The story of Noah and the great flood is easily the longest in the early chapters of Genesis. It covers approximately one-third of the story of Genesis prior to Abraham. I suspect there are few, at least in the United States, who have not heard some version of this story. The story is so popular in our culture that there have even been multiple television movies made about it.
The intent of this article is to discuss the relevance of this account for today’s world. It is not an attempt to defend or deny its historicity or answer the many questions that swirl around it. Rather, why did God inspire this account and have it included in the Bible? What does he want to teach us from it?
The Historicity of the Great Flood
Oftentimes when this story is discussed, it is from the perspective of its historicity. Did it actually happen as recorded? Was it actually a more localized event? Was it adopted and modified from other ancient near eastern cultures? Or is it just a myth invented by bronze-age camel herders to keep the rabble in line?
I have opinions and/or beliefs concerning the historicity of the flood. But they are irrelevant to this article. And they would be distracting from what I am trying to do here. I will say this, though. I do believe that the Scriptures are inspired by God, including this passage. And I do believe that they are useful in instructing us in the life that God has called us to (2 Tim. 3:16-17). And that includes this passage as well.
I do not believe that the lesson(s) to learn from this account are concerned with how you get animals from all over the world to the ark. How do you load enough food to feed them for a year? Or where the water came from to cover Mt. Everest under 45 feet of water? Those are interesting questions that I have spent way too much time trying to answer. But, for this article, they are irrelevant.
The Story in Brief
Genesis has recorded a downward spiral of humanity. From creation as God’s image-bearers, within a few chapters, they are described as desperately wicked. The first five-plus chapters have demonstrated the corruption that humanity had fallen into. And they set the stage for God to do something about it.
Because of human wickedness, God determined to destroy his creation and the life on it. But Noah was described as a righteous man who walked with God. So God instructed him to build a big boat that he would use to save the lives of his family as well as a remnant of the other life God had created.
So Noah built the boat. God filled it with animals as well as Noah’s family. The rain fell, and the waters of the deep spewed out. The highest mountains were covered. All life on earth, not on the ark, died. Noah and the others were on the boat for just over a year. Finally, the door to the boat was opened, and the voyagers came out onto a cleansed earth. Noah offered a sacrifice of thanksgiving to God. And God covenanted to never destroy the earth again by flood.
The flood account, in some ways, mirrors the original creation. During the flood, the earth that was exposed in Genesis 1:9-10 sank back beneath the water. The earth was cleansed. And then the waters receded, bringing back the dry land. Once the ark was reopened, life returned to the land. And Noah was then given a similar command as was given to Adam and Eve. “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth” (Gen. 1:28; Gen. 9:1).
But there are some differences as well. In the original creation, humanity is to rule over the animals. After the flood, the fear and dread of humanity fell on the animals. Before the flood, plants are given to humanity to eat. After the flood, animals go onto the diet. So, while the earth is cleansed and renewed, it is different. The harmony between humanity and the rest of creation has changed in a fundamental way.
What Does It Have to Say to Us Today
You might read this story and find it an interesting piece of history or legend, depending on your perspective. But you might draw a bit of a blank in understanding what it has to teach you today. But I believe there are a few significant lessons that we can draw from it.
Our Sin Grieves God
In Genesis 6:5-7 we are told how God responded to the wickedness of humanity. He regretted that he had made humans. And his heart was deeply troubled. The word translated in the NIV as regretted can also mean grieved. And I think that better fits what I understand to be happening here.
God knew prior to creation that humanity would come to this. It was not a surprise to him. But, nonetheless, he was deeply troubled and grieved over the depths to which we had sunk. I look out into the world today and see the wickedness that is so prevalent. And it is easy for me to become numb to it. That does not mean that I accept evil as good. But I just begin to accept that is just the way things are, and there is nothing I can do about it.
But God is not like that. Regardless of how long humanity lives in this world, God will continue to be grieved over our sins and rebellion against him. Never will he say, it’s OK. Always he is like the prodigal’s father, grieving over his fallen creation, and ready to welcome them home.
Sin Will Not Go Unpunished
But, while God grieves over our sins, he will not allow them to go unpunished. The flood story is a vivid reminder that God will hold us accountable for our sins. This is a story that is repeated endlessly in the rest of the Bible. The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is the most dramatic. But the history of Israel is one of covenant-breaking and experiencing God’s judgment.
While God has promised to never destroy the earth again by flood, he has warned us that destruction by fire is coming (2 Pet. 3:10). And there is a judgment time for each individual who has lived, is living, or will live. We are all subject to a righteous punishment for our sins (Rom. 3:23). We may or may not escape punishment for our sins in this life. But in the end, apart from faith in Christ, we will not escape it.
God Protects the Righteous
Peter, in his second letter, uses the flood narrative to draw a very significant lesson.
. . . if he did not spare the ancient world when he brought the flood on its ungodly people, but protected Noah, a preacher of righteousness, and seven others; . . . if this is so, then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials and to hold the unrighteous for punishment on the day of judgment.2 Peter 2:5, 9 NIV
Peter uses Noah, and others, to illustrate that God is quite able to protect his people from the judgment that is, and will be, visited on the rest of the world. This is not a guarantee that we will not suffer in this life. Actually, just the opposite is true. Peter makes it clear, in 1 Peter 1:3-9, that we will suffer in this life. But that suffering is not the punishment awaiting the rest of the world. Instead, we suffer as believers because of our faithfulness to God. And God will use that suffering to develop and mature us.
The promise we have, as believers in Christ, is that we will not face the judgment that is coming to the rest of the world. We will be delivered from that. Just like Noah was delivered from the flood that destroyed the rest of the world.
Jesus and the Flood
I believe that the most significant lessons we can learn from the flood narrative are what it tells us about Jesus and his activity. One of these is explicitly mentioned in the Gospels. The other is not explicitly mentioned. But I believe it is there nonetheless.
The Day of the Lord
In Matthew 24:37-39, and the parallel passage in Luke 17:26-27, Jesus compares his return to the days of the flood. It was a sudden and catastrophic event that brought destruction to a wicked and unbelieving world. In the same way, Jesus’ return will be sudden and will result in judgment for those who are not his.
But it will not be without warning. 2 Peter 2:5 pictures Noah as a preacher of righteousness. I helped my dad build a big sailboat in the sideyard of our house. I cannot count the number of people who asked what we were doing. And how we were going to get that boat down to the water. I can’t imagine it was any different for Noah. He spent 100 years building the Ark. And during that time, I am sure he had ample opportunity to warn people of the coming flood. But, seemingly, to no avail.
In the same way, we have the opportunity to warn people of the coming judgment. Most will refuse to give any heed to the warnings. But some will. So do not grow discouraged in sharing Christ with a fallen world. Be patient and consistent. Just like we can imagine Noah was.
Noah and Jesus
There is a sense in which Noah is a type of Jesus the Messiah. Noah was appointed by God to rescue humanity from their justly deserved punishment. Jesus also was God’s anointed one to rescue humanity from the penalty of their sin. But there is a big difference between them as well. Noah rescued humanity by riding out the storm while the rest of the world died. While Jesus rescued humanity by dying, while the rest of the world looked on.
- The Theology of Genesis: An Introduction
- The Theology of Genesis: In the Beginning – Genesis 1:1-2:4
- The Theology of Genesis: The Garden of Eden – Genesis 2
- The Theology of Genesis: Fall and Exile – Genesis 3
- The Theology of Genesis: A Downward Spiral – Genesis 4 & 5
- The Theology of Genesis: The Great Flood – Genesis 6-9
- The Theology of Genesis: Scattering of the Nations – Gen. 9-11