We’ve moved on from creation, and even though we skipped the first murder, we’re up to our necks in evil and violence. The text we’re studying for Sunday, October 7 (which is also World Communion Sunday, by the way) is Genesis 6:9b-22, the beginning of the story of the flood. Here are my study notes on that text:
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: After the creation narrative, and the debacle of Genesis 3, things have gone from bad to worse: Cain kills his brother Abel, we think in a fit of jealousy; there are further generations of humans; Lamech, the father of Noah, has two wives (so, he’s the first bigamist in the Bible) and boasts about his violence – unlike Cain, he doesn’t even bother to try to keep it a secret (Genesis 4:23). We’ve had a detailed account of the generations of the primordial patriarchs, and a tale at the beginning of chapter 6 about the marital practices of the “sons of God” (6:2) – who may be celestial figures, but again, not that obvious, they may simply be humans of high social rank. They are wearing God out (6:3), anyhow. So we’re not surprised to read that God is having second thoughts about this whole humankind thing by 6:5.
The flood narrative is long, through the end of chapter 9. Then will come the rest of the prehistory, the genealogies that record the division of humankind into families, the episode of Babel, and the run-up to the story’s focus on Abraham.
Lots of readers point out that the flood story appears as a second creation or “new creation” in this context, and that it is written that way, too: the flood recreates the pre-creation situation of watery chaos, a wind from God dries up the face of the land (8:1), the waters are corralled again, etc. But this time a contributor to the chaos has been human sin and violence. Or possibly: human sin, which is to say, violence. In this scheme, Noah and his family represent a second chance for the human family.
CLOSER READING: Why skip verses 5-8? Maybe because they seem to be part of a different version, that has been stitched to the beginning of the narrative that begins in v9? They use a different name for God (YHWH), and true to form, God here reminds us that humans are made in God’s image by appearing to share human responses – like regret, and grief (v6).
But if we skip these verses, we miss v5: this is where God sees (as God “saw” things were good at the beginning of creation) that “the inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil all day long”.
The inclination is the yetzer the rabbis teach us we have two: the yetzer ha-ra or the evil inclination and the yetzer ha-tov, the good inclination. God is not seeing much of the yetzer ha-tov at this point.
“the thoughts of their hearts” reminds us of the role of the “heart”; classically, it is “the point where the intellect (knowing what is right or wrong) and the will (wanting to do right or wrong) come together” (according to the Access Bible); so, it makes sense that we think of the heart as the location of desire; and remember the trouble that desire caused for the humans back in chapter 3. The word translated “thoughts” carries shades of “devices” or “schemes” – that is, it suggests that humankind goes in for intricate evil plans. And this in prehistoric times, before technology radically expands our possibilities for intricate scheming.
So YHWH decides to “blot out” the generator of evil schemes … the way we might mop up a spill in the kitchen.
Except for Noah, whose name itself means something like “relief” or “consolation,” (Genesis 5:29), and which is an anagram of the Hebrew word for “favor” – although first there will be a lot of the opposite of relief, there will be “regret” (another wordplay in Hebrew).
Noah is righteous – that is, “in the right” – and blameless – that is, literally “without blemish,” which is usually a term applied in ritual contexts, to sacrifices; here it takes on the meaning of having integrity, a moral quality. But in a sense, Noah will be something like a sacrifice, or at least will be set apart from the rest of humanity.
God’s rationale for the imminent flood is the earth’s corruption (a word that can mean “ruined” or “spoiled” or “destroyed” etc. – so, since it’s ruined and destroyed, it needs to be and can be destroyed, perhaps) – and its violence. This hamas is the “wrong” Sarah complains about in Genesis 16:5, a common attribute of the enemies in Psalms, and is incidentally but perhaps not coincidentally the name of a contemporary political organization.
God (not YHWH God, but plain God) shares his decision with Noah, and issues a series of imperatives in vv14-16 and 19-21. Mostly Noah needs to make something – that verb is repeated 5 times. That is, he has to engage in creative or productive activity to prepare for this event.
Rabbinic midrash has it that Noah works on the ark for 120 years, and that this gives him an opportunity to warn people that the flood is on the way, so, an opportunity for them to change. This is part of his righteousness, as is caring for and feeding the animals once on the ark.
An ark is really more like a box or a chest than a boat. This ark reminds people of the basket that saves Moses in the waters of the Nile later on. I haven’t heard anyone mention the ark of the covenant from later in Exodus – but that, too, is a chest that holds something precious and life-giving, as the Torah is understood to be precious and life-giving.
God’s instructions are detailed in a way (specifying the size of the ark, and the kind of wood, and where to put the door, etc.), but at least in the text we have they amount to a lot less than a blueprint. [At approximately 450 ft. long by 75 ft. wide by 45 ft. tall, the ark seems to be about in the mid-range of contemporary cruise ships. The longest cruise ship these days is over twice that long. So its dimensions are not outrageous, although for Noah and let’s assume his sons, and working with pre-historic tools, to call it a challenge to construct has got to be an understatement.]
A lot is riding on this project. The contrast between death and life is explicit in God’s explanation and instructions to Noah in vv11-21: the earth is ruined, so God is going to ruin it, and everything is going to die (v17), but, God is making a covenant with Noah, and Noah’s purpose is to keep life alive (vv19, 20).
And then, Noah did all that God commanded him (v22). Which is indispensable to the story.
THOUGHTS: I haven’t heard many people mention our collective debt to Noah, but it’s implicit in this story. According to this account, we all live in a world that owes its humanity and bio-diversity to Noah’s willingness to follow God’s instructions and take on a massive project that had to have disrupted whatever plans he had made for his golden years. And to his being there, with his righteousness and blamelessness, or at least his relative righteousness and blamelessness, to receive the instructions in the first place.
A lot depends on being available and saying “yes” to God.
Here are some other people’s notes on this text:
a compilation of midrash at Torah!Torah!Torah!
Rashi’s commentary at Chabad