One of the most interesting stories in the Hebrew Bible is that of Noah and the Flood (Genesis 6-9).
And by interesting, what I mean is that it’s incredibly dark and depressing. Taken at face value, the story of the flood is the story of the time God killed almost every living thing in an effort to stop sin and evil. The entire world is given back over to the primordial chaos so that God can start over with a fresh slate. God gives up. The text actually says that God regretted ever making humanity, and so kills them all except Noah and his family, because he alone was righteous and blameless among his generation (Gen. 6:9).
The story of the flood is often told as a story of judgment and wrath. Sinful people provoke the wrath of an angry God and must bear the consequences of their actions (consequences also borne by most of the animals and all of the plants, even though they had committed no evil at all).
It’s a problematic story. And strangely, it’s a story that is usually only taught to children.
And that’s a shame, because there’s actually a lot going on in the story that I think mature believers should grapple with.
Like, for instance, the fact that after God has finished killing all but six people, we find out almost immediately that the plan didn’t work. God wiped out humanity because they were evil, but no sooner does God finish rescuing Noah and Noah’s family from the evil of the rest of humanity when we discover that Noah’s family is not quite as upright as Genesis 6 may have suggested.
Noah plants a vineyard and drinks himself into a stupor. Noah’s son, Ham, “reveals Noah’s nakedness” which is likely a euphemism for paternal rape, and Noah’s descendants reject the only command that God gives them when they get off the boat¹ and instead choose to gather together in Babel to make a name for themselves.
If God’s plan was to wipe out wickedness, God didn’t do a very good job. God wiped out humanity, but evil and sin are just as present as they were before.
God used violence to solve the problem of evil, only to discover that it didn’t work.
So God makes a promise. As soon as the flood is over, God throws down God’s weapon and promises never to kill everyone as an antidote for evil ever again. Even though Noah and his family turn immediately back into evil, God will not destroy them. God tried that once, it didn’t work, so God promises never to do it again.
This interpretation is uncomfortable for many of us because it suggests that God made a mistake in the flood, but bear with me. Even the the traditional interpretation of the story rests on the idea that God made a mistake in creating humanity. In either case, the text suggests that God has done something that didn’t work exactly how God intended, and so God adjusts the plan.²
But whatever discomfort this may bring, it also adds a beautiful dimension to the story in the way that it subverts the Ancient Near Eastern understanding of the wrath of the gods.
The Genesis flood narrative is not the only flood story that comes out of the Ancient Near East. It’s not even the oldest.³ And it appears to borrow heavily from some of the older stories and changing the story just enough to drastically alter the way the people understood God.
The Genesis flood narrative takes the common Ancient Near Eastern trope that the gods would sometimes tire of the pesky humans and decide to destroy them (see the story of Atra-Hasis and the flood as an example) and turns it on its head.
The stories starts the same: Humanity has offended the gods, so the gods opt to destroy them. But one family is preserved from destruction so they can start over.
But this is where the Genesis story deviates. Once the destruction happens, God repents of it. God throws down his weapon and promises never to do this again.
Instead, God will eradicate evil with love rather than with violence. The text describes the warrior God hanging up his bow, pointing it away from the earth (Genesis 9:13) as a sign that God has rejected the volatility and destruction of other Ancient Near Eastern gods. Other gods may destroy their creation, but the Hebrew God will not. Destruction is over, so be fruitful and multiply and fill the whole earth.
This is a story about how violence didn’t solve the problem of evil, so God changed God’s approach. And when Jesus came to earth, he opted to become the recipient of violence rather than the enactor of violence. Humanity obtains salvation, not through wrathful violence, but through self-sacrificial love.
And if the story is understood as a subversion of a common Ancient Near Eastern flood mythology, it doesn’t even have to hinge on the idea that God made a mistake. Rather, the story exists as a bridge between the Ancient Near Eastern pantheon and the true God of the Bible (somewhat analogous to the way Paul uses the temple to an Unknown God in Acts 17). The flood narrative in Genesis subverts the stories of the violent Ancient Near Eastern gods in order to teach about the God who is gracious, loving, and committed to God’s creation.
This is the God we see presented in the Torah. This is the God we see in Jesus. And this is the God we see in our own lives today.
¹ “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the whole earth.” (Gen. 9:7). This is also the first and only command given to Creation in Genesis chapter 1, which is one of many indicators that the flood narrative is also intended to depict a sort of second creation process.
² Most Christian theology says that God cannot make mistakes or change God’s mind, but the writer of the Flood narrative depicts God as repenting either from causing the flood or from creating humanity (or both!), and we should engage the text as it’s written, and not only through the lens of our already established theology.
³ The Gilgamesh story also includes a flood narrative, and Gilgamesh predates the version of Genesis that we have by about 1,500 years. There are also tablets like the Atra-Hasis Epic housed at the British Museum that tells a similar story from around 1,000 years before the Genesis version as we know it.