It surprises me that people on the fringe of faith, or totally opposed to faith,often ask me about Noah. Of all the stories in the Bible, why Noah?
I suspect it’s because they heard this story as a child and now as an adult,they realize it’s more gruesome than they appreciated as a child. This story which was once a cute children’s story, with animals marching two by two, has become a violent massacre initiated by an apparently harsh God.
There are two reasons why the story of Noah’s ark seems harsh to us. First, we seriously overestimate our own goodness, and second, we seriously underestimate God’s holiness.
Overestimating our own goodness
The account in Genesis reads: “The Lord observed the extent of human wickedness on the earth, and he saw that everything they thought or imagined was consistently and totally evil” Genesis chapter 6 verse 5. They weren’t just committing wicked deeds, but their every thought was consistently and totally evil.
It’s worth remembering that while the devil doesn’t know our thoughts, God does, he looks into our hearts (First Samuel chapter 16 verse 7). As humans, we don’t tend to measure sin this way, so we give ourselves credit for not murdering someone while hating them in our hearts. We credit ourselves with not committing adultery while looking at someone with lust.In both examples, the consequences of acting, and thinking about acting, are obviously different, but they are both sins, as Jesus points out in his sermon recorded in Matthew chapter 5.
Underestimating God’s holiness
Meanwhile, we underestimate God’s holiness. In the creation account, we see that Adam and Eve committed one sin and experienced instant spiritual death, plus the process of physical death began because every sin is worthy of the death penalty, such is God’s holiness.
Every time we commit a sin and don’t die, God is showing mercy. We take this for granted and then act surprised when God does enact judgment.
Since we tend to think we are better than we are, God had to show his people again and again, what happens when we are left to self-govern. Throughout the Old Testament, people repeatedly behave badly. In Exodus God gave them the Law, but they couldn’t keep the Law. In Joshua, God gave them their own land to govern, but they couldn’t do it without falling into idolatry and its associated violent behaviour. Then God gave them strong leadership in David, but they still behaved badly. The whole of the Old Testament points to our need for a Saviour.
It continues today, we see people behaving badlywhen we read news reports of sex trafficking, child soldiers, modern forms of slavery, terror attacks, the looting that goes on after natural disasters. We may think, we would never behave like that, but how do we know?
If we had grown up in a different environment, that promoted different belief systems and values, maybe we would. The human heart is desperately wicked, we need a Saviour.
God Enacting Judgement
There are only a few incidents in the Bible where God’s judgements are enacted. This one with Noah (but God saved Noah and his family), Sodom and Gomorrah (but God saved Lot and his daughters), Joshua’s conquest of Canaan (but God save Rahab and her family). God planned to wipe out Nineveh but they repented. So even amongst stories of judgment, we find that God shows mercy, making grace available to those who acknowledge him. The reason he was able to do this and still be holy, was that he was looking forward to the time when Jesus would take the punishment for all our sin, for all time.
God is patient, but his patience becomes meaningless if he never enacts judgment.
In the book of Revelation, we read about the final judgment but the book endswith restoration.God didn’t give up on his people and through Jesus, he has made a way for our sins to be forgiven. He also gives us his Spirit to teach us godly values and enable us not to sin.
So what do we tell people who ask about Noah?
We can say that God is merciful and gracious, but he is also holy and just. The Message Bible puts it well: “God is kind, but he’s not soft” Romans chapter 2, verse 4.
Susan Barnes has been involved in pastoral ministry for over twenty years with her husband, Ross. They are now semi-retired and enjoy supporting a number of churches in north-east Victoria. You can find more of Susan’s articles at: