Reading Genesis 5-6
The way that the story of the flood is often told in the church and our culture makes it sound as if God’s intention with the flood was to wipe sin off of the earth-to start over with one righteous man who would raise his children to be righteous who would in turn raise their children to be righteous and so on, thus the problem of sin would be taken care of with one violent act of destruction.
If one reads Genesis 5-6 that way, the narrative becomes confusing. It seems like the author jumps all over the place. Why go over the genealogy if the world is effectively starting over with Noah? Why include the detail that Yahweh declares that men will no longer have lifetimes longer than 120 years?
Additionally, this way of thinking leads us to think of Yahweh’s interactions with people in the Old Testament as a series of trial and error experiments. We start to see the events of the Bible like this: God wants to get rid of sin so he tries flooding the earth and starting over with a new family. That doesn’t work so he tries having a nation worship through a system that sacrifices animals to earn forgiveness of sin. That doesn’t work so he sends Jesus.
Viewing the Bible this way corrodes our trust in God. If we see his actions as a divine guess and check type of problem solving then we can’t trust that Yahweh will get things right the first time-it convinces us that God is neither all-knowing nor all-powerful. All this without us ever being very aware that this is the way we are thinking because the subtle implications of our interpretations go unnoticed and unchecked.
I want to offer up an alternative way of interpreting Noah and the Flood.
Noah’s story begins with a genealogy. Last week’s blog mentioned that the original chapter divider of the book of Genesis was the phrase, “This is the account of…” So what we would call Genesis 5-6:9 are their own section of Genesis. This part of the narrative is pulled out because it explains Yahweh’s intentions with the flood before we have a chance to read the story.
Genesis 5 is a genealogy, one of the few in the Bible that includes the ages of each man in the line. And the ages are ridiculous. Who lives to be 500 years old? Ages like that are unheard of even with our miraculously effective technology and medicine. To be reaching ages like that on a consistent basis with limited knowledge of the human body is mind blowing.
Before the Fall, God had created humans to live forever. That’s why, out of the two trees in the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve were forbidden only from the one that gave the knowledge of good and evil. They were free to eat of the tree of eternal life whenever they wished because they were made to enjoy its fruit. Only after the fall was mankind forbidden to reach for eternal life. Death is a consequence of sin.
Men were living long life-spans because the world in which they lived had been built to support eternal beings. Sin was new to creation, so its effects were fairly limited. Famine, drought, disease, disharmony between animals and people, natural disasters were apparently limited in their scope, if they were happening at all. The flood was a way to remake the earth, the climate, the environment so that man’s lifespan would be shortened and so that the effects of sin would be more immediate.
The flood was not about punishment or cleansing creation of all sin. It was a re-creation, a second chance for people to move toward Yahweh God without the influence of the evil old men who had come before. Imagine having to try to convince a 200-year-old of your way of thinking. 200 years ago slavery was openly accepted in this country, embraced even. Imagine the state of America’s race relations if that populace was alive today.
It would not take many generations for the vast majority of humanity to be convinced that sin is justifiable and its effects are negligible if generation after generation was living with openly evil lifestyles. The longer it takes someone to die, the longer they have to convince themselves that sin will never rob them of life. These men would have kept their power and prestige for far too long. “Respect your elders” would have involved a whole crowd of great, great grandparents. They would have drowned the righteous. The floodwaters were poetic justice.
Yahweh was not flooding the earth to rid it of sin. Water is not that cleansing. He was getting rid of the people. This sounds callous. It sounds like unnecessary murder, but we are talking about 500, 600, 700, 800 year-old people, they had lived long, full lives and they had chosen to harm, to be selfish, to be cruel. The world pre-flood would have been similar to the show the Walking Dead, only the truly evil could survive because they would leave no other choice for the people around them. Adam’s offspring lived by their own rules and it would be fitting to describe that world as kill or be killed.
Hopefully this will come as no surprise to you, but Yahweh does not live by rules like that. He said, “My spirit will not contend with man forever”. He was not about to put up with that kind of behavior and treatment of his creation for eons. So he put an end to the cycle that kept building up evil upon evil by putting an end to the men who perpetuated evil.