Thinking About the Flood
In the first installment of this series we suggested that the Bible itself can tell us how to think about the story it is telling us, God’s activity, and our place in it. The easiest way to learn this perspective is to look at an example of it, and one of the clearest examples in all the Bible is found in Genesis 6-9, the story of the flood. Please notice the following basic elements of this story:
1. Genesis 6.5, 11-12: a time of increasing wickedness, so much that evil became the dominant force in the situation. The original good order of things became corrupt and past reformation. It had, in fact, become downright hostile to God.
Notice that we are not here reading a story about an individual – although in our Western way of thinking we are trained to think primarily in those terms. We should understand that although a prominent individual is involved (Noah), the story is about the world, or more correctly, it is about a group of people (in this case, all mankind), and it is about the character of those people as a group.
Perhaps we should also remember that human wickedness is the violation of God’s moral order for mankind. From God’s perspective, evil is lawlessness, it is the rejection of the only valid way of life for man (recall 1 John 3.4).
2. Genesis 6.3, 7, 13: a declared resolution on God’s part to act against the evil situation. Because God is a righteous and holy God, he will not tolerate the perpetual perversion and corruption of his created order. God did not make the world in order for it to become a realm of evil. So God decreed that he had set a limit to the situation. A day of judgment and crisis was appointed.
3. Genesis 6.3, 14-21: a time of warning before God acts and the provision of a means of escape. Even when God’s wrath is stirred up against evil, he does not act rashly. His ways are more than fair and just, and so he warned the people in this situation that he was angry against them and that he was going to punish them (with death). Although the word “repent” does not appear in the account, this is clearly the purpose of God’s announcement – to give sinful people an opportunity to change their ways and avoid the coming punishment (see especially Gen 6.13,17). 2 Peter 2.5 confirms this as it refers to Noah as a “preacher of righteousness,” and Hebrews 11.7 says that Noah “condemned the world” by his obedience.
4. Genesis 7.10-24: a drastic, sudden, and catastrophic judgment that eliminates evil but spares the righteous. In a sense, God pushed the “reset button.” He wiped out the evil and returned the world to a “clean” condition. The idea of “cleansing” the world is strongly implied by God’s choice of water as the means of destruction. Later, in the Law of Moses, it would become clear that a common way to restore things that were defiled was to wash them with water.
Just because the flood was sudden does not mean, of course, that it was unannounced, as we have just seen. But Matthew 24.38-39 suggests that no one paid attention to Noah’s warnings. People refused to believe what they were told, and they went on with their lives as if nothing was going to happen.
We should also note that the word “suddenly” does not need to mean “instantly” in the sense that we typically think. The ancients did not measure time in the small increments that we know today (minutes or seconds). An hour was the shortest amount of time to them. So when we say that something in the Bible happened “suddenly,” it does not necessarily mean that it happened within a second. The context will obviously make clear just how much actual time was used. In this case, it rained for forty days (Gen 7.12), and the flood waters stayed on the earth for 150 days (Gen 7.24). Instead, “sudden” should be understood relative to the contextual situation. Even though the flood event itself lasted many months, and Noah himself was in the ark for over a year, this was a relatively short (or “sudden”) time compared to the 120 years of warning which preceded it, and especially when we think of the thousands of years that had elapsed before the flood. When we are talking about a period of time that lasted thousands of years, a drastic change that takes place over the course of one year is relatively “sudden.”
The most important point here is that this judgment was drastic and catastrophic. There is no sense here that God would reform the evil of the world through a gradual, centuries-long process of improvement. No, God dealt with the evil of the world in an abrupt and decisive way.
5. Genesis 8 – the new, or renewed, situation results, where righteousness “reigns.” After the flood the wicked were gone. Only righteous Noah and his family remained because they had, by following God’s way, escaped from the death that had been decreed for the world.
There are some other things about this story that we will mention at a later time, but you get the basic idea. Now, one of the most important things to recognize when reading the Bible is that God’s dealings with man, and his actions with the world, follow clearly-discernible patterns. This is not to say that God cannot do what he wants in any way that he wants, but it is to say that because God is the holy and righteous God that he is, he reacts to human sinfulness in the same basic way each time. I suspect that God’s acting in recognizable patterns is more for our benefit as well, but either way the fact is that in actions such as the flood God left a witness of himself and how he deals with human sin.
The collection of elements that we have outlined above is known as an apocalyptic scenario. This is not to be confused with the apocalyptic genre of literature. The apocalyptic genre of literature (examples in the Bible are parts of Daniel, Ezekiel, Mark 13, and John’s Revelation) does indeed share this perspective, but I submit that all the Bible authors understood and thought with this apocalyptic perspective. That is, the apocalyptic perspective is the perspective from which the Bible writers (all of them) understood God’s activity in the world, whether a particular author wrote in the apocalyptic genre or not. In upcoming articles we will explore this perspective more fully, and hopefully show why it is important for us to think in these terms as well.
Sermon outline: “A New Time” (by David McClister): A New Time