Others read it focusing on the story’s historical reality — how the large the ark was, where it landed, or its impact on geology.
But these traditional ways of reading the flood story miss its deeper significance. They reflect the difficulty that modern Christians have with the Eastern way of communicating truth.
Most of us simply read for historical details and miss the greater implications of Old Testament stories, thinking that we can only find theology in the New Testament. But the Bible’s writers saw theology in history, and composed their stories with an eye toward the meaning behind the events.
Surprisingly, if we look at the flood again, we find that this ancient narrative gives a profound answer to one of the most difficult questions posed by philosophers today: how a good God can tolerate human evil in the world.
The Story of Sin in Genesis
It’s not hard for us to see the theological implications of Eve’s decision to eat fruit from the tree. But the problem of sin is actually an important theme of several more chapters in Genesis and culminates in the story of the flood.
Almost immediately after the fall, we read about Cain’s murder of Abel. From Eve’s small act of rebellion, sin grew until it led to murder, claiming the life of one of her children. Later in that same chapter, sin grew even worse when Cain’s descendant, Lamech, bragged to his family that as violent as Cain was, he was much worse! He declared,
For I have killed a man for wounding me; and a boy for striking me; If Cain is avenged sevenfold, then Lamech seventy-sevenfold!” Genesis 4:24
Lamech’s words show that sin doesn’t stop at murder. He claimed the right to kill for the smallest of offenses. With that kind of attitude, it’s not surprising that in the very next generation, sin had reached its climax and provoked a response from God:
“Then the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. The LORD was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart. The earth was corrupt in the sight of God, and the earth was filled with violence (hamas).” Genesis 6:5-6, 11
In these first chapters of Genesis we can see the progression of evil — how sin infected humanity so completely that it grieved the heart of God. It was a theological statement about the wickedness of mankind, contrasted with the goodness of God who had a short time before declared his creation “very good.”
We might wonder what human beings could do that would cause God such grief. But if we remember the horrors the Nazis committed in concentration camps, or the deaths of thousands in torture chambers in Iraq, or the mass graves in many places in the world, we understand. Humans really are capable of wickedness beyond the limits of the imagination.
It may surprise you, but recently historians have noticed that the ancient world was actually far more violent than it is today. Your chances of dying a violent death in a tribal culture were about one in six because of the constant battles, slavery and brutal punishments. (For more, see this article on The History of Violence, and note at the bottom of this article.)
The Theological Problem
How can a good and sovereign God tolerate sin? This classic question has been debated by philosophers for millennia. Some say that evil shows God is either not powerful, or else not good. This is the traditional argument:
1. A good God would destroy evil.
2. An all powerful God could destroy evil.
3. Evil is not destroyed.
4. Therefore, God cannot possibly both good and all powerful.
You may be surprised that we actually pass by the Bible’s own profound answer to this difficult question, which comes only a few chapters after the Bible’s very beginning. The flood does show that the first proposition is true: A good God would destroy evil. In the flood epic, we see a righteous God’s response to the depth of human wickedness. Reading it as a kid’s story, we miss the fact that the flood was a horrific act of judgment. Gustave Dore captured the horror in “The Deluge,” his image of storm waves crashing against a rock where a man and woman are clinging, desperate to save the lives of their children. It would have been utterly shocking to our sensibilities, a scene of incredible devastation.
So, philosophers are correct that a good God would act to end evil on earth. But the problem is in the second thesis, that an all powerful God could destroy evil.
The flood proved that no amount of destruction of human life will destroy evil. Evil had become part of man’s basic inclination, and to eliminate it, God would be forced to destroy mankind itself. Our modern world is no less sinful than the generation that made God regret he created us. But shockingly, after the flood God had a very different response:
“Never again will I curse the ground because of man, even though every inclination of his heart is evil from childhood. And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done.” Genesis 8:21
It is hard to see what had changed after the flood, because the evil within man didn’t change. Instead, God vowed to restrain himself against universal judgment, even if it is deserved.
In the next passages of Genesis, God established laws against the bloodshed that filled the earth, and declared that life is precious, especially that of humanity. Humans are unique because we are made in the image of God. Could this be why God decided not to send another flood? Is it that in spite of our sinfulness, by bearing his image, we are still precious in his sight?
The Covenant of the Bow
In light of this, the sign of the rainbow has a profound message. The Hebrew word for “rainbow” (keshet) is used for “bow” throughout the rest of Scripture. It was the weapon of battle. The covenantal sign of the rainbow says that God has laid down his “bow,” his weapon. He has promised not to repeat the judgment of the flood, even if mankind does not change. It is because people are so precious to him that he has constrained himself to finding an answer to the problem of sin other than the obvious one of universal judgment.
Throughout the rest of the Bible, when God made a covenant, it was of monumental importance in his plan for the salvation of the world. His covenants with Abraham, with Israel on Mt. Sinai, and with King David to send the Messiah were all key events in salvation history. The covenant with Noah is just as critical, because here he promises to find some other way to deal with the problem of sin than just to destroy sinners. It’s actually the most basic covenant of all – to promise to find a way to redeem humanity from evil rather than just to judge it for its sin.
We know that Jesus promised to return to judge, so the day of reckoning is coming. But God sent Christ so that as many as possible could find his atonement before that time, so that God could show as much mercy as possible to the earth. His slowness to judge is not out of impotence, but out of mercy. As Peter explains,
Long ago by God’s word the heavens existed and the earth was formed out of water and by water. By these waters also the world of that time was deluged and destroyed. By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men. But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. (2 Peter 3:4-9)
Now we have a different way of looking at that classic debate, perhaps the way God sees it:
1. God is good and is able destroy all evil.
2. But in doing so, he would destroy humanity, which is precious to Him.
3. Evil is not destroyed.
4. God is infinitely good and powerful, but out of mercy, chooses to wait to judge. In response to sin, he sent his Son as an atonement for all who would receive him.
Even in this story at the very beginning of the Bible, we can see God’s ultimate desire for mercy rather than punishment for sin. He will finally bring it to maturity in Christ, who will extend a permanent covenant of peace with God through his atoning blood.
* Steven Pinker gives an excellent TED talk called “The Surprising Decline of Violence” where he says that the idea of the “noble savage” — that primitive human beings were gentle and peace-loving until corrupted by modern institutions — is quite unsupported by the archaeological data. In much of the ancient world, life was cheap, brutal and short. See also his book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.