Genesis 6:5-22 ~ Boat Stories: Noah’s Ark
INTRODUCTION TO SCRIPTURE
Question: how many great stories in the Bible involved a boat? Once you start thinking, more and more boats come to mind: Noah’s ark, fishing boats on the Galilee, sailing ships that carried Paul across the Mediterranean. If you took a “snapshot” of all the scenes of the life of Jesus, chances are a boat will be there somewhere. Boats were integral to the Galilean region. And boats were the main mode that spread the gospel around Roman Empire. Let’s follow the boats in the Bible and see where they lead.
Actually, Gay began this series last week with her great message about Jesus on the water with Peter. But today let’s go back further in time, back before recorded time, to perhaps the biggest boat story of them all, Noah’s ark. (Read Genesis 6:5-22)
IMAGINE A PRE-SCHOOL CHILD HEARING THIS STORY
Do you remember the first time you heard about Noah’s ark? Maybe you were four or five years old. A preschooler hears this story with delight, fascinated with that huge, funny-looking boat, identifying the animals as they go two by two into the great ship. See the birds? See the giraffes? There’s the lions! Look, there’s two skunks, pewwww! And there’s the elephants… Children love animals and they love how God cares for animals in this story. Then the door of the great ark is shut, as the clouds gather. Then a bit of thunder rumbles, and the rains begin. Some children love that part too. Others get a little scared…
IMAGINE A BOY OR GIRL IN GRADE SCHOOL READING THE STORY
Imagine a fifth grade Sunday School class discussing Noah’s ark. After they read it, you know the questions will start coming one after another:
- “Were there dinosaurs on the ark?”
- “I read that there are millions of species of animals on the earth. How could they all fit into one boat?”
- “How did Noah keep the lions and tigers from eating the other animals?”
- “What happened to all that manure? Ewwww…”
And then there’s always that precocious child, the one who reads five books a week, who asks, “I read that other ancient peoples had their own flood stories, like the Persians and the Indians and the Africans and the Australians and even the Eskimos. How come?”
And then there’s the sensitive child, whose face gets more and more troubled as the story goes on, and asks, “I know the world had been wicked and full of sin, but did all those people and even babies really have to drown?”
Imagine their Sunday School teacher scrambling to find answers to their questions: “Well uh….I guess that, uh….Gosh, I hadn’t thought about that…”
READING THE STORY AS AN ADULT
So little children hear this story with delight, and precocious and sensitive fifth graders react with questions. But how should I hear this story now?
Sometimes I still ponder the questions we asked in fifth grade, trying to relate the story to what we know about the earth. Archaeologists have not found evidence of a worldwide flood. But there is evidence of widespread flooding that came after the ice age in many parts of the world. It’s not hard to imagine how memories of that primeval time were passed down through the generations and the millennia to many different cultures. People around the world seem to share a common story about massive flooding. So I don’t scoff at this story and say there can be no historical basis.
But as I ponder Noah and the ark now, those fifth grade questions don’t worry me as much. Instead, deep themes and strong feelings grab hold of me. Now the story puts me in touch with what a messed up world my world is, and whether there might be any hope for my own messed up self.
Try reading this story after you’ve listened to the news of this summer: of plane parts and body parts strewn across a Ukrainian field, of a new army rising up in Iraq and Syria that thinks nothing of beheading children or burying them alive, of senseless shootings in our own town, of ugly strife in a Missouri town, of despair in our inner cities extending for miles upon miles, of a funny man who gave joy to millions of people but who had such secret agony that he took his own life. The world is so messed up. And we, we are so messed up. It’s all so far gone that it’s beyond our fixing.
In light of all that, I hear these words differently than when I was a child:
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)
Have you ever begun something or made something or invested yourself in something, only to realize that it was going hopelessly wrong? After the shootings at Columbine High School in 1999, the mother of Dylan Klebold (Susan Klebold) wrote how impossible it was to comprehend that “someone I had raised could cause so much suffering.” Multiply that by a few billion times and you begin to understand the anguish of God, when God realized that the world he had created was sinking into evil and violence. And of the humans that God had created in his image, God had to admit that their every thought was evil. It grieved God to his very heart. God was sorry he had ever started it all.
What an intimate look into the heart of God! It shows us that God was never ever remote or disinterested in creation. God was always highly invested and involved in all creation. So when such a good beginning deteriorated into such a horrible mess, God was heartbroken.
So there was judgment, but in the midst of that judgment came a realization for God. In the midst of that judgment came a turning point in the relationship between God and humanity. I’ll first describe the judgment, and then the turning point.
The judgment was cosmic and cataclysmic. The ancients believed that earth was just a sliver of ground sandwiched between the waters beneath the ground and the waters above the heavens. In the flood,
All the fountains of the great deep burst forth,
and the windows of the heavens were opened. Genesis 7:11b
The doomed earth was caught in between the waters bursting up from below and the waters pouring down from above. The earth returned to the watery chaos that reigned before creation. What God had called “very good” on the last day of creation, God now declared that he would “blot out from the earth” and “destroy.” (Genesis 1:31 and 6:7, 13)
The destruction goes on through chapter seven:
He blotted out every living thing that was on the face of the ground, human beings and animals and creeping things and birds of the air; they were blotted out from the earth. Only Noah was left, and those that were with him in the ark. And the waters swelled on the earth for one hundred fifty days. Genesis 7:23-24
THE TURNING POINT
But then came the turning point: “BUT GOD REMEMBERED NOAH.” (Gen. 8:1) When God remembered Noah, the whole story changed from wrath to grace and from destruction to salvation. When God remember Noah, something happened in God. What happened was this: even though God was grieved to his heart at the violence and sin of the humans he had created, God decided that he would continue to stick with humanity. God remembered Noah.
That speaks to me, to my deepest fear, for you see, my deepest fear is that I might be forgotten: “Oh God, I know that I’m a mess. I know that I have fallen far, far below all that you intended for me. God, I could not blame you at all if you simply walked away from me, left me to drown in the chaos of this world, and forgot me.”
BUT, God remembered Noah. God shut the floodgates and let the waters recede. God made a new covenant with Noah and placed a reminder of that covenant in the skies:
I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. Genesis 9:13-15
Now, here’s the kicker: God made this promise knowing full well that human beings had not changed. God made this covenant knowing that Noah and his sons and you and me would all mess up again and would foul up this whole earth again. The turning point did not involve any change from us. The turning point was when God, grieved as God was by human sin, and knowing that the same sad story would continue, gave humanity another chance. What an agonizing choice that must have been. What a costly commitment God made to Noah on that day. What a turning point.
And there’s more: that turning point would lead all the way to salvation in Jesus Christ. That’s because both the covenant made by God with Noah, and the covenant made in Christ required great sacrifice. In both covenants, the Lord decided to take upon himself the sins of the world.
This is how God saves the world. This is how the Lord saves you and me: not by forcing us into obedience, but by taking on himself the agony and the brokenness of the world. God saves us, not by overlooking and indulging our sin, and not by destroying us in wrath; rather God saves us by creating a new beginning and a new covenant. God commits anew to stick by us. For God, it is a most costly commitment for God. For us, it is a most awesome grace.
Is there anyone here who feels like the flood waters of sin are overwhelming you? Is there anyone here who fears that God will turn away and forget you? Know that God determined long ago not to forget you. God made a covenant to stick with you. God ratified that covenant with a bow in the skies and a cross on a hill and a tomb that was empty. Now, who will come forward and take hold of that promise today?
- Douglas E. Murray