nature, our negligence of its consequences, and our inevitable decline as a civilization if we do not respond and act in remedial ways.
Later on, when Isaiah the prophet remembers Noah (Isaiah 54:9), he doesn’t think of the flood, but the covenant God made with Noah afterward. In that covenant, God promises that nothing like this will ever happen again. This points to the key meaning of the story: the flood is about God’s mercy and commitment to the goodness of what he has made. Simply put, the story of Noah’s flood is a story of God’s re-creation.