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Navigating the Moral Dilemma of the Flood

Richard Neville —

The flood has long been a topic of debate, much of which has centred on the historicity and extent of the flood.

Does Genesis portray the flood as a universal event, and what does science say about the credibility of a universal flood? Those debates have not gone away but in recent times the more pressing questions for many of us have to do with the violence of the flood, and the character and ways of a God who would cause such large-scale destruction and loss of life.[1] Debates over the flood’s place in the historical or geological record do not change the fact that the flood is part of the biblical record. And so, if the flood account is part of the biblical testimony to God and his ways, what are we to make of the destruction and violence?

Popular critiques of the flood narrative tend to read it in isolation from its context and find here a wrathful deity who has little regard for life. Little wonder that the events of Gen 6–8 are cited by critics as reason to reject, if not the God of the Bible, then at least, the God of the Old Testament. This essay is not an attempt to answer those critics but is intended for those who read the Old Testament as Scripture, and who are puzzled, and perhaps troubled, by the portrayal of God in the Genesis flood story.

The approach here will be to read the flood account in context. Read in this manner, the flood marks the end of one world and the beginning of another. While it represents God’s judgment on the world that disappeared beneath its waters, it opens the way for God’s promise and renewed blessing on the world that emerges. To speak only of judgement is to miss the point. In context, this is the story of how God kept alive the possibility of blessing, and the hope of redemption.

1. God Cares for Everything He Creates, and Humans Most of All

The fact that God made everything is arguably the point of the first creation account. Ten times the text of Gen 1 tells us God created life forms and even plants “of every kind.” The expression “of every kind” is an indication of what God created.[2] This means that God made the birds “of every kind,” the fish and large aquatic creatures “of every kind,” the cattle “of every kind,” fruit-bearing trees “of every kind,” and seed-producing plants “of every kind.” The significance of the tenfold repetition of the phrase is that God made every kind of everything![3]

The point that God made all things is of the utmost importance theologically. It is what distinguishes the God of the Bible from everything else that exists. For the ancient Israelites it is what distinguished God from all other gods (Jer 10:16). It means creation belongs to God and exists for him (Rom 11:36). It is why God is worthy of creation’s worship (Rev 4:11). More relevant to our interests here, however, is that God made everything and so all of creation is precious to God. He created it all, so he cares for it all. And this is never more evident than in God’s relationship with the humans he created.

In the ANE, family gods were credited with forming individuals in the womb. Devotees even called their personal god and goddess “father” and “mother” because they created them.[4] The act of creating them was the beginning of a lifelong, mutual relationship between the devotee and the god and goddess that formed them in the womb. The relationship was mutual in that the god and goddess ensured their devotee’s wellbeing,[5] and at the same time, held the devotee to account for their conduct. This includes conduct towards the god (e.g., appropriate sacrifices), but also conduct towards other human beings.[6]

Space does not allow us to explore the same phenomenon in the Old Testament. Suffice it to say, there is plenty of evidence to show that God was seen as the one who formed the individual in the womb (Job 10:8–12; Ps 139:13), and that his caring involvement in the creation of the individual was the beginning of a lifelong and mutual relationship.[7] For example,

9 Yet you brought me out of the womb;
you made me trust in you, even at my mother’s breast.
10 From birth I was cast on you;
from my mother’s womb you have been my God.
11 Do not be far from me,
for trouble is near
and there is no one to help (Ps 22:9–11).[8]

Coming back to the early chapters of Genesis, we find the same kind of mutual relationship established when God created humans in his image and likeness (Gen 1:26–28). No other creature is created in God’s image and likeness. The language points to a unique relationship between God and his human creatures. The special character of the divine-human relationship is also evident when, in a careful and intimate procedure, God sculpted Adam from dust, and then breathed into him the breath of life (Gen 2:7). Kidner comments, “Breathed is warmly personal, with the face to face intimacy of a kiss and the significance that this was an act of giving as well as making; and self-giving at that.”[9] This careful and intimate creative process suggests the beginning of an intimate relationship between God and his human creatures.

Genesis 5 offers yet another reference to human creation, and it too intimates that God has established a special relationship with human beings. The chapter is one long genealogy, tracing the human line from Adam down to Noah and his three sons. But it is what happens at the beginning of that genealogy that is significant for understanding God’s relationship to humans:

This is the written account of Adam’s family line.

1 When God created mankind,
he made them in the likeness of God.
2 He created them male and female and blessed them.
And he named them “Mankind when they were created.
3 When Adam had lived 130 years,
he had a son in his own likeness, in his own image;
and he named him Seth.
4After Seth was born, Adam lived 800 years and had other sons and daughters.
5 Altogether, Adam lived a total of 930 years, and then he died (Gen 5:1–5).

God’s creation of humans is placed at the head of the genealogy.[10] In this way, the human parents in the genealogy are presented as continuing what God began. Human procreation continues God’s work of creation. The writer makes the comparison even more apparent by weaving in some further points of analogy. The record of God’s creation of humans opens with a temporal clause, “When God created mankind ...” This compares to the temporal clause in verse 3, “When Adam had lived 130 years ...”[11] Then God “made [humans] in his likeness,” and Adam “had a son in his own likeness.” And finally, God named humans, just as Adam named his son Seth. None of the subsequent entries in the genealogy will say anything about the son being the father’s likeness, and none of them mentions naming the child.[12] In addition, Gen 1 says nothing about God naming his human creatures. These details are deliberately included here in order to invite comparison between what God did in creating humans, and what Adam and his descendants do when they produce offspring. Both bring life, and both initiate a relationship between the one who creates and the one who is created.

In each of these texts, then, God’s creative work initiates a mutual relationship with the human beings he creates. They have a unique capacity for intimate relationship with their creator, and just as parents care for their offspring, so God cares for those he creates.[13]

2. God is life-promoting and wants life to flourish

Several features of the creation account in chapter 1 point to the fact that God is life-promoting and wants life in its multitudinous variety to flourish. It is evident, for example, from the way the creation account has been structured (Table 1).

Table 1. The Parallel Structure in Genesis 1:1–2:3

The parallel structure of Gen 1:1–2:3 emphasises God’s work of establishing a functioning creation in which life can flourish.[14] The condition of the world when God begins his creative work is given in the first words of the first verse of Genesis, “Now the earth was formless and empty …”

To address this, God will give creation form so that it is suitable for sustaining life (days 1–3), and then he will fill his creation with the sun, moon, and stars (all of which are necessary for life to thrive), and with every form of life (days 4–6). In other words, the creation account is structured to make the point that God wants to make his creation life-sustaining (formed) so that it can brim with life (filled)!

At the beginning of the creation account, the creation was formless (a dark and watery mass unsuited to life) and empty. At the end of six days, God has completely transformed his creation into a place that sustains life and is being populated with all manner of animals as well as humans. Creation is filling with every kind of life. God’s creative work shows him to be a God who loves life in all its variety, and who wants to see his creation brimming with life.

God’s instruction to his creatures also reveals him to be a God who wants life to flourish. First, he tells the animals to be fruitful and multiply (Gen 1:22). Then he makes humans male and female and tells them to be fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth (Gen 1:28). Finally, he gifts his creatures with the cornucopia of edible plants (Gen 1:29–30) that he created on day three (Gen 1:11–12). God wants his creatures to be fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth. He says as much, but he also does everything he can to make that possible by creating a world that is designed to sustain life, not least in his provision of an abundant and renewable source of food.[15] The point is further established in chapter two when God plants a garden and tells Adam he can eat freely from any of the trees of the garden with one exception (Gen 2:16–17). There is no escaping what all this creative work has to say about God and his view of life. He is a God that delights in life in all its rich variety.

Then God commissions human beings to continue what he has begun (Gen 1:26–28); which is to say, they must not only produce more humans, but continue his work of making his creation a place where life can flourish. Humans are to subdue the earth and care for it so that it is fertile, productive and thereby, conducive to life (Gen 1:28). The second creation account illustrates the point when God gives the garden over to Adam to work it and keep it (Gen 2:15). In this way, Adam continues to make God’s creation a place where life can flourish.

Here, then, is the backdrop to the flood account. God delights in what he creates, and the world he created is designed to be a place where life can flourish, a place he wants to see brimming with life. And when God hands humans the responsibility of ruling, he does so because he wants humans to nurture life and ensure that it flourishes. All that we do should come from a love for life wherever we find it. We are to be life-promoting and life-nurturing. In this way, the creation account anticipates Jesus’ teaching to love others.

3. Putting the Flood in Context

When we continue to read Genesis from the perspective that God is the God of life who wants life to flourish in his creation, a number of things come into sharper focus. Immediately, the effect of human sin on the productivity of the ground takes on a new significance (Gen 3:17–19), as does the pain of childbirth (Gen 3:16), Cain’s murder of his brother Abel (Gen 4:1–16), and Lamech’s violent revenge (Gen 4:23–24). Far from promoting life, each of these events shows how humans diminished creation’s capacity for sustaining life, and in a couple of instances humans take a life. But perhaps most striking of all is the language used to describe the flood generation:

Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight and was full of violence (Gen 6:11).
And God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence because of them; now I am going to destroy them along with the earth” (Gen 6:13).

Where God had told humans to fill (Heb. mālēʾ) the earth with life (Gen 1:28), they filled (mālēʾ) it with violence. They were doing precisely the opposite of what God had called them to do, and were abusing and destroying the life that God created and cared for. Further, it was because humans were breaking God’s creation mandate by violating life rather than promoting it that he brought the flood.[16] The presentation of God’s actions at the flood, then, is one in which God is responding to the horrendous violence that was rampant in his creation. Those who were given the task of nurturing and promoting life had turned on it, and were diminishing life. The flood was to a significant degree a response to this anti-creational, anti-life activity.

However, there is something else we must observe if we are to gain the author’s perspective on the flood as the work of the God who loves life and wants it to flourish. We should begin by glancing back to Genesis 1. A key feature of God’s creative work involved removing the water so that by the end of day three, dry land had appeared and plants had started to grow. Against this work of creation, the flood account represents a work of uncreation.[17] Where, in Genesis 1 God had brought dry land out of the water to create a habitat for terrestrial animals, now the flood undoes God’s creative work and returns the land to its pre-creation state under water. Why is that important? Because of what happens next.

Table 2. Echoes of the creation account in the flood. This chart includes observations made in Clines, The Theme of the Pentateuch, 80–82.  — Image by: Fiona Sherwin

The echoes of creation in the flood narrative (Table 2) characterise the flood account as God’s work of re-creation. The flood spoke of uncreation, but now as the waters recede and dry land appears again, God is starting over with his creation. It is a new beginning. The rûah (Spirit) that was present when creation began (Gen 1:3) appears again when God remembers Noah and he sends a rûah (wind) so that the water begins to recede. Eventually, dry land appears again as it did in the beginning, and the animals God created exit the ark ready to populate the earth. God then repeats the same blessing he spoke to human beings in the beginning, telling Noah, “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth” (Gen 9:1). God’s desire is still life-promoting. He wants life to flourish on the earth.

This “starting over” perspective is confirmed by the story of Noah’s drunkenness. The story makes the point that Noah is functioning as something of a second Adam. Humanity is starting over, and Noah, his sons, and their wives represent the new first family. This characterisation of Noah and his family is apparent from the creation echoes contained in the account of Noah’s drunkenness. The description of Noah as “a man of the ground” only occurs here in the Old Testament and echoes the description of Adam’s relationship to the ground in Gen 2:7 and 15 (also 3:17). Where God planted a garden (Gen 2:8), now Noah plants a vineyard (Gen 9:20). Where Adam ate fruit (Gen 3:6), Noah drinks wine (Gen 9:21).[18] Once again, the outcome is not particularly propitious. Apart from the matter of Noah’s drunkenness, there is Ham’s offensive behaviour, which results in his son Canaan being cursed (Gen 9:25). The flood may have removed sinful humanity from the earth, but it had done nothing to remove sin from the human heart (compare Gen 6:5 and 8:21).

4. Suggestions on How to Read the Flood in Context

How does this inform our reading of the flood? It does so in several ways. First, the actions of God in sending the flood are undeniably violent, but they must be understood as the actions of the Creator towards a world and towards living beings that he created and cares for deeply. While this may appear incongruous, it reflects the sobering reality that removing intransigent evil from a good creation necessitates violence. God’s redemption of his creation is a magnificent expression of his love for his creatures, and yet the final stages of that redemption include the violent removal of all evil (Rev 20:15).[19] The wonder is that, for those who choose it, God has provided another way by his Son taking the violence upon himself at the cross.

Second, from the beginning, God intended that life would flourish in his creation. Everything was designed to that end, and humans were invited to participate in ensuring creation continued and developed as a place where life flourishes.

Third, when God brought the judgment of the flood, he was removing a profoundly sinful and violent population who abandoned their life-promoting mandate, and instead turned on one another and on creation. Their anti-creational violence was ended by the flood.

Fourth, the flood was never just about punishment of the human population. It was always about starting over. This means it was not a matter of God losing his temper and mindlessly destroying. Rather, it was about God’s concern for a creation ravaged by sin and violence and finding a way to start over anew. This was both judgment and grace. It was both the destruction of those who were themselves destroyers of God’s creation,[20] and the renewed expression of God’s desire for human beings to be fruitful and fill the earth (Gen 9:1).

Finally, the flood is one example of many in Genesis where God’s determination to bless his human creatures must overcome obstacles that humans themselves erect. God’s first words to human beings were words of blessing (Gen 1:28), and his determination to bless humanity never waned. Whether it was Adam and Eve’s sin in the garden, Cain’s murder of Abel, humanity’s violence at the flood, or Babel’s hubris, God could not be deterred. In every instance of human sin, judgment is mitigated by grace, and the outcome is always the resumption of God’s relentless determination to bless his human creatures.[21] When we come to the patriarchal narratives (Gen 11:27–50:26), this determination to bless continues, but now God expresses it in terms of divine promises (“I will …” Gen 12:2–3), which are then formalised by means of covenants (Gen 15:18–21; 17:1–8). Finally, the outcome is guaranteed when God swears an oath “by myself!” (Gen 22:16–18). Over and again the patriarchs fail, and God intervenes to preserve them and his promises of blessing. Then begins the saga of Israel as a nation; centuries of history riddled with human failure overcome by divine grace, culminating penultimately in the exile (judgment), but ultimately in the coming of Jesus (grace). The flood, then, is but one of innumerable instances in which God had to confront human sin in order that he could pursue his determination to bless, and ultimately redeem the creatures and the creation he loves (Rom 8:19–21).

Richard Neville is a Senior Lecturer in Biblical Studies at Laidlaw College’s Christchurch Campus. His research is in the area of interpersonal forgiveness and human emotion in Scripture. 

[1] The loss of life is significant even if the flood is understood to be on a more localised scale.

[2] The translation “of every kind” (or similar) appears in the TANAKH and the NRSV, whereas the NIV 2011 and numerous other translations have, “according to their kinds” (or similar). The latter translation indicates how God created, whereas the NRSV translation correctly indicates what was created.

[3] Like the number seven, the number ten speaks of comprehensiveness and completeness, R. A. H. Gunner, “Number” in Illustrated Bible Dictionary, vol. 2, ed. J. D. Douglas (Sydney and Auckland: IVP, 1980): 1098; Bruce K. Waltke, Genesis (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), 186, 425.

[4] Because God created Israel, he is Israel’s father (Deut 32:6; Mal 2:10).

[5] “The god of a man is a shepherd, who seeks (good) pasture for the man.” H. Vorländer, ‘Mein Gott’. Die Vorstellungen vom persönlichen Gott im Alten Orient und im Alten Testament (Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener, 1975), 70.

[6] The following letter illustrates how the personal god was credited for the advancement of the addressees (e.g., “you are now gentlemen”). It also shows how those who were abused could remind the rich that they would be held to account by their god, “Because the god has accepted your prayers you are now gentlemen and men of property. All your affairs have prospered. The land (lit. boundaries) of our family you have ruined. Under whose protection are you ruining us small ones? Fear (your god) and leave us small ones alone!” Karel van der Toorn, Family Religion in Babylonia, Syria and Israel, Continuity and Change in the Forms of Religious Life (Leiden: Brill, 1996), 108.

[7] Job 31:13–15; 32:21–22; Pss 71:6; 119:73; Prov 14:31.

[8] Translations are from the NIV 2011 unless otherwise indicated.

[9] Derek Kidner, Genesis, TOTC (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1967), 60 (emphasis is original).

[10] Compare Luke’s reference to Adam as God’s son in Luke 3:38, “the son of Enosh, the son of Seth, the son of Adam, the son of God” (tou Enōs tou Sēth tou Adam tou Theou).

[11] The Hebrew text uses two different constructions to form the temporal clauses.

[12] Only here in the Old Testament does a genealogy ever describe a son as being in the likeness of his father.

[13] “With a father’s disposition God had purposed every conceivable kindness for man;” Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, trans. D. M. G. Stalker; 2 vols. (New York: Harper & Row, 1962), 1:155.

[14] A parallel structure of the kind presented in Table 1 has long been recognised by biblical scholars, for example, Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 1-15, WBC 1 (Dallas, TX: Word, 1987), 7.

[15] Some of the plants he creates have seeds of every kind (e.g., wheat and barley), while others produce fruit of every kind with their seeds in them (e.g., dates). Together they represent a rich and inexhaustible supply of food for God’s creatures.

[16] Genesis 6:5 provides a more comprehensive description of human sin, but within this the account makes a point of human violence.

[17] David J. A. Clines, The Theme of the Pentateuch (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 1997), 80–82

[18] Anthony J. Tomasino, “History Repeats Itself: The ‘Fall’ and Noah’s Drunkenness,” VT 42 (1992): 128–30.

[19] Whether this text is read literally or figuratively, it suggests something violent.

[20] The verb šāḥaṯ has its moral sense “corrupt(ed)” three times in Gen 6:11–12 to describe what humans did. In the next verse (Gen 6:13), it carries its alternative sense “destroy” and describes God’s punishment of the guilty parties. By using the same verb in this manner, the writer makes the point that the punishment fits the crime, and that God’s judgment is just. 

[21] Von Rad observed long ago that, “along with the acts of judgment, there always at the same time appeared a saving will of God – as sin waxed, grace waxed the more,” von Rad, Old Testament Theology, 1:163.