Do you need to start over in life? God gives you a chance to do so . . .
Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Genesis 8-9
Just like to Noah’s family, God offers salvation and a fresh start to everyone who repents of his sin and chooses to trust and obey Him. We should respond to this grace by humbly worshiping God, offering Him what is important to us. Just like in Noah’s day, God offers this grace to every human being!
"While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.” (9:16)
[Editor's note: this was originally a teacher's newsletter. I'm adding old lessons to our website for posterity.]
Getting Started: Things to Think About
I like the suggestion of the “fresh start.” All of us have needed fresh starts, but not all of us have gotten them. What was your fresh start like?
Broken Promises. All of us have broken a promise. Sometimes that promise was ill-advised, but every time the break leaves consequences. Here are some famous broken promises: Woodrow Wilson won the 1916 election on the promise that he would keep us out of World War I (hey, so did Roosevelt in 1940, and Johnson in 1964). Herbert Hoover won the 1928 election by promising a car in every garage. Then the stock market crashed. Do you remember “Read my lips: no new taxes” in 1988? The purpose of this lesson is to tell us about a promise that God made. And God never breaks His promises.
Rebuilding . . . I went to Joplin MO and Moore OK after a tornado wiped out their towns and killed many people. Through the tragedy, it was staggering to watch these people rebuild their lives and community. I heard stories that once people were accounted for and locations deemed safe, churches came together to worship. Wherever they could find safe haven! They worshiped God for His sovereignty and told stories of how God preserved them and the lessons He had taught them. I don’t know if you’ve been around a tragedy like that, but that’s what Noah’s family experienced. Everything they knew was gone, and so they started over. The obeyed God and renewed their trust in Him.
The Context of Genesis
We skip through parts of 3 chapters in here. God has covered the land with water such that every air-breathing creature has died. Noah’s family cares for the creatures in the ark for months with no clue as to how long they will have to do so. God miraculously preserves everyone through it (I’m sure Noah wasn’t a vet!), keeps food stocks full (Noah didn’t know how long he would be in there), and keeps the ark afloat. Eventually, God causes the waters to recede (and I’m sure it’s just as miraculous as the flood itself) and guides the ark to a safe landing spot in the mountains of Ararat. If you want to read up on the experience of the raven and the dove, do so! Our lesson also skips through some of the details of God’s covenant with Noah. No harm in brushing up on those details, either!
[Aside: see below for comments about archeology.]
This Week's Big Idea: Covenant with Adam / Covenant with Noah
I read an article that insisted we understand the covenant with Noah against God’s first covenant with Adam. Here’s my summary and interpretation of that idea. When God created the world, He saw that it was very good, and He commanded people to fill the earth. Sadly, people chose to fill the earth with evil, so God in grief decided to “start over.” He reversed His creative action by removing the separation of the waters from below and above the heavens, flooding the earth. But at the right time, the waters receded, causing dry land to appear again. God sent the animals out of the ark to fill the earth again and “restarted” the normal movement of times and seasons. He then gave Noah’s family dominion over the earth and commanded them to fill it. However, human beings had not changed (Noah soon gets drunk and his sons get in a row); God works that into His new covenant.
The new covenant, which in reality is made with every living creature, is unconditional on God’s part. God will never destroy the world with water again. There is nothing we can do to cause God to retract this promise. The sign of this promise is the fascinating choice of the rainbow (a “bow in the clouds”; I tell you more about this below; I’m just romantic/sucker enough to believe that rainbows couldn’t be seen before this covenant), which God says will cause Him to remember His promise (more about that in the commentary). God makes an unconditional promise, and He gives unconditional commands in this covenant. Even though people might think that it’s a bad idea to migrate around the world, fearing that God will wipe them out again, He commands them to do so. He also commands that they treat life as sacred. Animal life is to be treated with respect and prepared before eaten. Human life is not to be taken at all. For this new creation to be livable, the humans must place a high value on life. (Do they? Clearly not.) But this new covenant does not end the previous covenant (as it did with Adam and Eve): those are commands for all people, not conditions of the covenant.
Hopefully that gives you a sense of the similarities and differences between the covenants with Adam and Noah. In Noah’s day, human sinfulness was built into the covenant (it was no longer conditional), and the preciousness of life was declared to everyone. Why didn’t God do the same with Adam, whom He knew would blow it? Because Adam needed to go into life believing he could do what God wanted; that would make obeying and disobeying much more significant.
Part 1: A New Start (8:15-19)
Then God said to Noah, “Go out from the ark, you and your wife, and your sons and your sons' wives with you. Bring out with you every living thing that is with you of all flesh—birds and animals and every creeping thing that creeps on the earth—that they may swarm on the earth, and be fruitful and multiply on the earth.” So Noah went out, and his sons and his wife and his sons' wives with him. Every beast, every creeping thing, and every bird, everything that moves on the earth, went out by families from the ark.
Even if you don’t believe the ark story, you can only truly understand the power of these verses if you can put your skepticism aside and immerse yourself in the position of Noah and his family. They have been in this boat for more than a year. They have seen the entire world destroyed. They don’t even know where they are when the boat finally comes to rest! (The Bible calls it the mountains of Ararat, but we don’t actually know which mountain range that is! More on this below.) They don’t know what’s beyond the walls of the ark. They don’t know what the soil will be like. They don’t know if it’s safe. As scary and confined as I’m sure the ark was, it was the safety and security of a lifeboat that preserved them. Leaving the ark was probably more terrifying! But now, God called them to put their trust in Him, not the boat they had built. It was time to get out of the boat.
And so they did. God said that He would distribute the animals and help them survive and replenish their populations. Just as God brought them to the ark, He now guided them out of the ark (and what a frightening experience, I’m sure, for them!). Do note that the language used echoes that of creation. God speaking, the order of creatures, the note about “kinds,” and the commission to multiply. Noting the comments I make about the covenant with Noah, you can see that God really was re-creating. This is a new start.
There are lots of disaster movies you might use to put your group “in Noah’s shoes” but we like the idea of simply asking: if you were Noah, and you were about to step off the ark, what plans would you have? Where would you begin? If you have anyone in your group who has been through major tragedy, perhaps they can explain that sometimes you don’t know the answer to that question. Sometimes it’s all you can do to put one foot in front of the other. And that’s exactly what Noah did; no one taught him how to start over, he just did his best. If anyone in your group is facing some kind of upheaval, help them take hope from the story of Noah. We can look at those changes and be terrified (which is pretty normal!), or we can know that God is with us throughout and will take care of us. Use the classic “Footprints” story if you want to. New starts are scary, but they’re also an opportunity. What’s done is done, but now the future is what you make of it with God at your side.
Aside: Mount Ararat
Genesis 8:4 says that the ark came to rest on the mountains of Ararat. It does not say which mountain, though most people have since assumed the absolutely stunning Mt. Ararat in Turkey.
Truth be told, the Bible doesn’t actually tell us which mountain range this is, let alone which mountain peak! In 2 Ki 19:37, it is the name of the location to which Sennacherib’s sons flee; in Jer 51:27, it is the name of one of the kingdoms subdued by Babylon. Babylonian tradition from ~250BC placed the ark in the Armenian mountains; Jewish, Muslim, and Christian tradition places it on the highest peak further south, Buyak Agri Dag.
Here's an article that passionately argues for a location in Iran:
[And here's an article from when I re-posted this in December 2021 that argues for a location in Turkey:
Modern-day Mount Ararat, though, is just spectacular. It checks a bunch of boxes of a "location to be in to re-start life on earth". Shouldn’t be a surprise that a number of monasteries can be found in eyeshot of this location!
Part 2: A New Altar (8:20)
Then Noah built an altar to the Lord and took some of every clean animal and some of every clean bird and offered burnt offerings on the altar.
Your leader guide appropriately makes a big deal about this altar. It’s the first time we hear anything about an “altar” in the Bible (see below). It was a place of worship and of remembrance. Here, Noah would offer to God some of the animals saved in the ark. But even more, this would mark the place where God had released them from the ark. It was to them a reminder of God’s mercy. The Patriarchs did that more than once (Gen 12:7, 26:24) - build an altar to remind them and their family of a significant event.
Before the animals had come onto the ark, God had told Noah to bring 7 of every clean animal and bird (Gen 7:2). We don’t know if God told Noah what made them clean, but we do know that Noah did not forget! I wonder how tempting it was to say, “There are only 7 of this animal left in the world; why should I kill 5 of them? Let me release them so as to give them a better chance to survive.” Think about that. Didn’t Eve rationalize her disobedience of God? But Noah did everything God told him to do, even when it seemed counterproductive. Noah obeyed, and as a result, God blessed the animals and brought everything about as He said.
Our lesson from this is simple. First: When God has done something miraculous in our life, we should “mark” it. And when we have obeyed God in a powerful way, we should “mark” it. (Most culture have giant monuments to this purpose.) What altars/marks do you have in your life that when you see them, you are reminded of God’s work or grace? We all need to have them. We have a rock that was given to us by Shelly’s parents early in our marriage. We set it out somewhere prominent at every house we own. And every time I see it, I think about the miraculous way God brought us together in Kansas. Second: When we get through some traumatic experience in life, we need to stop and worship. Do you think those animals were precious to Noah? He had just cared for them for a year in a boat, and now he was going to kill them—after they made it safely through! That is a sacrifice that meant something. But Noah demonstrated with his actions that God was number one in his life. And this would have been a powerful example to set for his kids, too!
Aside: Clean and Unclean Animals
It’s helpful to remember that Moses wrote this story down. We don’t know if Noah had a clear direction of clean vs. unclean or if he simply was obeying God. In Moses’ day, they knew what God considered clean and unclean. Note that cleanness did not imply the superiority of an animal, simply the appropriateness of its use in the sacrificial system. We learn those rules in Lev 11 and Deut 14: Animals with a cleft hoof and chewed the cud were “clean”; a list of birds allowed to be used was given as well.
There are two common reasons given for these lists.
God wanted to give the Hebrews a unique list so as to separate them from the pagan practices around them.
God was subtly giving the Hebrews good hygiene and safe eating practices.
You see, Hebrews were also commanded only to eat clean animals (in addition to their function in sacrifices). It is probably no coincidence that the list of birds given as “clean” were all birds not known to carry communicable diseases. Furthermore, the list of “clean” animals included animals now considered “safer” to eat: cattle, deer, goat, sheep. “Unclean” animals included dogs, cats, pigs, horses, bears, monkeys, squirrels, and so on. By the time you include the regulations on clean and unclean marine life, you have a pretty good list of healthy and unhealthy foods today! I see the list of clean and unclean and God’s way of identifying His people and also protecting them from dangerous pathogens and illnesses that they would not have otherwise understood (not knowing anything about germs or bacteria yet). God is good to us.
Aside: What’s an Altar?
The first mention of an altar is Noah’s in Gen 8:20. The word mizbe’ah literally means “place of slaughter”, telling us that people would bring an animal to it to be killed (and then burned) as an offering to God. Nomadic cultures would make mounds of earth to do so; God permitted the Hebrews to made mounds of stone, but it had to be natural stone (Ex 20:25). Eventually, God gave specific instructions for altars in the Tabernacle and Temple. By this point, God had given clear instructions about the priesthood and the exact types of offerings to make on each altar.
Altars were seen as meeting points between God (or the gods) and mankind. A person took something out of his domain and gave it to God who received that offering and in return bestowed a blessing from His domain. It was a sacred place. Hebrews could not use pagan altars or build anything that looked like a pagan altar.
Ultimately, we learned that the altar was intended to be a symbol of the heart. That which was seen was evidence of what was unseen. If the Hebrews could not keep a public site “clean,” how could they ever keep their hearts clean?
Part 3: A New Promise (8:21-9:16)
And when the Lord smelled the pleasing aroma, the Lord said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man's heart is evil from his youth. Neither will I ever again strike down every living creature as I have done. While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.”
First things first, did God really need to say anything to Himself? Was He really working this out via internal dialog like you and I do? Of course not! What language does God speak in His head? This whole section is for our benefit. In Noah’s day, swearing “on oath” meant something. (Jesus made it clear that swearing on oath shouldn’t make any difference to us; our yes should always be yes no matter the circumstances.) However, what could God possibly swear on that would indicate His seriousness in the matter? Well, on Himself. That’s what we have hear. Take a look at Jer 51:15, Amos 6:8 and Heb 6:13. Essentially, God is saying with God as His witness that He will never destroy the earth with water again. This promise really means something because He knows that mankind hasn’t all of a sudden improved. They will continue to rebel and fall, but He will not put the earth through such a disaster again. And this is a beautiful promise—God’s covenant with Noah that requires nothing on Noah’s part. Never again will He strike down the world; never again will He interrupt the rhythms of the world. At least, until He comes back to create a new heaven and earth!
If you read my note about the covenant, you know that God basically started over. But this time, He gave commands and not conditions of a covenant. God would not break His part of the covenant; it was up to the creatures of the earth and for their own good that they do the same.
To confirm this covenant, God creates a brilliant symbol—something that appears during and after a rain, but is beautiful and marvelous and can’t be captured: a rainbow. Technically, God says “My bow in the clouds”, leading some to say that God was talking about a weapon of war which would be put away. But we are given the impression that Noah’s family could see it; after all, did God really need to be reminded of His promise? The phrase “I will remember” actually means “I will bring actively to mind”. As with the whole conversation God had with Himself earlier, I believe this sign is for Noah’s benefit, not God’s. Consequently, most conservative scholars have agreed that God was talking about the rainbow. I give you more about this amazing phenomenon below. And it’s for us. When we see the rainbow, we remember that God will remember never to destroy us by flood. This is an everlasting covenant. For us and for our children. A promise we can hang onto.
Just like in the previous section, I think this section is pretty straightforward. We all need altars, and we all need rainbows, so to speak. I have a number of degrees, as you know, and I hang them on the wall of my office. But when I look at them, I don’t think about what I have accomplished, I am reminded of God’s miraculous provisions through that very precious time in our lives—the people who mentored us, the friends we made, the miracles and hardships we experienced. I remember all of those things. What symbols do you have in your life that remind you of God’s work?
Above all else, tie this back in to the gospel. Peter twice draws the parallel between the ark and salvation; being saved from destruction from a flood and being saved from destruction from the wrath of God. If you have been saved, you should have symbols and actions in your life to commemorate that and help you share your experience with others. You know that Noah’s family showed that altar to their kids as long as it stood!
Aside: Why Was God “Pleased”?
This question may only bother me, but you may have thought about it. Why was God “pleased” by the sacrifice? This reminds me of the language used of pagan gods who needed to be satiated by the offerings of people. In other words, G/god was getting angry and was about to do something rash, but then the sweet smell of a sacrifice came and calmed H/him down. No, this is another example of anthropomorphizing—using human descriptors to make sense of God’s actions. We learn in the prophets and New Testament that was pleases God is the sacrifices of a clean and contrite heart—the sacrificer more than the sacrifice. But to Moses’ audience, they needed language that made it clear that God accepted Noah’s sacrifice, and this does so. God was pleased with Noah’s sacrifice, but not because of the smell, because of Noah’s heart of obedience and trust.
Closing Thoughts: Rainbows
Because I’m a nerd . . . Rainbows are formed by a combination of sunlight from over your shoulder being refracted and reflected by water droplets in the air. As a result, no two people ever see the same rainbow, and if you wear certain types of sunglasses, you won’t see a rainbow at all. Because a rainbow is only an image, you can never actually reach it; they are curved because the light refracts at different angles based on the wavelength (ROYGBIV?). Your eyes see a rainbow as a circle whose center is your head! If you were on a mountain, you would see more of the circle than you normally do (skydivers have claimed to see the whole circle). What I love about this symbol of God’s covenant is how personal it is. It is as if God Himself puts that particular image of the rainbow directly in your noggin for you and only you. No one else will ever see what you see! Is that just as impressive to you as to me?