Noah and the Flood

[In the Communion with God class, each student this year was required to research a story from the Bible and then write a paper about what he learned and what it means for us today, incorporating all we learned about studying the Bible and hearing the voice of God.  Every assignment I give our students, I also give myself.  The following is the result of my research into Noah and the flood.]

The single most devastating flood in modern history occurred in 1931 when the Huang He (Yellow) River flooded; 88,000 square kilometers of land were completely inundated, 80 million people were left homeless, and anywhere from 850,000 to 4 million lost their lives[1].  While grievous, this flood cannot compare to that which occurred during Noah’s lifetime when nearly all of human and animal life was eliminated from earth.  When we hear news of any natural disaster, we find it difficult to face, and our reaction is even stronger when we read about the flood in Genesis.  We wonder, “How could a loving God kill so many millions so casually?”, and we question the goodness of our Creator.  While our first reaction to the story is often one of disgust and bewilderment, the thrust of the narrative as told in Genesis 5:28-9:29 is not, in fact, the catastrophe.  The narrative of the flood is far more a story of redemption than of retribution, and we see this most clearly by examining the relationships within the account, in particular, the broken bond between man and nature and, by extension, the redemption of that between man and God.

BACKGROUND

The biography of Noah, from birth to death, encompasses nearly a millennium and includes some of the foundational moments in human history.  He was born in the year 1056[2].  Only sixty-nine years earlier, his great-grandfather Enoch was taken to heaven, and just fourteen years before Noah was born, Seth died; he was the third son of Adam, the first man ever created.  While the years leading up to the flood saw the birth of the heroes of legend[3], by the year 1656, humanity had grown to such a bad state that God himself described mankind as being only evil all the time[4].  Noah would have watched this dramatic downfall of the human race and its steady walk away from the commands of God.  By the time the flood came, he would have witnessed the death of seven generations of men, the last one being only the eighth since Adam but far removed from he whom God had first created and called “very good[5].”  After the flood, Noah lived another 350 years.  During these years, he would have seen the dramatic change in the human race as their lifespan decreased rapidly, from nearly one thousand years to a mere one or two hundred by the time of his death.  He would have seen the building of the Tower of Babel and God’s reaction that forced the spread of mankind across the Middle East.  He lived through the founding of many of the great and ancient cities, such as Ur, where Abraham’s father Terah was born in Noah’s 822nd year.  He was alive, too, when Abraham himself was born seventy years later, and he was likely alive during Abraham’s momentous decision to follow the voice of God into Canaan.  Noah died in the year 2006, having lived a total of 950 years and having witnessed the vast growth of humanity in numbers as well as its increasing wickedness, its nearly total annihilation at the hands of God, and finally its restoration from the disaster of the flood.

While Noah’s lifetime covered such a large span of years, the bulk of the material central to his life took place over a period of just one year and seven days.  The flood began on the 17th day of the 2nd month of the year 1656, and the survivors exited the ark on the 27th day of the 2nd monthw of the following year.  The story of Noah centers on this single event, and the flood is, therefore, of central importance in understanding God’s activity on the earth during Noah’s lifetime, both in restoring the broken relationship between man and nature and in reestablishing his own relationship with humanity.

A PROPHETIC PROCLAMATION

“Now he [Lamech] called his name Noah, saying, ‘This one will give us rest from our work and from the toil of our hands arising from the ground which the LORD has cursed.’[6]

Noah’s life began with a prophecy spoken over him by his father Lamech, and it introduces the most prominent of all the relationships described in the flood narrative:  the inseparable yet spoiled bond between man and nature.  This relationship was irreversibly corrupted long ago when God first cursed animals on the snake’s account and the ground on Adam’s, but it was never destroyed.[7]  From that moment, the unity and agreement with which God had intended nature and mankind to live was forever lost; instead of harmony, there would now be discord.  The relationship between mankind and nature is prominent within the flood narrative, but it is a relationship always colored by conflict.  While we see hints of an intimate bond between mankind and nature, the overwhelming picture is one of nearly hostile dissonance.  By way of example, while Noah himself was, like Adam, “a man of the ground” (9:20[8]), he was also doomed to a life of hard labor plying sustenance and joy out of the very dirt (5:29, 9:20-21); while mankind was given power and dominion over animals (7:2-3, 7:15, 9:2-3), those same animals would hunt him for food (9:5); while the earth provided a home for mankind to fill (6:1, 9:1, 9:7, 9:19), man had corrupted this home simply by his existence (6:5, 6:11, 6:13, 8:21).  This was the state of the world into which Noah was born, and Lamech’s prophecy directs us to one of the primary focuses of the flood story:  God’s response to this corrupted relationship between man and nature.

At the first reading of this verse, it might seem as if God promised to reverse the verdict of Genesis 3 during Noah’s lifetime, however, a careful study of the verse itself as well as a look at what the flood narrative tells us God actually did through Noah will reveal a different meaning.  First, we should look at the word translated in the New American Standard Bible as “to give us rest.”  In the Hebrew, this word is יְנַחֲמֵנוּ yenahamenu, the piel third person singular imperfect of נָחַם naham with the first person plural suffix.  In the piel, this verb means “to comfort,” and this is how it is translated in almost every other occurrence in the Bible; nowhere else is it ever translated as “to give rest.”  It is translated in such an odd way here not because of the Hebrew word itself but rather, following the example of the Septuagint[9], because of the name Noah (נֹחַ), which, while sharing two consonants with נָחַם naham (to comfort), in fact derives from the word נוּחַ nuah, meaning “to give rest”[10].  The meaning of Lamech’s prophetic declaration changes drastically depending on which of these two phrases is understood:  “to give rest” or “to comfort.”  If God promised to give rest from toil and work, that would have meant an end to the effects of the curse; but if God promised comfort in the midst of toil and work, then the effects of the curse would not be removed but rather mitigated through the addition of God’s comfort.  Some commentators, understanding the verb as “to give rest”, see in Lamech’s words a prophecy that, although hopeful, went unfulfilled:

Lamech not only felt the burden of his work upon the ground which God had cursed, but looked forward with a prophetic presentiment to the time when the existing misery and corruption would terminate, and a change for the better, a redemption from the curse, would come. This presentiment assumed the form of hope when his son was born; he therefore gave expression to it in his name. But his hope was not realized, at least not in the way that he desired. [emphasis added][11]

However, when the word נָחַם naham is translated, following the Hebrew text, as “to give rest,” instead of an unfulfilled prophetic declaration, we have a clear prediction of God’s work on the earth during Noah’s lifetime; it becomes a fulfilled prophetic word!  Lamech did not assert God would reverse the curse of Genesis 3 but rather that he would through Noah give comfort in the midst of the broken relationship between man and nature; we see this clearly in God’s three declarations after the flood.

GOD’S RESPONSE TO THE CURSE OF GENESIS 3

Although God did not bring a complete redemption from the effects of the curse during Noah’s lifetime, he did respond to mankind’s plight in face of the broken relationship with nature; in fact, his response was far more powerful than a simple reversal of the curse would have been.  God’s answer is primarily found in three sections of scriptures:  8:21-22 (God announced a change in his response to mankind and the earth), 9:1-7 (God blessed mankind and reestablished the natural order), and 9:8-17 (God established a covenant with mankind and animals).  Each of these is worth further study and sheds light on man’s relationship to nature and, more importantly, God’s response.

In 8:21-22, we read God’s first words to Noah after the flood event had come to a completion, an announcement of his new way of handling mankind and his rebellion.  Upon exiting the ark, Noah built an altar and then offered a sacrifice to God, selecting one animal from each of the clean species that he had rescued.  The scent of the offering rose up to God as a soothing aroma, and he responded with a declaration.  God promised that (1) he would never again curse the ground because of man, (2) he would never again destroy every living thing, and (3) the earth’s regular cycle of seasons and days would never again be interrupted.  While God made reference to the cursed ground, he did not remove any of its effects on mankind but rather kept his original judgment in place.  However, he did promise that his own response to mankind’s evil hearts would be quite different from that time forward:  he would never again curse the ground because of man.  In this first announcement, God did not heal the relationship between mankind and the earth, but he did promise he would not make it worse, despite what mankind’s nature merited.

God’s second declaration to Noah in 9:1-7 is both a blessing and a pronouncement establishing the natural order; while this announcement also did not heal the relationship between man and nature, it did add a blessing to mitigate its effects.  The blessing itself came in three primary ways:  (1) reproductive fruitfulness as a species, (2) dominance over the animal kingdom, and (3) use of animals as food.  The first of these promises was a direct quotation from Genesis 1:28 in which God blessed Adam and Eve with fruitfulness and the divine order to fill the earth.  While he put it into different words, God’s command to Adam to rule[12] was also reiterated to Noah when God promised to put the fear of mankind into every animal.  The final part of the blessing is the most interesting as it differs drastically from the original blessing of Genesis 1:29 and in fact pertains directly to the curse of Genesis 3.  The curse had affected the ground, making mankind’s only food source difficult to obtain, but God’s blessing to Noah alleviated this difficulty by providing animals as food in addition to plants.  In this second pronouncement over Noah, the curse was once again not removed—the ground would continue to give its fruit reluctantly—but God both renewed the original blessing given to Adam and Eve and also gave a new source of sustenance to humankind.  Though he did not remove the effects of the curse, God intervened and sent comfort to mankind.

God’s final pronouncement, the establishment of a covenant with mankind and living creatures, is found in 9:8-17, and it again reveals that, though the curse on the earth was never removed, it was instead mitigated through God’s own intervention.  These verses specify that God (1) established a covenant with mankind and all living creatures, (2) declared he would never again send a flood to destroy all life, and (3) created the rainbow as a sign of the covenant.  It is interesting to note that God did not include the earth as a member of the covenant but only Noah, his descendants, and “the birds, the cattle, and every beast of the earth.[13]”  The earth itself was left completely subject to the curse of Genesis 3.  However, God did something important, far more important than removing the effects of the curse on the ground; he enacted a covenant with mankind and animals, something he had not even done with Adam and Eve.  A covenant is “a sacred kinship bond between two parties ratified by swearing an oath,[14]” an agreement through which “the duties and privileges of kinship may be extended to another individual or group.[15]”  For God to enact a covenant with mankind signified that, though he would not reverse the judgment pronounced on the earth because of man’s sin, he was no less committed to mankind fulfilling the destiny for which he had been created, as committed to man, in fact, as would a father be to his children.  To establish a covenant was a far more powerful move than merely lessening the effects of the curse would ever have been, for a covenant—an “everlasting covenant[16]”—is irreversible.  Though the curse remained, the relationship between man and the earth broken, a new grace was released and a stronger relationship was formed when God pronounced an eternal partnership:  “Now behold, I Myself do establish My covenant with you, and with your descendants after you; and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the cattle, and every beast of the earth with you; of all that comes out of the ark, even every beast of the earth.[17]

THE REDEMPTIVE POWER OF COVENANT

When Noah began his life, a prophetic word spoken through his father Lamech announced both Noah’s calling and God’s intention to address the polluted relationship between man and nature.  In studying both the prophetic word itself as well as God’s pronouncements after the flood, we see that God chose not to reverse his earlier judgment on the earth but rather to mitigate its effects through altering his response to man’s disobedience, reestablishing the original blessing, and, most importantly, entering into a covenant relationship.  The fact that God chose to enact an eternal, sacred agreement with mankind and all living creatures points to an important spiritual truth:  what man needs more than anything else is God himself.

In praying over this topic, God gave me a vision that expresses the intimate relationship for which we were created and summarizes the focus of the flood narrative.  I saw two men standing facing one another, very close yet not touching.  As one breathed out, the other breathed in and vice versa; they were sharing breath.  God reminded me of how he “formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.[18]”  It is this relationship, this sharing of God’s life in covenant, that man most needs, in fact requires, for life.  Without it, he perishes and so does the created world he was ordained to rule.  As we face difficulties in life, let us not seek so much for these to be removed or even lessened, but rather let us glory in the grace of God’s covenant with us, let us take joy in his eternal commitment to mankind, let us rest peacefully in he who is with us through all trials.


END NOTES

[1] Encyclopedia Britannica, “Huang He Floods,” 2014 < http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/1483621/Huang-He-floods&gt;

[2] All dates are based on the chronology of the book of Genesis and assign year 0, day 0 to immediately before creation began.

[3] Genesis 6:4

[4] Genesis 6:5

[5] Genesis 1:31

[6] Genesis 5:29

[7] Genesis 3:14-19

[8] While the New American Standard Bible translates Genesis 9:20 as “Then Noah began farming and planted a vineyard,” following the Septuagint, the Hebrew could also be understood as “Then Noah, a man of the ground [הָאֲדָמָה אִישׁ], began and he planted a vineyard.”

[9] And he called his name Noah, saying “This one will give rest [διαναπαύσει] to us from our works and from the pain of our hands and from the earth, which the Lord God cursed.”

[10] Such a play on the consonants נ [n] and ח [h] is a common tool employed by the author of the flood narrative and is an interesting topic for further study but outside the scope of this paper.

[11] C. F. Keil & F. Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament, 1996.

[12] Genesis 1:26, 1:28

[13] Genesis 9:10

[14] S. Hahn. “Covenant,” The Lexham Bible Dictionary, 2012.

[15] ibid.

[16] Genesis 9:16

[17] Genesis 9:9-10

[18] Genesis 2:7


BIBLIOGRAPHY

Brown, F., Driver, S. R., & Briggs, C. A. Enhanced Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (electronic ed.) Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, 2000.

Buck, Charles.  Buck’s Theological Dictionary. Public Domain, 1802

Elliger, K. and Rudolph W. eds. Hebrew Text: Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia. Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1967/77.

Encyclopedia Britannica. (2014) “Huang He Floods.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved on August 4, 2014 from http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/1483621/Huang-He-floods

Fleming, Don. Bridgeway Bible Dictionary. Brisbane: Bridgeway Publications, 2004.

Gesenius, W., & Tregelles, S. P. Gesenius’ Hebrew and Chaldee lexicon to the Old Testament Scriptures. Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2003.

Hahn, S. “Covenant.” in J. D. Barry & L. Wentz (Eds.), The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012.

Hawker, Robert.  Poor Man’s Concordance. Public Domain, 1828.

Keil, C. F., & Delitzsch, F. Commentary on the Old Testament. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1996.

Kittel, G., Bromiley G. W., and Friedrich, G. eds.  Theological dictionary of the New Testament (electronic ed.). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964.

Liddell, H. A lexicon: Abridged from Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English lexicon. Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc, 1996.

Matthews, K. A. The New American Commentary: Genesis 1-11:26. Nashville: Broadman and Holman Publishers, 1996.

New American Standard Bible. La Habra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995.

Septuaginta: With morphology (electronic ed.). Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1979.

Soanes, C. and Stevenson, A. eds Concise Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Strong, J. A Concise Dictionary of the Words in the Greek Testament and The Hebrew Bible. Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2009.

Van der Pool, Charles. Apostolic Bible Polyglot. Newport: The Apostolic Press, 1996.

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One response to “Noah and the Flood

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