This week we continued our series, Bible Stories to Make You Squirm, by looking at one of the most well-known stories in the whole Bible. What could possibly be problematic about a story that every knows and is used in baby nurseries all over the place? When you look more closely, a whole lot. But, when we look more closely, as before, we’ll find that there’s more here than meet’s the eye. Keep reading to see how this all unfolds.
The Cleansing Flood
Have you ever gone back as an adult and watched a TV show you remembered from your childhood only for it to seem like a totally different show than you remembered? Over the years with our boys I’ve tried a few times to take them back into my childhood with some of the cartoons I loved to watch. Some of these have been enduring classics like Looney Toons or Tom and Jerry. Scooby-Doo was a hit for a while with them. But on occasion, as I have tuned into something with them, I’ve been left wondering what my parents were thinking letting me watch this or that. More probably they just didn’t know I was watching it.
One show I found to be entirely more ideologically-driven than I realized growing up was Captain Planet. Do you remember Captain Planet? It was all about five special (and appropriately progressively international) kids who were given power rings by the earth goddess Gaia that allowed them to control various aspects of the natural world—earth, fire, wind, water, and heart. They were powerful on their own, but when they combined their powers, they summoned Captain Planet, a superhero dedicated to protecting the world from bad guys who wanted to pollute it in some way. I remember the show being a ton of fun and with a really catchy theme song that I am not going to sing for you, but which you can find on YouTube. Watching it now? It’s incredibly campy and pushes a near-radical environmental message into the hearts and minds of its viewers. And it’s fundamentally pagan in its worldview outlook. But it was fun. Or so I thought then.
Do you know where else there are a lot of stories like that? In the Bible. Think about your average children’s Bible. What kind of stories does it tell? I mean, Bible stories, of course, but which ones? The familiar ones. Creation. Adam and Eve. Noah and the Ark (not the flood usually, just the ark). Abraham. Moses and the Ten Commandments. They might tell about Samson because he was super strong. Then they jump to David and Goliath. Now, from there they’ll often jump to either Jonah and the Whale (although it was really a great fish, but we won’t be picky right now) or else Daniel and the Lion’s Den. After that comes Jesus.
And as these stories are being told, the characters are all cartoonish and smiling. All of them. Except Goliath. He usually has a grumpy face. In one of our boys’ Bibles, it puts the story of Jonah something like this: “God said, ‘Go.’ Jonah said, ‘No!’ Got thrown off a boat with a big heave-ho. Got gulped up, spat out, and stood up fast. Then he did just what God had asked.” Now, as far as a rhyme goes, that’s pretty good. It has a nice cadence to it. But if your kid is paying very close attention to the actual words, you’re going to have some questions coming your way that you may or may not want to try and answer at bedtime.
The fact is, there are a lot of stories in the Bible that when we read them closely as adults, make us squirm. That’s why we’re having this conversation. This morning we are in the second part of our new teaching series, Bible Stories to Make You Squirm. The whole idea here is just as I’ve said: There are some stories in the Bible that are really hard to get our hearts and minds around if we read them very closely. But, if we are going to take seriously Paul’s observation that all Scripture is inspired by God and useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness so that we are thoroughly equipped for every good work, then we need to be prepared to do something with them. No matter how hard a story might seem to us, God put it there for a reason. If we’re going to get the most out of His word, then, we’re going to need to figure out what that reason is. And while we can’t necessarily do this with every single story in the Bible in one series, if we can work through a few, we can establish some guidelines for dealing with the rest.
Now, sometimes a story in the Bible is obviously hard like Abraham being told to sacrifice Isaac which we talked about a couple of weeks ago. Other times, though, at first glance a story seems easy. It feels familiar. It fits well on the pages of a children’s Bible…until you go back and read the whole thing as an adult. Then it gets a lot harder. The story I want to look at with you this morning is a children’s Bible staple. You would be hard pressed to find a kids Bible that doesn’t include it and in fact it is often sold as a single-story book. This story is one of if not the most well-known story in the whole Bible. It’s so well-known that I probably don’t need to remind you of it at all. You know what happens. But in that very familiarity, we can forget that the Precious Moments version that appears in so many nurseries and children’s books doesn’t tell us everything that happened. It doesn’t even begin to wrestle with what the story means or why it’s there in the first place. Let’s see if we can’t do that together this morning.
Most of the tellings of the story go like this: “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. Make yourself an ark of gopher wood. Make rooms in the ark, and cover it with pitch inside and outside. This is how you are to make it: The ark will be 450 feet long, 75 feet wide, and 45 feet high. 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. 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. But I will establish my covenant with you, and you will enter the ark with your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives. You are also to bring into the ark two of all the living creatures, male and female, to keep them alive with you.’”
On and on the instructions come. And Noah obeys them. To the letter. He builds the ark exactly like he is told. God sends him the animals. Somehow he collects enough food for everyone and everything going on the ark. They all board it, God shuts the door, the waters come, and the water ride begins. Afterwards, they settle on the top of Mount Ararat, Noah sends out some birds until one doesn’t come back, at which point he declares that it’s finally time to disperse the floating menagerie and start rebuilding civilization. As a nice tag for the story God shows back up at the end and promises to never do anything like this again, a promise symbolized and remembered by a rainbow. And everyone lived happily ever after. At least that’s how the kids’ version goes.
But then you look a little closer and things aren’t quite so neat and tidy as they first appear. Where we picked up a moment ago was in the middle of Genesis chapter 6. That’s not the first time we meet Noah in the story. More importantly, it’s not where the story actually begins. You see, when most of the tellings of the story of Noah and the Flood begin, the real story is already underway.
There’s a show on Netflix Lisa has been watching for the last several weeks. I’ve caught it in bits and pieces around other things I’m doing. But, while I haven’t seen nearly all of every episode, I’ve seen enough to keep me curious about what’s happening. Invariably, I’ll walk in and see some character I haven’t seen before or the middle of some line of drama and immediately start driving her crazy with questions. I need to know the full picture, so I know how to understand what I’m seeing.
The same thing applies here. To begin with God telling Noah to build an ark, is to miss out on the bigger question of why God told him that. In fact, when you step back and look at the bigger picture of what’s going on here, this really isn’t a story about a righteous man and a big boat at all. It’s about something entirely larger and more significant for our lives than that. In order to be able to see this, though, we’ve got to go back to the beginning of the story.
The story really gets its start back at the beginning of chapter 6. We actually meet Noah for the first time just before then. He is listed at the end of a lengthy genealogical record of the family of Seth, Adam and Eve’s third son, born after Cain murdered his younger brother Abel in a jealous rage. Noah was the son of a man named Lamech, and when he was born, his father had some pretty big expectations for what his life would accomplish. The text puts it like this in Genesis 5:28: “Lamech was 182 years old when he fathered a son. And he named him Noah [which means rest or relief], saying, ‘This one will bring us relief from the agonizing labor of our hands, caused by the ground the Lord has cursed.’ Lamech lived 595 years after he fathered Noah, and he fathered other sons and daughters. So Lamech’s life lasted 777 years; then he died. Noah was 500 years old, and he fathered Shem, Ham, and Japheth.”
Now, as Moses is introducing us to the various characters of the pre-Flood earth (also known as the antediluvian period), he doesn’t offer much commentary on their character. He just reveals some names and ages. I’m not sure what you assume about them, but for a long time, my reflex assumption was to assume that they were all pretty good people. They’re mentioned in the Bible, after all. Shouldn’t we assume someone in the Bible was reasonably righteous unless we’re told otherwise? Not so fast. No, as it turns out, humanity had gone down the tubes after the Fall recorded in Genesis 3. We got really bad, really fast.
What comes next in the text helps us understand just how bad things were. If you haven’t already found you way there, turn in your Bibles with me to Genesis 6 and we’ll take a look at this together. We’ll pick up in v. 5: “When the Lord saw that human wickedness was widespread on the earth and that every inclination of the human mind was nothing but evil all the time, the Lord regretted that he had made man on the earth, and was deeply grieved.” Got that? We had gotten so bad that God was sorry He had created us in the first place. Folks, this is what prompted the Flood. We were so bad that God finally had to throw up His hands and exclaim, “We’ve got to have a reset.” Have you ever experienced something approaching that level of regret? Not because of something you did, but because of something that had gone wrong with something or someone you loved. You started out on a project with great hope and confidence, but somewhere along the way, things started to go wrong. You tried to keep it up for a while thinking it would straighten itself back out, but it didn’t. It was a slowly unfolding disaster. You finally had to throw it all in the trash and start over. Verse 7: “Then the Lord said, ‘I will wipe mankind, whom I created, off the face of the earth, together with the animals, creatures that crawl, and birds of the sky—for I regret that I made them.’”
But hold on now. That project you were working on was one thing. A whole world filled with human lives is something entirely different. Stories like this one are what seem to give justification to prominent atheists like Richard Dawkins accusing God of being a genocidal maniac. Well, do you remember what we said a couple of weeks ago is one of the most important things we have to bring to the table with us when we are dealing with stories like this one? We have to get God’s character right. If we don’t do that, we don’t have a chance. In particular here, we have to be clear on the fact that God is unwaveringly just. He always does the right thing. Always. Every time. No exceptions. None.
But how could wiping out the whole planet possibly be just? Understanding that requires us to get a couple of other things right. First, God is the Creator of the world. He made it. All of it. And He didn’t have to do that. He owes nothing to it; to us. We exist, this world exists, at His pleasure. The other thing we can’t miss—and this is why going back to the beginning of the story is so important—is just how bad things really were. We want to downplay it because we don’t take sin very seriously as a general rule. But listen to what the text says again: “…the Lord saw that human wickedness was widespread on the earth and that every inclination of the human mind was nothing but evil all the time.” The Message puts it like this: “God saw that human evil was out of control. People thought evil, imagined evil—evil, evil, evil from morning to night.” Sin had so run amok in our hearts and out through our lives that we were destroying ourselves. When God finished creation, He declared it to be “very good.” That declaration had been turned entirely over on its head. Everything was very bad. And God in His just wisdom saw that the only way to set things right again was to wipe the slate clean. Do you know how we know He knew that was the only way? Because He’s just, and if there was another way, He would have done that instead. Are you with me? If we don’t get God’s character right, we can’t get the story right.
And so justice was coming. And it was going to be thorough. Kind of depressing, isn’t it? But wait a second. I said we have to get God’s character right. Is justice the sum total of who God is? No, it is not. God is also, what? Love. Look at v. 8, because this is where that love begins to show forth: “Noah, however, found favor with the Lord.” So, the whole earth was corrupted by sin and everyone thought about nothing but evil all the time and God was going to wipe the whole slate clean by destroying all of it…but. But Noah, found favor with the Lord. He was righteous, that is, He was rightly related to God and to the people around Him. God in His holy justice was going to hold the whole earth accountable for its rampant sinfulness. God in His love found the one exception to the otherwise hard and fast rule. And God’s loving justice used that one exception as the excuse He needed to stop short of a full slate cleaning. Instead, He would start over with this one righteous man named Noah and his family. What kind of a God stops short in His judgment in order to seek out and save the lone exception to the rule? One who is perfect in justice and in love.
Now, you know what comes next. I don’t need to tell you about that again. The boat, the animals, the flood, and the landing. But jump over to chapter 8 with me and look at v. 20: “Then Noah [who, by the way, has yet to say a single word in this entire story—what kind of main character doesn’t speak in his own story? The kind who isn’t actually the main character at all] built an altar to the Lord, He took some of every kind of clean animal and every kind of clean bird and offered burnt offerings on the altar.” Noah recognizes the gift of grace He’s given. He recognizes this and worships God for it. And the Lord, for His part, “smelled the pleasing aroma, [and] said to himself, ‘I will never again curse the ground because of human beings, even though the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth onward. And I will never again strike down every living thing as I have done.” In other words, this was a one-shot deal. But why? I mean, isn’t He still God? Couldn’t He just start over every time things finally get bad enough? He could, but He doesn’t want to. He doesn’t want to because that righteous anger that led to the Flood in the first place wasn’t an uncontrollable, burning rage. It was the heartbroken determination of a Father bringing punishment to the children He loves with all His heart. God wasn’t going to take the reset approach again not because He didn’t want to, but because He couldn’t bear to do it.
A little while later, after establishing a bit more clearly the ground rules going forward (namely, to not kill each other) He reaffirms this promise with even stronger language. Listen to this from 9:7: “‘But you, be fruitful and multiply; spread out over the earth and multiply on it.’ Then God said to Noah and his sons with him, ‘Understand that I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you—birds, livestock, and all wildlife of the earth that are with you—all the animals of the earth that came out of the ark. I establish my covenant with you that never again will every creature be wiped out by floodwaters; there will never again be a flood to destroy the earth.’” The sign of the rainbow comes next, but think for a minute about how powerful of a moment this was. One of the first things God does in the aftermath of the flood is to offer us the same command He did in the beginning: be fruitful and multiply. Now, why would He do that? Because an earth filled with people on whom He could pour out His love was always the plan. In other words, God’s first action once the judgment had accomplished its intended purpose was to set in place the restoration of all things. And here we can see the real purpose of this story. This is not just a colorful story about a bunch of animals and a big boat. This is not just a story about how God destroyed everything either. It’s not just a story at all. This is a historical record offering us the chance to learn something incredibly important about God. He may bring judgment, but He always restores. God may bring judgment, but He always restores.
So, what does that mean for you? Well, let’s put it this way: Have you ever been in a place where you were sitting under God’s judgment? Have you ever had a flood of some kind come to your life? Now, judgment only comes in response to sin. If you faced a hard season that was not the result of some sinful choice you made or pattern you were in, then God was more likely giving you a test of faith like we saw Him give Abraham a couple of weeks ago even if that test of faith was the result of the judgment someone else was facing. But have you ever sat under the Lord’s judgment before? That’s not a fun place to be. It’s not a fun place to be and even though we may be the object of it, we are rarely the only ones affected by it. Our sin has consequences that ripple out from us and impact the people around us. Sometimes God’s judgment isn’t something that comes into our lives from an external source like the Flood was here. Sometimes it simply takes the form of His stepping back from us and letting the natural consequences of our sin play themselves out in our lives.
Either way, have you been under God’s judgment before? Are you there now? Are you maybe living in a place that, if you’re really honest with yourself, isn’t the kind of place that’s bringing honor to Jesus like you perhaps ought to be doing—especially if you’re claiming Him as Lord in any meaningful way? If you wouldn’t make that as a claim, are you living in a situation that, let’s say your grandma who went to church all her life and who you still revere as a godly woman would gently tell you isn’t the best way to be living? If that’s at all descriptive of you and you feel like your life just isn’t going right, that’s what God’s judgment often feels like at first. He starts with a whisper like that, but the longer we ignore it, the louder He gets. Like with the flood, the judgment is going to continue until it accomplishes its purpose. But, hear this well: God’s ultimate purpose in your life is not judgment. God may bring judgment, but He always restores.
Listen: God wants to restore you. He desires a relationship with you and sometimes judgment is the way He removes roadblocks to that relationship. The bigger the roadblock, the bigger the judgment. The bigger the judgment, the more painful it will be; the more painful, perhaps, it has been. Or just maybe, the more painful it is. But hear it again: That’s not what God wants for you. God may bring judgment, but He always restores. And if you’ll come with me just a little bit further, the very end of the story points us firmly in this direction.
The story ends with this scene that takes place a few years after the flood. Noah goes into farming, plants a vineyard, and one day has enjoyed the fruit of his vines too much. He gets so drunk that he passes out naked in his tent. It’s a bizarre little episode. But then it gets weirder. Noah’s youngest son, Ham, comes in the tent, sees his dad lying there passed out in his birthday suit, and goes to tell his brothers about it. Shem and Japheth come in the tent backwards so they don’t see him, and cover him up. When he comes to, he pronounces a curse over Ham’s son, Canaan. The sum total of this story reveals something really unsettling: Sin is still around.
You see, when it comes to God’s big plans to restore us to the relationship He designed us to have with Him in the beginning, the judgment of the flood and its aftermath revealed that the problem is not something external to us. Nor is it just in our minds such that starting over with one righteous mind could fix things. It’s in our hearts. So, the next major solution to the problem God put in place was the Law, given through Moses. If simply wiping us all out and starting over didn’t deal with the root of the problem, perhaps putting tight controls on our sinful impulses along with penalties for transgressing those would. But that didn’t work either. God was showing us along the way that neither judgment nor law were going to be able to do the trick on their own. We needed something that spanned both efforts and went a step further. We needed judgment because God is just and sin is not. We needed law because we do not police our behavior very well on our own. But, that judgment needed to be faced by someone else so there was still an us on the other side of it, and we needed that law imprinted on our hearts since that’s where all the sin was getting its start.
Jesus satisfied both of these criteria. He took the punishment that was intended for us and then sent the Holy Spirit into the world to dwell in the hearts of all those who would follow Him, thus enabling them to live the restored lives we were always designed to live. Hear that well: Jesus took our judgment, while we got the restoration. God may bring judgment, but He always restores. God may be bringing judgment in your life right now, but He has restoration in your future if you will be willing to receive it; if you will be willing to receive what Jesus has already done for you and make Him the Lord of your life.
If you are in a place of judgment of any kind, imagine being free of that. Imagine being restored. God never brings judgment to bear without plans for restoration already in place. That was the case for the world in the days of Noah. It was the case when Jesus was hanging and dying on the cross. It is still the case today. God may bring judgment, but He always restores. The only question you need to answer is this one: Will you be restored? Will you be restored? Will you be restored to the relationship with God you’ve known in the past, or maybe the one you’ve never known before? He’s ready to restore you. He’s promised to do it when you’re willing to receive it. And He keeps His promises. In fact, we started this morning in a Children’s Bible. Let’s finish there too. My boys’ favorite kids Bible is this one: The Tiny Bear’s Bible. It’s one that actually gets the story of Noah pretty right. Listen to this: “‘I’ll keep you safe!’ God promised His friend. ‘My world has gone wrong and I’m starting again.’ So God sent a flood, and they all sailed away, and floated and floated, for day after day! When their boat landed safely, they all said, “PHEW!’ And when God makes a promise, you know that it’s true! Yes, Tiny Bear; God keeps His promises!” God may bring judgment, but He always restores. May you know that restoration.