The flood narrative in Genesis 6-8 is difficult to understand in light of the self-sacrificing nature of God revealed in Jesus Christ on the cross. How can the God who drowns everybody on earth because of their sin, be the same God who dies for everybody on earth because of their sin? Though there are numerous issues surrounding these chapters, Genesis 8:21 helps us understand what God was doing in the flood. When we understand Genesis 8:21, it shows us that God was acting much more like Jesus than many assume.
After the flood, Noah and his family set out to reestablish themselves on the earth, and when Noah offers a sacrifice to God, God promises to never again destroy every living thing in the same way (Genesis 8:21). God says that even though man’s heart is constantly evil, the flood waters will never again come upon the earth to destroy everything that breathes.
Three things about Genesis 8:21 reveal to us what God was doing in the flood.
1. God Restricts His Own Freedom
First, in previous posts, I have argued that God did not actively “send” the flood, but that it came upon the earth as a natural consequence to mankind’s rebellion. The flood is an example of nature out of control, of sin cannibalizing itself, and of the destroyer seeking to destroy.
One of the primary reasons I have been arguing this is because I believe that God, in the act of creating beings with dignity, value, and free will, God limited Himself from acting in any way that would violate or negate mankind’s dignity, value, and free will.
Though it is popular to say that God can do whatever He wants, God cannot do what is logically impossible (such as make a round square), do anything that violates His own nature (such a sin), or do anything that goes against something He has already decided and determined (such as give humans free will). “God lets the creatures have the freedom to be what God created them to be” (Fretheim, Creation Untamed, 53).
Lots of people have problems with the idea of God limiting Himself for the sake of humanity. They feel that since we are God’s creatures, He can do with us whatever He wants, even if it means squashing us all like bugs under His divine thumb. They often point to the flood as an example of Him doing this very thing.
Note carefully, however, what God says in Genesis 8:21. He says that even though all humanity is completely evil from their youth, He will never again destroy every living thing as He has done in the flood. However a person understands the flood account, Genesis 8:21 clearly reveals God placing a limitation upon Himself.
Genesis 8:21 shows that God places boundaries upon His future choices so that a worldwide flood is never again a possibility. Whatever you think about the flood account, one thing it shows is that our God is a self-limiting God. He restricts His own freedom for the sake of His creation.
This is the first thing to note about Genesis 8:21.
2. Could God Stop a Second Flood?
The second thing to note is that the verse seems to raise an objection to the theory that has been advanced in previous posts.
This basic argument of some of my previous posts is that God couldn’t have stopped the flood in the first place. It came as a natural result of human rebellion, sin cannibalizing itself, nature spiraling out of control, and the destroyer seeking to destroy.
But if that is true, if the flood was a natural consequence of human rebellion and sinfulness so that humanity separated themselves from God’s protective hand thus inviting destruction upon their own heads, then how is it that in Genesis 8:21, God can now promise to stop the same sort of destruction in the future?
In other words, if all that God could do in the flood event was rescue as many people as possible from the waters when they threatened to take the life of everything that breathes, how can God guarantee that humanity will never be so sinful as to invite the same destruction upon their heads again? If God couldn’t stop such destruction the first time, how can He promise to stop it a second time?
Initially, this seems to refute the argument that has been advanced in previous posts. But in actuality, the fact that God promises not to send another flood actually supports the argument. The reason God makes the promise that He does in Genesis 8:21 is because God knows something about the world He created which makes it impossible that a worldwide flood would ever occur again. Though human sinfulness and rebellion were the spiritual reasons for the flood, God also knew the meteorological reasons for how the flood occurred, and knew that once they happened, a second worldwide flood was not possible.
What reasons might these be? While Genesis is not a scientific treatise, the early chapters of Genesis give hints that the earth may have been surrounded by a thick canopy of vapor. This canopy provided a greenhouse effect over the entire earth, protecting plants, animals, and people from the UV rays of the sun, and allowing people and animals to stay alive much longer than what is typical today. When the rains came for 40 days and 40 nights, some scholars believe it was a result of the vapor canopy falling to the earth (e.g., Dillow, The Waters Above).
Though we cannot say what caused the canopy to rain down upon the earth, some speculate that it might have been a meteorite. Such a cataclysmic event might also explain why fountains broke forth from the deep (Gen 7:11). In the end, we do not really know how the flood occurred, but it seems from God’s promise in Genesis 8:21 that whatever the causes of the flood, that particular series of events is no longer possible.
So when God says in Genesis 8:21 that a second flood will not come upon the earth, we can read this to say that a second flood cannot come upon the earth. The specific meteorological conditions for a worldwide flood are no longer possible. If they were possible, God could not have made the promise that He does. The truth is that God could not stop a worldwide flood a second time—if one came. The limitations that God has placed upon Himself when He created beings with free will is just as true before the flood as it is after.
Genesis 8:21 and 2 Peter 2
If you are skeptical of this way of reading Genesis 8:21, note that according to 2 Peter 2, a second worldwide destruction is coming. This second “flood” will not be with water, but with fire, and this it will be so destructive, it will not just consume everything that breathes, but all the elements as well. If God promises that He will never again destroy everything that breathes, but then in the future He does so with fire, it seems that either He is playing word games (He only meant that He wouldn’t destroy with water, but fire is still an available option), or, just as with the flood, He cannot stop the destruction with fire when it comes. We will look at 2 Peter 2 later in this chapter, but for now, it seems that given what God says in Genesis 8:21, that He resolves to stick with mankind no matter how wicked or evil they become, only the second option is open to us.
Think of it another way. Imagine a father with his child. The child is disobedient and rebellious, and one day, the father got frustrated that in a moment of anger he hit the child over the head with a baseball bat. The child sustained a severe concussion and went to the hospital. When the child comes out, the father apologizes profusely, and promises the courts and Child Protective Services that no matter what happens, he will never again hit his child with a baseball bat. The next week, the father again loses his temper and hits the child over the head with a shovel, and the child goes back to the hospital with severe brain damage. When the police arrest the man and ask him why he hit his child a second time, the father objects, saying, “I never promised to not hit him with a shovel; I promised to not hit him with a baseball bat.” Do you think the father’s argument would stand in court?
Of course not. Yet that is how many people view God’s behavior in the Bible. He hits His disobedient children over the head with a flood. Then in a moment of sorrow, promises He will never do that again. But later, He lashes out with a fire that incinerates them all. Given such behavior, can God’s promises be trusted? No, they cannot. It seems that the only alternative solution is to say what I have been proposing here, that when the flood came the first time, God couldn’t stop it. Why not? Not because He was powerless, but because in His great power and wisdom, He gave genuine freedom to His creatures. Because of this limitation He placed on Himself, He cannot always stop the negative consequences of our sinful actions.
Yet when the flood occurred, God could confidently promise that such an event would never happen again. Why? Because the natural and meteorological conditions for such an event are impossible to duplicate. But this does not mean that a different form of destruction could not come, such as destruction with fire. Here again, just as with the flood, before the destruction with fire comes, God will work to rescue, redeem, and deliver as many people as possible.
3. God Loves Sinful People
This leads us to the third and final point about Genesis 8:21. This third point makes Genesis 8:21 a beautiful and touching verse. As indicated previously, Genesis 8:21 proves that the flood was not about ridding earth of sinful humanity. If that was what the flood was about, God failed miserably, and seems to be fairly foolish for trying such a tactic. Why can we say this? Because in Genesis 8:21, the condition of humanity is pretty much just as it was before the flood. Before the flood, mankind is described as being “only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5). After the flood, mankind is described in similar fashion: “the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth” (Genesis 8:21).
God didn’t send the flood to destroy an evil and rebellious humanity. No, mankind is evil before the flood, and he is evil after the flood. Nothing changed. But what God says in Genesis 8:21 is that the evil of mankind doesn’t matter. Oh sure, sin and rebellion are bad, and they have terrible, life-destroying consequences. The flood proved that. But what God is saying in Genesis 8:21 is that despite our sin and rebellion, sin is not an issue for Him. He forgives us because He loves us. He wants to dwell with us and make His home among us. He wants to protect us and provide for us. He is not against us, but is for us in every possible way. Though sin and evil are allowed to have their day, “God will work from within such a world to redeem it, not overpower the world from without” (Fretheim, God and World in the Old Testament, 83).
Genesis 8:21 and Romans 8:31
Genesis 8:21 is echoed in Romans 8:31, where Paul writes, “What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?”
Yes, this is what God is saying in Genesis 8:21. He looks at sinful humanity and says, “Though you are against Me, though you are evil from your youth, though you have rebelled against Me and will continue to rebel against Me, I am on your side. Nothing can separate you from My love, not even your own sin. If I am on your side, what is there to fear? If I for you, who can be against you? I will always love you. I will stay with you, live with you, and be with you. Because I love you. You are mine.”
The divine decision to go with a wicked world, come what may, means for God a continuing grieving of the heart. Indeed, the everlasting, unconditional promise to Noah and all flesh necessitates divine suffering; a pain-free future is not possible for God. In other terms, the future of the creation that now becomes possible is rooted in the willingness to bear ongoing pain and sorrow. God determines to take suffering of creatures into God’s own self and bear it there for the sake of the future of the world (Fretheim, Creation Untamed, 61).
In the end, as indicated in an earlier post, the flood account truly does turn out to be “a beautiful story about rainbows.”
We still need to explain the four difficult verses of Genesis 6:7, 13, 17, and 7:23, but we now have a basic historical, cultural, and contextual background to the flood account of Genesis 6-8 which will provide the exegetical framework for these tough texts, which we will look at in future posts.