24. Genesis 6:9-13

II. The Covenant of Preservation

A.  The Flood

1. Where Noah Fits in the Flow of Revelation (Genesis 6:9-13)

Except among the one line of descendants of Seth the human race was left to drift, to preserve whatever it wanted to preserve of the knowledge of God and to keep whatever parts of the knowledge of good and evil it chose to keep. The result was disaster. When left on its own, the human race chose to keep very little knowledge of God beyond the vague idea that He existed.  We preferred a comfortable idea of His remoteness and were content to drift morally. We carried along the knowledge of good and evil, but consider what it means for a sinner to “know good and evil”: it means that evil is vividly before us requiring little or no creativity to practice, while goodness becomes increasingly like a dream or a mystical vision, a divine dissatisfaction with what we are doing. We had no clear grasp of what real goodness is; only a vague sense of loss and desire, of grief and sometimes guilt. The clear vision of true goodness, in the rare moments when it has been given, was devastating.

By far the most devastating result of not having a formal covenant was that people were left spiritually adrift. Not only did they have no formal connection to God, but their relationships to each other and to nature were no longer functional or reasonable. They had to work out their mutual relationships on their own, and what they did work out was the worst possible. Even the most dog-eat-dog world has some pack-like structure, some community, some family that keeps the individual from being entirely lost; but structure only comes from an over-arching covenant, some network of order and due process. Before the Flood there was no such over-arching covenant. It was anarchy. It was the perfect embodiment of a ruthless world, a world in which everyone was in it for themselves and themselves alone and there was no affectionate tie to anyone to make their lives more than the lives of animals. This is the meaning, as I make it out, of the world being filled with violence; though some translations use the word “wickedness”, what is in view here is not mere immorality but the sort of behavior that best fits the word “bestial”. The picture is not of a world that had become one large frat party; it was grim and demonic, more similar to Tolkien’s vision of Mordor. Violence and hatred so permeated the world that the only adequate word to name it is hell.

And the culmination of the moral degeneration before the Flood was that, when God looked around the world to find a righteous man, He found exactly one. We are sometimes given to think that God had come to the point of despairing over the pervasiveness of evil and was literally on the point of destroying it all when fortunately He happened to notice there was still one good man left; and for the sake of that one good man and his family He arranged a deliverance from the destruction He had been planning. This is not an accurate picture, however.

If you think about it a little, you will see that this can’t be an accurate description of the situation. How can we interpret this passage in a way that portrays God as being on the verge of failing to keep His promise? Sending a Flood to destroy absolutely every living thing would have gone against God’s previously stated purpose. He had committed Himself to defeat the serpent through a man of His own choosing. He had promised to deliver the world from the plague of death through one of Eve’s descendants, and there is no where any hint that He ever considered giving up in defeat. It should be unthinkable to suppose that God would fail in anything He decides to do. So whatever is going on in this passage, it cannot be that God had come to the point of despair regarding the world but luckily found Noah who gave Him an out from destroying it.

It is more accurate to say that God chose Noah and preserved the man Noah for Himself in order to preserve His creation through Noah and keep His word to the serpent. In other words, when God makes a promise He actively fulfills it. He was not just waiting around hoping that someone like Noah would come along. It was a sovereign act of God’s grace in Noah that made Noah the right man at the right place at the right time. Nor did God need a righteous man to give Him an excuse for saving the world; He would have been justified in taking a total derelict and saving the world through him simply because He had promised He would.

“Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation.” We should not imagine that Noah was a truly good man in himself, a saint as we typically imagine them to be. We should not suppose that it was on the basis of Noah’s righteousness that the delivery was accomplished. Noah’s righteousness, like the righteousness of any other man, was “filthy rags”. The phrase “in his generation” in the quote is key to correctly understanding Noah. There is no doubt in my mind that good and evil are absolute matters, that there are absolute and universal standards of right and wrong, but absolute righteousness was not what was in view here. Noah was not credited as righteous by absolute standards, not by the standards of Jesus, nor by the standards of Moses, not by the standards of twentieth century American Christians. He was blameless in his own generation, a generation heir to a long sequence of generations in which there had been little revelation and less knowledge. God had planted a little root of something desirable in his heart, and soon we will consider what that root was. He had planted a little root of something gracious in Noah’s heart as part of His revelation to us, to bring into focus those ghosts of goodness that haunt our best dreams. He had planted a little seed of something good in Noah and used that seed as an excuse for choosing him.

Very little is actually said in this passage about the character of Noah; it has all been left to the imagination of the readers. Thus we usually paint Noah as a sort of super-hero. We are given a man who took a hundred and twenty years to build an ark (based on taking 6:3 as a prophecy of the coming Flood and assuming God spoke to Noah immediately after He said it); who built the ark in the middle of a desert, or at least far inland, and had to endure the ridicule of all his neighbors (it is not stated where Noah lived nor where he built the ark nor even that his neighbors ridiculed him); and who had the additional task of rounding up all those animals himself. We shouldn’t minimize the great thing that Noah did, of course. He believed that the Flood was coming, and that shows great faith. He built the ark, a long and expensive work that must have taken his attention away from attending to his own affairs. And he probably did have to endure much in the way of ridicule and opposition, possibly danger, during the construction. Given the state of the world at that time as I have pictured it, the personal danger could have been great – unless he was wealthy, for in all societies the wealthy can usually do what they want.

But, we ought not make him into some kind of spiritual giant. It is we who demand that God pick “good guys” to be His messengers and prophets. It is the parents and writers of Sunday School curricula who insist that God only use estimable people for His servants. It is as if we thought that, if our children saw the true character of the people God chose to use, they would be encouraged to be bad. “I don’t have to be a good little boy or girl because Samson wasn’t,” and our understanding of the gospel is so defensive that we would have no answer for them. Thus we are always sanitizing the Bible before we let our children see it. If God did not have us to clean up His messes, where would He be? But God was not and never would be in the habit of using the “good” men of the earth to accomplish His work. The men God habitually chose, and still chooses, were not so impressive morally, and were only impressive spiritually when pious people colored them in, larger than life. God chose fools and weaklings to accomplish His purposes, people like you and me. No, Noah was a man like we are, but God was gracious to him and did this great thing through him.

At this point, when the pain we were in was unbearable to God, the time was ripe for Him to act, to reverse the tide of evil, and to rescue a remnant of everything. The rapid degeneration after the Fall had gone on long enough and had served its purpose and the time had come to raise up a deliverer. At the right moment He sent a prophecy to Lamech to foretell the role Noah would perform. “Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord” before he was born. Noah was not the Hero promised to Eve, but certainly Noah was the first of a long series of heroes raised up to rescue the world and the people of God, leading ultimately to the promised Savior.

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