If you grew up in Sunday School as I did, you know that “the Lord told Noah there’s gonna be a floody, floody” and that the resolution to this problem was that this same Lord told Noah “to build him an arky, arky.” (For those of you who now have the tune this old Psalty song, you can thank me for putting it in your head all day.) But what you may not have considered, is that this song, along with every flannelgraph—and most sermon—versions of the story leave out the beginning of the tale. The ancient writer (presumably Moses) who relays this tale of human origins, does not begin with the commissioning of an ark builder. He begins his story, arguable in Genesis 1 with the creation of a world out of chaos.
My goal in the writing today is to bring fresh view to this famous tale, of course, but also to draw its mythic imagery firmly into the present as a clarion call to the frailty and possibility entrapped in every human heart. Including yours, including your neighbors, including your enemies. The ancient Jews built a worldview (a worldview that became the foundation for Jesus’ life and ministry) where we are undoubtedly all in this together, and if you ever question the extent of this, we have no farther to look than the infamous flood.
God Divides the Chaos
In order to even have an attempt at understanding Genesis 6 and the Flood of Waters we first have to understand the work of God in creating/ordering the world. As many recent theologians have noted (the best of these arguably John H. Walton) the language and verb usage in Genesis 1 is primarily one of ordering and purposing rather than making in the original language. This is not to say that the Jews believed anything other than that God literally made the world out of nothing (ex nihilo), but rather that the theological point of the origin story is to say that God purposed the world he made. And how He purposed it and why is what makes the Jewish view of origins so important.
First, when we say that God creates out of nothing, it is important to recognize that this is not a neutral nothing. Genesis 1:2 makes clear that the creation is brought into a world of “darkness” and “deep” that lacks order and content. It is a purposeless chaos. In the Ancient Near East (ANE), water is symbolic for the dark forces of chaos that seek to undermine the good world and its inhabitants. It should come as no surprise then, that YHWH, who seeks to create a world of beauty and fruitfulness uses the first two “days” to divide and organize the darkness with light, and divide and organize the waters with air and land. God is literally dividing the chaos, putting it in contained places, in order to establish fruitful space for His creation to flourish.
The role of water here cannot be denied and is verified across nearly all ANE creation narratives. The water is danger, chaos, and destruction. It is disorder and the opposite of God’s good world. And—to the chagrin of more fundamentalist views of this text—was there from the beginning. It should come as no surprise then that a creature of chaos—the serpent—makes an appearance in the garden temple of God’s presence just shortly thereafter. God’s world is good, even very good, but it is surrounded and sometimes infiltrated by chaos—from the beginning.
The Purpose of Man
Into the garden of God’s delight is purposed the pinnacle of His creation, what we find out later is a creature in the image of God’s beloved Son—man. Or more accurately “humanity”, as Genesis 2 goes to create length to establish both cooperative genders as a essential to humanities full expression. (Sorry, fundamentalists, the historical text isn’t on your side here either). The human beings are put into the garden with purpose (as is everything), but theirs is unique. They are here to “image God” by working and protecting the garden. (Genesis 1:26, 2:15) They are given, in psychological terms a unique feature of creation—agency. Their actions have unique affect on the creation itself as all flesh (including animals) and the plant-life alike will flourish or suffer at their hand. This is incredibly important to see. Human beings, their actions and the orientation of their spirits, are intricately tied to the future of the world itself. This is reaffirmed by Paul much later when he states that “all creation groans” in waiting for the redemption of the human beings. (Romans 8:22-23).
This topic could be a book in and of itself, but I will simply say this here: The Jewish view (in stark contrast to its ANE competitors) was that God creates the world with purpose and identity. This great work of putting things in their places so they can flourish in a beautiful creation is then handed off to human beings. They are commissioned to continue the creative work, continue to assign identity (naming) within the garden temple where God walks. All of this is a natural continuation of where God began on days 1 and 2: chaos is breaking in at the edges of creation. Further creation, further naming and identity creation (what Andy Crouch rightly calls culture-making) are the work of the humans, cultivating goodness and love under the leadership of YHWH to further subdue the world with beauty.
Chaos Infiltrates the Ordered Goodness
Enter a serpent. The embodied form of willful chaos is the first sign of trouble. The fact that agents of chaos exist in Eden should not surprise is. God ordered the world, put water and the darkness behind their boundaries in creation, but there they remained. The humans were commissioned to stay on their guard (Genesis 2:15) to keep the garden, to tend to it as the holy of holies of the world’s temple, and far beyond the traditionalists claim a “fall from grace,” we have signs of trouble: chaos in the ordered goodness. Human beings were commissioned to image God, bring His presence palpable in the created world, and had that happened, we are not unreasonable to believe that the serpent would have stayed in the corrupted primordial ooze from whence he came.
Why (beyond the interesting mythology) does this matter? Because we see how the beauty of creation de-evolves. We see that the truthfulness of the world is dependent on God ONLY through the willing agency of the human beings. And without them it corrupts because all too quickly, the human beings collude with chaos itself. This answers a core question about our world today, or any other world which has existed in time: what is the source of disorder? What is the cause of seemingly causeless suffering? It is humanities abdication of its holy calling. We let go of our job to be advocates of glory and makers of cultural goodness and beauty, cultivators of spaces where the infinite love of God dwells, and the Law of Unintended Consequences takes over. Call in the Butterfly Effect of human agency: any time a human being trades imaging God for colluding with chaos, a fissure in the world erupts… one with deathly consequences.
Creation’s Big Groan
I cannot guarantee that Paul had the Flood of Waters in his mind when he wrote Romans, but it seems likely. As we read the first several verses of Genesis 6, we see that it is not just one chaos creature roving about, but rather many. They have pro-created with the daughters of men, creating a race of violent overlord half-breed monsters which, but accepting the renown of men, have become objects of worship in a world built for God. The mysterious mythology of Genesis 6 may be unnerving to modern ears, but it need not be. Moses uses imagery and language familiar to his audiences (isn’t this what any great writer does?) do frame a cosmic argument: The world was coming unhinged, but it was not “senseless” as is so often said today. The world, creation, nature itself was de-evolving due to humanities willingness to make monsters into gods, willingness to offer as sacrifices that which they should have been protecting, willingness to abdicate the work of making the world in exchange for warring over it. God is not capriciously planning a mass-extinction event out of hell-bent anger. In fact quite the contrary. God’s emotional state throughout this is clear: grief, mourning, and a requisite self-consolation (there is a tinge of loneliness in the language here) that the translators simple state as God being “sorry” He created at all.
The Hebrew word which gets translated “corruption” throughout Genesis 6 implies a coming a part at the seams, long before the boundaries of the sky break and the waters of chaos are released. The world is de-evolving, all due to the images of God losing their imagery and their imaginations… leaving the world to be run by the corrupt half-breed monsters of chaos. Adam and Eve begin by making a few quick deals with chaos in order to make moral wisdom a self-sufficiency project (eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil), and this seemingly innocent act of self-reliance now escalates to cosmic proportions.
All the Boundaries Break
God contends with humanity for a set amount of time (the historical translation of 6:3 is 120 years, though the Hebrew word there could mean much longer or shorter). This contention, this attempt to bring humanity around to its role of good and beautiful creativity—a role which bounds identity with names, holds the lines of gardens and tends to the responsibility of cultivating life—of course fails, but for one man, Noah.
I have said for some time in consulting and coaching situations: we always get what we want. This is never more obvious than in the story of the Flood of Waters. Humanity wants a boundary-less world? Humanity wants to be able to muddle chaos with life, order with destruction, violence with fame? Humanity wants to confuse beauty for attraction? Goodness for power? (all of these conflations are clear in the Genesis 6 narrative) Then they will receive the unbound, untended world they asked for. The boundaries at the foundation of the cosmos itself will break. The day will become dark, and the chaotic seas will break from their walled containers. The sky will open as will the seas, and the Flood of Waters will destroy the entire order of creation, taking it back to its unbound state. A world where darkness once again hovers over the deep.
We should be chilled by the prospect. The idea that the agency of humanity, the power of people to willfully cease to create the good and beautiful boundaries which cultivate a truthful world, has cosmic consequences. To be human is to have consequences—intended and unintended. And the world that feels full of randomness is simply full of chaos, chaos the willful partner of a humanity resistant to identity, creativity, love, boundaries and hope.
A Purposed Heart
In the center of all of this chaos, stands Noah. A man who walked with God. (6:9) This phrase should have meaning for us, because it is the first sign of original created order since the Adam and Eve were abolished from the garden temple. The work of the human beings was predicated on one thing: that they would be with God. The character of God’s heart is exemplified in the walk in the garden with His image-bearers, His co-creators. To talk with them, to know them without fear or shame, to enjoy the beauty of his creation and theirs, to embody faith, hope and love. This is the anti-chaos of the world: a God who makes, who purposes, who empowers, who calls, who whispers, who embraces, who hopes, who heals. Some have asked why on earth God would select Noah to continue the project. If creating the world has produced such violence destruction and pain, then why continue the game? Because God is embodied hope. It is as endemic to His heart as is love. God is always, always, drawing into an unfinished future where He and His creation and commune in perfect love.
And so, among the wreckage of chaos, God finds a heart who will walk with him. From that man he crafts a boundaried world: a small wooden vessel filled with pro-creative nests and sustenance. A place where all flesh can grow and build a new world, a new creation. A floating garden where we live can thrive. And at its head: human beings imaging God: Making culture, feeding the hungry, loving creation, making and respecting boundaries. Floating above the chaos, like the Spirit at the dawn of time.
All of this from a purposed heart. A heart that says: there are many trades to make which could create short-term satisfactions. There are many exchanges of beauty for expediency, love for lust, truth for power, shame for trust. I could blur the boundaries of a life of surrendered love to God which creates shelter for others with a life which feeds glory off the chaos… but I won’t.
I will tend my garden. I will walk with God. I will cultivate a heart of clarity, vision, purpose and love where the only success which matters is that which answers “yes” to the question: Did I go with God?
All day long our divided hearts are making trades. Giving up on our better and humbler insights for the pleasures of short-term pain avoidance or quick-hits of power that comes from violence (both physical and emotional). We rage against co-workers, make ethical trades for the sake of short-term emotional relief, we try to play bigger (or more often smaller) than we really are, relinquish the holy work of living into our most beautiful and boundaried identities, and instead, collude with chaos. Flirt with suffering. Partner with the boundary-less world.
The Truth of Who You Are
Nefariously at the center of all our collusions with chaos lies the most dangerous question: What does it really matter? I’m not that important and my mistakes couldn’t affect that many. I am busy playing small, leaving the running of the world to chaos itself. As the old song goes, “Our lives are better left to chance…” Let karma and fate decide the future, not small, unimportant people like me. This is the beginning of death by a thousand cuts. And it is the exact collusion with the forces that are unmaking the world every day which let the flood waters loose.
We must begin each day with the laser clarity that our life, our very existence matters. And so (as it turns out) does the life of every person we come across. As C.S. Lewis so eloquently stated: You’ve never met a mere mortal. Those of use who are made from the dust and breathed with Spirit Life, (that’s all of us) are made to run the world. And when we don’t, chaos ensues. When we forget that everything from board meetings to baby diapers are opportunities to imbue the world with the face of God, opportunities to exert creative wonder into our lives and push the agenda of divine love forward at every moment. We are co-laborers with Christ is the most important work that has even been: not making churches, even building families, or saving souls. These are all microcosms of the big project: imaging God, making the world, creating culture, and living into the meaning of what were placed on the planet to do. Your life is never neutral. It is in every moment somewhere on the spectrum between surrendered vessel for infinite creative love or partner with the chaos that infiltrates our every experience. But there is no reason to fear. As the Apostle Paul was clear on the problem (all creation groans) so much so was he clear on the solution: Jesus was the first among many siblings, and by dying and living with Jesus, emptying our hearts in surrender to His directive and open love, we can release our grip on control and chaos. We can co-create the world free.
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