Arktheology - Genesis 6
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The story of Noah and the ark is decidedly not a children’s story although that is what it is the minds of many. My daughter-in-law Sophie was in a bookshop the other day and saw a children’s book on Noah which she thought would be nice for my granddaughter Chloe. The book said- ‘Noah loved tigers, Noah loved monkeys, Noah loved horses- Noah loved all the animals.’ That was it. God was airbrushed out of the story entirely with Noah being presented as some forlorn David Attenborough figure.
In fact if the episode of Noah and the flood were to be made into a film today it would be given an 18 rating because it is that frightening. It is a horror story. First there is the horror of the society 6:11-12: ‘Now the earth was corrupt in God's sight and was full of violence. 12God saw how corrupt the earth had become, for all the people on earth had corrupted their ways.’ Can you even begin to imagine what that means? Well, let’s think about our world and work backwards. The UN says there are 100 million abandoned children on the city’s streets in the world-100 million. In certain parts of South America there are death squads whose sole reason for being is to exterminate such children as if they were vermin. The percentage of child prostitutes in places like Bogota has quadrupled since 1987. Between 1914 and 1990 the population of the world tripled, ‘but’ writes Philip Bobbit, ‘an estimated 187 million persons –about 10% of the population of 1900- were killed or fated to die by human agency.’ In the West, pornography brings in more income than illicit drugs, alcohol and the entertainment industries combined, a problem, of course accentuated by the internet. So 80% of all internet users are men and over 50% of it is used to seek out pornography. The internet hosts 420 million pages of pornographic material and 260 new porn sites are launched every day. That is a taster of the moral slime through which our race is trawling at the moment. Corruption of thought, practice, lifestyle, work, religion, sex, fuelled by greed and violence is what marked Noah’s world. This was not a world into which you would have wanted to bring children. This was not a world where you would have felt safe. This was not a world to which you would have made any helpful contribution, for if you and I had been in this world- we too would have been part of the problem, for we are told that ‘all the people of earth had corrupted their ways.’ The moral viral infection was total, immunisation was not possible- it was a world of death- a dark, dank, underworld more like a sewer than a garden.
But then there is the horror of the judgement itself when it eventually came, so God solemnly declares in 6:17, ‘I am going to bring floodwaters on the earth to destroy all life under the heavens, every creature that has the breath of life in it. Everything on earth will perish.’ This is one of the most terrifying and tragic stories of God's wrath in the whole of the Bible. Gustave Dore, the French artist, captures the mood of the story in his engraving of a huge expanse of empty sea with one lone rock protruding a few feet above the waves. There are three terrified children on the rock, and slipping into the sea are a mother and father trying desperately to push a fourth little baby to safety. On the rock sits a giant tiger. Bodies are floating in the water and overhead circle the exhausted vultures. Do you see why this is not a children’s story? You start showing pictures like that to your Sunday school and the parental complaints will soon come pouring in because little Johnny has been given sleepless nights- understandably so. But as we saw last week, the horror of the judgement is in many ways a pale reflection of the horror of sin and God’s revulsion of it. God does not declare these things lightly; there is ‘pain’ in God’s heart as he looks at the human race-6:6. Divine judgement is no cold hearted mechanical vengeance like a wolf eagerly pursuing his quarry. No, God agonises before he judges. As Jesus wept over the judgement that was to fall upon Jerusalem, so as the rain began to fall on that corrupt antediluvian world the tears of God were mingled with it. Now what is really quite striking about chapters 6-8 and to some extent chapter 9, is that the main character in the story isn’t Noah at all, it is God- the LORD. He is the real hero, the one who does all the speaking, takes all the initiatives and makes all the running. And that is how we shall approach this story.
First we have the LORD- the God who rescues. It is important to note the order of verses 8 and 9 of chapter 6: ‘But Noah found favour in the eyes of the LORD. 9This is the account of Noah. Noah was a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time, and he walked with God.’ So Noah too, according to verse 8, was part of the problem in that he was walking around the moral cess pit the world had become with everyone else. But he found ‘favour’ in God’s eyes, or to be precise, ‘grace’ – underserved kindness, a love which was not drawn out of God by the man, but poured out by God to the man. And the result of that grace was that Noah agreed with God about the evil of his own sin, turned from it, and trusted God for grace. He is called righteous and blameless. But blameless in the Old Testament doesn't always mean sinless. A man is blameless if he does not persist in his blameworthy actions, if he hates them and comes to God seeking mercy (cf. Job 1:1). Neither does righteous mean sinless. In the Old Testament, a righteous man is a sinner who turns from his sin, trusts God, pursues obedience, and enjoys acceptance by grace. (See Psalm 32:1–2, 10–11.) This is confirmed by Hebrews 11:7, "By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, took heed and constructed an ark for the saving of his household; by this he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness which comes by faith." The initiative, then always lies with God- extending the hand that feeds us, even if all we do is bite it-that hand keeps on coming back. So the reason why Noah was righteous was because God was gracious and not the other way around.
And it is after the warning given about the impending judgement and the instructions to build a box- which is what an ark is- so to escape the judgement, God says something quite remarkable in verse 18: ‘I will establish my covenant with you, and you will enter the ark-you and your sons and your wife and your sons' wives with you.’ This is the first time the word ‘covenant’ or promise or agreement is used in the Bible. And the NIV’s translation is not that helpful at this point because it talks about God ‘establishing’ his covenant giving the impression that this is a new thing, as if he is making a covenant. The word really points to maintaining a covenant. So God is putting it into effect a covenant already made. What is that? Well, the context is that of salvation, rescue from judgement- so it may be taking us back to the promise God made to the woman in chapter 3:15 that God would ensure that a descendent of the woman would be born who would defeat God’s enemy- the serpent, with the implication that he will fulfil God’s original purposes to bring the world under God’s loving rule. Well, that can’t happen if everyone is wiped out can it? So in the face of this perishing of mankind, God puts his covenant into effect through Noah, bringing him and his family into the ark. So whatever this covenant is, it involves immediate safety which comes through this going into a box. So as one writer, Alec Motyer puts it, ‘Here covenant is shorthand for the promise of salvation.’ In other words, it speaks of God’s firm grip on his chosen people in a perishing world. And so we should not be surprised to find the New Testament writers referring back to the rescue of Noah as a picture of our rescue by Jesus. Peter in his first letter, speaking of Jesus says this: 21 ‘ He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit, through whom also he went and preached to the spirits in prison who disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also, not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.’ He is saying that back here in Genesis 6, the second person of the Trinity- Jesus- was preaching through Noah to the people of his world. So maybe others were hearing the Gospel then but chose not to do anything about it. Peter is in effect saying to Christians, ‘As you find yourself out of sorts with the rest of the world, you will be saved, as was Noah and his family, for just as they were lifted out of the waters of the flood, so symbolically you are lifted from the judgement to come by your baptism, a symbol of the cleansing and rescue which Jesus brings as you put your trust in him.’ God does have a solid grip on his chosen people doesn’t he? He doesn’t just let us go. He keeps his promises. That we see so clearly in 8:1, which is the focal point of the whole episode: ‘But God remembered Noah and all the wild animals and the livestock that were with him in the ark, and he sent a wind over the earth, and the waters receded.’ Now, that doesn’t mean that God had forgotten Noah through some sort of memory lapse. Rather, it means that God took thought for him, he was never out of his thoughts, but now his thought about Noah led to action- the restoring of Noah and the world back to some sort of normality. In short- salvation. And God does that time and time again- never letting people out of his sight and using the most extraordinary means of rescuing us. So let me tell you the story of William MacKay. He was brought up in the wilds of Scotland and it came to the time he was to go to Edinburgh University to complete his education and train as a doctor. And his mother gave him a gift of a Bible in which she wrote his name and her name. This was then packed into his case and off he went. Well, it was not long before he rejected the faith of his mother; in fact he came to despise it. He also took a liking to whiskey. So much so that he soon ran out of money and in order to secure some cash he pawned the Bible his mother had given him. Although he had a drink problem he did well in his studies and became a well sought after surgeon. And all during this time he poured more and more scorn on the Christian faith. But as well as having a drink problem he had a pride problem. He especially prided himself in being so skilled that he could bring people back from the brink of death. One day a man was brought into the hospital that had been seriously crushed in an accident. And this was just the kind of case MacKay loved so he could show off his expertise. But the man had an amazing serenity about him when MacKay met him. He asked Mackay what were his chances? He went on to say that he was not afraid to die because he trusted in the precious shed blood of the Lord Jesus Christ and knew that if he were to die he would be going to be with him in glory; but he would like to know the truth. And so MacKay told him straight out that at most he had three hours to live. He said, ‘Thank you doctor. In my pocket is a two week pay packet, please could you make sure my landlady gets that to pay for my lodgings? And could you also ask her to send me the book?’ The doctor surprised said, ‘What book is that?’ He said, ‘Oh, it’s just the book, she will know.’ Now MacKay hardly ever went back into the ward after he had finished with a patient. And so the nurse was surprised when he turned up again later because there was something about the face of that man which intrigued him- he was so peaceful! He asked the nurse about him and she replied that he had in fact died a few minutes ago. Mackay then asked whether he managed to get his book, and what kind of book was it- a bank book? The nurse said, yes, he got his book, but it wasn’t a bank book but it is still under his pillow if you want to take a look at it. So Mackay went to the pillow and lifted it, and he found that it was a bible which looked strangely familiar. He opened it and there on the fly leaf he was startled to read his own name and the name of his mother, together with the verse of Scripture she had given him all those years ago. This was the very Bible he pawned for whisky as a young student. And with both shock and shame he hid the Bible under his coat and ran to his office, fell on his knees and there and then asked God to forgive him his sins and let his peace come upon him. The very thing he had despised-the Bible- was used by God to bring him salvation. What are the chances of that happening? But it did. What are the chances that this Middle Eastern family will escape an apocalyptic flood? But they did. And what are the chances that if you turn to the God who rescues through his Son you will escape the judgement to come? Well, 100% certainty.
And so we come to the LORD- the God who relates. From the very beginning of Genesis we saw that this was a unique and defining feature of God in contrast to the pagan gods. The most fundamental level at which we relate is by communication- speech. Although the LORD is clearly the transcendent God who is not contained by the universe he has made, he nonetheless is not a distant God either because he relates to that universe through speech- his Word. He talks to Adam and here he talks to Noah. Notice how God confides in Noah what he is about to do in bringing about judgement in verse 13. He didn’t have to do that. Then we get the LORD’s detailed instruction in verse 14 on how he is to build the escape box-the ark. And we read of Noah’s response in verse 22: ‘Noah did everything just as God commanded him.’ What is especially fascinating, I think, throughout the whole flood episode from chapter 6 through to the end of chapter 8 is what Noah doesn’t do. Did you spot it? Noah doesn’t speak. There is not one word of Noah which is recorded. The one who does all the speaking is God, Noah just does. Now I don’t know about you but if I had been writing the narrative I think I would have put some words in from Noah. If, as the New Testament says, Noah was a preacher of righteousness, perhaps one could have snuck in one of his sermons somewhere. Or perhaps we might have had some of Noah’s thoughts from the ark cooped up with all that animal mess he had to clear out, with Noah being portrayed as some kind of stoic hero. But we get not a peep from him. Why? Well, because the real hero is the LORD himself. He takes the initiative in judgement- wickedness will not prevail, the serpent’s seed will not triumph. He takes the initiative in salvation; right down to the way Noah is to use pitch to seal the walls of the ark. He is the one who causes the waters to recede at the right time and ensures the ark is perched on Mount Ararat. He is the one who commands Noah and his family to get into the ark-7:1 and he is the one who commands them to come out of it-8:15. And that is the proper symmetry of the relationship between God and Noah, and indeed God and us. God is the one who is superintending everything. He lovingly takes care of his man and family. Noah doesn’t contribute to his salvation, he simply receives it. Sure it is contingent upon him believing what God says, which means doing what God says, it is not automatic and Noah is no robot, he willingly co-operates with the LORD. And then after the salvation there is the proper response of thanks; 8:20: ‘Then Noah built an altar to the LORD and, taking some of all the clean animals and clean birds, he sacrificed burnt offerings on it.’ And is that not the way it should be with us? Noah doesn’t advise God on his ark design. Noah doesn’t second guess God by saying how he might want to be a little more patient with people. He trusts God which means he will act upon what God says and will be grateful. And that is what we try to promote and model here as we meet Sunday by Sunday. God speaks through his Word, we seek to listen, understand and obey by living it out in his strength. We love to be reminded of the Gospel which saves from a judgement to come which is going to be far worse than this one- not because it makes us feel good about ourselves but it reminds us how good God is that he should go to such lengths to save. That is why we incorporate acts of thanksgiving in response to God’s character and kindness- the praise of our lips in song, the praise of our offerings in the giving of our money, and the solemn act of thanksgiving in Holy Communion- ‘this we do gladly’ we say and mean it. All of these things come together in such a way that the living God with whom Noah walked, relates to us and we relate to him. Now isn’t that an astonishing thing?
But finally we have the LORD-the God who restrains- chapter 8:21: 21The LORD smelled the pleasing aroma and said in his heart: "Never again will I curse the ground because of man, even though every inclination of his heart is evil from childhood. And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done. 22"As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease." Now here is a significant change in God’s attitude to humankind. In chapter 6 it was because ‘every inclination of the thoughts of man were evil’ that he decided to bring about universal judgement. Now that same reason is given for not bringing about such judgement. In other words, yes, this is what human beings are like this side of Eden and if God were to simply act in swift justice then there would be flood, after flood, after flood. But he is not going to do that- he is going to restrain his holy anger. In fact the very regularity of our world- that summer follows spring which follows winter; that every action has an equal and opposite reaction; that babies are born with remarkable predictability the same way the world over; that when we will our arm to lift, it lifts- such regularities are God’s gifts to us- signs of him forbearing with us. It is not the odd things in our world which should make us wonder if there is a God (in fact the fairy tale world of talking and walking trees is a frightening world) - but that things are so predictable. The writer G.K.Chesterton put it like this: ‘We should always endeavour to wonder at the permanent thing, not at the mere exception. We should be startle by the sun, and not by the eclipse. We should wonder less at the earthquake, and wonder more about the earth.’ Sure there is going to be a final, universal judgement according to the Bible, but not frequent universal judgements. There will be localised signs of judgement and disharmony- as Jesus taught - but God in his great forbearance holds back from wiping us off the face of the earth every time we sin- instead he sends the sun to shine and the rain to fall on the just and unjust alike- and these things are meant to make us wonder at the kind of God who will do this.
But it does seem that there is a connection between what Noah did and God’s change of attitude, look again at verse 20: ‘Then Noah built an altar to the LORD and, taking some of all the clean animals and clean birds, he sacrificed burnt offerings on it. 21The LORD smelled the pleasing aroma and said in his heart: "Never again will I curse the ground because of man, even though every inclination of his heart is evil from childhood.’ What has taken place? Well, a sacrifice. It could be translated that the sacrifice had a ‘soothing aroma.’ In other words it had a calming effect on God, making him well disposed to those who would snub him and abuse him. So what is it that stands between us and God’s abhorrence of our sin? What is it that ensures that the severe frown of God is exchanged for the sweet smile of God as he looks upon us? The answer is- a sacrifice. In fact Jesus spoke of his death as being a baptism. Baptism is a word which simply means a drenching, a submerging. And so just as this world was submerged under the anger of God’s judgement with one family escaping by God’s grace- Jesus on our behalf was submerged under the anger of God’s judgement on the cross, so that God’s chosen family could escape- all those who would put their trust in Jesus. The reason we are not drowned is because he was drowned in our place. The reason why we will not face the final judgement is because he faced it for us instead. Jesus death soothed the Godhead- that is the glory of the Gospel and that is the glory of God.
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