Genesis 6:1-7 explains how terrible the world had become about 1000 years after the lines of Cain and Seth went their own ways. Verse 5 gives an assessment of the actions, thoughts, and motives of humans in general:
The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.
God’s response? He is grieved and regrets that he had made people on earth. This doesn’t mean that God changes his mind; rather, he is consistent in loving what is right and good, but hating what is wicked and evil.
What exactly was going on? There is quite some speculation about the first few verses of chapter 6. The sons of God saw that the daughters of man were attractive. And they took as their wives any they chose. Who are these “sons of God” and “daughters of man”, and why was their marriage such a problem?
One view, the so-called Sethite view, claims that “the sons of God” are the family line of Seth, while “the daughters of man” were the descendants of Cain. The believers in God become take unbelieving, pagan spouses, and so lose their faith and join the idolatry of Cain and Lamech (see the end of chapter 4). This interpretation resonates well with the antithesis sketched in the previous chapters, but does not explain verse 4.
Another view is associated with the word Nephilim (“giants”) in verse 4. The “sons of God” are angels, who decide to live on earth and be sexually involved with the “daughters of man”. This description fits well with Jude :6, which speaks of the angels who did not stay within their own position of authority, but left their proper dwelling. The unnatural offspring of these abominable relationships are a kind of “supermen”, strong giants. This interpretation explains why we find giants like Goliath in Bible times, and why so many world mythologies mention demigods and monsters; but it also opens the door to much speculation.
Whether the problem was merely social or also biological, the core of the problem is spiritual. The world is full of wicked disobedience, and that is why the LORD set a deadline, rather literally: 120 years more, and then I will destroy all life on earth.
We learn three things about who Noah’s is.
First, Noah’s father, Lamech (a different Lamech than in chapter 4) had high expectations when he was born. “This one shall bring us relief,” nuah in Hebrew; hence his name, Noah. Perhaps this was merely wishful thinking in an evil environment; or maybe Lamech had received a special prophecy from God concerning his son.
Second, Noah was “righteous,” “blameless in his generation,” and “walked with God” (6:9, 7:1). He was one of the very few, maybe the only one, who had not been thoroughly perverted by the rampant wickedness.
But third, and most important, Noah found favor (or, grace) in the eyes of the LORD (6:7). God was pleased with him, and did not want to destroy him. At first glance, it seems that this favor is connected to Noah’s righteousness; see especially 7:1. But that is not all. Because Noah was not entire perfect, either, and this comes out at the end of the Flood narrative. Ultimately, God’s favor and decision to save this one man and his family are based on who the LORD is.
God did not simply save Noah. Rather, Noah was personally involved for a long time. He received the strange and demanding instruction to build an enormous wooden boat. A project of many decades. The only reason why he kept building was his unwavering conviction, that God’s words are true and that his instructions must be followed, however strange they may seem. So the New Testament concludes, in Heb 11:7:
By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, in reverent fear constructed an ark for the saving of his household. By this he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith.
What set Noah apart most was not his good behavior, his “righteousness of the law” (as Paul would call it later), but his faith. We will find this motif back later in Genesis, when God calls Abraham and he obeys like Noah did; he believed in God, and God counted it as righteousness.
The Covenant with Noah
Much has been discussed about the Flood, but I will not address that here.
After the flood receded and a cleared-up earth appeared, Noah brought a sacrifice to the LORD. A sacrifice of thanksgiving for the miraculous rescue; a sacrifice of dedication and fellowship. This pleased the LORD, and he made a remarkable decision. Although God was very aware of the wickedness of people (including Noah and his family), because of his love for Noah, he promised never to condemn the earth by another Flood. (Gen 8:21)
In fact, the LORD promised stability in many ways. Here the Bible uses the word covenant for the first time. A covenant is a favorable deal, imposed by a king or lord with his subjects, with the promise to protect them and care for them. The Noahic covenant begins with a promise that God will always maintain the pattern of the seasons, so that people can rely on the earth and the sky in their work to grow food. The LORD also promised to give people the upper hand over the wild animals. (This suggests that before the flood, nature may have been much more cruel and wild.) He declared human life sacred: a murderer deserves the death penalty.
All of these promises, the LORD sealed with a visible sign. Note that in Genesis 9, the rainbow is first and foremost a reminder for the LORD! Whenever it starts raining, the rainbow appears as a monument to the promise, that the Flood will not be repeated, however badly people may mess up.
Blessing and Curse in Noah’s Family
And people mess up badly. Genesis 9 makes sure that we know that Noah and his sons were not perfect. One day Noah drank too much wine and lay drunk and naked in his tent.
Noah’s three sons reacted to this shameful action in different ways. The middle son, Ham, thought it quite funny and called his brothers to join in. But the brothers, Shem and Japheth, took the situation seriously and carried Noah out of the tent, avoiding to even see his nakedness. Ham dishonored his father; Shem and Japheth honored their father in spite of his shame.
(Some Bible scholars contend that there was more going on. Why the severe reaction of Noah? Why does Canaan, Ham’s son, receive a curse? It has been suggested that the expression “Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his nakedness” is euphemistic, and that they may have raped or otherwise violated father Noah.)
As a result, Noah gives his blessing to Shem and Japheth, but Ham is placed under a curse. Just as there was an antithesis between Seth and Cain, there is now another antithesis among people. In chapter 10, the trail is followed from the three brothers to the various nations that came from them. A possible reconstruction of the geography of this division is as follows:
The importance of this division becomes clear later in the Bible. God will attach himself to the family of Abraham, a descendant of Shem. Ultimately they will conquer the land of Canaan, and be at odds with the Hittites and Philistines—all descendant of Ham. In this way, the blessing of Shem and the curse of Ham worked out in the early history of the Middle East.
The Importance of Noah
Christian theologians speak frequently about God’s covenant with Abraham, and not too often about Noah. In part this is understandable: the Bible itself presents Abraham as the starting point of the holy nation, and as the example of true faith. In part, it is due to a distinction that is made between the Noahic covenant (more generic, less rich) and the covenant with Abraham.
I would suggest that Noah and Abraham are more similar than this. Both were men living in a wicked world. Both were called to be followers and prophets of God by doing something counter-intuitive. Both believed in God and were rewarded with the favor of God. And God bound himself to bless the families of both Noah and Abraham. Even the split in Noah’s family (Shem vs. Ham) will be mirrored in Abraham’s family: Isaac vs. Ishmael, Jacob vs. Esau.
Especially important for us today is Noah as an example of God’s grace and the response of faith. Noah was saved from death by grace through faith. The wooden ark bobbing on the worldwide flood is a clear symbol, showing how God saves those he loves through the cold waves of death, so that they may live with him on a renewed earth.