After the Flood
This sermon was preached as part of a series on Genesis 1-11, the week after a sermon on Genesis 6-8, which had, among other things, explained the flood as God's awful but just response to human rebellion against him.
The Text - Context
Genesis 3-11 tells the story of mankind's rebellion against God, from the Fall in the garden, through the spiral down to the low point of chapter 11, where people have put aside their differences and are united in their attempt to make a name for themselves with no reference to God.
At every stage, God responds to rebellion against him with judgment - the Fall is judged by the curse (Gen 3); Cain's murder of Abel is judged by his being banished to wander the earth (Gen 4); the all-pervading wickedness of Genesis 6:5 is judged by the flood (Gen 6-8); and the united rebellion at Babel is judged by the confusion and scattering that resulted from God causing people to speak different languages.
But at every stage there is grace as well as well. At the heart of the curse is the promise to send the serpent-crusher (Gen 3:15); Cain is marked so that he will not be attacked as he wanders (Gen 4:15). The scattering from Babel is followed by God's wonderful promises to Abram (Gen 12:1-3). So, along with God's decision to rescue Noah (Gen 6:8), the events of Genesis 8-9 represent the note of grace that accompanies the judgment of the flood.
The Text - Structure
Gen 8:13-19 set the scene. God had remembered Noah (8:1) and dried the water from the earth (vv13-14). God then commanded Noah, his family, and all the animals to leave the ark (vv15-17) and they did (vv18-19).
The passage then divides into three sections. In 8:20-22, Noah offers sacrifices to God, which prompt God to resolve never again to destroy all life in the way he did in the flood.
In 9:1-7 (marked out by the inclusio of God's repeated words in verses 1 and 7, God blesses Noah and his sons, effectively repeating the blessing of Adam and Eve that followed creation in Gen 1:28.
In 9:8-17, God tells Noah of his resolution with himself in 8:21-22, as he establishes his covenant with the whole of creation never again to send a flood to destroy the earth. He invests the rainbow with significance as the sign of this covenant (note how his words in verses 12 and 17 form another inclusion marking this out as a literary unit).
What this passage is not about - false trails in the sermon
Just a few minutes searching the internet shows up a variety of readings that miss what the passage is all about. Some, for example, present Noah as an example for Christian believers - so as he offered sacrifices after his rescue, we should offer thanksgiving and praise; as he was commissioned to ‘multiply and fill the earth', we are commissioned to bear fruit; as he was given dominion over every other living thing, we are to take control of our lusts.
Others focus on the rainbow, again importing any number of imaginative ideas. As rainbows require clouds, rain, and sun, so our lives will be set against a background of suffering (cloud), as God deals with us in painful ways (rain), yet we continue to fix our eyes on the risen Lord Jesus (the sun). Or the rainbow is a picture of Jesus and each of its colours reminds us of something about him (purple - his royalty; blue - that he comes from heaven; green - that he offers new life; orange - his warning to repent etc).
I even came across someone suggesting that God views sacrifice as sinful, on the basis that 8:21 follows 8:20 and that he desires obedience rather than sacrifice (they did not explain why the aroma of the sacrifice was described as ‘pleasing').
Even leaving aside such obviously mistaken interpretations as these, I strayed towards a number of other potential pitfalls during my preparation. The passage touches on a number of issues that are either emotive (capital punishment, abortion, euthanasia) and/or theologically significant (the sanctity of blood in the Old Testament, the nature of covenant signs). While these are all topics that might properly be covered in a sermon, they presented a temptation to drift from the main thrust of the passage. Deciding which to address and in what detail was not easy and, in retrospect, I'm not sure that I got this quite right.
What this passage is about - the difference biblical theology makes
I must admit that I found this a difficult passage to teach. In particular, I struggled for a long time to understand the significance of Noah's sacrifice in verse 20 and how this linked to God's resolution not to destroy all of life again. I also struggled to understand how God's covenant with Noah and the rest of creation (9:8-17) fits into the pattern of his covenant promises through the rest of the Bible and their fulfilment in Jesus.
But, as I worked at the text, one thing that became increasingly clear was that in each of the three sections (8:20-22; 9:1-7; 9:8-17) God was being unbelievably good to his fallen creation - especially given that, by his own admission, they were no better than they had been before the flood (8:21; cf 6:5). This also fitted the immediate context of Gen 3-11, since the pattern established in these chapters would lead us to expect a note of grace after the judgment of the flood.
So just as the flood narrative should shock us by bringing us face-to-face with the reality of God's judgment of sin, these verses should delight us with their reminder of his undeserved grace to his fallen world. This became my theme - ‘God's goodness to his fallen creation' - and I structured the sermon around these three sections.
The challenge then was to understand and communicate how the passage points us forward to the Lord Jesus in ways that were more specific than simply pointing to him as the supreme revelation of God's goodness, but still faithful to the text. A Biblical understanding of the sweep of salvation history provided an essential control in this process. So, for example, it highlighted this ‘fresh start' after the flood as a significant moment in salvation history and therefore put the focus on what God was doing rather than on Noah as a role-model for us today. A broader understanding of the subsequent development of sacrifice in the Bible was essential in understanding the significance of Noah's sacrifice and its link with God's resolution not to destroy all of life again. And Biblical theology also helped to highlight the differences between the blessings that God offered Noah, his family, and the whole of creation at this stage in salvation-history and those he offers through Jesus.
But viewing the passage through the lenses of Biblical theology also posed challenges that I might not otherwise have faced. So, for example, it helped in terms of understanding the command not to eat flesh with its blood still in (9:4). But this then opened up a whole strand of complex material about sacrifices that could have led us to the Lord Jesus, but which, in the end, I decided would take too long and be too difficult to explain without losing sight of the main point of the passage.
The fact that we were effectively picking up the flood narrative halfway through meant that it seemed appropriate to launch straight in and pick up where we'd left off. References to some of the tragic events of 2004-5 provided a little ‘colour' and helped remind people of the sobering nature of what we'd learned the week before.
We're getting used to seeing pictures of what flooding can do. Whether it's New Orleans and the Gulf states, or all those areas of South-East Asia that were flattened by last year's Tsunami.
But have you ever imagined what Noah and his family saw when they finally stepped out onto dry ground again? God had told Noah he was going to ‘destroy all life under the heavens, every creature that [had] the breath of life in it.' And as Noah stepped out of the ark, he'd have realised God had done exactly what he said he was going to do.
No cries for help. No survivors huddling together on rooftops or in the branches of trees. No need to bother with a relief effort. No other life at all. Just silence.
And Noah would have realised more clearly than ever how serious the human rebellion against God that prompted him to send the flood must have been. And just how horrendous God's judgment could be, as he'd effectively reversed creation - stripped the earth back until it was just water again.
It's frightening - coming face to face with God's judgment like this. We don't like it. We get into trouble for talking about it.
But the verses we're looking at this morning stand like a brilliant gleam of light against such a dark background.
Because they remind us that judgment's not the whole story. They show us God's extraordinary goodness to his fallen creation.
God provides a new way of dealing with sin (8:20-22)
Why did Noah offer this apparently uncalled-for sacrifice on leaving the ark? Clearly it was significant, not least because it was such a surprising thing to do when he had so animals and birds with which to repopulate the earth. But how was it significant? Was it simply an expression of thanks to God for rescuing him and his family? If so, why does the text explicitly link God smelling the aroma of the sacrifice with his resolution never to destroy all life again (verse 21)?
As Sunday crept nearer and nearer, I was very grateful to come across sermons that David Jackman and Mark Ashton preached on these verses at the Round Church/St Andrew the Great in 1989 and 1999 respectively.
Of course, it was all about God choosing to deal with sin in a different way! Sin hadn't gone away - people were just as bad as they'd been before the flood (8:21). So God could have responded - quite justly - by sending flood after flood in response to ongoing sin. But this was the one thing he resolved not to do and, as the passage makes clear, it was the pleasing smell of the burning animals and birds that prompted him to make this resolution.
This is where Biblical theology played an essential role in that it helped make sense of this incident in the light of the rest of the Bible - and particularly the sacrificial system put in place in the rest of the Old Testament and gloriously fulfilled in Jesus. It wasn't that God no longer cared about sin. Rather, this incident pointed to the different way he would deal with sin from this moment on - still judging it as it deserved, but, graciously, by pouring this judgment out on a substitute instead.
Verse 20 comes as a bit of a surprise, doesn't it? Noah offering some of these animals and birds as sacrifices.
If you'd been Shem or Ham or Japheth, or one of their wives, you'd probably have tried to stop him being so stupid. It's not as if there were a whole load of animals to go round. There were only seven of every clean animal and every clean bird - they'd all have been classified as endangered species. And here's Noah deliberately killing some of them.
We're not told what prompted Noah to offer these sacrifices.
But reading these verses in the light of the rest of the Bible - which we're right to do - we can tell what's going on.
Especially when we see how God responds. Verse 21:
‘The LORD smelled the pleasing aroma and said in his heart: "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've done."'
God's pleased with Noah's sacrifice. And he makes this resolution with himself that never again will he respond to human rebellion with a universal judgment like the flood again.
Of course, it was important to be clear that this didn't mean there would never be another judgment:
At least as long as the earth ‘endures'. Because, of course, the Bible's very clear that there will come a time when this earth's days will be numbered. There will be a final judgment, when the heavens and the earth will be destroyed by fire and men and women will be judged before God's throne.
But as long as the world continues, God resolves never to respond to sin with a universal act of judgment again.
And it was important to emphasis that this was all due to God's grace:
It's not that things are somehow better than they were before the flood. Read the rest of chapter 9 later. Noah, who'd been rescued so magnificently, disgraces himself through drunkenness and sexual exhibitionism. And so does Ham, who has a laugh at his father's expense. And when we look at the story of the Tower of Babel next week, we'll see how humanity's spiral down into rebellion just goes on.
Things are no better after the flood - and God knows it. He knows that ‘every inclination of [man's] heart is evil from childhood' - just like it was before.
But never again, until the end of time, will God respond with universal judgment, because from now on he'll deal with sin in a different way. And the clue's in what Noah does in verse 20. God will deal with sin through the sacrifice of a substitute.
Maybe Noah somehow had an inkling of that - maybe he didn't. But it's certainly the connection that Moses, who wrote these words, is making.
And as we read on into the Old Testament we learn more about how this new way of dealing with sin actually works. As God speaks to Moses at Mount Sinai and gives detailed instructions for how someone who's guilty of sin can offer an animal to die in their place.
It's so good of God. The flood had been a perfectly fair response to human rebellion. It's not as if God suddenly kicked himself afterwards.
It's just that God, in his sovereignty, decides that from this moment on he'll deal with sin in another way. Through the sacrifice of a substitute.
It was such good news for Noah. And the people who first read Moses' words. And it's such good news for us today.
A quote from John Calvin helped to make the point. (I wouldn't normally quote someone like him in our context, but did so on this occasion because we were shortly to run an evening where Garry Williams from Oak Hill came to speak to us about Calvin and his belief in God's exhaustive sovereignty.
‘It's not to be marveled that there was a flood, but that there's been only one,' said John Calvin, one of the leaders of the Reformation...
And it's all because God's so good to his fallen creation. He's provided a different way to deal with sin.
I wanted to draw out how this helped us to understand - even more clearly - what Jesus went through when he died on the cross:
Of course, as we read on, we find that all the Old Testament sacrifices were just a picture of what God would do through the Lord Jesus. They pointed forward to the ultimate sacrifice of the ultimate substitute. When God offered himself to take the judgment our sin deserved.
It's sobering to think that this judgment that Noah just caught a glimpse of as he stepped out of the ark - and that God could have poured out again and again and again through the course of human history - was stored up and poured out on the Lord Jesus as he hung on the cross. But it's wonderful!
In order to push these things home, I ended this section with a challenge:
It begs the question, though - has our rebellion against God been dealt with in this way? Are we relying on Jesus' death as the thing that means we're right with God and will escape his judgment? Because if we're not, the Bible's equally clear that that the judgment we deserve is still stored up and will be poured out on us on that awful day at the end of time.
God renews his blessing on humanity (9:1-7)
God's words to Noah and his sons in 9:1 and 9:7 (which form the inclusio which marks this out as a sub-section in its own right) are strikingly similar to what he says to Adam and Eve in Genesis 1:28. It is quite remarkable that God should so wonderfully reiterate such a blessing on people who had blatantly abused it and rebelled against him. I tried to bring this out with a couple of short illustrations that I hoped would help to draw in some of the teenagers and cadets from Sandhurst who come along to our meetings:
Do you remember back to Genesis 1? How, after God created humans in his image, he blessed them and said to them ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.'
Here's this perfect creation and he puts us in charge. What a privilege!
You'd have thought we'd have blown that privilege, wouldn't you? That's how it works. Prefects who rebel against the headmaster lose their privileged position. Sergeants who turn against their officers get reduced to the ranks. You'd have thought we'd get reduced to the ranks of the rest of creation.
But look at verse 1 of chapter 9:
‘Then God blessed Noah and his sons, saying to them, "Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth."'
Exactly the same words as in Genesis 1 again. God renewing his blessing on humanity. Despite our rebellion against him.
But, while this sub-section starts and finishes with words of such blessing, it is also very clear that things have changed. God's response to our rebellion means that things are different to the way they were in Genesis 1.
Of course, that rebellion means things have changed. Chapter 9 doesn't take us back to the Garden of Eden. The curses of Genesis 3 remain.
So we read that the rest of creation is going to fear and dread our rule over it. Maybe because from this moment on humans are allowed to eat meat. For the first time all these other creatures become potential meals.
And there's such a serious warning against murder. Because it's a very real possibility - the story of Cain and Abel made that all too clear. So God gives this warning. Men and women are made in his image, so how dare anyone take another person's life? Those who do are to be put to death, he says in verse 6.
I guess that's the origin of human justice systems - God holds back the universal judgment we deserve and puts human justice systems in place to help restrain evil while the world continues. Remember that next time you're tempted to have a go at a traffic warden - even traffic wardens are part of God's kindness to humanity!
God shows his goodness by renewing his blessing on humanity. And not simply stripping us of our responsibilities.
I then tried to ‘ground' some of these thoughts and apply them specifically to our lives.
I wonder if we realise how good he's been? How lucky we are? If it's changing how we live now? It should do. In all sorts of ways.
Like how we think about environmental issues. God's words here give us important things to say in those debates about the global warming that go on all around us - maybe in the office, maybe with friends. We've got something to say about the responsibility God's given us to look after this world, and how good he's been to let us keep that responsibility even after we rebelled against him.
It's worth thinking how these early chapters of Genesis could help us use a conversation about the environment as a springboard for telling someone about Jesus?
God's blessing should affect the way we think about human life. Look how highly he values it. How does that affect the way we relate to other people, especially when Jesus said burning with anger against someone is as bad as murder?
What about the way we think or speak about euthanasia? Or abortion? As someone's said, ‘If we're going to put the image of God in a hospital incinerator, we'd better have a good excuse' when judgment day comes.
In retrospect, I have some hesitation about whether it was wise even to mention issues like euthanasia and especially abortion. Although there was no reaction at the time, these are inevitably very sensitive subjects for some people in our congregations and so should probably be dealt with in rather more detail than this sermon allowed, given that the main aim was to open people's eyes to God's goodness to a rebellious creation.
I was also faced with the question of how this second section of the passage points us to Jesus. One option would have been to pick up on the reference to not eating blood in verse 4 and then to trace this theme through Leviticus 17:10-12 (which links this prohibition with the fact that blood was given to make atonement) and ultimately to Jesus' death on the cross. I think that would have been valid - especially in view of 8:20-21. But it would have involved spending a lot of time I didn't have explaining a lot of detailed information.
I had just attended a preaching day at Oak Hill College where Sidney Greidanus had helped us to think about how to preach Christ from the Old Testament. He had discussed a number of ways to ‘get to Jesus' from a particular passage. One of these was looking for contrasts between what happens in the Old Testament and what we have in Jesus and this seemed to fit well here. God was very good to repeat his blessing on Adam and Eve to Noah. But, as 9:2-6 made clear, he hadn't yet removed the effects of his curse following the fall. One day, though, through the Lord Jesus, he will completely remove the effects of the curse.
God shows his goodness to his fallen creation by renewing his blessing on humanity. And it's great that humanity gets something of a fresh start in Genesis 9.
But doesn't it leave you wanting more? Isn't it all a bit overshadowed by the fact that the curses that followed the rebellion in the Garden of Eden are still in place? That these warnings against murder are even necessary.
It should leave us wanting more. Because God offers us so much more.
The way he rescued creation through Noah was good. But it's just a picture of the rescue he offers through Jesus. That rescue is even better. It takes us right back to Eden - or a place even better than Eden.
‘Behold,' [God says through Isaiah] ‘I will create a new heavens and a new earth. The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind. But be glad and rejoice for ever in what I will create... the sound of weeping and of crying will be heard in it no more.'
Genesis 9 says God is good in blessing us now. The Bible says if we're trusting Jesus' sacrificial death as our substitute, the best is yet to come. One day all traces of the curse will be gone completely.
God makes a promise (9:8-17)
The third subsection of the passage (verses 8-17) sees God's grace again, as he makes public his resolution of 8:21-22 and promises his creation that he will never destroy it by a flood again, so enabling Noah, his family, and his descendants to enjoy undeserved security.
It would have been very easy to go into a lot of detail about the role that ‘covenant' plays in the Bible. But here I faced a challenge. I approached the verses with the assumption that each of God's covenant promises in the Old Testament were fulfilled more or less directly in Jesus. So the ‘covenant of creation' was fulfilled in Jesus because through him God would restore the created order - including humanity - to what he meant it to be (cf Heb 2:5-10). God's covenant with Abraham in Genesis 12, 15, and 17 is clearly fulfilled through the Lord Jesus in that it is in him that (to use Goldsworthy's formula) he will establish his people, in his place, under his rule and blessing. God's covenant with his people at Mount Sinai is fulfilled in Jesus in that he is the perfect keeper of the law whose righteousness secures God's blessing for us, rather than the curse we deserve. And God's covenant with David is fulfilled in that he is the ultimate Davidic King.
But the covenant with Noah just did not seem to fit this pattern. Even accepting Dumbrell's suggestion that the covenant God ‘established' with Noah dated back to creation, it was hard to see how the content of his promise to Noah was fulfilled in Jesus. As verses 11 and 15 make clear, God's promise to Noah and the rest of creation was simply that he would not destroy all life by a flood again (at least as long as the ‘earth endures' - cf 8:22).
How did this point forward to Jesus? At the very most, it seemed to create the conditions for the unfolding of the rest of salvation, but it did not seem to relate directly to the content of this plan.
In the end, I said very little about the concept of ‘covenant'.
‘Covenant' is such an important word in the Bible. A ‘covenant' is an absolutely binding agreement between two parties.
Several times in the Bible we read of God making covenants with people. With Noah here, with Abraham, with his people under Moses at Mount Sinai, and then with David.
And each time, it's God taking the initiative. It's never humans bargaining with him. It's always God committing himself to something off his own back.
That's what it is here. God makes a covenant with Noah and all of his descendants - that includes us - and every living thing that had come out of the ark - that never again will there be another flood like that. That as long as the world remains he will never judge rebellion like that again. He makes a promise that brings wonderful security.
I also resisted the temptation to digress on the broader nature of covenant signs in the Bible and simply focused on the specific significance of the rainbow:
And he gives a sign as a guarantee he'll keep that promise. Verse 13:
‘"I've set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth."'
So whenever the clouds gather and the rainbow forms, God will see it and remember his promise never to do that again. It's not that without the rainbow there's a danger he'd forget. It just gives us confidence in what he says, so when we see a rainbow today we know the world is safe from something like the flood happening again.
I wanted to bring this back to the main theme of the passage - God's goodness to his rebellious creation.
It's so good of God to make this promise. I wonder - what would we have said if we'd been advising him on the way forward after the flood? Surely we'd have said, ‘You want to keep these humans on their toes, God. At least let them think there could be another flood at any moment. Otherwise who knows what they'll do.'
But that's not God's way. He's so good to his fallen creation. He makes this promise. He gives us security.
I also wanted to show people how this should transform our understanding of this world and our place in it - especially in a culture dominated by materialist presuppositions.
It challenges our understanding of existence, doesn't it? These scientists who tell us the universe exists because things are just expanding out from the big bang and they'll go on existing until one day it just collapses in on itself again. Or that life exists on earth because we just happen to be exactly the right distance from the sun.
God's promise reminds us the only reason life goes on is because he lets it go on. It's as if life's an image on a computer screen and God's hand is on the mouse and the only thing that gives us any security is his promise that he won't click on the little cross in the top right hand corner.
But that gives us massive security. Because God always keeps his word.
So when we hear people saying humanity's going to be destroyed in some nuclear holocaust - which people certainly used to say - or that we'll be wiped out by some killer disease, or that eventually the age of humans will end and something else in creation will have its turn in charge, we do just need to remember Genesis 9. God has guaranteed things like that won't happen.
Of course, one day he will destroy the earth and judge everyone who's ever lived, but that will be at the end of time. We don't know when that will be, but until then, we're safe, because God's said we're safe.
God's promise should give us confidence as we live for him in a pretty hostile world. People like Richard Dawkins, or that member of our family, or that person in the office who makes us feel so small and stupid for trusting the God of the Bible- really they're living off borrowed capital. They're only able to rebel against God because he's chosen not to destroy life again. Doesn't that make them a little less daunting?
Again, though, I was left with the question of how to ‘get to Jesus' from these verses. Again, I chose the ‘contrast' method and focused on the difference between the security resulting from God's promise to his creation through Noah and the absolute security we're offered through Jesus.
God is very good to make this promise. It's good to know he won't wipe out all of life with something like the flood again.
But again, doesn't this leave you wanting more? It's still a dangerous world. People still die through the effects of sin and God's curse - just not all at once. And there's still the prospect of that dreadful final judgment to come.
Doesn't it leave you longing for a greater security? It should do, because that's what God offers. He makes an even greater promise. That if we're trusting Jesus and his death as the sacrifice that's dealt with our sin, he will keep us through the rest of our lives in this fallen world. And get us safely through that final judgment to a place in the new heavens and the new earth that's he's prepared for us.
‘For I am convinced' [writes Paul] that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.'
That really is security!
By way of conclusion, I simply restated my main points.
Genesis 9 tells us God is very good to his fallen creation. He really is. He provides a new way of dealing with sin. He renews his blessing on humanity. And he makes a promise - that brings security.
But it's not the limit of his goodness. Because it's just a picture that points forward to how good he is to those who put their trust in Jesus.
Gordon Wenham's commentary on Genesis 1-15 in the Word series was very useful for working through the details of the text.
John Hartley's commentary in the New International Bible Commentary series was a lot less detailed, but useful for getting a grasp of the broader sweep of the narrative.
Graeme Goldsworthy's ‘According to Plan: The Unfolding Revelation of God in the Bible' (IVP: Leicester, 1991) helped to set the passage (and particularly the covenant of 9:8-17) in the Biblical context.
William Dumbrell's ‘Covenant and Creation: A Theology of the Old Testament Covenants' (Paternoster: Carlisle, 1984 reprinted 1997) is essential reading for any detailed examination of the Bible's key ‘covenant' passages.
David Jackman, ‘The Covenant of the Rainbow' - preached at the Round Church, Cambridge on 12 March 1989.
Mark Ashton, ‘The Covenant of the Rainbow' - preached at St Andrew the Great, Cambridge on 10 January 1999.
For identifying permissible ways to Christ, I was indebted to Sidney Greidanus' lectures on ‘Preaching Christ from the Old Testament' delivered at Oak Hill College on 28 September 2005. I understand that the content of these was drawn from his book of the same name.
The Moore College Correspondence Course module ‘Old Testament 1' was very helpful in terms of understanding the context of the passage and, in particular, identifying the pattern of rebellion/judgment/grace that runs from Genesis 3-11.
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