The story of Noah and the flood is probably the second-most questioned story in the Bible, behind only the creation account in Genesis 1. Skeptics question its scope, its logistics, and its picture of God’s judgment. They pose questions such as – how could ancient man build something as large as the ark? How could a wooden boat that large be seaworthy? How could all the animals fit in it? How did Noah and his family care for the animals during a whole year on the boat? How did the ark survive the cataclysmic upheavals that must have taken place during the flood? How was there enough water to inundate the whole planet? How did the eight people on the ark breathe in an atmosphere that presumably became unbearably humid? How did saltwater marine life survive an inundation of freshwater and, conversely, how did freshwater marine life survive an inundation of saltwater? And how did any plant life survive?
Within the Christian community there is disagreement over whether the flood was regional or global. It is possible that the flood could have destroyed all human life without necessarily covering the entire planet (assuming man had not migrated throughout the whole earth). And it is possible to interpret the Hebrew passages about the “whole earth” and “under all the heavens” as meaning the known earth at that time (just as in Gen 41:57, I Kings 10:24, Rom 1:8, Col 1:23). This helps to explain how there could have been enough water for such a cataclysmic flood [Critics of this view point out that if it was a regional flood, God could have simply moved Noah and his family to a different area unaffected by the flood. However, a regional flood still would have been enormous, and the move required would have been dramatic and would have changed history.]. However, it is also possible that the flood was in fact global, and that the water needed to cover all the mountains was not as much as it would take today as the topography of the earth may have changed as a result of the flood itself.
For all of these questions and controversies – whether they come from within or without the Christian community – it pays to take the following into consideration:
- Just as in so much of the first 11 chapters of Genesis, Moses does not address many things the modern reader has questions about. He describes the flood and says the water came from the fountains of the great deep and from the floodgates of the sky. And he says the water prevailed over the highest mountains – possibly 22 feet above the highest peak. He also gives the dimensions of the ark and the duration of the flood. Beyond that, he is silent. His purpose – as always – is to tell the story of man’s sin and God’s judgment and salvation. If there are facts that do not add to that story, they are likely left out.
- The world may have been very different before the flood compared to what it is today. Something as cataclysmic as the flood could not have happened without changing all kinds of things throughout creation. It is dangerous, therefore, to make assumptions about the flood based only on what we know of the earth now.
- Many questions about the flood – other than its historicity – do not change the meaning of it. Whether or not it was global and whether or not it changed the earth’s topography and/or changed the continents and how many animals actually were aboard the ark have no effect on what it teaches us about God’s judgment and salvation.
With all of this in mind, it does not make sense to be dogmatic about the gray areas of the flood account. Just like with creation, there is so much that is open to conjecture and so many issues that can legitimately be argued from more than one side, that it does not pay to set them up as tests of faith or as reasons to separate. It is OK to have opinions and even to strongly defend them, but to hold views about things Moses did not address and hold them as absolutes is not wise.
This brings us, then, back to the main issue of the story – God’s judgment on sinful man and His salvation of Noah and his family. It can make some uncomfortable that God becomes so fed up with man’s sin that He decides to wipe out all life on the planet. That everyone dies seems overly harsh and very Old Testament-ish. We do not like a God who is so severe and wrathful.
However, if we do not like judgment then we ultimately do not like justice. If judgment does not exist then injustice and violence in this world become the final word. No one has any problem with thinking that Hitler or Belichick or Osama bin Laden could face eternal punishment. But for that to occur there has to be judgment. And for judgment to exist there has to be a standard. And though many of us would like some kind of sliding scale that lets people like us in and keeps people that in our estimation are really bad out, in reality it cannot be that way. So God judges and He judges ALL sin, because the standard is the holiness of God. But because He judges all sin, all injustice in the world is ultimately reversed and all wrongs righted. Judgment that seems harsh, then, is necessary for justice.
Judgment also is what makes salvation the precious gift that it is. If we do not understand judgment and God’s justice, then we do not appreciate our redemption. If there is no judgment there is no need for salvation. If there is no flood there is obviously no need for an ark. A holy and just God does in fact punish ALL sin, but the sins of the redeemed are punished on Someone Else’s account. Thus the ultimate picture of God’s wrath and justice is not the flood, but the cross. If the flood seems overly harsh it is because we do not have an appreciation for what happened on the cross.
After mentioning that some beings called the sons of God intermarried with the daughters of men and somehow produced children that became the mighty men of old, the author gives us God’s perspective on the world. God sees that the wickedness of man is great on the earth and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart is only evil continually. There is nothing in man’s actions or thoughts or imagination or intentions that is not evil. He is completely and wholly given over. The serpent’s triumph appears to be complete.
As a result, and in direct contrast to His reaction at the end of creation, God now regrets creating man. When the six days of creation were over God noted that everything was good (1:31). But now He looks at the sinfulness of man and is sorry He made him. The evil is so pervasive it makes God want to remove it from His sight (remember that He will turn away from His Son on the cross for the same reason – Matt 27:45-46).
The end of verse 6 says something interesting. It says God is grieved in His heart. This goes along with regretting man’s creation. God is grieved because of what He knows He must do. He knows He has to judge man for the sin that is so pervasive on the earth (He is just and so cannot choose NOT to judge). He knows what He is going to do with the flood. And He grieves in His heart because of it. God takes no joy in judgment. He does not gleefully sentence man to damnation. We must never confuse God’s justice and holiness with callousness or indifference. God must judge and will judge, but He does so with a heavy heart because of what could have been – what was supposed to have happened.
“Say to them, ‘As I live!’ declares the Lord God, ‘I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that the wicked turn from his way and live. Turn back, turn back from your evil ways! Why then will you die, O house of Israel?’” (Ezekiel 33:11). “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling. Behold, your house is being left to you desolate!” (Matt 23:37-38).
As a result of what He sees God says – apparently to Himself – that He will wipe man from the planet. He will not only wipe man out but He will also destroy all living things – man, animals, creeping things, and birds. Everything is now under the curse of sin and must be destroyed.
There is one man, however, who is not sinful and whose every intent is not wicked. His name is Noah. Noah finds favor in the eyes of the Lord. He is totally different from all other men (so perhaps the serpent is not completely triumphant after all).
To find favor means He lives under God’s grace. The author of Hebrews says that Noah obeyed God out of faith and became an heir of the righteousness which is according to faith (Heb 11:7). What this means is that Noah does not earn his salvation but believes God and has righteousness reckoned to him – just like Abraham will (Gen 15:6). Noah is saved by grace.
These verses reiterate the evil that is on the earth and how Noah stands out for his righteousness. The earth is corrupt and filled with violence (violence almost always characterizes societies given over to sin – it is referenced time and time again by the prophets who preach against unrighteous Israel and Judah before their destruction). Noah is righteous and blameless and walks with God. In light of the world around him, his testimony of faith is amazing.
Note that the word earth is mentioned four times in verses 11 and 12. The author apparently wants to make the point that the earth God created is now so given over to sin that it must be destroyed.
God comes to Noah and tells him He is about to judge the world. He mentions the violence that fills the earth and says that all flesh is about to end. He then tells Noah to build an ark of gopher wood (no one knows what kind of wood this is) covered inside and out with pitch. The length of the ark is to be 300 cubits, the width 50 cubits, and the height 30 cubits [since a cubit is roughly 18 inches, this translates to a ship 450 feet long by 75 feet wide by 45 feet tall – this would make it perhaps the largest wooden ship every constructed (large wooden ships are difficult to keep seaworthy as the wood flexes as it gets longer and the flexing causes leaks) – the ark is large as a wooden ship but not large compared to the biggest ships today which can be over 1000 feet long]. In verse 16 God either tells him to put a window in the ark or a roof on it and then leave a cubit gap between the walls and the roof. This could mean the ark effectively has windows all around the upper part just under the overhanging roof. The ark is also to have three decks (this means it has a displacement of roughly 43,000 tons and deck space of 95,700 square feet). It is also to have a door in the side.
God tells him He will bring a flood to destroy all life – everything that is on the earth shall perish. However, God will establish a covenant with Noah so that Noah and his wife and his sons and their wives will be saved. They will live through the flood on the ark Noah is about to build. Not only that, but a remnant of the animals will survive on the ark too. God will bring to Noah – note that verse 20 says they shall come to you – two of every kind of animal to keep alive in the ark. God then tells him to pack food for both the people and the animals.
The Bible presents this in just a few verses in a matter-of-fact way, but what God has just instructed Noah to do is a MONUMENTAL task. He must build an enormous ship, get thousands of animals on it, pack enough food to feed everything, and do it presumably without understanding the full impact of what is about to happen or the duration of it. The faith Noah demonstrates here in obeying – Thus Noah did; according to all that God had commanded him, so he did (22) – is amazing. Noah is indeed blameless and walking with God. [Noah is mentioned among the pantheon of righteous men; not only in Hebrews 11 as referenced above, but also in Ezek 14:14,20.]
It is interesting to consider what Peter says about Noah. In both I Peter 3:18-20 and II Peter 2:5, he seems to imply that Noah preaches to the people while he builds the ark. We do not know how long it takes him to build it, but during the construction he apparently preaches to the people and warns them of what is to come. Since no one other than his family ultimately joins him on the ark, his preaching apparently comes to naught. But that he tries speaks even more to his righteousness.
The text does not say how much time elapses between the end of Chapter 6 and the beginning of Chapter 7, but it apparently has been long enough to construct the ark as God tells Noah the flood will come in seven days. He tells him to start loading the ark and gives him a slightly different instruction in regard to the animals. He says Noah is to take seven pairs of the clean animals and seven pairs of the birds along with one pair of all other animals. He does not define what animals are clean but presumably Noah somehow understands.
The text says again that Noah does everything God commands him.
Noah is now 600 years old. Since the text says he was 500 when his sons – or at least his oldest son – were born (5:32), some assume it has taken 100 years to build the ark. However, when God comes to Noah and tells him about the flood He mentions that Noah and his sons and his sons’ wives will be saved. That seems to imply his sons are married when God speaks to him. If Noah started having sons at 500 and his sons are married when God comes to him, it makes sense that the construction of the ark takes less than 100 years – perhaps closer to 70 or 80.
Noah and his family load the ark. They put the animals aboard by twos (verse 9 does not contradict verses 2 and 3 because the animals are in pairs whether it is in sets of seven or just one) and finally board themselves. God Himself closes the door after them, showing that He will protect them through what is about to happen. After they come aboard – the same day (13) – the flood starts.
In the 600th year of Noah’s life, in the second month, on the 17th day of the month, the fountains of the great deep burst open and the floodgates of the sky open up. Then rain falls for the next 40 days. This describes complete upheaval. This is not a gradual flood. Something happens and the ground erupts with water and water falls from the sky in a huge way and the earth is deluged. After this the rain falls for another 40 days.
The rain falls for 40 days and the water prevails higher and higher on the earth. It gets so high that all mountains are covered perhaps to a depth of 22 feet (which may be what is necessary for the ark to pass safely above them). As a result all living things die. All flesh on the earth perishes – birds, cattle, beasts, swarming things, all that was on the dry land, everything that breathes, and all mankind. Everything dies as the water prevails on the earth for 150 days. But Noah and his family and the animals are safe on the ark.
- The flood shows that God will judge. We should never doubt that an eternal and righteous and holy God will in fact punish sin. Just as He will destroy Sodom and Gomorrah and just as He will instruct the Israelites to kill all living things when they conquer Canaan, so God will commit those who reject Him to eternal fire. To disbelieve what the Bible says about hell and eternal punishment is to forget the lessons of the flood. For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to pits of darkness, reserved for judgment; and did not spare the ancient world, but preserved Noah, a preacher of righteousness, with seven others, when He brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly; then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from temptation, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment for the day of judgment (II Pet 4-5,9).
- The flood shows that the unrighteous never believe judgment will come. If Noah did in fact preach to them they did not believe him. And though many had to witness the enormous construction project of the ark – and presumably many even worked on it – they still did not believe it was necessary. The same is true today and will be true for all time. Know this first of all, that in the last days mockers will come with their mocking, following after their own lusts, and saying, “Where is the promise of His coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all continues just as it was from the beginning of creation.” For when they maintain this, it escapes their notice that by the word of God the heavens existed long ago and the earth was formed out of water and by water, through which the world at that time was destroyed, being flooded with water. But the present heavens and earth by His word are being reserved for fire, kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men (II Pet 3:3-7).
- The flood shows that the unrighteous are never ready for judgment. And just as it happened in the days of Noah, so it shall be also in the days of the Son of Man: they were eating, they were drinking, they were marrying, they were being given in marriage, until the day that Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all (Lk 17:26-27).
- The flood shows the righteous are saved by faith. Noah believes God and finds favor with God and thus obeys God and is saved. Without belief Noah dies. What God tells him to do is monumental, yet Noah obeys everything. And what God tells him about the flood is likely beyond anything Noah can comprehend, yet Noah obeys everything. Noah walks by faith, not by sight.