Misreading Noah and the Ark

July 9, 2012

Annie Vallotton’s beautiful line drawings from the Good News Bible.

Toward the end of yesterday’s sermon on Noah and the flood, I said the following:

Please notice that just as God resolves to destroy all of humanity in verse 7, verse 8 says something remarkable: “But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord.” The words “finding favor” are exactly equivalent to the word we use in the New Testament for grace. Make no mistake: if it’s grace, then that means it’s not something that Noah earned. Now, to be sure, the Bible says that Noah is righteous, but his righteousness is relative to the rest of the population—and we see after the flood how badly flawed and sinful this man Noah is. My point is, Noah doesn’t earn God’s grace because grace isn’t something you can earn.

Did you hear that? Noah doesn’t earn God’s grace because grace isn’t something you can earn. God chose Noah, not because Noah had it all together spiritually, but because God is gracious. Do you understand the difference?

Not that this would be apparent to anyone besides me, but these words reflect an important shift in the way I’ve read Genesis 6. I realize now, thanks in large part to Old Testament scholar John Goldingay, that I’ve been reading it wrong my whole life!

See, I had always thought—without reflecting on it much—that Noah was the one righteous exception in his generation. Sure, every other human being alive during the flood deserved God’s punishment, but not Noah. In other words, Noah paid his way onto the ark with his goodness.

See the problem? That can’t be right. Not if grace is grace. Not if the God of the Old Testament is the same as the God of the New Testament. (And I hope you know how I feel about that question!) Goldingay, in his For Everyone commentary, says that we need to pay close attention to the order: God finds favor with Noah first… and then Noah responds in grateful obedience.

The practical problem with my old reading of the story is that instead of reflecting on the amazing-ness of God’s grace—which ought to be the main point—I would feel overwhelmed with guilt: unlike Noah, I’m one of those hopeless sinners who deserves God’s wrath. Why can’t I be like Noah? In other words, why can’t I earn it? Why can’t I measure up? The specter of works-rigteousness rears its ugly head.

Don’t get me wrong: Of course I deserve God’s wrath. We all do. That’s not the point. The point is that God graciously took care of our problem.

2 Responses to “Misreading Noah and the Ark”

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    Brent, I think this is a tricky issue with respect to God choosing Noah to “save” from the Flood (or anybody else spiritually from Hell, or to use for any endeavor). I agree that nobody “deserves” God’s salvation (or use), so it is by grace in that respect. But that does not mean God does not look for “something” in the person in deciding upon whom He will bestow such grace. Otherwise, we get into a position of seeing God as being “arbitrary.” In my opinion, God looks at the state of a person’s heart in deciding whom to save, etc.; although, it may be the state that the person’s heart will take on if such grace is extended. Still, there has to be some difference; because, if there is no difference, then God could be subject to a charge of being “capricious,” which is certainly not the case.

    Maybe another way of saying it is that just because somebody does not deserve something does not mean that he has no obligation to do anything to get what is offered. Perhaps the parable of the king who forgave the big debt is on point. In no way could he deserve to have the debt forgiven, but he was, but when he showed that he had no compassion on the person who owed him a debt, the king saw the true state of his heart, and revoked the forgiveness. The “timing” sequence may be different, but the point is that the king, though not obliged to forgive AT ALL, nevertheless was looking to SOMETHING on the part of the subject to to be someone upon whom he should bestow forgiveness.

    • brentwhite Says:

      My only point is that Noah doesn’t deserve it any more than the rest of us. Whatever we bring to the table in terms of our righteousness may not be nothing, but it is infinitesimally small compared to God’s grace.


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