Unfortunately, when most people think of the Genesis account of the flood they lose sight of its meaning in the developing story of Genesis. When we view it as a nice children's story (What child does not love animals and boats?) or focus on the unimaginable scale of destruction wrought by the flood, we miss out on the meaning of the story - what it teaches us about God and God's ways with fallen humanity.
Clearly, the flood account has been greatly misunderstood. The story of the flood is not about God's wrath or anger. Not once does the account state that God is angry or wrathful. Instead, we discover that God is disappointed and grieved.
The purpose of the flood is not the destruction of creation, but rather, its preservation. The flood is about a new beginning and hope for the future grounded in God's unconditional covenant with creation. God is unwilling to abandon creation and would rather suffer the pain of humanity's continued sinfulness rather than bring creation and humanity to a grinding halt.
With this in mind, let's look at the story anew and remove some caricatures. By doing this, we hope to get the meaning of the story in redemptive history.
God's Broken Heart
"The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart" (Genesis 6:5-6).
The opening verses provide God's rationale for the flood: humankind has descended into the depths of sin. "Wickedness" refers both to sinful acts and their consequences. Sin is expressed not only in actions, but in attitudes. The God who sees the human heart states that the inclination of the heart is corrupt. The words, "only," "every," and "continually" expose the breadth and depth of the sinful human condition. We could paraphrase the verse: "every intent of every heart was only evil, all the time." In this phrase we encounter the tragedy of sin. The tragedy of human depravity is that we were created for so much more. What used to be "good, indeed, very good" (Genesis 1:31) is now anything but good.
Humankind's sinful heart is expressed in sinful actions. When everyone contributes, societal corruption ensues: "Now the earth was corrupt in God's sight, and the earth was filled with violence. And God saw that the earth was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted its ways upon the earth" (Genesis 6:11-12). Instead of filling the earth through procreation, humankind fills the earth with lawlessness, injustice, and violence. The earth that God created "good" is "corrupt" - wasted, spoiled, and disfigured. This phrase, "And God saw that the earth was corrupt" (Genesis 6:12) stands in direct contrast to "And God saw that it was good" (Genesis 1:31).
The corruption of the human heart powerful touches God's heart: "And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart... I am sorry that I have made them" (Genesis 6:6-7). God is not angered, but grieved; not enraged, but sorry.
Humankind's "evil heart" (Genesis 6:5) deeply troubles the "heart of God" (Genesis 6:6). God feels the "pain" of the human condition, the pain characteristic of the man and woman bearing the consequences of sin (see Genesis 3:16-17; cf. 5:29). In this story, "God appears, not as an angry and vengeful judge, but as a grieving and pained parent, distressed at what has happened." God grieves because God loves. "God does not stand in an indifferent or remote relationship to what has happened, but personally enters into its brokenness and works on it from within." Ultimately, God in Christ will choose to suffer the greatest pain for humanity's sake.
God's pain is so great that God says, "I am sorry that I have made them" (Genesis 6:7). The good news of the flood account is that this pain does not prohibit God from moving forward in God's desire to redeem humanity. God remains faithful to fallen humanity in spite of the pain it brings.
At this point, some will rightly ask: If God is all-knowing then God must have known prior to creation that humankind would fall into sin. God must have created all things with the full awareness of the possibility of sin, suffering, and evil. Why would God create with the full awareness of potential suffering? Couldn't God have done something to prevent this from happening? And if not, why create in the first place?
James Emery White answers this question by comparing God's act of creation to his relationship with his teenage daughter:
Some may say, "Well, if God knew how things would turn out, he should have never created us!" because everything from cancer to concentration camps isn't worth it. Yet when we blithely say such things, we betray how little we know of true love. Yes, the freedom to choose that God gave each of us has resulted in heartache and even tragedy. It is tempting to say that everyone - including God - would have been better off never having to endure it. But that's not the way love - real love, at least - works.
To remember this, I need only reflect on one of the most defining realities in my life: my own role as a father. As I write these words, my oldest daughter is beginning her freshman year in high school. And because of this fact, all summer I've been a wreck.
I thought sending her to her first birthday party was hard. She came home in tears because the birthday girl announced at the start of a game that "everyone can play but Rebecca."
I thought leaving her at school for an entire day for the first time was hard. And then I learned that another child had purposefully tripped her on the playground.
I thought that pulling out splinters, or holding her through the night when she had a fever, was hard.
I thought that watching her experience the onset of puberty, and the painful awkwardness and insecurity of becoming a teenager, was hard.
Now send your first child to high school, where she can wound and be wounded in ways that were unthinkable the day you first held her in your arms. Then you'll know hard.
But let me - the one who loves her more than anyone, the one who would lay down his life for her in an instant - tell you what has never entered my mind:
Never having her.
Never bringing her into the world.
Never going through life with her.
Even though she can reject me and tear out by heart by hurting herself as well as others, if someone were to say, "Why do you even bother?" my only reply would be, "Because she is my daughter." And having known fathers who have endured far more anguish than I have, suffering through prodigal years, chronic illnesses, and even untimely death, I can say confidently that no matter the cost, the value of bringing our children into the world goes without question.
Parents with rebellious children can relate to God. When a child brings pain and disappointment to us, we may experience sorrow and regret, yet we remain committed to our child's welfare - and hope for the best. This pattern of pain and commitment is expressed in Hosea 11:1-9 where God's pronouncement of judgment (Hosea 11:1-7) is broken by God's expression of passionate love (Hosea 11:8-9).
In the midst of human wickedness and divine sorrow, there is a ray of light: "Noah found favor in the sight of the Lord" (Genesis 6:8). Noah is "a righteous man, blameless in his generation; Noah walked with God" (Genesis 6:9). This is the first time an individual is declared to be righteous. In comparison to others, he is blameless. Like Enoch before him, he "walked with God." Noah is not sinless, but he is a man of integrity and faith in the midst of a corrupt society - a fish swimming upstream against the tide. As such, he is a model of faithfulness to us. Noah stands alone in his faith, even when it is not to his advantage to do so.
It is interesting to note that Noah does not speak throughout the entire flood account. Old Testament scholar, John Walton writes,
The text is in fact oddly silent about Noah on a number of serious counts; more to the point, Noah is silent--he never speaks through the whole flood account. He has no response to God's announcement, no questions about the ark of the animals, no plea on behalf of anyone else, no cries for mercy, no bursts of joyful gratitude at the prospect of being saved, no grief for a world destroyed, no impatience in the ark, and no prayers of thanksgiving accompanying sacrifice.
Noah's righteousness is demonstrated not in his words, but in his actions. His greatest achievement is that he obeyed God.
Like the prophets that will follow him, God discloses God's intentions to Noah (Genesis 6:13). God's plan of deliverance involves Noah building an ark (Genesis 6:14). God provides specific details to guide Noah in his construction of the ark. It is to be 450 feet long, 75 feet wide, and 45 feet high. It is to be composed of three stories with rooms and an 18-inch opening between the roof and the superstructure of the ark.
Though the dimensions are worthy of a seagoing vessel, strictly speaking, the ark is not a boat. It is more like a floating house. It is not designed to be navigated. It possesses no sail to power it, no rudder to provide a steering mechanism, and no windows. Noah cannot see out, steer, or navigate. He is completely in God's hands.
The inclusion of the animals on board the ark reveals that God is concerned for the redemption of all creation and not merely humans. God is for creation. Creation is good. God refuses to abandon it, in spite of human sinfulness.
With the plans laid out, God invites Noah to enter into a covenant (Genesis 6:17-18). Noah becomes God's covenant partner in the redemption of creation. We are invited to the same partnership with God in manifesting God's kingdom here on earth. Through our righteous actions we seek God's will for the earth - its restoration and redemption.
The greatest proof of Noah's faith is that he immediately obeys God's commands: "Noah did this; he did all that God commanded him" (Genesis 6:22; see 7:5). This is mentioned in brief, but it must have involved tremendous effort and investment. His prophetic action of building this immense structure served as a visible warning to all humankind of the impending disaster. Humankind is left without excuse, for the way of salvation has been revealed.
Before we write off the flood as pure myth and fabrication, it is interesting to note that there are many ancient accounts of a flood that circulated in the ancient Near East. The most widely known is the Gilgamesh Epic. An older and less complete account is the Atrahasis Epic. We also possess Babylonian and Sumerian versions of the flood.
Old Testament scholar, Terrence Fretheim also points out that alluvial deposits show that the Tigris-Euphrates River valley periodically flooded in ancient times. "These factors suggest that the Genesis account should be related to a major flood in the Mesopotamian valley, which in time was interpreted as a flood that covered the then known world (one severe flood has been dated around 3000 BCE)."
Once Noah, his family, and the animals are safely inside the completed ark, "the Lord shut him in" (Genesis 7:16). At this point, the floodgates open (Genesis 7:10-11). For forty days and forty nights the rains fall (Genesis 7:12). The devastating impact is that life is blotted out. Only Noah, his family, and the animals on the ark remain alive (Genesis 7:23). We find ourselves back to the watery chaos of Genesis 1:2. The cleansing of the flood opens up possibilities for a new creation - a fresh start.
Genesis 8 is set in contrast to Genesis 7 - a chapter overflowing with death and destruction. The turning point of redemption is announced in one simple phrase: "But God remembered Noah" (Genesis 8:1). Remembrance is an act of love. God remembers the covenant made with Noah. And God proves faithful to the covenant. As in initial creation, a "wind" or "Spirit" blows, and the re-creation of all things begins. The story of God begins anew.
However, humankind remains the same. The flood does not change basic human character. The inclination of the human heart remains evil from youth (Genesis 8:21). The curse is not lifted through judgment. Judgment does not change or transform the human heart or redeem creation.
Lessons from the Flood
If there is no change in the human heart, what then is the purpose of the flood? If it offers no new insights on the human condition, what does it reveal to us about God?
The account reveals God's new way of relating to a wicked world that has drastically fallen from God's original intention. The way forward will not depend on human faithfulness. Instead, human life and flourishing will continue because of God's divine promise sealed by a covenant.
God makes a unilateral and unconditional covenant between God and all creation: "As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark" (Genesis 9:9-10). Never again will judgment occur on the scale of the flood. The rainbow serves as a sign both of judgment, but more importantly, of God's merciful faithfulness. Because the human heart is desperately wicked, it is God's covenant that guarantees that history will not consist of an unending cycle of cataclysmic judgments with no hope for relief. God is with us in our sin. God is for the world in spite of its sin!
But God's stance of covenant faithfulness comes at a cost. By promising to remain faithful to creation's good, "God takes the route of suffering. Deciding to endure a wicked world, while continuing to open up the divine heart to that world, means that God will continue to grieve. God thus decides to take suffering into God's own self and bear it there for the sake of the future of the world." In spite of the pain and grief it brings "God resolves that he will stay with, endure, and sustain his world, notwithstanding the sorry state of humankind. He will not let the rebellion of humankind sway him from his grand dream for creation. He will stay with his decision for a harmonious, obedient, creation."
Once again we encounter God's determination to bless in spite of human sinfulness, and even more, at the cost of divine suffering. God does not need to suffer, but willingly chooses to suffer as a result of his commitment to his beloved world. It is God's great commitment to creation that brings suffering. Amazingly, God chooses to make his well-being and joy contingent upon creation. God does not need to do this, but desires to do it. God's commitment to his creation is that great!
Though we often focus on the flood, we should be more amazed by the flood of divine tears that precedes this account, and will accompany God throughout all redemptive history.
God groans for love. God is hurt deeply by humankind's sin because God loves deeply. But God's longsuffering is greater than sin. It is this "kindness of God that leads to repentance" (Romans 2:4). God is too good to abandon his creation. God would rather suffer than renege his commitment to this cosmos. For this reason, we can affirm that God chose to suffer the moment he chose to create. These two choices are inseparable. Neither was necessary. Both are grace.
When Jesus, the suffering servant, the man of sorrows acquainted with grief comes, he will repeatedly declare, "I did not come to condemn, but to save."
The theology of the cross... is first of all a statement about God, and what it says about God is not that God thinks humankind so wretched that it deserves death and hell, but that God thinks humankind and the whole creation so good, so beautiful, so precious in its intention and its potentiality, that its actualization, its fulfillment, its redemption is worth dying for.
God will not abandon us. Creation will be preserved, indeed transformed, into a cosmic temple. The grace and mercy of God, guaranteed by God's covenant, will assure that creation will come to a good end.
 Terence E. Fretheim, Genesis in The New Interpreters Bible (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), 389.
 Fretheim, Genesis, 389.
 Likewise, when we sin, we do not anger the Spirit, but rather, we "grieve the Spirit" (Ephesians 4:30).
 James Emery White, Embracing the Mysterious God: Loving the God We Don't Understand (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press), 27-28.
 John H. Walton, Genesis: The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2001), 332.
 As steward of the earth, all creation suffers the consequences of humankind's sin. In God's declarations of judgment in Genesis 6:7 and 13, we note the following pattern: "I will blot out... human beings... animals... creeping things... birds." The language reverses the order of Genesis 1. Humankind's sin has a devastating effect on earth. Consequently, humankind's redemption will result in the complete restoration of all creation (see Romans 8:21).
 Fretheim, Genesis, 388.
 Ancient interpreters highlighted the peaceful co-existence of various animals in the ark that points forward to new creation - a world were "the lion lies down with lamb."
 Fretheim, Genesis, 396.
 Walter Brueggemann, Genesis (Atlanta, Georgia: John Knox Press, 1982), 81.
 Compare 9:1-2, 19-20 to Genesis 1:28
 Douglas John Hall, The Cross in Context: Jesus and the Suffering World (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress), 24.
© Richard J. Vincent, 2008