Noah's ark is not a kid's story

Photo by  Jakob Owens

Photo by Jakob Owens

So the Lord said, ‘I will wipe from the face of the earth the human race I have created — and with them the animals, the birds and the creatures that move along the ground — for I regret that I have made them.
— Genesis 6:7

The story of Noah’s ark reminds me of the fairy tales many of us heard as kids. You know, stories of the Hansel and Gretel variety, which at the time seemed full of dramatic events and cool characters, but are really quite dark and sinister when you think about them.

Reading this story, knowing in the back of my mind that I was going to have to blog about it, well, that made it even more uncomfortable. We’re only a few chapters into the story of creation and God takes out nearly the entire human race!?!

Like a painter who decides their work is a piece of trash, the Lord determines that his first run at humanity was a disappointment. Except unlike an artist who can destroy their painting with minimal devastation, God is wiping out a population of living, breathing humans.

How can God, who seems to treat humans with great value — even to the point of dying for them later on in the story — just kill off the majority of people because he regrets creating them? The Bible is full of verses that seem to contradict God’s actions here.

Think of Psalm 139:13-16, which talks about how intimately God knows us, even while we are being formed in the womb. Zephaniah 3:17 talks about the Lord taking great delight in the nation of Israel, no longer reprimanding them for their sins but instead rejoicing over them with singing. A classic example is 2 Peter 3:9, which talks about God’s patience; he doesn’t want anyone to die, but rather that all should repent. How can this be the same God?

So yeah, the flood is a tough one. The Lord has exercised judgement, and it hurts.

What do we do with this?

The first thing the Holy Spirit prompted me to remember is that the bar for getting on the boat wasn’t perfection. There was no impossible standard that no one except the eight people who made it onto the ark could attain. As we see in Genesis 9 through to 11, Noah gets drunk, one of his sons mocks him for it, and the offspring of all three sons quickly go off the deep end. No one on that boat was perfect. So, why did they get saved and no one else?

Because the standard was being faithful to God. The Lord wanted people to believe in him and obey him, and that was definitely not happening. Genesis 6:5 says, “The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time.”

Every inclination of the human heart was only evil all the time.

That’s not mediocre bad. That’s as screwed up as it gets. We’re only a few chapters into story of the world, and already the earth is breaking. Adam and Eve’s son was the first person to commit murder (Genesis 4:1-16). That’s how quickly human evil was progressing.

And it was just getting worse. We see earlier on in Genesis 6 that people had begun turning to each other for pleasure instead of worshipping God; they relied on their own strength instead of trusting in the Lord (Genesis 6:1-8). This has huge ramifications.

The earth was designed by a perfect God to work in a perfect order. This means that when we sin, we don’t just corrupt ourselves, we also corrupt the earth (Genesis 6:11-13). So, God chose to intervene to rescue his earth from violence and corruption by carrying out a heavy act of justice.

The flood is a terrifying example to all humanity; it’s a warning of what happens to the ungodly. Sin causes death. We were designed to live in a way that is best for us, to honour God and live in harmony with him. When we choose not to, we destroy ourselves and become distant from God. That is the natural result of sin. And if we continue down that road it leads to eternal separation from God.

The point is, we all deserve a flood. So what’s the solution?

Another kind of death. To be free from sin, we need to repent and accept God’s forgiveness. A part of that process is “dying” to our sin (in other words, choosing to stop living for ourselves and doing whatever we want) and instead devote our lives to following Christ.

That is the significance of baptism. A new believer is momentarily submerged in a “mini flood” when they are baptized. They are symbolically purged with water as a representation of their death to sin. The flood during Noah’s time was essentially the earth’s first baptism; it was a death that brought forth life.

There is an intriguing verse in 1 Peter that links the flood with the imagery of baptism. It also makes it clear that there is more going on with the flood than what meets the eye.

For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit. After being made alive, he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits — to those who were disobedient 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 clear conscience toward God.
— 1 Peter 3:18-21

The references to “imprisoned spirits” raises many questions, among them being: are all the people who died in the flood actually condemned to hell? I’m not going to try to answer that question because my response would simply be conjecture. But I bring this up as reminder that none of us truly knows what is going on “behind the scenes” in spiritual realms. Who are we to judge God and decide he acted unjustly from our little piece of the picture?

From reading the Genesis passage, it appears that no one else at that time, aside from Noah and his family, were in any way attempting to be faithful to God. If they had, they would have made it onto the boat too. It’s the exact same choice we’re faced with today. Whether we die through a supernatural flood or of natural causes, we all have the choice of whether or not to live for God, and we will all face the eternal consequences for our earthly decisions.

In saying this, I don’t want to gloss over the deaths that happened as a result of the flood. There was certainly a lot of death. It’s a graphic, gruesome picture that makes me sad to read. But God’s actions are always just — again, remember that all the people who died in the flood were only bent towards evil all the time.

I also believe that God acts in certain ways at certain times in history for the benefit of all generations. I don’t think the reason for the flood was simply to deal with the problem at hand. It was also to provide a sobering and visual reminder to all of us who came after just how powerful God is, and how serious the consequences of sin are. And, as I mentioned before with the symbolism of baptism, it’s also an illustration of how the hope of new life can only come through death (most importantly of all, through Christ’s death on the cross).

Within each story told in the Bible, there are many layers to God’s actions, intended to give greater insight and blessing to more people than just those present in the situation.

FURTHER READING:

If you want to dig deeper, here are a few other voices who’ve weighed in on this topic.

A flood of biblical proportions: can we really believe in Noah’s ark?

Flood theology: why does Noah’s flood matter?

Timothy Keller on what the flood meant for Noah and what it means for us