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Noah, the Ark, and a Whole Lot of Controversy -- a study of Genesis 6 and 7

Apparently, humans could get much, much worse.

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Genesis 6 and 7

In this first of a 3-part series on Noah, we learn "the bad". Human civilization was so depraved that God believed a complete destruction was the appropriate punishment. But He showed much grace -- preserving a representation of all life through the labor of a righteous man named Noah. Oh, and there's a lot of stuff people argue about.

Then God said to Noah, “I have decided to put an end to every creature, (6:13)

When We Studied This in 2015 -

This week, we're studying Genesis 6:13-22 and 7:20-24. In 2015, we studied 6:11-18 and 7:11-14. So, plenty of overlap. I also address a few topics in that post that I'll probably have to skip this week due to time and space:

By all means, skim through that post if you want.

Getting Started: Things to Think About

The Strangest Thing You've Ever Built

This is an incredibly serious topic, but I can think of a light-hearted start that isn't too far off-base. Have you ever built something odd or out-of-place? Or, if you haven't, what's the strangest thing you've seen that somebody else has built? To say that Noah's ark was strange or out-of-place would be a gross understatement. Another way you could take this would be "What's the largest investment you've made in a personal project?" I've seen some really, really cool passion projects -- some that must have cost a lot of time a money (Carhenge in Nebraska comes to mind) --

-- but nothing compares to Noah's ark. The Bible doesn't say how long it took Noah's family to build it, but I think we can safely assume it took many decades.

Important Stories That Aren't Cute and Cuddly

Did you tell your kids the story of Noah's ark? I daresay that most of us have. Most of our children's Bibles have a chapter to Noah and the ark. And that's good! It's a crucial story. It's only a problem when we ignore the "death and judgment to the entire world" part to talk about the cute animals. And if you think about it, every culture in the world has stories they tell their children that aren't happy, that are filled with hard truths and tragic lessons. What's your take on that? At what age do you think children should start to learn their culture's harder stories? (And why?) What are the lessons that children should start to learn first?

I think it's a very complicated issue, and it sparks no end to debates between parents and educators. Is this a rough spot to start a Bible study discussion? Yes, but we are talking about the destruction of most life on earth today, so...

Experiencing a Flood

Last week, we saw the surreal images of coastal flooding in southern California. I'm used to flood-producing storms in the Atlantic and Gulf Coast; not so much in SoCal. Just two days ago, a tsunami flooded multiple villages in Japan. If you've experienced a flood, you know how terrifying it can be. What's your flood story? Believe it or not, I've only lived through two real flood events -- one when we lived in Friendswood TX, and one when we were in Houston for my sister's wedding. Neither time did the water reach the house. The first, I was only 5 or 6, so I thought it was cool. The second, we were focused on keeping everybody sane because my sister's reception venue was being used as an emergency shelter. In both cases, everything worked out fine for my family.

That is certainly not the case for everybody.

Another really tough discussion topic. But again, that's this week's passage.


Where We Are in Genesis

If any verses outside of Revelation have more consecutive "I have questions" reactions, I'm not sure where they are. Here's what we skip after last week's passage (4:15):

  • 4:17 -- Cain builds a city. Who populated this city? I'm assuming Cain's family; you'll notice that the genealogies focus on the firstborn, but that doesn't mean Cain's wife did not have many additional children.

  • 4:21 -- the sons of Jubal; are we sure we want to be associated with Jubal? (That's tongue-in-cheek; this is yet another reason why I reject the "righteous line" vs. "unrighteous line" theory.)

  • 4:23 -- Lamech and his two wives (see below). Was this guy just the biggest drama queen on earth at the time?

  • 4:26 -- people just now start to worship God? Did Adam and Eve learn zero lessons from Cain and Abel, or were they deliberately avoiding God thinking that was a better option?

  • 5:5 -- the very, very long lifespans. Actually, I personally have no questions or problems with this. Other people tend to have the questions.

  • 5:24 -- Enoch doesn't die. !!!

  • 6:2 -- the sons of God and the daughters of men? I really don't want to slog through this again. I'll refer you to my earlier post and the section I wrote about the Nephilim. I really don't believe this refers to angels -- that doesn't line up at all with anything else the Bible says about angels, fallen or otherwise.

  • 6:3 -- people will be 120 years old? That's actually not what God says; God says that man's days "will be 120 years". In other words, God will send the flood in 120 years.

  • 6:6 -- God "regretted" a decision? Some people tend to read this as "God changed His mind" (because that's the only frame of reference we have to understand the concept of "regret"). The Hebrew word naham can have 4 meanings: (1) to experience emotional pain; (2) to comfort oneself; (3) to relent from a course of action; (4) to change one's mind. Based on the context, it's (1) -- God is experiencing grief based on the people He has created. It doesn't mean that He would do it differently. This is language that God can use to explain to the readers just how grieved He is by our sin.

  • 6:7 -- wipe out all people??!! How could things be so much worse in that day than any other day (in which God didn't wipe out all of humanity)? Actually, don't think about this too much. I think we're better off not imagining how much more depraved people could get.

  • 6:7 -- wipe out all animals??!!??!! What did they have to do with anything? Here's where the speculation from the Answers in Genesis people gets interesting: what if the corruption of sin influenced animal life? (Like, people training animals to be vicious, out-of-control killers.) And the only way God could reasonably reset the ecosystem was to start over with the animals too? Just a theory.

  • 6:9 -- Noah was blameless? So, this word is used in the Bible to mean (1) maintaining a right relationship with God (Gen 24:40), (2) not committing the sins just listed (Josh 24:14), (3) not breaking God's laws (Ps 18:23), (4) not being like the wicked world (Prov 2:21). Compared with his contemporaries, and with respect to the "rules" God had laid out, Noah was indeed blameless. Certainly doesn't mean "perfect".

In Revelation, even though we have many questions about the details, we still understand the point -- Jesus will triumph over His enemies. The same is true with Genesis. The point is clear: man's wickedness was deserving of death, but God had mercy on a righteous person (Noah) and his family. This points us to Jesus, who was righteous and by the mercy of God "loaded His brothers and sisters up onto His ark" to be saved from God's judgment (but more on this below). In that way, Noah was a picture of Jesus, just as Abraham was a picture of Jesus. But even the very best of humanity has fallen short -- only the perfect example of Jesus truly fulfills everything Noah (and Abraham) hinted at.


This Week's Big Idea: A Full-Sized Ark

I believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible (where it's meant to be interpreted literally). The group Answers in Gensis is so committed to a literal interpretation of the Bible that they spent millions of dollars building a full-sized ark in Kentucky (The Ark Encounter). I do not agree with everything Answers in Genesis says, but in this section, I am going to lean into their commitment to a literal interpretation of Genesis 6.

You might remember me saying that Shelly and I took a detour from a trip to Chicago and visited The Ark Encounter. Here's the value of seeing a "biblical-sized" ark with your own two eyes: it's huge!

The Ark Encounter imagines how a full-sized ark might function. Where would the food go? Where would the animals go? How would there be light in the ark? They do such a good job that when you're done walking through, it doesn't stretch the imagination as much.

They even go to the point of designing potential water-delivery systems, food- and waste-management systems. One of their more controversial decisions is how they interpreted "according to their kinds" to draw up a comprehensive list of all the animals on the ark (which included dinosaurs, something they remind you quite a bit).

You'll note that it's a tourist destination. And there are a lot of touristy things around their ark (this is a short promo video from their site). Don't hold that against them. Everything costs money, and that money has to come from somewhere.

My visit to the Ark Encounter helped me grasp how God could use such a craft to preserve all of the animals in the world at the time. BUT -- it also helped me see just how much work Noah and his family had to do every day. Even with all of the space-saving and work-multiplying devices the Answers in Genesis people imagined for the ark (all of which are perfectly reasonable), I was bowled over by the day-in day-out work.

My personal solution to all of this is simple: God. Does any serious believer believe that God would have trouble helping Noah take care of this task? I hope not.

I want to give Answers in Genesis kudos for putting their beliefs out there. They knew they would take a lot of flak, and they have. But because I can read their claims, and because I can read all of the responses people have made to their claims, I can come up with questions that I would never thought to ask otherwise.

Related Idea: Did Noah's Ark Really Exist?

Well, of course it existed. And I really don't even think that the story is that crazy. And again, that's the value of being able to walk through something like the Ark Encounter -- "seeing is believing", right?

I think the bigger question is "scientific". A lot of scientists don't believe that there is evidence for a world-wide flood that happened within the last 10,000 years. Where did the water come from? Doesn't this mean that humankind reset to a single family? What about all of these fossil layers?

A lot of those questions touch on the age of the earth, which I gave context for when we studied Genesis 1. I don't intend to rehash that here. Instead, I want to talk about the New Testament. Read these passages:

Matt 24:36 “Now concerning that day and hour no one knows—neither the angels of heaven nor the Son—except the Father alone. 37 As the days of Noah were, so the coming of the Son of Man will be. 38 For in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah boarded the ark. 39 They didn’t know until the flood came and swept them all away. This is the way the coming of the Son of Man will be.
Heb 11:7 By faith Noah, after he was warned about what was not yet seen and motivated by godly fear, built an ark to deliver his family. By faith he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith.
1 Pet 3:18 For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit, 19 in which he also went and made proclamation to the spirits in prison 20 who in the past were disobedient, when God patiently waited in the days of Noah while the ark was being prepared. In it a few—that is, eight people—were saved through water. 21 Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you (not as the removal of dirt from the body, but the pledge of a good conscience toward God) through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22 who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God with angels, authorities, and powers subject to him.
2 Pet 2:4 For if God didn’t spare the angels who sinned but cast them into hell and delivered them in chains of utter darkness to be kept for judgment; 5 and if he didn’t spare the ancient world, but protected Noah, a preacher of righteousness, and seven others, when he brought the flood on the world of the ungodly; ... 9 then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials and to keep the unrighteous under punishment for the day of judgment, 10 especially those who follow the polluting desires of the flesh and despise authority.

Please catch that:

  • God's judgment on the world of Noah's day is a picture of the judgment to come. And we believe that judgment is coming, right?

  • Noah is put in the "hall of faith" alongside Abraham and Moses. Seems like a problem if none of this happened.

  • Peter calls the ark a symbol of baptism (and it's a powerful theological image), which would be a poor choice if there was no ark or flood.

  • (The whole spirits in prison thing? Because I believe in the "most wicked generation in human history" interpretation of Genesis 6, I believe that Peter's words validate the idea of a worldwide judgment. Doesn't make sense if it didn't happen.)

In other words, I believe that Jesus (and Peter and the author of Hebrews) believed the worldwide judgment through flood happened. So, whatever scientific hangups you have with the flood narrative, you have the responsibility of explaining what Jesus meant. If you believe that the flood narrative is accurate as told in Genesis, then these New Testament passages make plenty of sense.


Part 1: Judgment Announced (Genesis 6:13-17)

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. 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.

I loved, loved, loved Bill Cosby's "Noah (Right!)" routine growing up, but now everything associated with him is just icky, so I move on.

Verse 9 is another "division marker" in Genesis -- "the records of". Back in chapter 5, we learned about "the records of Adam's line", and things looked rough. We learn about the wickedness in the world of men. But verse 9 inserts a clean break, and we shift to "the records of Noah". And the very first thing we learn about Noah is he was a righteous man.

This is a breath of fresh air in an increasing disturbing narrative.

I don't see any value in speculating exactly what people were doing that was so terrible. Let's just trust God's judgment in this.

But let's look at this from Noah's perspective. Peter called him a "preacher of righteousness". In other words, during the many decades that Noah was building this massive structure in full view of everyone around, he spoke to the curious and the naysayers and warned them what was to come and why. But the only people who got on the boat with him were his immediate family. According to the genealogy, it looks like both his father and grandfather died in the flood! So, things were bad.

Remember that animals don't go to hell (or heaven, for that matter) because they don't have souls. So, the destruction of the animals is not related to their moral failing, but rather their role in the wickedness of the world. Again, God gave people authority over the world, and it seems safe to assume that they used that authority to every possible terrible end. But practically speaking, any worldwide judgment against humans could not spare animals, any more than a nuclear war today would spare animals.

And then God gives Noah a mind-blowing task. Build an ark. (What's an ark?) I've always liked the Tom DuBois paintings about Noah (I have one hanging in the hall outside my office); they're so bright and exciting. This one, called "The Commission", gives a pretty good indication of the scope of the project:

Don't lose the power of the idea for the details. And don't think that people in that day didn't have the "technology" to do something like build a crane! Adam's grandson developed the skills to work with iron, after all.

Here's another cool part of the Ark Encounter -- you get to see just how large the doors must have been. Genesis 7:16 says that God shut Noah into the ark, and I certainly don't see how Noah could have shut that door himself and also waterproofed it! What a door! (I have no idea who the people in the photo are; I just scraped this from Google.)

A few talking points:

  • "ark" -- the other place this word is used is of baby Moses' basket (so that's probably the image Moses' Hebrew audience would have thought of); so, perhaps we're better off thinking of the ark as a giant floating basket rather than a "boat".

  • "gopher wood" -- we have no idea; nobody has any idea; anybody who says otherwise is probably not a trustworthy source. We can simply assume that it was a good wood to build a boat out of.

  • "pitch" -- this was a very common waterproofing material that anybody in Egypt would have been very familiar with.

  • "cubit" -- this is another "nobody knows for sure" (because there were different standards of measurement for a cubit), but we believe that this cubit was about 18 inches.

  • "eighteen inches" -- this was the size of the window, and that's all the light that the passengers in the ark would get. That doesn't seem like much, but the Ark Encounter people showed ways the light could be reflected.

  • "floodwaters" --- this is the first reference to rain in the Bible, so how could Noah have known what a flood was? Let's dig in:

As far as we have in the Bible, this is the first rain. But the clouds had been there, and heavy mists seem to have been normal. So explaining to Noah what was about the happen would not have been hard for God (and Moses' Hebrew audience would have understood).

Aside on Moses' Hebrew audience: having grown up in Egypt, the Hebrews would have had a unique experience with flooding, and this is a huge civilization-building concept that we don't appreciate enough.

Egypt was sustained by the Nile River. The Nile was beautifully predictable. They knew exactly when the Nile would flood, and they scheduled all of their farming around the stages of the Nile. But Mesopotamia was not like Egypt. Mesopotamia was subject to fierce droughts and equally fierce floods. Villages could be swept away by a sudden flood, and the people there had a very fearful relationship with rain. This is why Egypt had dynasties lasting thousands of years, and Mesopotamia had a new empire come and go every few decades.

Point: Moses' audience would have had no trouble understanding what was about to happen, but they may not have appreciated how violent that kind of flood would be.

Back to the passage.

According to Genesis 7:11-12, the flood came from two sources: the rain that had been stored in the clouds (I guess since the world had been formed), and water that had been under the surface. According to the Answers in Genesis people, this explains all of the cataclysmic tectonic activity in the geologic record. Whatever happened, there can be no doubt that this event had an irreversible effect on the world. Land masses changed. The climate changed. Every ecosystem changed.

One last observation: "Everything on earth will perish." This statement makes it hard for me to believe in the theory of the "local flood".


Part 2: Grace Demonstrated (Genesis 6:18-22)

18 But I will establish my covenant with you, and you will enter the ark with your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives. 19 You are also to bring into the ark two of all the living creatures, male and female, to keep them alive with you. 20 Two of everything—from the birds according to their kinds, from the livestock according to their kinds, and from the animals that crawl on the ground according to their kinds—will come to you so that you can keep them alive. 21 Take with you every kind of food that is eaten; gather it as food for you and for them.” 22 And Noah did this. He did everything that God had commanded him.

This is a part of the story we probably know well. You might underestimate the grace God demonstrated here. We know from Genesis 9 that something very bad happened with one of Noah's sons, and yet God saved all of Noah's sons. And all of the earth would be populated through them.

And God also brought two of every "kind" of animal to Noah to put in the ark. There's big debate over what this means, and the Answers in Genesis people use this to argue that not every individual species was brought to the ark, but representative species.

In today's world, we have to point out the "male and female" part.

In chapter 7, we learn that there were seven of "every clean animal" and "bird" in the ark, not just two. Genesis 8:20 reveals that this was for Noah to offer as a burnt offering to God after they got out of the ark.

My wife has a tattoo of a snail, and it reminds her that even snails made it to the ark.

So much grace in this story. If anything, this story is about how God preserved life through this destruction. Otherwise, there would be no story! God created the world, and it was good. Human sin basically ruined it, so God "washed it out" and reset everything. And we will learn that God will not "reset" the earth again until the very end of history.


Part 3: Judgment Executed (Genesis 7:20-24)

20 The mountains were covered as the water surged above them more than twenty feet. 21 Every creature perished—those that crawl on the earth, birds, livestock, wildlife, and those that swarm on the earth, as well as all mankind. 22 Everything with the breath of the spirit of life in its nostrils—everything on dry land died. 23 He wiped out every living thing that was on the face of the earth, from mankind to livestock, to creatures that crawl, to the birds of the sky, and they were wiped off the earth. Only Noah was left, and those that were with him in the ark. 24 And the water surged on the earth 150 days.

The rains fell down, the groundwaters spewed up, and the surface of the earth was covered with water. You can find anything on reddit (for good or ill), and here's a map somebody drew with certain amounts of sea level rise:

The language is a little vague, but most Hebrew scholars believe it should be translated that the waters covered even the highest mountain peaks by more than 20 feet. The leader guide points out that Mt. Ararat (traditional site) is more than 17,000 feet high (see the picture below -- Mt. Ararat is truly astonishing), so this cannot be anything less than an incomprehensible amount of water.

I don't think we need to say much more. Next week, we will talk about when the ark came to rest of dry land, and the following week we will talk about the commission God gave to Noah's family. (I'll be covering the trip itself next week -- save those ideas!)

So, that means that this week is all about the judgment -- and I also want to draw attention to the fact that God gave a way out of the judgment.

Even if you have people in your group who are skeptical about the literal interpretation of this event, you should have no trouble drawing the necessary conclusion that the New Testament uses the judgment in Noah's day as a picture of the judgment to come. That should set you onto an important discussion of the truths of the gospel. And I truly believe that God put the details of Genesis 6 and 7 in the Bible so that we would today have serious discussions about sin, judgment, grace, and salvation. (And the fact that I believe Genesis 6 and 7 tell us the story of a thing that really happened just gives this more urgency.)

This week is the tough part of the story. Next week, we move on to happier things!


A Strange Bonus Idea: The Rise of Polyamory

There's really nowhere for me to share this -- we have skipped Genesis 5, where it would be most applicable (Lamech, the first polygamist) -- but I just read it, and I think it's important for our Bible study members to be aware.

The New Yorker just published this mind-blowing article documenting the rise of what's called "polyamory" -- perhaps you might think of it as describing an "open marriage".

I was unaware of how mainstream this idea had gotten. (And I'm not convinced that it's truly as accepted as some people try to make it.)

Our kids and grandkids are going to be encountering these ideas more and more in the future. They will probably have peers tell them that "open marriages" are okay.

They're not. And it's up to those of us who believe in God's picture and standard of marriage and human sexuality to consistently and lovingly teach (and model) those standards to the next generation.


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