Staying true to His character, God can both judge sin and extend grace
Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Genesis 6
Humanity’s wickedness corrupted the entire world (literally), resulting in God’s necessary and awful punishment. But God extended His grace by allowing Noah’s family to build the lifeboat that would preserve life on earth, continuing God’s plan to redeem humanity through Jesus Christ.
Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with wickedness. (6:11)
[Editor's note: this is a teacher's newsletter that has been put online for posterity.]
Getting Started: Things to Think About
One of my favorite illustrations for explaining a dating relationship to teenagers is stairs. The heart of the issue is sexual involvement: young people think they can set all of these limits on themselves (we’re just going to hold hands; we’re just going to kiss, etc.). But a relationship is like stairs. You’re either going up or going down. You don’t just go stand on stairs! For young people, the point is for them not to get physically involved in any way with someone until after they are married; it’s very, very difficult to get off the stairs once you have started climbing them. The same is true of life in general. We’ve talked about sin a number of times. Once you start a sin, it’s really hard to stop. And it’s really easy to move on to another (often bigger) one. Counselors often talk about drug and alcohol addictions in these terms. Once things start going downhill in someone’s life, it takes an intervention to turn things around. And if no one is around to intervene, God Himself will.
Otherwise . . . Let’s be honest. This is a passage about God destroying the earth. There aren’t any lighthearted ways to start that conversation.
This Week's Big Idea: Controversies in Genesis 6
There are so many major controversies in this chapter. We will take them as they come, starting with the biggest:
Noah’s Ark: The Controversy
Out of the frying pan and into the fire. This is probably the most controversial “story” in the Bible. There are a lot of people who simply don’t believe it happened. But even the most hardened skeptic will acknowledge the point of the Noah story: God gets very angry with sin, yet forgives and saves the righteous one who trusts and obeys Him. If you have someone in your group who simply refuses to believe that Noah actually built an ark, ask for this compromise: “To really understand what God is telling us in this fantastic event, I want us to approach it as if it really happened. Let us learn what God would want us to know, then you can decide for yourself if you will understand these verses literally or spiritually.”
The learner guide is going to approach things as if they are history, and that will probably make the skeptic upset. But there’s really nothing you can do about that. In my group, I am going to approach Noah’s ark as fact. While God is more than welcome to put parables in His Bible (Jesus certainly did), that doesn’t explain why Jesus Himself referred to the Noah story as fact (Matt 24:36-44)! If Noah didn’t really build an ark, then maybe Jesus isn’t really coming back. Yes, there are more than a few elements of the story that stretch my imagination, but if I am willing to believe that God became a man, then I should have no problem believing that God can flood the entire earth if He wants to. Do I believe that God will one day return and judge the earth and destroy His enemies for eternity? Then why should I have a problem with the idea of God flooding the earth to destroy His enemies a long time ago?
Soooo . . . What’s an Ark?
Even though there had never been rain before, there were still oceans and seas. The existence of a boat wasn’t in and of itself strange. But building a boat as far inland (apparently) as Noah must have lived would have been ridiculous. [Editor's note: I updated this post with a picture of the Ark Encounter. Haven't been; heard it's really interesting.] This would have been a lot more like a barge than a yacht; no rudder, no keel, no nothing. A giant floating box with God alone to keep it afloat. And that shouldn’t bother us; if God is capable of flooding the earth (which He is), then God can keep a boat on top of the flood.
As far as we know, a cubit is about 18 inches (from the elbow to the tip of the finger), so the ark would have been 450’ wide x 75’ high x 45’ wide with three levels. In those days, that scale would have been staggering. That’s more than 100,000 square feet of floor space, which is about the size of my property where my house is. I have a hard time envisioning every species of animal living on my property! However, remember the purpose of the ark: it’s a lifeboat, not a zoo. The animals would have been packed in; birds and climbing things would have really loaded in. And if God brought the animals to the ark, He could have certainly kept them calm! Plus, I’m sure we aren’t talking about food storage; this would have been a “manna from heaven” situation. Finally, I also don’t think we’re talking about every sub-variation of species. Through mutations and crossbreeding, there’s no reason to believe that an even greater variety of life exists on earth now than it did in Noah’s day. Some scientists have estimated 35,000 species required to escape on the ark; I can actually imagine that working.
Anyway, it was made of “gopher wood” which is only mentioned here. A lot of folks believe it to be a kind of cypress or cedar. My romantic notion is that God grew gopher wood just for this purpose and then He never grew it again after the ark. There was only an 18” window around the top of the ark. I know from experience that birds can escape through far less, so God was clearly involved! Plus, that’s not enough for healthy air circulation, so that’s all the evidence I need that God was an active part of the ark’s day-to-day existence.
Look, if someone doesn’t believe in Noah’s ark, you’re never going to convince that person. I have to admit that it stretches my imagination, but there’s a big difference between saying “I would love to have a camera feed” and “I just don’t believe it.” But here’s the value in imaging this ark literally: you can get a sense of just how miraculous God’s salvation is. The experience of living and working on the ark must have been terrifying for everyone (including the animals). And it makes the day the ark finally opened that much more beautiful.
Part 1: Wickedness Observed (6:11-13)
11 Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with wickedness. 12 God saw how corrupt the earth was, for every creature had corrupted its way on the earth. 13 Then God said to Noah, “I have decided to put an end to every creature, for the earth is filled with wickedness because of them; therefore I am going to destroy them along with the earth.
Almost my entire handout will be about specific questions, of which there are many in these verses. Consequently, my commentary about the actual lesson will be pretty brief! God observed that the earth was “corrupt”. This word is related to the words for “ruin” and “sink down”, and it is the same word God will use when He tells Noah He will “destroy” (“bring to ruin”) the earth. People had destroyed God’s good creation, so God was going to have to destroy their wicked creation. Similarly, it was filled with “wickedness” which includes violence, cruelty, and lawlessness. The idea that “God saw” this is intended to be in direct contrast to creation, when “God saw" that everything was good. Everything was utterly and absolutely corrupted; if we think things are bad now, goodness. Every person, every creature, including Noah’s family and the animals saved on the ark. This is supposed to make God’s grace clear; those rescued didn’t “deserve” it.
And then God told Noah about His plan. Why? Because God chose to have mercy on Noah. 2 Peter 2:5 calls Noah a preacher of righteousness, but we otherwise don’t know much about him. According to 1 Peter 3:20, Noah continued to preach about judgment and repentance throughout the time he built the ark. This implies that God gave Noah plenty of time to do the work and He was giving sinful humanity yet additional chances to turn from their wicked ways. God gave everyone plenty of chances to repent! This is a story of grace as much as judgment.
Question: do we think people are pretty corrupt today? What about ourselves? What’s the only solution to the moral decay in our society?
Controversy: Did God Really “Regret”?
In a word, yes. The Bible says that God regretted making mankind (Gen 6:6). Here’s the challenge with the word: we use it from our own perspective. When I “regret” something, I wish I hadn’t done it, or I changed my mind about my decision. Did God change His mind about making people? Did He not see this coming? The Hebrew word naham means “to be sorry” and the companion word asab means “to hurt” or grieve. Both of those seem to imply a raw human emotion on the part of God, as if God isn’t fully in control of His feelings or as if He made a bad decision.
Here’s how I explain this: anthropomorphism. God is not a person; God’s ways are far above our ways. But when the authors of the Bible try to explain what God does or why, they have to use language that would make sense to us. Was God grieved by human sin? Of course! Did it hurt His heart? Yes! The strongest way I know to express this kind of grief is the language of regret, so that’s exactly what they did in the Bible. But in the Hebrew, the idea of “being sorry” doesn’t have to mean that you have changed your mind. We can use it that way in English; I may be exceedingly sorrowed that my actions resulted in the consequences that they did, but I would do it again knowing that the final outcome will be what it will be. God was devastated that the people He had made acted the way they did, but He gave them the choice to do so knowing they would. Noah’s enduring righteousness was the proof that He was right all along; the human race surviving until God sent His only Son to save us is the proof that His plan worked.
Part 2: Promise Unfolded (6:14-18)
14 “Make yourself an ark of gopher wood. Make rooms in the ark, and cover it with pitch inside and outside. 15 This is how you are to make it: The ark will be 450 feet long, 75 feet wide, and 45 feet high. 16 You are to make a roof, finishing the sides of the ark to within eighteen inches of the roof. You are to put a door in the side of the ark. Make it with lower, middle, and upper decks.
17 “Understand that I am bringing a flood—floodwaters on the earth to destroy every creature under heaven with the breath of life in it. Everything on earth will perish. 18 But I will establish my covenant with you, and you will enter the ark with your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives."
So along those lines, we discover that God not only warned Noah of the coming disaster, but also told Noah how to escape it! Build an ark. Noah had never built a boat, so God gave him the necessary instructions: floors, rooms, pitch (for waterproofing), necessary size, a small ring of windows, and a giant door. No rudder, no sails, no nothing else. God Himself would keep the ark afloat and moving the right direction. But please note that God did not force Noah to do anything! And as far as we know, the only help God gave Noah was bringing all of the animals to him. Building the ark was Noah’s part of the covenant. If Noah chose to do so, God would preserve them and refill the earth through them. If you don’t think your class will get hung up on the nitty gritty about the flood, I strongly encourage you to spend your time talking about God’s covenants! This is how we explain why God flooded out the earth and why He hasn’t done so since then, and it will also make next week’s lesson much easier to explain.
The basic covenant of God is “I will be their God and they shall be My people.” With Adam, it was “Don’t eat this fruit, and you can enjoy eternal life with Me.” Adam failed. God then made a covenant with Noah that He would never destroy the earth by flood again; this called for no response. God then made a covenant with Abraham that He would bless the world through Abraham’s offspring, again requiring no response. God then made a conditional covenant with Moses for the Israelites—if they obey Him, He will be their God.
In the background of all of these covenants is God’s covenant with Himself. God the Son said He would take the punishment humanity would bring on Himself if God the Father would accept that substitution. God the Father then additionally promised that He would exalt the Son for such love and sacrifice, which He has. God’s covenants with us are in keeping with this covenant with Himself.
Part 3: Action Taken (7:11-14)
11 In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, in the second month, on the seventeenth day of the month, on that day all the sources of the vast watery depths burst open, the floodgates of the sky were opened, 12 and the rain fell on the earth forty days and forty nights. 13 On that same day Noah and his three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth, entered the ark, along with Noah’s wife and his three sons’ wives. 14 They entered it with all the wildlife according to their kinds, all livestock according to their kinds, all the creatures that crawl on the earth according to their kinds, every flying creature—all the birds and every winged creature—according to their kinds.
Depending on if we round the numbers of not (biblical writers are allowed to round numbers if they want to), it could have taken Noah anywhere from 100 to 120 years to build this boat. And Noah preached the entire time (I’m sure a lot of curious people would have come out to visit the crazy man’s crazy construction). And not one person listened. Not one! You’ll note that the Bible gives us the exact date of the flood (the year can and has been debated quite heavily); the point is that God was completely in charge of every aspect of this event.
The other thing to note is how the outsiders were apparently surprised. Jesus specifically pointed to the people of Noah’s day in Matt 24:36-44 as an example of how people can know something is about to happen and yet still be unprepared. Jesus then turned that lesson to us, saying that we know He is returning, but will we be caught unprepared when He comes? I think that is an excellent teaching point, and really, it is the main point of this lesson for us: Judgment is coming; God will save those who are prepared; are you prepared?
God had mercy not only on Noah but also his entire family. His sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth, and their wives and his wife joined him. We learn more about them in Genesis 10 and 11, particularly Shem through whom would come Abraham. (The lessons skip the controversy about Ham, but I will cover that in next week’s lesson which goes into detail about God’s covenant with Noah.) Anyway, they along with a representative of every creature enter the ark which God then seals shut behind them. Next week, we will talk about (1) the clean and unclean animals, (2) the rainbow, and (3) God’s new covenant with Noah.
This week, we need to emphasize the gospel! I would take your class directly to 1 Peter 3:18-22. This is a very, very difficult passage, but it explains clearly that the ark was a symbol of salvation in Jesus Christ. The ark saved Noah’s family from the destruction of the flood, just as Jesus Christ will save all of His followers from the destruction of hell. (If people ask you, I would say this about these verses: “The generation of Noah was the most wicked generation of human history; that is why God chose to wipe them out completely. Apparently, Jesus went specifically to them during his three days in the grave, to the worst of the worst, to explain that God’s mercy would have extended even to them if they had only gotten on the ark. He went to the very people who saw and rejected the ark to tell them that He was the true ark, and they chose to reject Him.”) There is no judgment that God will bring on the earth that will separate us from His love for us in Jesus Christ. Share the gospel this Sunday!
Closing Thoughts: More Controversies
From Whence All the Water??
Another of the big questions from the skeptics is where all this water came from. We’re talking about an unimaginable volume of water. Seriously unimaginable. There’s really no sense in trying to explain it because it was a once-in-history event. If every subterranean source of water emptied and stayed empty (which God can do), if all the ice melted (which makes sense considering the environment would have been devastated), and if all the cloud cover was converted into water (which isn’t crazy considering there were no animals to protect from the sun and they would have regulated their own temperature), then maybe we can try to make sense of how things happened. The thing is that this is a miracle of God; we probably can’t explain it. The water kept coming for 40 days, and apparently it took months or even years for the water to fully recede. My thought is that the earth looked very different after the flood than before it. There are people who try to reconcile this with the “Ice Age” and the fossil record and the stratification of the earth and so on. That’s all way beyond me. If I’m willing to accept the story of the ark, then I simply have to believe that everything somehow worked out.
Lots of Flood Myths
One big tactic of the skeptic is to point out that lots of Ancient Near Eastern cultures had flood stories, and that is absolutely true! The ancient Babylonians did (the Atrahasis Epic, ~1650BC), the Sumerians did (~1800BC), the ancient Canaanites did (Ras Shamra, ~1500BC), and the ancient Assyrians did (the Gilgamesh Epic, ~2000BC). And then we have Noah’s story, written down ~1500BC. Coincidence? Certainly not if it really happened and God wanted Moses to set the record straight for the Hebrews. There are significant differences between Noah’s ark and the other flood stories/myths. In one, the gods were annoyed with mankind’s noise, and they were surprised to discover that some people survived the flood on a boat. In another, the gods were frightened by the flood they had caused. In all stories, the hero-king is granted immortality for his hard work and cunning because he chose to serve the god (usually Ea) who tricked the other gods. And in all stories, the gods eventually regret their decision to destroy humanity because they were starving from the lack of sacrifices. This is nothing at all like Noah’s story! God had a specific cause: human wickedness. God was fully in control of the flood. God preserved Noah because of Noah’s righteousness. And God made a covenant with mankind after the flood out of His love for us. There’s no way that was copied from some other source.
Who Are the “Sons of God” and the Nephilim?
This is a tough one, and I’ll be honest that I’m not really sure. If you go a few verses before our focus passage, you learn that part of the reason God is so upset with the world is that the sons of God have slept with the daughters of men and produced Nephilim. What was the big deal? A common understanding is “sons of God” refers to angels, and God was understandably upset that they produced demi-god offspring with women (KJV translates it “giants”). That would be fine in the sense that this could certainly be a part of what led to the all-out angel war we learned about in Revelation. And Job uses this phrase to refer to angels. The problem is that doesn’t line up with my theology of angels. According to Jesus, angels don’t marry, which strongly implies that they do not reproduce (as far as we know, God created every angel long before He created mankind). The only other option I have is that “sons of God” refers to the descendants of the godly son, Seth, and “daughters of men” refers to the descendants of the wicked son, Cain. This would keep with God’s command to the Jews to remain pure from the wicked cultures around them. What this doesn’t explain is where the Nephilim came from. A quick glance of the Bible implies that these beings are super-human. BUT, Nephilim actually means “fallen ones,” and I take that to mean fallen morally. Nothing in here says they were giants, just that they were mighty (some folks think of Goliath as a Nephilim, but remember that the line of Nephilim would have been wiped out by the flood, so he was just really big which made people think about the Nephilim). Here’s my take: the union of the Seth and Cain bloodlines meant that the entire “gene pool” was now utterly corrupted. Considering the very long lifespans of the day (which I gladly take literally), people were certainly in better shape than we are today. The corruption of sin was only generations in, not many hundreds as it is today. Great men now mixed with corruption and temptation (the Knights of the Round Table are based on this idea). Mighty men fallen. I don’t know if that’s right, but it’s the best I can do. I know that the point is the utter corruption of humanity.
How Do We Explain Why God Destroyed the Earth?
I get a kick out of the skeptics who fuss about the reality of Noah’s ark; to me, the much more important question is why would God choose to destroy the earth, how is that fair, and how do we reconcile it with our idea of a “loving God”? Everything living on the earth died. God wiped out the world. Worked out fine if you lived in the ocean; hardly seems fair! Just like the matter of why God allowed Satan into the garden, we have to pull our emotions out of it. The entire world had become corrupt in a way even beyond what we think of as “bad” today. The people had made their choice; they had chosen to live apart from God. This will be hard for you animal-lovers to hear, but don’t worry about the animals. They don’t have souls. They are a part of creation. While we should be sad for the animals, we should be much more heartbroken over the human lives lost. Instead, the miracle is that God chose to preserve all of the animals as well as one righteous family, and from them repopulate the entire earth.
Now, this leads to more skeptic questions: how could the whole earth be populated from a single ark? I have absolutely no problem with populating the entire earth within a few hundred years! If you keep up with species migration, the endangered species list, and the like, you know that worldwide populations can swing from “common” to “endangered” and back in less than 100 years. God made animals to propagate!
Methuselah and 120 Years
One of the verses right before our focal passage says, “My Spirit will not remain with mankind forever, because they are corrupt. Their days will be 120 years.” Does this mean that people would live to be 120 after the flood? No. I understand “Spirit” to be a reference to the Holy Spirit, and this verse to refer to God’s Spirit restraining wickedness on the earth. When God withdraws His Spirit, people no longer have any “push” toward godliness, which would explain why no one on the earth listened to Noah. 120 years, therefore, refers to the time until the flood. (People lived longer than 120 years after the flood.) Consider Methuselah, the longest-lived man in history (Genesis 5:27). Methuselah was Noah’s grandfather, and if you do the math, Methuselah died in the flood (Noah’s father, Lamech, died a few years before). Not even Noah’s grandpa listened!
What about a “Local Flood”?
Here’s a solution to the amount of water needed, the number of animals to save, and the complaints about God’s wrath: God only flooded the region of Mesopotamia. After all, the people were still concentrated here, mountains are less tall here, and the Bible does sometimes use “world” as “known world.” I do understand the intent, but it doesn’t work for me. I find a “local” flood harder to explain than a worldwide flood, and we are talking about the complete corruption of the world, not just one area. I’m sticking with worldwide flood.
Why Hasn't God Destroyed Us Again?
One of our teachers thought this would be the big question in that class. Are we not just as wicked as Noah’s generation? Why did they get the ultimate punishment while we seem to get off scot-free? Well, we have to step back and look at the big picture. I’m sure we see that God could not bring more massive destruction until after Jesus. Jesus was His plan and covenant of salvation, and nothing would derail that. BUT as a result, that means we are not as “bad” as Noah’s generation. As long as there are Christians in the world, we actually aren’t as awful as that generation because we take with us the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. (We might not show it, but all Christians are empowered in such a mighty way.)
Besides, and most importantly, that’s no longer God’s plan. God had patience with Noah’s generation—everybody had the chance to hear and respond. God is having patience with our generation. My guess is that God is waiting to send Jesus back until everyone has had an opportunity to hear and respond.
And that leads to the most important conclusion: why do we think we have been spared God’s wrath? Have we taken such a myopic view of life as to think that what happens to us in this existence is all we’re worried about? Every person who chooses to reject God’s offer of peace in Jesus Christ will face His eternal judgment and destruction, just as the people in Noah’s day. The next time God destroys the earth it will be with fire. His plan is to bring judgment against sin, send Jesus down to give fallen humanity a taste of perfect rule, and then cast out all those who choose to reject Him still. Even if we did deserve punishment to the extent of Noah’s generation, God simply has a different plan for us today.