One Friday in 2012, I led a Bible study on the story of Noah for a dwindling fellowship at Stanford. It was, I think, the second to last lecture that I gave to that group. The fellowship closed its doors after that year.
The study was especially memorable to me, not just because it was one of the last, but also because it went really well—much better than I had any right to expect. For the first time, I didn’t write everything out. Everything just flowed. They say that teaching is one of the most effective ways to learn, and those preparing a study often benefit most from it. It definitely felt that way for me. In my preparation, I had to learn how to better read the Bible myself.1 And as I applied what I learned, the pieces started fitting together and began to yield beautiful truths. By the end, I felt like I had solved a jigsaw puzzle, and the picture on it revealed a breathtaking view of a glorious and majestic God. That was why I was so excited, and why I think the study went so well.
For years, I had wanted to write up the study, but in typical Xuan fashion, I procrastinated. Now, ten years later, with the genesis of a new community group at Grace Pres, I’m leading a study through (ahem) Genesis. And it just so happened that we reached Noah 6 last Friday, on almost the exact anniversary of that study ten years ago. I pieced together fragments of memory, a few sheets of notes, and a semi-blurry photo (a big thanks to Alice F. for capturing the chalkboard in all its imperfection that day) to put to paper the study below. Mistakes have been corrected, details fleshed out, and new insights added for the sake of completion. I hope this study is as impactful to you as it was to me.
This article was designed as a study, not a commentary. By necessity, I omitted significant things that didn’t serve the main point of the study. Feel free to use this content; the headings below can be used as guiding questions for discussion.
What do you think the story is about?
Ask people about the story of Noah, and they will probably at least mention the Flood, an ark, and animals that embarked two-by-two. Depending on who you ask, the takeaway might be that Noah was a good man because he listened to God and built the ark and so escaped calamity. Those more familiar with the story might bring up the rainbow as a sign that God will not flood the world again, which is certainly a significant part of the story.
How should we read the passage?
Whenever we read a passage in the Bible, it is important to understand what kind of document we are reading. Knowing the genre of the text helps us think about its general intent and gives us guardrails for interpreting that text. For example, it helps us know whether a passage can reasonably be interpreted literally, hyperbolically, or figuratively, based on whether the text is a letter, a song, a prophecy, a parable, or one of any number of other genres.
The story of Noah, like most of Genesis, is classified as a narrative. An Old Testament narrative is a purposeful telling of history in such a way that gives meaning and direction for its audience.2 A narrative contains characters, a plot, and plot resolution. Its primary purpose is not to be an allegory that contains hidden meanings or a fable to teach a moral lesson. Rather, it is to tell a story.
Now, a narrative might illustrate moral consequences whose principles are taught more explicitly elsewhere, but they’re generally not the point of the narrative. For example, polygamy leads to trouble for many Old Testament patriarchs, but the point of those stories is not about polygamy (polygamy is addressed more directly elsewhere). When people spiritualize and moralize stories, they miss the main point of those stories, what God is saying through them. In extreme cases, they can even arrive at absurd conclusions, leading to the formation of cults or justifying atrocious institutions like slavery.
Since a narrative’s purpose is to tell a story, we have to ask what story it is telling. In fact, there are three levels of story we need to think about.3 At the first level is the individual narrative about specific characters in a specific situation. This individual narrative is situated in a second, bigger story of God’s redeeming His people, “by a former covenant and a ‘new’ covenant,” for His name.4 This second level falls under an even higher-level narrative, the “metanarrative” of redemptive history: the story of creation, fall, sin, and redemption through the incarnation, sacrifice, and resurrection of Jesus.5 When we read any individual narrative, we should always ask ourselves, “How does this fit into the broader arc?” The inclusion of these stories in the Bible is purposeful, and is meant to teach us something.
What is the context so far?
As every story is a link in a larger story, to understand Genesis 6-9’s place and purpose, it is essential to examine its immediate context. Genesis 1-5 each deserves a study of its own, but to put it very briefly:
Genesis 1 tells the story of God’s creation of the heavens and the earth, which were declared to be very good after the capstone creation of mankind.
Chapter 2 zooms in to the creation of people by recounting the creation of the first man and woman, Adam and Eve, and the institutions of work and marriage.
Chapter 3 introduces the serpent, who deceived the newly created humans and tricked them into eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Through that first act of disobedience, sin entered the world, resulting in curses on the serpent and on creation, including the human experience. Nevertheless, the curses were accompanied by a promise that the offspring of the woman would one day crush Satan’s head, and God showed grace even in Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the garden.
Chapter 4 tells of life outside paradise, east of Eden. It recounts the story of Cain and Abel, a story of murder in the infancy of human history. Fratricide led to multiplication of sin: polygamy, murder, and boasting in evil. Cain, whom Eve might have at first hoped to be the promised offspring from Genesis 3, was clearly not that, and neither was Abel, who was now dead. Instead, Seth was born as a replacement for Abel, and so Genesis 5 switches over from the line of Cain in Chapter 4 to the line of Seth.
Chapter 5 is mostly a genealogy, starting from Adam and Seth, and records a total of 10 generations. The detail in Seth’s genealogy in juxtaposition with the more abridged genealogy of Cain in Chapter 4 probably indicates the former’s greater importance, because ultimately, Seth’s line is the one from which the nation of Israel is born. And while there are interesting characters here, the text breezes through them and lands on Noah and his sons, hinting at the big story that will cover the next four chapters. However, note the repetition of creation language used at the beginning of Chapter 5. From Seth the substitute, we see the first hint at a theme of recreation that permeates the Bible, recreation as a means to deal with a fallen world.
Read Genesis 6-9:17
How does the story start?
Chapter 6 begins with a description of the state of the world at the time. The language in the beginning verses harkens back to that used in Genesis 3:6 to describe the first act of sin: the seeing of something desirable and the taking of it. Like Chapter 4, we see an escalation of sin, this time to the point where “every intention of the thoughts of [man’s] heart was only evil continually” (6:5).
Who was Noah?
Before verse 9, Noah had been mentioned by name a few times, but finally became a character in the story in verse 9: he was a righteous man, a blameless man. This didn’t mean that he was sinless, but he “walked with God,” which implied a favored and intimate relationship with God (6:8), reminiscent of Enoch in Genesis 5, and presumably of pre-fall Adam as well. That Scripture is self-consistent means that we ought to use Scripture to interpret Scripture where we can (subject to context, of course). And Scripture is clear: there is no one who has not sinned (1 Kings 8:46, Romans 3:9-18). So the term “righteous” used of Noah needs to be reconciled somehow with the exacting legal requirement Paul refers to in his writings. For now, we would not be remiss if we interpret it at face value: Noah was a “pretty good guy” in a world full of corruption.
One must remember that the early audiences of God’s word primarily heard it read (Deuteronomy 31:11, Joshua 8:35, Nehemiah 8:3), and so literary features such as contrast, parallelism, progression, repetition, and inclusio, were critical in helping the listener discern the dynamics of a text, to see what the narrator deems to be important, and to remember it.
In that light, in Genesis 6, Noah’s “righteousness” (6:9, 7:1) contrasts with the corruption of the rest of humanity (which is repeated as well in Genesis 6:5 and 6:11-13). Nowhere is his obedience to God more emphasized than when God commanded him to build an ark to escape the flood in which “everything that is on the earth shall die” (6:17), Noah “did all that God commanded him” (repeated in Genesis 6:22 and 7:5). So in this section we see this alternation of righteousness and obedience.
Why did God save Noah?
Present-day readers and hearers of this story will no doubt wonder whether, in what way, and to what extent this obedience applies to us. On one level, God chose Noah because he was righteous among his generation. No matter how strong your view is on sovereignty and election and total depravity, you cannot write off the plain meaning of Genesis 7:1.
But it is a basic Christian doctrine that people are not saved because of their own righteousness. Salvation is not by works, but “by faith” in Jesus. How then do we reconcile this tension?
Using Scripture to interpret Scripture again, we read later in the New Testament that “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” (Hebrews 11:7, emphasis mine).
And what is this faith? Just a few verses earlier, at the beginning of Hebrews 11 (a.k.a., “Hall of Faith”), the author of Hebrews defines faith as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (11:1), and expands on it a few verses later to include belief in the existence of God and His rewarding nature to those who seek Him (11:6). For Noah, the oncoming flood was certainly unseen, but was as certain as seen; trusting God’s warning constituted the belief in both the existence of God and the reward of escape from calamity. Building the ark extended the faith beyond mere belief into an actual demonstration of it, resulting in his physical preservation. What saved Noah was, in one sense, obedience; if he had merely listened to God’s warning but neglected to act, he would have been drowned with his peers. But that obedience was rooted in his faith that God is trustworthy. It is by this faith that Noah was counted righteous and saved.6
What is the bigger story about?
The plot of the story of Noah and the Flood is relatively straightforward. God wanted to wipe the earth of its corruption, so He had Noah build a boat and load it up with animals two by two. Noah had to live with his family in a giant box while rain fell for forty days and forty nights and covered the face of the earth, wiping out all breathing creatures. He had to wait until the water receded before being able to resettle on earth. When he came out, he worshipped God and God made him a promise that He will never destroy everything in a flood again.
If we just accept the story as merely a lesson on obedience and faith and righteousness, having a cursory systematic understanding of salvation, we may end up making Noah (and by extension, mankind) the protagonist of the story. We may be tempted, like I was when I was a young Christian, to put my hope in Noah, that given the new start, the second chance, he and his children would (and must) continue to be obedient for the sake of all humanity. In our own lives, we can become focused on our own performance regarding obedience and faith, even while acknowledging that God is the one who pads our bank accounts with righteousness, so to speak. We may thus miss the bigger and better story that’s unfolding.
For embedded within the literary structure of this narrative is something profound. Of particular note is the chiastic structure of the account of the flood itself. A chiasmus is a literary structure of the form ABCDCBA, where sets of similar language bracket a focal point in a concentric manner.
The timeline below is a distillation of the account of the flood:
Genesis 7:4—God warned of the impending flood, to occur in 7 days
Genesis 7:7—Noah and company entered the ark
Genesis 7:10—7 days after God’s warning, floodwaters came (Noah 600, Month 2, Day 17)
Genesis 7:17—for 40 days the flood kept coming on the earth
Genesis 7:23—all animals died, except for Noah and those in the ark with him
Genesis 7:24—the waters flooded the earth for 150 days
Genesis 8:3—at the end of 150 days, the water has gone down (Noah 600, Month 7, Day 17)
Genesis 8:6—after 40 days, Noah sent out a raven and a dove
Genesis 8:10—after 7 days, he sent out the dove again and it returned with a leaf
Genesis 8:12—after 7 days, he sent out the dove again and it didn’t return
Genesis 8:13—water had “dried up” from the earth (Noah 601, Month 1, Day 1)
Genesis 8:14—the earth was “completely dry” (Noah 601, Month 2, Day 27)
When we look at this outline, the following structure jumps out: 7-7-40-150-150-40-7-7.7 8 The symmetry draws our attention to this: wedged between the first and second mentions of the 150 days is the significant verse 8:1: “But God remembered Noah and all the wild animals and the livestock that were with him in the ark, and he sent a wind over the earth, and the waters receded” (emphasis mine).
In short, God remembered.
And this is a point we often forget.
Ultimately, Noah’s salvation came from and depended on the Lord and His remembering.
Our conclusion in this is confirmed by other indicators in this text. In Genesis 6:18, God told Noah He would make a covenant with him. In Genesis 7:16, it was the LORD who shut him in the ark. In Genesis 7:23, while God’s purposes in Genesis 6:7-8 were coming to pass, Noah and those with him inside the ark were being spared. And when God made the covenant with Noah after the flood, God foreshadowed that this would not be the last act of remembering: “Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth” (Genesis 9:16).
The story is not just about the need for obedience. Our obedience is imperfect. Noah was imperfect, as one finds out in the second half of Genesis 9. At the center of this level one narrative about a faithful man is a faithful God who is dependable and trustworthy, who kept his promise from Genesis 6:18.
Looking further out, we see that Israel’s history was one of repeated cycles of disappointment and hope, degeneracy and spiritual revival, scattering and gathering, judgment and blessings. The entire Old Testament attests to that. But in the midst of the destruction and despair, of exile and slavery, God was reminding the Israelites through narratives like Noah’s that there was still hope, that He had not forgotten His people or His promises.
At the highest level, the story assured God’s people that no matter what, God aimed to perpetuate (as of Genesis 6) the line of Adam and of Seth, and later (to the hearers of the Pentateuch) that of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Judah, and David, providing hope that the promised seed in Genesis 3 was still coming, and one day would end the reign of Satan and bring relief to broken creation, as Noah’s name suggested (Genesis 5:29). God saved Noah ultimately because God was faithful to His promise in Genesis 3.
What is the significance of the covenant?
After Noah and company came out of the ark, he continued his faithful devotion to God through the sacrifice of burnt offerings. God then made up His mind to “never again destroy all living creatures” (Genesis 8:21).
This commitment was made explicit and formalized in the covenant that begins in Genesis 9:8. A covenant can be understood as a relational agreement; like a contract, a covenant may contain expectations, conditions, promises, and rewards and consequences. Like in a contract, there is also a ratification process, whether that be a signature or a sign or a ritual.
Whereas God only mentioned Noah as the counterparty to the covenant in Genesis 6:18, the fleshed out covenant in Genesis 9:8 included not only Noah, but all living creatures on earth (9:10). Moreover, God promised no further wholesale destruction of life via water. And as a sign of confirmation, God gave the rainbow.
The Noahic covenant is the first of five explicit covenants in the Bible, the others being Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic, and the New. It is the broadest one, between God and all life, and has no condition. It establishes what theologians call “common grace.”
Verse 8:21 neatly summarizes the sentiment: no matter how evil people would become afterward, God’s promise to Himself was that He would never “curse the ground” again and destroy all living creatures. Verse 8:21 also tells us that the flood that presumably was meant to be the solution to the problem where every thought of man was continually evil, per Genesis 6:5, did not actually solve the root problem. Sin still was and is in people’s hearts.
Verse 8:21 foreshadows that the conflict wasn’t over, that there was more sin to come. But with more sin would also come more judgment and discipline, preservation of a remnant, and renewal or recreation of a people. This is a theme that runs throughout the Bible, and we see it developing here. For when God blessed Noah and his sons in Genesis 9:8, He reiterated the creation mandate given in Genesis 1, “Be fruitful and increase in number,” albeit with a few additional restrictions and privileges—for one, it seemed that meat was allowed to be eaten for the first time. The obvious Genesis 1 references concerning dominion and multiplication signify strongly the intention that Noah’s story ought to be understood as one of recreation. The covenant, then, was a promise concerning the new relationship (or aspect of relationship) between man and God occasioned by this new creation.
The essence of the story of Noah is that God kept his promises by preserving his people through a faithful savior. Noah was a savior of finite capacity, but he was a type, a foreshadowing symbol, for the greater savior to come, Jesus Christ. As God established a new covenant with creation to prepare for the new creation after the flood, He established the New Covenant with His people through Jesus to prepare them for the New Creation that is to come (Revelation 21:1).
Whenever we study Scripture, we have to think about what it intends to teach us. I usually ask what a passage teaches us about God, His character and His principles; about human nature; and how God wants us to respond. In the level one story of Noah, from the contrast between Noah’s blamelessness and the world’s corruption and God’s plan to separate the two, we see that God is righteous and holy and has an absolute moral standard; He cannot abide sin, and we see the extent to which sin and His holiness are incompatible—so much so that a catastrophic flood is just judgment. It teaches us to take sin seriously, to understand how destructive it is to our relationship with our Maker. Yet we also see a God who rescues; He provides a way to life and shows mercy.
The story of Noah, like that of Seth before him, is a story of new creation. It is the story of God’s promise to save Noah and his family from calamity, and His unconditional fulfillment of that promise because He remembered. The explicit covenants, of which the Noahic covenant is the first, are God’s commitment to bring about even greater things.
Though Israel of the Old Testament continued to struggle with obedience, God was the one constant, and He promised to bring about the fulfillment of all His purposes in the New Creation through his prophets. When Christ instituted the New Covenant, it was the promise of New Creation coming to fruition in its firstfruits—Christ’s resurrection from the dead (1 Corinthians 15:20), ultimately proving to the world that God had finally fulfilled his promise for Eve’s offspring to crush the head of the serpent by defeating death. As we struggle to obey as part of the Church, we can look back at the story of Noah, but ultimately at the story of Jesus, and know that God is a God who remembers.
Thanks to M. Sheu and C. Chen for contributing thoughts, insights, and corrections.
Still, I do want to address the nature of faith, albeit briefly, lest it become another work (e.g., “If you just have more faith, anything is possible,” or “This bad event must have been caused by your not having enough faith.”) In short, Paul goes to great lengths to clarify that obedience and faith come from God: “As you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose” (Philippians 2:12-13, emphasis mine), and, “It is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).
Scripture is consistent in its declaration that all saving work comes down to God’s grace. Tying together the concepts of righteousness and faith, Paul writes in Romans 1, “In the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith’” (Romans 1:17). If righteousness is by faith and faith is by grace, then righteousness is also by grace.
Having looked at all this, we can better understand the nature of Noah’s righteousness: his obedience was the fruit of a faithful relationship with God (Genesis 6:9). It was the evidence of his faith, which was a gracious gift from God, and through this faith, an external, inherited righteousness was given him (Hebrews 11:7). There is much more to be said about this imputed righteousness, about the Flood as a symbol of baptism (1 Peter 3:21), about our union with Christ, about election and predestination—Calvinism in general, really—but they will have to be topics of future study. Constraining ourselves to look at the text, we should be fine in saying, “Noah was not a perfect man, but he was faithful, and that faithfulness was rewarded by God’s gracious salvation.”
- I highly recommend How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart; most of the first section is based on Chapter 5 of the Third Edition.↩
- Fee and Stuart 90.↩
- Fee and Stuart 91.↩
- We may wonder how Noah’s righteousness ties in with our own righteousness and the righteousness Paul talks about in his letters. We instinctively want to map Noah’s salvation from the flood to our own individual salvation from judgment, and may wonder whether it is appropriate to do so. Hebrews 11:7 does seem to make that connection. We might also ask, “If we accept that Noah still had sin, then what is the bar for salvation? Whose standards do we have to meet? Do we need to be as ‘righteous’ (a.k.a. faithful) as Noah? What do we do if we’re not as good or strong in faith?” These are great questions, but not the focus of this narrative, so detailed treatment is outside the scope of this study.↩
- I encountered this idea online when preparing for the original study. I can’t find the original reference anymore, but you’ll find plenty of references if you search for Noah chiasm. We do have to ignore the phrase “forty days and forty nights” in Genesis 7:4 and 7:12 though.↩
- For the astute, the counting of the days don’t actually stack; there is overlap between the 7, the 40, and the 150, as evidenced by the calendar dates given. But keep in mind a chiasmus is a literary device, not a scientific one, and this overlap suggests that the structure is intentional rather than incidental.↩