The Bible is a book that can be difficult to make sense of – which is why having a mental map of some sort to make sense of it is so important. One of my favorite ways to look at this comes from Dr. Scott Hahn, one of my professors from Franciscan University, who sees the key to understanding the whole of Scripture in six covenants. The following is one part of a my look at each of these six covenants.
It’s one of the most audacious scenes in the Bible. Eight human beings: Noah; his unnamed wife – it’s probably most appropriate to call her ‘Joan’ (…of the Ark…); his sons Shem, Ham and Japheth; their wives; and a pair of every animal except (apparently) unicorns climb onboard a MASSIVE ship built in the middle of dry land, they lock the door, and watch God flood the earth for forty days,causing the death of “every living thing on the face of the earth” (Genesis 7:23). They then had to wait months for the water to subside enough for them to be able to leave the ark and spread throughout the world again. I call this story audacious because first of all, it seems like an incredibly cruel act by God (did every living thing really deserve this?), not to mention the practicality of building such a boat, keeping it safe inside (so the lions don’t eat all the sheep, for example), and running the world’s most interesting zoo (how do you keep the animals fed, and the poop disposed of?)
On the one hand here, we can keep in mind the idea of “historical myth” – that the scientific veracity of this story isn’t the key to understanding it, because there is plenty of truth to be found in the events that lead up to the flood, in Noah’s actions following the flood… and particularly in the promise and covenant which God makes with Noah’s household. On the other hand: what’s harder? Creating from nothing and rising from the dead, or the challenges laid before Noah?
I’ll leave that to you, because my point in visiting this story lies much deeper, and starts in the chapter before the flood. If you head back to Genesis 6, you find an interesting statement:
“When men (human beings) began to multiply on the face of the ground, and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that the daughters of men were fair, and they took to wife such of them that they chose.” (Genesis 6:1-2)
This simple statement leads God to cast judgment on humanity, limiting our lifespan to 120 years (Genesis 6:3)… and ultimately, grieving the Lord’s heart to the point that He decides to blot human beings out from the face of the earth, along with animals, creeping things, and birds of the air (Genesis 6:5-7).
What on earth happened here? If you go back to verses 1-2, you have two groups of people “sons of God” and “daughters of men.” Some suspect that the “sons of God” are the angels – seduced somehow by the incredible beauty of human women. The trouble with that theory is that the angels aren’t the ones being punished here – in fact, they seem to be the only ones who escape judgment (humans, animals, birds, and ‘creeping things.’)
Well, if we follow the progression from the earlier chapters of Genesis, we know that Adam and Eve had three sons: Abel, Cain, and Seth. Abel was righteous, and out of jealousy, Cain killed his brother. You might say that the seed of evil sown by the serpent took root in Cain – whereas the seed of goodness and righteousness (the promise of God) had found it’s way to the heart of Abel. With Abel dead, this seed of righteousness is restored in Seth and his descendants; and the seed of the serpent is found in Cain and his descendents. So it’s not too much of a stretch to say that as human beings multiplied, the Sethite men (sons of God – those who followed the path of the righteous) were seduced by the Cainite women (the daughters of man, following the path of sin). And here, they didn’t just marry some women… they married as they chose. It’s likely that not only mixed marriages, but also polygamy entered the equation here. Dr. Scott Hahn says that “In every age of salvation history, sexual immorality and violence go hand in hand, triggering the hard remedy of God’s judgment…”
If you see the sin of Adam and eve as a seed – a beginning, what grew was more and more sin to the point that God barely recognizes us as those beings made in His image and likeness, meant to live in relationship with Him. And He resolves to wipe all of us off the face of the earth – all of us, that is, except for Noah’s family. Demonstrating the faith in God required to do something as absolutely insane as building, filling, and getting aboard the ark: God rewards them by establishing a covenant relationship with this household.
This choice has two incredible effects. First of all, the mediators of the first covenant was one holy couple (Adam & Eve); with this covenant, we’ve grown to a family of eight.
The second, I’m going to refer to as the “Darth Vader” effect. When I was a kid, there were only three episodes of Star Wars (what’s now known as 4, 5, and 6) – and they were fairly new. The first time I saw them, I watched them in order with no awareness of what came next. While I didn’t know anything about what really happened to Anakin Skywalker, nor the fact that Luke & Leia were brother and sister… I was very convinced from the start of Episode 4 that Darth Vader was a bad man. We are introduced to him killing rebel troops, then he blows up a planet, kills a couple of his lieutenants, and finally he is the instrument by which one of the heroes of this movie (Obi-Wan Kenobi) dies. Episode 5 (The Empire Strikes Back) – has more of the same, with Vader killing whomever he sees fit. Then something absolutely mind blowing happens during the lightsaber duel at the climax of this film: Darth Vader cuts off the hand of another of our heroes (Luke Skywalker), before making the insane claim that he is, in fact, Luke’s father.
Seven year old me screamed right along with Luke “THAT’S IMPOSSIBLE” (though I’d argue my scream seemed more sincere) – until we learned in Episode 6 that this was true. Luke’s actions from that moment forward are driven by one simple belief: although all we’ve ever seen Darth Vader do is evil, perhaps there is a thread of good left in him that might still be able to have a positive impact on this story. And for those of you who’ve seen this movie (The Return of the Jedi) – you know that this is precisely how things play out. That thread of goodness becomes a key turning point in the entire Star Wars Saga.
This is what happens when God sees the good in Noah amidst a generation where sin ran rampant. Noah is that thread of goodness found within a people that had completely embraced evil drawing God’s judgment in the first place. And as I read the story, God pronounces judgment but waits to enact the punishment – almost as though he were hoping we would change. In the end, the only one who responds to the voice of God is Noah and his family.
The sequence with the flood has a many notable characteristics, so let me point out a few. We’ve always seen the flood and the ark as prefiguring Baptism and the Church (sometimes referred to as the “Barque of St. Peter). The prominence of the number 7 (7 pairs of all clean animals) reminds us of covenant – and the 7 days left for Noah to do this are echoes of the creation of the world in 7 days. God is “re-creating” through this flood- and he directs Noah to “Be fruitful and multiply (Genesis 9:2). In a further parallel, Noah will have a fall of his own in a latter part of Chapter 9, when after planting a vineyard – a type of garden – he consumes it’s fruit, which leads to a fall in Genesis 9:22, when Ham sees “the nakedness of his father.” The events which ensue lead Noah to curse Canaan (Ham’s son), and to bless Shem and Japheth. To “look upon his father’s nakedness” is a vague line, and we aren’t precisely sure what it means. One tradition suggests it was simply a sign of dishonor and disrespect, that Ham and his son Canaan made fun of Noah in front of Noah’s other sons. Another interpretation sees this action, to look upon the nakedness of one’s father, as a euphemism for incest (see Leviticus 20:17, 18:6-18). The long and short of it would be that Ham committed maternal incest, and the cursed fruit of that event was his son, Canaan. This might better explain why Noah was so quick to curse Ham & Canaan.
Let me conclude by saying a few words about the covenant between God and Noah. God promises to bless Noah, to never hit “reset” on the world in this way again (Genesis 8:21-24, 9:11-17), and stewardship (sovereignty) over the things of the world. The sign of this covenant is God’s (rain)bow, set in the clouds, and Noah’s stewardship means that he is responsible to care for the, cultivate it, and (as needed) he may kill and eat animals without fear of punishment from God… but human beings are not to take the life of one another.