This is an amended version of a sermon I preached at City South Presbyterian Church in 2022. If you’d prefer to listen to this (spotify link), or watch it on a video, you can do that. It runs for 41 minutes.
This is a story we all know, right? There are hundreds of kids book retellings. You can find toy arks with pairs of animals in houses, toy shops, and even public kindergartens and schools around the world. It’s a story that even transcends Christianity; obviously it’s a Jewish story before it becomes our story; but it’s also part of the Muslim world. In fact, many nations around Israel, and even further afield, told stories of a man, and a boat, escaping through a cosmic flood.
I mentioned the Gilgamesh Epic last post; it has a flood story where Gilgamesh goes off to meet Utanapishtim, a man who’d been tasked by the gods to create a ship called “Preserver of Life.” He made a square box out of wood, here are the instructions.
“Make all living beings go up into the boat. The boat which you are to build, its dimensions must measure equal to each other: its length must correspond to its width.”
He took all the living beings; people and animals he could save, and they ended up on a mountain where he sent out birds — a dove, and a raven — before the ground came back, and sacrificed to the gods and became immortal.
“Mt. Nimush held the boat, allowing no sway. When a seventh day arrived I sent forth a dove and released it. The dove went off, but came back to me; no perch was visible so it circled back to me… I sent forth a raven and released it. The raven went off, and saw the waters slither back”
Gilgamesh wants the secret of this immortality, but he can’t get it.
And of course, much more recently we had Russell Crowe’s version of Noah; and look, I loved this movie, but it retold the flood story as a story where God responded not to violence and sin on the earth, between humans, so much as violence against the earth; as a parable about climate change and the coming environmental collapse.
It’s a versatile story; and it’s one where all these versions leave us wondering what the point is, and what the truth is. The story creates questions like “what scale was the flood; local, on ‘the earth’ as the readers would’ve understood it, or covering the entire globe as we’d understand it? Did it actually wipe all people out? And we saw last week that there are Nephilim, or their descendants either side of the story. Did all the cultures that have the story also have a hero on a boat? What’s the Genesis story doing in contrast with the Gilgamesh story and others like it — not just how is it similar — including stories about the foundation of Babylon, which we’ll get to in Genesis in the next few weeks.
These are all good questions worth pondering, but they aren’t necessarily the questions we’ll be answering; we’re looking at how these stories are the origin story for the Bible; the origin story for Jesus. We’re seeing how they create thread — concepts and ideas — that run all the way through the Bible, so our questions are a little bit different.
So here’s a 10,000 foot summary of the story so far as we’ve seen it in Genesis that sets us up to understand the Noah story, we’ll go from there to look at the story in more detail, then see how ideas get picked up and woven together and land us with Jesus.
You ready. In the beginning, after God made the Heavens and the Earth; the waters of the deep were a barrier to life — making the world desolate and uninhabited, while the Spirit of God hovered over the waters (Genesis 1:1-2).
God pushed back the waters to make sky — and a cosmic dome, a vault. The waters are held at the barrier between heavens and earth (Genesis 1:6-7), and then separated on the earth; so that land appears (Genesis 1:8-9); which will then be filled with plants and animals — birds, fish, and ground critters (Genesis 1:20-24). We’re told they all have the breath of life in them (Genesis 1:30), and finally God makes people as his living images; living idol statues; who ruled these other creatures, and spread the good garden of Eden across the face of what had been a desolate and uninhabited earth, to be fruitful and multiply, as we represent him. We were God’s answer to the desolate and uninhabited world (Genesis 1:26, 28), made to tend it as gardeners — male and female — who lived with God and ate from the tree of life — working together to bring life, and to resist chaotic forces from the heavenly realm (Genesis 2:15-17), like the serpent (Genesis 3:1). The serpent has other plans. He leads humanity down the garden path, so people turned against each other, and against God, and the environment became increasingly hostile; cursed and turned against us (Genesis 3:17), and humans are exiled; banished, from the garden and the Tree of Life (Genesis 3:22-23).
We saw Noah introduced in chapter 5 — super briefly last week — as a man who would reverse the curse. Noah gets positioned as a new Adam. Notice how he rules over the animals in this story; there’s repeats of the categories of animals God made in Genesis 1 over and over again in the flood story to make this point (Genesis 5:28-29, 6:8). But this new Adam comes as God prepares to begin again; to wipe out all the living stuff not ruled by Adam — and this seems extreme (Genesis 6:7), but we’re told humans were only evil, all the time (Genesis 6:5). And that the earth is full of violence.
Humans are bearing the image of all these beastly violent ‘gods’ and the serpent — so humanity increasing has become a problem because we’re not spreading fruitfulness; the likeness of God; but violence (Genesis 6:11-12). Violence is a real problem in the story, a sign of something gone wrong — corrupt — in humans. God is about to unmake what he has made, and to start again. He promises to destroy the earth; and it’s clear that he doesn’t mean totally eradicate, but there’s a de-creation happening, so he can re-create with his new Adam (Genesis 6:13). Just notice — as we skim by — that there’s a whole lot of seven-day references here; we’re being put in the mood to see the creation week as the background here. Seven pairs. Seven pairs. Seven days. Seven days (Genesis 7:2, 3, 4, 10).
As God sets Noah apart, he gives him a building plan. He’s told to put together this monstrosity that looks nothing like any boat that is actually capable of floating (Genesis 6:15-16); and often our picture books make this look more boat like than it is. This isn’t a boat. It’s a floating rectangular prism. God is going to put an end to all the life on the earth that has the breath of life in it. The breath of God that makes things alive will be withdrawn. There’s an undoing here. All these creatures — animals and humans — will perish without God to give them life (Genesis 6:17). The barrier to life that was there in the beginning — the waters — will return as the floodgates of heaven, the vault, opens along with the ‘deep waters’ of the earth (Genesis 7:11-12).
The water, we’re told, comes specifically from what God has been holding back in the heavenly dome; and in order to separate water and land. The separated waters from Genesis 1 become unseparated, the great deep bursts and the floodgates are opened. We go back to Genesis 1:1. The darkness and the deep; a desolate and uninhabitable world.
Everyone except Noah, his family, and the animals they save will die because God’s going to establish his covenant with Noah; and he’s going to start again (Genesis 6:18-19). And that’s how it happens. After the waters opens up, Noah and his family enter the ark (Genesis 7:13). The animals join him, just as God commanded, and God shuts them in. He’s going to preserve life on this ark. The people inside, and animals, are sealed in by him, and protected from the waters from death. The ark; this rectangle box; is going to be one space on earth where God keeps giving life, when everything else is overrun by chaos waters, this ark where God’s covenant people are held — where the breath of life is still on the earth —will keep people alive, through the de-creation moment, and into a new world when the waters recede (Genesis 7:15-16). And then, once the waters are in place — and once the people and animals are in place too — there’s a throwback to the beginning (Genesis 7:18-19).
The ark is lifted from the earth, up towards the heavens, just have this picture of the reality in mind.
It goes up higher than the mountains; high places where people would meet with God, and this box with the only breath of life left in the world, God’s breath, hovers over the waters. Just like god’s spirit does in chapter 1; it’s the same phrase (Genesis 1:2, 7:18)
The waters are now covering the earth again; and the earth is going to become desolate and uninhabited again; days 2 and 3 of the creation story are undone. The waters and land are not separated. There’s no dry ground.
Then days 4 and 5 are undone; all the creatures die — the listing of animals mirrors the list in Genesis 1. The animals. The birds. And all mankind (Genesis 1:30, 7:21). Everything with the breath of life in its nostrils — think back to Genesis 2 and God breathing life into the human — Adam — into his nostrils. Every living thing is wiped from the earth.
It all zeroes in on one man; a new Adam — Noah — and the people with him on the ark (Genesis 7:22-23).
They’re in the ark for a long time. I love the idea that we get in the Noah movie that while they were in the boat this faithful curse-reverser was telling his family the creation story in the darkness surrounded by the waters of the deep. It’s such a beautiful scene.
Noah — the curse reverser — is the great hope for a re-created humanity; he leads a remnant through this de-creation — through the chaos waters — and into a new garden.
God remembers his people on the ark and sends his breath, or Spirit, as a wind over earth; this is the same Hebrew word as when the spirit hovering on the waters in Genesis 1. He blows back the waters; and the waters recede (Genesis 8:1).
The cosmic floodgates are shut again; this is a new beginning; a repeat of Genesis 1 and God separating water and land to make a place for life. The water keeps receding; dry ground is appearing (Genesis 8:2-3). Starting with mountain tops; like the one the ark comes to rest on (Genesis 8:4-5).
And Noah — like Gilgamesh — sends birds out. First a raven, then a dove (Genesis 8:6-8). In Gilgamesh it’s the same birds but the other way round, and I’m not sure what to make of that. There’s an interesting little thing here where the dove goes out, hovering, flying, over the face of the waters; waters that cover the whole earth, a few times, until it eventually returns after another seven days. It returns with a sign that the earth is no longer fruitless; an olive branch. A fruitful tree. So Noah finds dry ground, the water and ground are separating again (Genesis 8:13). And God calls him out of the ark; onto the dry land, with his human family, and all the animals — so they can all be fruitful and multiply again; it’s a re-creation moment (Genesis 8:16-17). Noah’s family emerges from the ark, onto a mountain. Mountains are everywhere in the Bible story right, as heaven-meets-earth places. Noah makes a sacrifice on a mountaintop, again like Gilgamesh (Genesis 8:20). God smells the aroma of his sacrifice and it pleases him so he makes a covenant with Noah and his family. A mountaintop promise to not de-create quite this way again. Even if human hearts have not changed; even if they’re still sinful all the time, there’ll always be people he preserves from judgment (Genesis 8:21).
There’s a big change in this repeat of the call to be fruitful and multiply. From this point, death becomes part of humans living in the land; specifically our rule over the animals. Where in Genesis 1, people were given plants and fruit — just like the animals were, now they’re given the animals as well. Who’ll be scared of them. It’s not Eden (Genesis 9:1-2). There are some limits to this violent domination, and those limits — around the lifeblood of an animal — build up to the prohibition against shedding the blood of another human. God won’t curse all people, but there’ll be an accounting for those who take up the pattern of Cain (Genesis 9:4-5). Those who turn their hands against an image of God will have their blood shed. Violence against a human is a desecration of the image of God (Genesis 9:6), and God makes a covenant not just with Noah and his family, but the animals too — not to destroy them (Genesis 9:9-10). It all looks so good, for a moment, until our next installment, where things go downhill super-fast.
But let’s look at some threads from here — de-creation to re-creation; through water — water where God provides salvation, while judging the earth for its violent opposition to his design for human fruitfulness. God providing dry ground for people, while holding back the chaotic waters is a type scene that repeats.
It repeats as God creates people for himself through water — little new creation moments happen throughout the Bible’s story. This word for ark gets used in one other story in the Old Testament. It’s different to the “ark of the covenant” though both are a box (and both come with building instructions that are similar), they’re different Hebrew words, but you know what is called an ark? The only other one in the story?
The basket Moses is placed in when the violent empire of Egypt orders babies to be thrown into the waters of the Nile (Exodus 2:3). When we meet Moses; Moses the rescuer of god’s people who is saved from the violence of Pharaoh, he’s placed in an ark, and put in the water.
So that old joke — ‘how many animals did Moses take in the ark?’ — the trick that’s meant to catch kids out… well… he couldn’t fit any. It was just a basket.
Moses’s mum finds a loophole with Pharaoh’s commands as she throws him into the Nile, but he is, in a way, symbolically dead in the water; relying on God to preserve him in his ark. His ark, like Noah’s, is made from plant and pitch (Genesis 6:14, Exodus 2:3). He’s raised to life from the Nile and named Moses because he’s “drawn from the water” and saved from violent forces opposed to God’s rule, and the fruitful multiplication of his people (Exodus 2:10). He’s a new Noah. The flood story is an Exodus story; God creating a covenant people through water.
Moses grows up and he goes head-to-head with Pharaoh, and there’s a fun thing where the plagues are de-creation moments too — but that’s a rabbit hole. His own origin story foreshadows the creation of Israel, God’s people, through the waters as they leave Egypt; the same waters that cover over the Egyptian war machine. The Exodus is a new creation story following the pattern of the flood, salvation and judgement fall, and God’s covenant people are protected and carried into a new fruitful land. God brings this salvation; new life because he remembers his people… Just like he remembers those on the ark (Genesis 6:14, Exodus 2:24). And as they head out of Egypt and are chased by the Pharaoh and his warriors — violent people opposed to God’s plan — Moses stretches out his arms, and just as god’s Spirit — a wind — that Hebrew word again — pushes the waters of the flood apart to make dry ground appear for Noah, God opens the waters for Moses and Israel to cross on dry ground. Israel is preserved; saved from death, brought to life, heading towards fruitful land (Exodus 14:21-22). While the violent army of the violent nation is destroyed under the waters. The chariots, the horsemen, are all wiped out (Exodus 14:28).
As God’s people sing about this salvation they sing about God’s wind — his Spirit — moving the seas; for their salvation, and against their enemies. It’s a flood again (Exodus 15:10). And on the other side of the waters they become a covenant people called to be fruitful and multiply. In Exodus they’re called to be a nation of priests, formed through the waters as god saves and judges; bringing death and life. And Moses leads the people up a mountain — into the heavens; like Noah being up above the mountains. Moses and Noah both build altars on mountains, and make sacrifices. There’s heaps of parallels (Exodus 19:5-6).
Now just imagine, for a moment, that this is your origin story; as a nation — both these stories — the story of Noah and of Moses; of God saving through waters; leading people on dry ground into fruitful life while judging violent enemies of his plan and people. Imagine you’re surrounded by a violent nation, Babylon, with its own flood story. A story where violent gods flood the earth because of noisy humans who are disturbing their partying and rest, and where you’re never quite sure if they’re going to do it again if you get a bit uppity. They’ve got this story keeping them on their toes; keeping them obeying the violent king who represents the violent gods; you’ve got the story of Noah, and Moses, and maybe the idea that god might save a people from this sort of violent empire through water again.
There’s this promise, in Isaiah — the same chapter where we got the branch of Jesse a few weeks back — that looks forward to the waters of Egypt and Babylon being swept back by a wind of God — the Spirit — so that people will walk on dry ground again and a remnant of his people will be saved and walk on this ground towards life, just like Israel in the Exodus (Isaiah 11:15-16).
At the end of the Old Testament Israel is waiting for this new Exodus — and in a way we all are. The world stays violent; human hearts are evil and opposed to God, and violent empires reign… And there hasn’t been a moment when all Israel — not just Judah, exiled in Babylon, have returned to be god’s people like Isaiah promises. God remains faithful to his promise to Noah though; holding back his judgment on a violent world, even if he does intervene in moments like the Exodus on behalf of his people.
And in this world, we get Noah, leading a remnant — a small family of people — through judgment; hoping for re-created life — but nothing changes — we get Moses — leading God’s nation towards the land; but right after he finishes his sacrifices on the mountain; Israel fails — just like Noah’s family — and we’ll pick that up next week — and then we get Jesus.
Here’s some cool threads running from the flood story to Jesus; from Israel’s origin story to ours. At Jesus’ baptism, John is baptising people on the east side of the Jordan —the Babylon side. He’s making a way for people head back into the promised land (John 1:28); announcing the beginning of the New Exodus with language from the Old Testament. As Jesus comes out of the water, there’s the Spirit hovering like a dove — it’s a flood moment and a Genesis 1 moment all at once. Something’s about to happen. New life is about to emerge (Matthew 3:16). John has just said Jesus will bring a different baptism — one with the Spirit, and with fire. He’s come to fix the human hearts that create violence; to lead another Exodus — bringing salvation and judgment — another ark; saving those who’ll listen and find life with god that raises us to the heavens (Matthew 3:11-12). Jesus will say he’s also going to experience another baptism; before he brings this fire, describing the cross as a baptism (Luke 12:49-50). The cross is where God brings judgment and salvation; a path out of death.
If violence against a human is a desecration of the image of God, then this is the ultimate expression of violent desecration of the ultimate image bearer with the ultimate debt now owed to God. At the cross, Jesus is surrounded by the violent forces that oppose god’s plan — like Noah; like Moses and Pharaoh; like Egypt and Babylon. He absorbs the blows.
At the Cross, God provides another timber vessel that saves; that carries us from this old violent world; a world under judgment; and into new life. Water and blood flood from his side, and in that flow we find both judgment and salvation. Those who reject Jesus and side with the violent world that kill him face death, while those who cling to the cross for life will be carried to new life.
We’ll see in a couple of weeks, when we get to Babel, how the baptism Jesus brings — by God’s Spirit coming like fire — brings a new Exodus. We’ll see and how that fire judges and saves, like John says Jesus’ baptism will (Matthew 3:11-12) separating those in God’s family — on the ark — his covenant people — from who choose the violent world.
But remember the Great Commission, where Jesus goes up a mountain and tells his people that God is with us, so we should baptise people and make disciples (Matthew 28:19); that’s a picture of this story becoming our story, through our own baptism.
Because that is what Baptism is; just as Noah’s ark — and Moses’ ark, and his leading God’s people to new life through the waters were Israel’s origin story; our baptism into the death and new life of Jesus is our origin story.
Romans 6 says baptism represents us dying with Jesus, going down into the water, sharing in his death; a death that came at the hands of the violent world; so that we might be carried to new life; raised up above the waters as heavenly people. Baptism is our flood story. Our Exodus. A picture of the old being washed away and new life emerging through death, and the Cross of Jesus is our Ark, raising us up into the heavens and holding us safe as judgment falls (Romans 6:4).
Peter picks up this idea in 1 Peter — where he talks about how we’re now Exodus people; a “Kingdom of priests,“ because we’ve been united in Jesus (1 Peter 2:9). He says this weird stuff about Jesus preaching to the spirits from before Noah’s time — and maybe that makes some sense after last week; especially because there’s this theory these demons (and others) were the ghosts of dead Nephilim. Then he says we’re people who are ‘saved through water,’ not saved ‘by water.’ It’s not that baptism saves, it’s this idea of being carried through death and judgment, like Noah in the Ark hovering over the water, protected by God, ‘put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit;’ saved to be raised up into the heavens; even further than the ark. Unlike in Gilgamesh, where death is the ultimate destiny of every human and immortality is a pipe dream, this divine life is for everyone who grabs hold of the boat (1 Peter 3:18-22).
When we’re baptised in water, this is what we’re representing; a story we make real for ourselves through actions. We’re part of the people of God created through the death and resurrection of Jesus. There’s something beautiful and true about infant baptism. Just like Noah’s family on the ark, and the kids in Egypt, we’re not saved by our own effort, but by jumping on the ark following the ultimate Noah (or Moses), Jesus. There’s also something beautiful about immersion, this picture of going down into the water, covered by flood waters — dying — and coming up made new. Baptism is a picture of death and resurrection.
When we see others baptised we, the baptised community, remember our ark; that carried us through the waters, through death, and into resurrection. We live as the baptised and baptising community; the dead made alive. We live as those who know that God promises he won’t flood the earth again, but that Jesus promises to return bringing judgment and salvation; life or death. We live knowing he came to bring a baptism, of the spirit, and fire, both re-creation and immortality and judgment on the violent and evil world that would kill God.
Life in this baptised community is life shaped by this story; life with new hearts that come by the spirit; life that rejects the violent and destructive world, even if this means stormy weather; but where we cling to the cross; life where maybe, like Noah, we value God’s creation and try to make little pockets of Eden, carrying them through the storm with us and our family. Telling our origin story; the Gospel; in the dark, hoping that it’ll shape us as we seek to point people to the light.
Just as an added final touch, we finished this service baptising a member of our church family who shared their testimony of finding life in the story of Jesus.