One of my most vivid memories of family vacations growing up was the stuff of which parents’ nightmares are made. Everything ended up well, and it wasn’t Us level in the sense of horror, but it made its mark on an otherwise really good beach vacation. My middle brother was floating on a pool raft in the ocean near the beach. Before too long, and without anyone noticing, the current has pulled him way out beyond the shore—so far, in fact, that you can barely see him out in the distance. I can still hear my mom yelling his name, screaming in absolute terror and utter desperation, hoping that somehow if her voice could get to him that he could grab a hold of them like a lifeline and return to the safety of the shore. I didn’t understand the gravity of the situation at the time, but now as a parent, I get it. Your child is out in the middle of the ocean—beyond your reach, beyond your rescuing, subject to the waves and the will of the untamable sea. The lifeguard ended up sending a jet ski out to rescue him. He returned safely to shore, and all ended well. But there is something that still subtly terrifies me about the water.
A story like that isn’t necessary in order to have a sort of holy fear of the sea. Even standing on the safety of its shore, its immensity is as terrifying as it is breathtaking. No one stands on the edge of the sea and feels good about themselves. No one thinks themselves great when surrounded by the vastness of the ocean. No one thinks themselves powerful when trying to turn back the power of the sea. We are put in our place, we realize our limits when faced with the sea. And the story we’ve come to in our journey through Genesis takes us to the edge of the water, even if we don’t know it yet.
In the biblical narrative, the sea is the place of primordial evil. It’s symbolic of chaos needing to be subdued in order for life to flourish. So in the biblical narrative, the sea has latent potential for destruction. It’s a fitting symbol of the chaotic powers that are an enemy God must subdue to save his people. The Genesis story begins with the Spirit of God hovering over the deep and with God ordering and restraining the waters, separating the waters above and the waters below. In the space between the waters, God lovingly prepares dry land as the place of humanity’s habitation free from the chaotic power of the waters. Humanity is safe between the waters because God has restrained the chaos of the waters. Fast forward to the end of the narrative in Revelation, the first of the evil beasts rises out of the sea and the great sinful prostitute is seated on many waters. Both these symbolic characters meet their end when in Revelation 22, “the sea is no more” because Jesus has at last subdued all the enemies of God and made all things new.
Both from our own experience and from the testimony of the Scriptures, the waters are constantly threatening our existence. They stand as a constant reminder that our only hope is that God restrains the waters and sustains us as we live between them. Time and time again in the biblical narrative, it is in and through the waters that God judges the sinfulness of humanity and makes a way for humanity to be redeemed. It is quite fitting, then, that we would come to these chapters of Genesis in Holy Week when God judges sin and saves humanity.
1 When man began to multiply on the face of the land and daughters were born to them, 2 the sons of God saw that the daughters of man were attractive. And they took as their wives any they chose. 3 Then the Lord said, “My Spirit shall not abide in man forever, for he is flesh: his days shall be 120 years.” 4 The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of man and they bore children to them. These were the mighty men who were of old, the men of renown. 5 The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. 6 And the Lord regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. 7 So the Lord said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens, for I am sorry that I have made them.” 8 But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord. Genesis 6.1-8
Chapter 5 began with the introduction, “This is the book of the generations of Adam.” The rest of the chapter precedes to tell the inescapable trap of death. No matter how long man lives, man ultimately dies. This is the dissonant, uncomfortable refrain of a Genesis 3 world. Just as God promised, man has died, and there is no escape for death’s snare (except, of course, that strange verse regarding Enoch who walked with God and was no more, for, as Hebrews tells us, God took him). But at the end of chapter 5, there is a glimmer of hope. Lamech gives birth to a son, calls him Noah and says, “Out of the ground that the Lord has cursed, this one shall give us relief…” Perhaps Noah will be the one to crush the head of the serpent, to undo the curse and set things right again.
If the preceding verses in chapter 5 inject the narrative with hope, it soon dissipates with the beginning of chapter 6. The opening verses of chapter 6 are often read as an introduction to the flood narrative, the reason God brings the judgement of the flood. That is certainly part of it. But these verses do less to introduce the story of Noah and more to conclude the story of Adam. Before the book of the generations of Noah begins, the book of the generations of Adam draws to a close with these verses—verses that paint a horrific picture of the destruction of humanity’s sin. Yet for all of the death of chapter 5, for all of the destruction coming on the narrative’s horizon, verse 1 sounds like Genesis 1—God’s command to humanity to be fruitful and multiply. This draws our remembrance back to God’s design for humanity, centering on the marital relationship between man and woman. However, what is happening here is an awful picture of how corrupt God’s design for his world has become. Being fruitful and multiplying is no longer the joyful overflow of the marriage of man and woman, it is the product of lust among spiritual beings. Remember that Genesis isn’t intending to answer all of our questions. It isn’t clear who exactly the sons of God are, but they are clearly spiritual beings—beings who belong to the heavenly realm. The offspring they produce by the daughters of man are the Nephilim. For all the uncertainty, Genesis does want us to pick up on something here. Listen again to the progression of the actions of the sons of God. “They saw… were attractive… they took.” What does this sound like? This is the very cycle of Eve when she saw the fruit was good for food and a delight to the eyes and she took it and ate it. What Genesis seems to be concerned with is how far the world has fallen from their God-intended purposes. And not just humanity—there is something amiss even in the spiritual realm. The sickness of sin has infected everything.
In response, God gives humanity 120 years to live, most likely meaning 120 years until the de-creational deluge. In stark contrast to the poetic blessing “God saw it was good” of Genesis 1, what God sees here so grieves him that he regrets making mankind. “Regret” is a careful play on another key word in the narrative, “relief”—as in, Lamech called his name Noah, saying, “This one shall bring us relief.” In using the word regret, the author isn’t implying a sort of divine mistake or mishap. It is, rather, to connect the anticipated relief of Noah with God’s grief and regret. God sees that creation and his creatures are no longer good as it was in Genesis 1 but that “the wickedness of man was great upon the earth.” God is going to use Noah whom God favors to do something about it. In the midst of grief and regret, God will work to bring relief. God’s grief does not anger him solely to bring judgement. Nor does his grief produce apathetic retreat. God will judge sin, no doubt, but in doing so, he will also work to bring relief from the sin that has so ensnared his world.
This relief, however, will come only in judgement—judgement that will mean the complete annihilation of everything and everyone on the earth. The divine judgement rendered at the end of the book of the generations of Adam is sobering—what began with divine blessing and affirmation has come to divine grief and judgement. The story of Genesis so far has made it clear that such lamentable circumstances have come solely through the sin of mankind—mine and yours and all of ours together. Beginning with Adam, all of mankind has transgressed God resulting in shame, relational distance, murder, death, and the perversion of the central component of God’s design, marriage. Something must be done to redeem God’s purposes for his creation and his creatures. As God’s creational action began with Adam, his redemptive action will begin in Noah, a second Adam of sort.
9 These are the generations of Noah. Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation. Noah walked with God. 10 And Noah had three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth .11 Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence.12 And God saw the earth, and behold, it was corrupt, for all flesh had corrupted their way on the earth. 13 And God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence through them. Behold, I will destroy them with the earth. 14 Make yourself an ark of gopher wood. Make rooms in the ark, and cover it inside and out with pitch. 15 This is how you are to make it: the length of the ark 300 cubits, its breadth 50 cubits, and its height 30 cubits.16 Make a roof for the ark, and finish it to a cubit above, and set the door of the ark in its side. Make it with lower, second, and third decks. 17 For behold, I will bring a flood of waters upon the earth to destroy all flesh in which is the breath of life under heaven. Everything that is on the earth shall die. 18 But I will establish my covenant with you, and you shall come into the ark, you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives with you. 19 And of every living thing of all flesh, you shall bring two of every sort into the ark to keep them alive with you. They shall be male and female. 20 Of the birds according to their kinds, and of the animals according to their kinds, of every creeping thing of the ground, according to its kind, two of every sort shall come in to you to keep them alive. 21 Also take with you every sort of food that is eaten, and store it up. It shall serve as food for you and for them.” 22 Noah did this; he did all that God commanded him. Genesis 6.9-22
Verse 9 begins a new chapter in the narrative as the focus turns now to Noah. The author’s description of Noah has echoes of Eden—where Adam and Eve walked with God—and of Enoch who walked with God in his own day. In describing Noah this way, our expectations of creational good and blessing being restored through Noah are heightened. Perhaps Noah will indeed bring relief. Yet the relief-bringing hero is not Noah’s part to play. God’s favor of Noah is mediated through the faith Noah has in God. Noah trusts in God and walks in his ways, and God shows him favor. Yet, this is not transactional faith. Noah does not put good deeds into a divine vending machine and get favor in return. Faith is a response of trust in God, not, as the story of Cain demonstrated, an attempt to manipulate God.
God tells Noah of his impending plan and instructs Noah to build an ark. More than generally instructing him to do so, God gives him very specific instructions regarding the material, the size and its cargo. The specificity of God’s instructions says something profound about faith in God. Noah’s hope of salvation is bound up in specific obedience to the specific instructions of God. Specificity of instructions demands specificity of response. God is concerned specifically about our lives—not as a power-hungry overlord but as a loving and benevolent sovereign whose commands usher us into salvation. His commands speak to us, “This is the way of life. Walk in it.” It is easy to hide disobedience behind generalities. Yet God is concerned with the specific qualities our lives. What are the dimensions of our lives to be? Or the material? What should be the length and width and height? Or what of its cargo?
As a foretaste of redemption, the remnant God saves through the ark is a reflection of Eden—animals, male and female, according to their kind, and people, families of husbands and wives. The order of God’s world remains good no matter how twisted by sin it has become, and the family of male and female remains the fundamental building block. And for the first time in the Genesis narrative, God makes a covenant with Noah. Biblically, a covenant is a promise or commitment that binds two parties in a mutual relationship. The author doesn’t disclose any of the covenant details here (that will come later in chapter 9). For now, all we know is that God’s covenant is given in the context of salvation. God promises that Noah and his family will find refuge in the ark and be saved. In response to God’s covenant, Noah obeys. His obedience is not the first play. Like faith, obedience is a response. It is a complete response—he did all that God commanded him. To obey only in part would not mean salvation in part. It would mean no salvation. Noah’s life, like Adam’s before him, and the life of the world, is contingent upon his complete obedience.
As will soon find out, Noah is too much like Adam, and we are too much like them both. We fail constantly and continually. Yet like Adam and like Noah, for us to be saved requires a complete response, to give ourselves fully to Christ, our refuge—the only One who obeyed God’s ways completely. We either wrap our lives around him completely and identify with him wholly, or not at all. We either identify with him in his life and his death, claim him by faith as our own, or we are left without refuge from God’s just judgement of our sin. Yet those who do run to Christ for refuge will find salvation through the waters.