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God repenting & animals being wiped out — Gen 6:5-8 (Geeky Version)

Prologue to the Flood: Gen 6:5-8

Hebrew nuances lost in translation

This is the third post in an extended series on Noah and the Flood (Gen 6-9).  For the first two posts:

1) Click here for a discussion on the Nephilim and sons of God in Gen 6:1-4
2) Click here for a discussion on the New Testament View of the Nephilim and sons of God in Gen 6:1-4
3) Click here for a discussion of the cause of the Flood (chaos vs. order) in Gen 6:5-8

This is a detailed series that focusses on nuanced and more complicated findings.  For a friendlier and more user friendly version of the same content, see the “coffee break version” of this series over here.

First read Gen 6:5-8:

6:5 But the Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind had become great on the earth. Every inclination of the thoughts of their minds was only evil all the time. 6 The Lord regretted that he had made humankind on the earth, and he was highly offended. 7 So the Lord said, “I will wipe humankind, whom I have created, from the face of the earth – everything from humankind to animals, including creatures that move on the ground and birds of the air, for I regret that I have made them.” 8 But Noah found favor in the sight of the Lord.

(d) Emphasis and hyperbole

The second part of Gen 6:5 uses idiomatic Hebrew that doesn’t translate neatly into English.  A quick unpacking digs up some nuances lost in English translation.  The literal rendering of the second part is “And all forms of thoughts of his heart were only evil, all of the time”.  First to point out is how much emphasis is being placed on the extremity of the evil of humanity at this time.  Moses uses hyperbole and exaggeration (he will later tell us Noah was good, so we can’t read this literally or we create a contradiction, and as such, we can say justifiably that the text is exaggerating here to make a point) to emphasize the evil of humanity at this time: “all of the forms of thoughts in their hearts were only evil, all of the time”.

(e) Hearts, minds, and thoughts

Flood - Noah - Ark - Order - Chaos - Biblical world - ancient near east

Weighing of the heart against a feather in the afterlife (Egypt). Source: 2012/09/khonsurenpe.jpg

The next thing to unpack is the Hebrew connotation of ‘forms’ (יֵ֫צָר), which in essence means ‘forms like a potter does’, and in context (Hebrew, perhaps moreso than other languages, and certainly more than Greek, heavily relies on context to supply much of its specific nuances) here likely means ‘intentions’ or ‘inclinations’.  As such, a later Rabbinic view (post-Jesus) of this text used the phrase ‘evil inclination’, using this word, to view the theology of humanity as being predisposed to ‘evil inclinations’–a view not at all unlike the NT view (especially espoused by Paul) that humanity is by its very nature predisposed towards the inclination of evil, with only trust in Christ as a way out of this path to death.

The issue of ‘hearts’/’minds’ is somewhat off-topic to Noah’s story, but for those unaware of it, both Hebrew and Greek (and all ancient cultures until only a few centuries ago) believed that the heart (the actual internal organ) was the seat of intelligence, thought, and mind.  While Greek will have a word for ‘mind’, it will be used more in the sense of the function of ‘reason’, a loaded Greek term with all sorts of philosophical underpinnings, and not as we now think of ‘mind’ connected to the brain.  As such, English translations sometimes translate Hebrew/Greek ‘heart’ as ‘heart’, and sometimes as ‘mind’.  Most often, when the emotional content of the Biblical context is heightened, English translations pick ‘heart’, and when reasoning and intellect are more in topic, ‘mind’ is chosen.  This is an English dichotomy (technically Cartesian dualism) that is post-Biblical, and not exegetical from the text.  For the purposes of Noah’s story, however, we’ll leave it here as it does not bear directly on the theology of Noah’s story.

(f) God repenting of creating humankind

In Gen 6:6, the Hebrew נחם means ‘regret/repent’.  Often English translations avoid the latter word when God is the subject of the verb, to avoid confusing English readers who would get needlessly concerned about the phrase ‘God repents’, but the word is used very often with God as the subject (1 Sam 15:11, Jer 18:10), and we should not load ‘repent’ up with too much meaning so that it can’t be applied to God in English1.  Nor does the word ‘regret’ avoid the ‘theological problem’, if we see one at all, in God ‘regretting’ something.  In encountering the not uncommon idiom of ‘God repenting’ in the OT especially, we need to hold two opposing concepts in tension, or we will go too far in our conclusions.  On the one hand, God is described Biblically as omniscient, which most modern Christians interpret as meaning incapable of doing something he can ‘regret’ later.  On the other hand, God is also described Biblically as ‘repenting’ of a variety of things (here he repents of creating humanity, in other passages he repents of planning to do evil against humanity (Ex 32:12, Ex 32:14, 2 Sam 24:16, Amos 7:3, Amos 7:6)).  Like so many points in Christian theology, this opposing, or if you’re comfortable with it, ‘contradictory’ tension pulls at itself, forcing us to meditate on a mystery that is not entirely revealed to us.  The contradiction is more firmly grounded in such deliberate statements as “God is not a son of man that he should repent” (Num 23:19, also 1 Sam 15:29).

While this by definition brings us some discomfort, many ‘tensions’ in Scripture are ‘lived with’, rather than ‘solved’, by theologians by such concepts as seeing the Bible as a ‘condescension’ by God to the human level of understanding.  That is, since the ‘true theology’ of God is beyond human language and human understanding, Scripture ‘tries it’s best’ and (this is important) is sufficient for communicating the nature of God and how we are to relate to him, but ultimately it can only point towards deep theological meanings that are beyond our understanding and ability to formulate into thoughts (words) for a full comprehension.  What secularists and (ironically) inerrantists label ‘contradictions’ in the Bible are more often than not ‘paradoxes’, or two opposing (yes, contradictory) points of tension that point toward an understanding or concept that we can wrestle with, but never fully formulate.

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Examples of paradoxes (from the video game Portal)

In addition, a second concept is often packaged with seeing the Bible as a ‘condescension’ by God to human understanding, and that is that the anthropomorphizing of God’s body and thoughts is part of this condescension.  That is, when God is described as ‘walking in the Garden of Eden’, or ‘reaching out his hand’, etc. it is to be viewed not literally (God does not have legs or hands) but as a means of helping us relate to him.  This is more important when we encounter ‘internal monologues’ of God in the Bible.  Just as we are not to see him as literally having feet, hands, etc., so too we are not to see him as having emotions and thoughts in the strictly literal meanings of these words as applied to humans.  God has something ‘bigger’ or ‘deeper’ than thoughts/emotions, but Scripture uses these concepts to condescend to us so that we can relate to God and thereby put our trust in him.  The Hebrew behind humanity being made in the ‘image’ of God is part of where this theology comes from–the text does not say God looks like us, but that we are made as a ‘type’ of God, containing within ourselves elements that allow us to relate to him.

As commentators and theologians sometimes point out (and against some, shall we say overzealous, preachers who state otherwise), Scripture is not written as a cogent systematic argument for Jewish or Christian theology.  It’s goals are quite different, which is why we lack any ‘creeds’ of faith in the Bible (perhaps the Lord’s prayer being the only exception), but must instead compile our own.  The concern of the Bible authors’ is not organized theology, and so they often contradict each other in their varying attempts to narrate and describe God’s involvement in human history at different times, hence the polarities (and contradictions) of 1 Sam 15:29 and Gen 6:6/Ex 32:12/2 Sam 25:16/etc.  Each passage is an attempt by the (God-breathed) writer to condescend a deeper theological truth into their narrative, and the condescensions can contradict each other, though what they point to, perhaps, does not.  It is not fair to say, however, that the Bible doesn’t contradict itself–it most certainly does, and numerous times–but it is possible that the underlying theology that it points to might not–though these concepts are by definition mysteries and ‘just beyond’ our comprehension.  Another way of wording it is that passages that contradict each other are correctives to each other, stopping us from taking one passage as ‘the whole truth’ without a tempering showing us that it ‘points towards the whole truth’, but doesn’t encapsulate it entirely.  We can speak in general of God’s immutability (unchanging nature), and perhaps we can even state that such a theology is sufficient for us to know, but we can’t state it as an absolute–there’s something else going on that we don’t quite have words for, as seen through God’s multiple occasions of repenting of his past deeds and future plans (see Scripture citations above), not to mention of his changing covenants over time (one with Noah, then Abraham, then Moses, then via Jesus, etc.).

If we look at 1 Sam 15:29 and Gen 6:6 and don’t see a contradiction, we’re letting our lens through which we view the Bible (and yes, we all see it through some lens) trump the Bible itself.  There is a fear by some that admitting the word ‘contradiction’ into our view of the Bible brings the whole house of cards falling down, so that we have to ‘throw out the Bible’ and while we’re at it, ‘leave the faith too’.  This is nonsense, which is why most evangelical scholars don’t hold to this ‘maxim’ more popular in ‘Christian radio and TV’ than in ‘real theological discussions’, and simply admit what they read, as in this case it is a contradiction, and then grapple with the consequences, given our Christian lens that we view Scripture as God-breathed, inspired, and valuable for correction and instruction.  The aspect of the Bible pointing towards something beyond it’s words is manifest in spades in God Incarnate’s ministry on earth, in which his main sources of instruction were through miracles, and through parables.  Rarely ever does Jesus speak ‘theologically’ in the way moderns do.  Rather, he speaks in parables in order to convey the meaning he wishes to get across, because parables point beyond their words to something not quite tangible, and yet sufficiently understandable at the same time.  So too, do the parables contradict each other (yeast is good in one parable, bad in another, etc.), but never do these contradictions require such melodramatic reactions as ‘throwing out our religion’ that some claim they ‘must do’ if they ever found a contradiction in the Bible–of which scholars have pointed out many.

The LXX produces an interesting point here.  Normally, the LXX faithfully translates the Hebrew ‘repent’ with Greek ‘repent’ (μετανοέω/μεταμελέομαι), even when it is applied to God.  However, for reasons not known to us, in Gen 6:6-7, the LXX avoids this word and instead chooses a paraphrase of the Hebrew, seemingly so as to avoid the connotation or even statement–as Hebrew makes it–that God repented of making humankind.  Clearly, by the third to second century BCE at the latest, Judaism was uncomfortable with this theology specifically in the Flood narrative (NICOT, Gen 6:6-7).

The NIVAC commentator has a uniquely interesting take on this issue of God’s ‘repenting’ being a challenge to conventional Christian theology.  As he points out:

“Passages using terminology such as God’s being sorry, repenting, or changing his mind have been the source of theological confusion, consternation, and debate.  There are three ways to seek resolution. (1) We can simply rethink our view of God. This is exactly what is happening in the new theology called the “openness of God.” (2) We can justify the terminology by seeking to understand ways in which anthropomorphic language is used in describing God’s actions without imputing human limitations to him. This is the path followed in most commentaries. (3) We can reassess the lexical data to see if we are on the right track when we translate terms in particular ways. We must remember that meaning is established by usage, not by dictionaries or lexicons. The latter arrive at meaning by evaluating usage, and sometimes their conclusions must be reevaluated by starting from the beginning and checking the data they used to draw their conclusions” (NIVAC Gen 6:7).

The NIVAC points out that the NIV translation uses 10 different words to translate this one single Hebrew word (for ‘repent’), and that some of them even contradict each other.  It points out that the LXX does likewise.  I like the NIVAC’s approach to reconciling these different concepts of ‘repent’:

“I propose that this word can be best understood in accounting terms. In bookkeeping, the ledgers must always be kept in balance; debits equal credits. If the books get out of balance, something must be adjusted. Whenever transactions are made, entries must be made accordingly. The Niphal of nḥm can be viewed in terms of acting to keep personal, national, or cosmic “ledgers” in balance.

If someone has suffered personal loss and is in mourning, his “ledgers” are brought into balance by some action or situation that gets him back on his feet by a silver lining he sees to the cloud (Gen. 24:67; 2 Sam. 13:39). When God has set a course for punishment, it can at times be counterbalanced by an act of grace that revokes that punishment and brings the “ledger” back into balance (Jer. 26:13; Jonah 3:9 – 10). God is disturbed when people have sinned and been warned of the coming consequences of the imbalance represented by their wickedness, but they refuse to balance their ledgers with repentance (Jer. 8:6). God is known as a God who does not allow evil to stand on the books but balances it with either grace and mercy (Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2) or with punishment (Jer. 18:10). All of the niv ’s ten different translations can be understood in these terms.  

Taking this information back to Genesis 6, we must first make a stop in Judges 21. Here the tribe of Benjamin has been decimated, and the other tribal leaders have gathered to discuss the situation. In verse 6 they begin seeking to “balance the ledgers” (niv “grieved,” the Niphal of nḥm) for Benjamin. The course of action they decide on is described in verses 8 – 14. Still balance is not achieved, and in verse 15 the people seek to “balance the ledgers” further, here with the important explanation, because (Heb. ki) the Lord has made a gap.

We are now in a position to suggest that nḥm in Genesis 6:6 – 7 has nothing to do with regrets, grief, or being sorry. Yahweh is seeking to redress the situation. He is auditing the accounts because (Heb. ki) he had made humankind. His course of action entails wiping almost the entire population from the earth. This action of auditing the accounts is the first part of his ultimate intention to “balance the ledger” that has been put out of balance by the wickedness of humankind. We can say, then, that God is enforcing a system of checks and balances as part of the equilibrium that he is maintaining in the world.

It would be wonderful if there were an English verb to capture this nuance, but alas, I can think of none. Consequently, I must resort to circumlocution:“The Lord audited the accounts because he had made humankind in the earth and his heart tormented him (i. e., he was distressed) over it. So the Lord said, ‘I will wipe humankind, whom I have created, from the face of the earth… because I have audited the accounts since I have made them. ’” Despite the discomfort of not having an English term to use in translation, this proposal lends a credible cohesion to the meaning of the root and resolves the theological difficulties by eliminating any need to explain how God could be sorry or repent. This does not suggest that God is without emotion or feeling about what he is doing. It simply suggests that his action is motivated by his sense of justice as he “weighs” the situation (cf. “You have been weighed on the scales and found wanting,” Dan. 5:27)” (NIVAC Gen 6:7 note).

This concept is a massive one in it’s own right, so returning to our text, when we read that “God repented that he had made humanity”, we are to see “repented” as a condescension that points towards something like what God ‘thought’ about humanity, but at the same time recognizing that “repent” has all kinds of nuances that cannot necessarily be used to ‘pin down God’.  ‘Repent’ points towards God’s position, but does not fully relate it.  I like how Wenham puts it in the WBC: “Theological systematization is hardly the concern of the biblical narrators.  For them divine repentance [God repenting] is a response to man’s changes of heart, whether for better or worse” (Wenham, WBC Gen 6:6 note).  It is sufficient for our understanding of God’s reaction, but it is not necessarily complete.  There’s a ‘mystery’ here, as there is in all paradoxes and so much of Christian theology, and we’ll digress back to our text at this point.  Suffice to say, Noah’s story is one of the more picturesque and direct topics on this subject in the Bible, so it is only natural that we think about and wrestle with such theologies when we encounter the Flood narrative on a ‘heart level’.

Speaking of ‘heart level’, the last part of Gen 6:6 is literally “and he [God] was grieved to his heart”.  This is another example of Scriptural anthropomorphizing of God in order to condescend to human language.  We are not to see God as having a heart in the most literal sense, but we are meant to relate to how our evil against him affected him (on whatever level beyond human language that points to).

(g) Hebrew plays on words

Two points from the NET Bible translation notes are worth mentioning to see some subtle nuances in the Bible that are easily lost in translation.  First, the specific form of the Hebrew verb “grieved” in God being “grieved to his heart”2 points to Gen 3:16-19, where the same form of the verb is used to describe Adam’s grieving over his consequence for his ‘first sin’.  The NET notes suggest that the same ‘grief’ Adam (that is, humankind) has about the consequences of sin is also ‘felt’ by God.  Our sin causes God to grieve as well, and in the ‘same way’ or at least a similar way as to how we grieve over our consequences for our sin.

Second, the NET notes point out that the introduction to Noah (which we will discuss later) in Gen 5:29 is mirrored in Gen 6:6, in an ironic way.  Genesis 5:29 describes why Noah’s father, Lamech, named his son Noah (which means ‘to rest’).  The two verses juxtapose each other quite explicitly, though it is lost in English translation:

Gen 5:29 Lamech anticipates relief from work and painful toil (caused by Adam’s sin, which we just covered was the same kind of grief felt by Adam that was just attributed to God).

Gen 6:6 God regretted that he made humankind, because it caused him grief.

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Plays on words in Gen 5:29 and Gen 6:6

While in English the italicized words seem distinct from each other (relief/regret3, work/made4, painful toil/grief5), in Hebrew all three pairings use the same word.  Such a similarity between the verses, coupled with their ‘opposite’ meaning, is one of the major styles of Hebrew poetry (such as in all the Psalms) called ‘parallelism’.  Knowing the parallelism between Gen 5:29 and Gen 6:6 heightens the story because we learn that Noah’s name will be prophetic not for what Lamech thinks will happen (Noah does not redeem Adam and end humanity’s curse of work and painful toil), but rather because he will be the ‘antidote’, in name, to the pain God feels that compels him to bring the Flood down on humanity.  Given the power of names in the time of ancient Israel (where knowing another’s name gave you potential power over them–hence YHWH’s elusive name “I am who I am”), Noah is the ‘answer’ to God’s problem, and not, by contrast, the answer to Lamech’s (humanity’s) problem.  In other words, God ‘twisted’ (or if you prefer, ‘inspired’) Lamech’s naming of Noah from Lamech’s ‘selfish’ goal to God’s greater purpose.

Moving to Gen 6:7, when YHWH says he will wipe out everything ‘from humankind to animals, including creatures that move on the ground and birds of the air’, it is natural for us to see The Flood as a kind of ‘reversal of Creation’, especially since we are told “God regretted/repented” making humankind, almost like God is ‘ending the whole thing’, perhaps to start again from scratch.  But while the words are the same as in the Creation account (Gen 1-2), they nevertheless do not mirror or echo the order, something Moses easily could have written if he wished to draw such a distinct echo from Gen 6:7 to the Creation account.  As such, we should temper ourselves when we draw the seemingly obvious conclusion that in Gen 6:7 God is ‘undoing Creation’.  Certainly the concept is there, but perhaps Scripture is holding back from a ‘direct reversal’ of Creation or explicit ‘un-Creation’ for some reason.  We can discuss any number of reason why this might be so, but they all might fly a bit far off the text itself, so exegesis of the text might best be left at us tempering our view of the Flood as ‘un-Creation’ from too extreme a degree.

The prologue ends with a blunt, succinct sentence in Gen 6:8, which states simply one exception to the theme of the prologue–God’s repenting of his creating humankind–namely that one man, Noah, ‘found favor in the eyes of YHWH’.  The reason for this is explained in the next section, but the Prologue (the Hebrew text indicates a ‘break’ in the topic at this point, reflected accurately in most English translations with a new subject heading at Gen 6:9) ends on this positive, hopeful note, rather than on the bleak Gen 6:7.  The reader is pointed toward a hopeful sign.

Yet another host of nuances in the Biblical text that are lost in translation is the abundant play on words that occurs in the entire Flood narrative, including even here in the Prologue.  While the OT Hebrew is especially marked by plays on the sounds of similar words6, Noah’s story in particular has a markedly high amount of plays on words in his name.

The consonants in Noah’s name are flexible enough to be played with quite a bit (like English ‘s’ and ‘t’, versus English ‘q’ and ‘x’, which have a far more limited range of options), and Moses does just that.  As Wenham7 points out in the WBC, perhaps the first usage is in Gen 5:29, and Gen 6:6-8, where Noah’s letters can be rearranged and added to (in Hebrew) to create ‘regret/repent’, ‘relief/wipe out’, and ‘favor/grace’.  Gen 6:6-8 then builds these plays on Noah’s name progressively, from:

Flood - Noah - Ark - Order - Chaos - Biblical world - ancient near east

Plays on words in Gen 6:7-8

God repents creating humankind, to
God intends to wipe out humankind, to
God spares Noah through grace

With the italicized words all containing Noah’s name rearranged and alluded to.

One last tidbit, perhaps a stretch, perhaps not, is pointed out in the WBC.  The word for ‘wipe out’ in “I will wipe out all of humankind” is used also of erasing names from records, as well as wiping plates (of writing) (Ex 17:14, Ex 32:32-33, 2 Kgs 21:13).  What might be interesting is that since water was used to wipe out writing from boards (Num 5:23), Moses might have in mind here that just as he and other scribes wiped off writing from ‘re-usable’ plates with water, so too God is now going to wipe all of humankind and animal kind off of Creation with water.

Finally, while many commentators point out that Gen 6:7-8 points towards God undoing Creation, it must be tempered with the words used.  God is undoing the creation of animals and humankind, yes, but since he is using (primordial) waters to do it with, he can hardly be said to be undoing ‘all of Creation’.  The firmament in the sky, the stars, sun and moon, light, and, depending how you see it, Sabbath, are never mentioned as being under threat by God’s washing clean the plate of the earth.

(h) What’s up with animals paying for humankind’s evil?

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Animal-kind and the Flood

I’ve encountered a lot of people upset about this passage in Gen 6:7, where God states that humankind is utterly evil, but then says he will wipe out not only humankind, but also all land and sky animals.  The fact of the matter is that if we see in this a ‘problem of God being unfair’, we’re actually imposing a modern question alien to the text on the text itself.  In other words, it’s an ‘unfair question’ to ask of the text, because Moses (and God) have something else in mind to communicate with these words.  As a crude analogy, asking about why the land and sky animals had to be destroyed too is like asking about the physics of distant stars based only on the Star of Bethlehem.  The passage about the star in Matthew 1-2 is not about the physics of stars–it’s about the divine guidance of astrologers for God’s purpose.  God never intended (so modern evangelical theologians state in near-consensus) for us to draw mathematical models of the movements of stars from Mt 1-2, so imposing this question on the text is alien and ‘bad exegesis’ or ‘bad theology’.

What, then, is the point of Moses mentioning that other animals will die too?  The point of mentioning them is to echo directly the idea of Creation and it’s unravelling.  That is, Gen 6:7 is meant to recall Gen 1:24-30 and Gen 2:18-20, and then having recalled these ideas, Gen 6:7 reverses them.  In Gen 1-2, the birds of the sky and the beasts that walk on earth and the creeping things that creep along the ground are there for humankind.  The relationship is iron-clad, animal-kind for humankind.  Gen 2:18-20 in particular makes this clear in that through Adam’s naming of all animal-kind, he has power over them (again, the Bible holds to the ancient near east view that knowing the name of something gives you power over it–hence YHWH’s name being so elusive (literally “I am who I am”)).

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Animal-kind and the Flood

Scholars and translators are divided on the contextual meaning of the Hebrew word for ‘flesh’ used in Gen 9:12, which also refers to animal-kind being punished.  Some take it to mean ‘humankind’, in the context of the corruption that is being described.  Others take it to mean all creatures of the earth, from birds to humans to beasts to creeping things, in the context of the use of this phrase throughout Gen 6-9 (Gen 6:17, Gen 6:19, Gen 7:15-16, Gen 7:21, Gen 8:17, Gen 9:11, Gen 9:15-17) to refer to just that.  For myself, the context points very strongly to it meaning both humankind and animal-kind, though like most moderns this makes me uncomfortable in that animal-kind is suffering for humankind’s chaos.

Furthermore, though again it makes modern Christians (and non-Christians) uncomfortable, the Biblical worldview contains not only views that animal-kind can be and is ‘sinful’ (Gen 9:5, Ex 21:28-29, Jonah 3:7-8), but in addition the Bible holds the view that the sinfulness of one can ‘contaminate’ the purity of others, making them guilty by association simply through proximity (Josh 7:10-26).  On a more superficial and perhaps overly-literal level, we do of course have the serpent tempting Eve in the garden.  The Hebrew behind ‘serpent’ is quite explicitly a ‘real snake’, not the same ‘serpentine/dragon’ word used later for Leviathan, and ultimately Satan.  The Hebrew text describes a serpent, not Satan, tempting Eve.  Furthermore, Gen 9:6-9, where God makes his post-Flood covenant, is made with humans and animals, not just humans.  It is therefore quite difficult to make an argument that animals were not under divine judgment in the Flood.

As such, it is entirely within Moses’ worldview that animal-kind was corrupted through mere association with human-kind, and thus guilty of judgment.  Again, such a theology makes us uncomfortable today and might even go against Christian theology, but it is certainly more faithful to the letter and spirit of the Biblical worldview than is our modern one of protecting the rights of stray animals in our cities, and even rescuing animals.  This is a far cry from the perspective of Genesis, but a topic that takes us away from Scripture, and so perhaps best left to a discussion.  (Just quickly, however, there is nothing wrong with abandoning some Biblical world views.  If you have married ‘for love’, for example, you have abandoned the Biblical world view of arranged marriages between families).

We have a different view of humankind and animal kind today, so for us the suffering and punishment of animals (such as pets) for humanity’s sins is unjust–as indeed it is in our worldview and thought processes.  But for Moses’ generation, where cats were predators and dogs were scavengers who spread disease, animal-kind existed only to serve and/or ‘be used’ by humankind.  Animal-kind serves no purpose in Creation other than for humankind, so it is meaningless from Moses’ God-breathed perspective to keep animal-kind around.

Part of the point of the Flood, if we can bring it down to such a simplicity, is the undoing of Creation.  Gen 6:5-7 tells us why, so we don’t need to search for answers elsewhere.  God is lord of creation and order just as he is lord of chaos.  He is the Creator of everything.  He was happy with his good creation before, but after humankind became capable of ‘opposition’ or evil in the Garden of Eden, they descended into absolute chaos before the Flood.  In wiping out humankind and the birds of the sky and the beasts of the earth, God is reversing his Creation in Gen 1-2 (especially Gen 2) and allowing chaos to return.

Imposing the question of the justice of God’s actions is understandable and fair to ask.  But we need to realize that the question is alien to the thought-world of the Bible.  Whether our new thought-world, in which we defend the rights of animals and see them as distinct from us, is ‘endorsed by God’ or not is possibly a subjective question.  For myself, I believe we have ‘grown up’ to some degree and now act in a more ‘Christ-like’ approach to animal-kind, and that God is ‘happy’ with our maturing.  Others see only a downward spiral from the Garden of Eden (a view I can’t gel with the evidence myself), and others still insist that the Biblical worldview is eternal and straying from it is always bad (a hopelessly contradictory view, in my opinion, since doing so would force us to only have arranged marriages between 20-something year old men and 13 year old girls, which are for example the marriage customs of the both the OT and NT).  Any way you look at it, however, the question is alien to the text, and asking the text to deal with a ‘theological problem’ it was never meant to address leads only towards endless subjective ideas and philosophy, tapering off from the ‘evidence’ of the text.

One last tidbit, perhaps a stretch, perhaps not, is pointed out in the WBC.  The word for ‘wipe out’ in “I will wipe out all of humankind” is used also of erasing names from records, as well as wiping plates (of writing) (Ex 17:14, Ex 32:32-33, 2 Kgs 21:13).  What might be interesting is that since water was used to wipe out writing from boards (Num 5:23), Moses might have in mind here that just as he and other scribes wiped off writing from ‘re-usable’ plates with water, so too God is now going to wipe all of humankind and animal kind off of Creation with water.

Finally, while many commentators point out that Gen 6:7-8 points towards God undoing Creation, it must be tempered with the words used.  God is undoing the creation of animals and humankind, yes, but since he is using (primordial) waters to do it with, he can hardly be said to be undoing ‘all of Creation’.  The firmament in the sky, the stars, sun and moon, light, and, depending how you see it, Sabbath, are never mentioned as being under threat by God’s washing clean the plate of the earth.

Noah’s Genealogy in Context: Gen 5

I wanted to delay talking about Noah’s first introduction at the end of Gen 5 because as discussed above Gen 5:29 takes on a greater meaning in light of Gen 6:6.  Now that we’ve covered Gen 5:29, let’s sum up the rest of Noah’s introduction, now that the prologue to the Flood is over and Noah’s story, proper, begins.

(1) Text-critical problems

The ‘problem’ of the ages of humans before the Flood is not overly relevant to the story of the Flood, but many try to tie the two together anyway, and so just like Gen 6:1-4, and how it is probably not part of the Flood, we need to dip into Gen 5 to take a peek at how it’s inclusion with Noah’s story might be over stretching.  While I’ll avoid the ‘science of the Flood’ altogether, we can, ignoring science, discuss problems in the Biblical text as relates to our understanding of the Flood and it’s reliability for history (as opposed to its form as ‘Scripture God-breathed, and useful for instruction and correction’).

First, we come to the numbers, namely that before the Flood men in Noah’s line live hundreds of years old, and in Adam’s case nearly a thousand (not to mention Enoch not even dying, by most interpretations).  I’m not particularly interested in how ‘realistic this is’ or ‘how much we should trust them’ on a superficial basis, because this gets into issues of what background of hermeneutics you use.  What I am interested in is discussing Biblical data that everyone, know matter how they approach the Bible, has to agree on and fully account for in whatever theory they use.

The most important and relevant of these data points is that the MT, LXX, and SamPent (Masoretic Text, Septuagint, and Samaritan Pentateuch, again, see the article on the LXX here to get the necessary background to understand this info), the three oldest versions of the Hebrew Bible or OT that we have, and from which our most current reconstructed OT is informed,8 do not agree with each other on the numbers in Gen 5.  While English translations don’t even mention this (being nearly all based on the MT), we are faced with the problem that our own OT-foundation text, the MT, has numbers that disagree with the OT-foundation text of Jesus and the NT writers, the LXX.  When the Bible of the NT writers, not to mention Jesus, has different numbers than the Bible we use today, we need to take it seriously, especially in the modern climate where Christians are being asked to ‘pick a side’ between a full acceptance of Noah’s Flood as a historical event vs. a God-breathed narrative for instruction and correction.

Here’s a table of the ages and their differences between the MT and the LXX (the Samaritan Pentateuch, which I am not enough acquainted with, I’ve left out for fear of making too many naive and false assumptions):

Flood - Noah - Ark - Order - Chaos - Biblical world - ancient near east

Dates and Ages of Gen 5 Genealogy. Source: WBC Genesis Commentary (Gen 5 Form/Structure/Setting Excursus)

A broad summary of the ages and dates brings us to a couple points.  First, the MT (‘our Bible’) and the LXX (‘the NT writers’ Bible’) agree on the ages of death for every person in the genealogy except Lamek (Noah’s father) (777 vs. 753 years-old at death).  However, the MT and the LXX 
disagree on the ages of each person when they had their first child for every person except Yared, often by an even hundred (perhaps an easy mistake with Arabic numerals, but in the Hebrew script, where numbers are spelled out as words quite distinct from each other, this can hardly be seen as ‘scribal errors’), but sometimes by random differences (i.e. 182 vs. 188 for Lamek).  The SamPent doesn’t help with the differences because it has it’s own differences from both the MT and the LXX.

Which one is correct?  This comes down to your view of the MT vs. the LXX, and so can’t be resolved here, suffice to say that it’s unfair, or if you wish, incorrect, for us to claim a full trust in what ‘the Bible’ tells us about the Flood as a historical event, when we don’t actually know what the Bible says about the people who lived during it.  That is, even if our English Bibles make no mention of it in their footnotes, the Hebrew text on which the translators of our English Bibles make their translations differs and is internally inconsistent (contradictory) in the textual traditions.  In other words, we don’t actually know the dates of the ages of these men, so when it comes to the Flood, and we do our math and recreate which of Noah’s ancestors lived through the Flood (either on Noah’s boat or elsewhere), we can’t actually trust our results because we’re not sure which numbers to use–the MT’s, the LXX’s, the SamPen’s, or some other option.

(2) Math problems and ‘survivors of the Flood who weren’t on the ark’ problems

Which brings us to the math itself.  Adding up dates of the ages of when their sons were born and when they died (which is how, incidentally, Young Earth Creationists arrive at their number of a 6000 year old universe/earth), we of course get different numbers depending on which OT we use.  If we start with Adam’s creation as ‘year 0’, and do our math, the Flood, which lasted for about a year, occurred in ‘year 1656’ according to the MT, ‘year 1307’ according to the SamPen, and ‘year 2242’ according to the LXX.

One other issue we’ll mention here (there are many others to discuss, but we’re sticking to the topic of Noah’s Flood here), is the ancestors of Noah who survived the Flood, if we read the Bible inerrantly (therefore contradicting the list of people who survived the Flood, Noah being the oldest, in the Flood narrative itself).  According to the MT, we have ‘no concerns’, since none of Noah’s ancestors live after the Flood (Methuselah, Noah’s grandfather, died the year of the Flood itself).  According to the SamPen, again no one outlives the Flood, but Yared, Methuselah, and Lamek all die in (the year of) the Flood.  Finally, according to the LXX, we do have ‘an issue’ in that Methuselah outlives the Flood by 14 years, despite being absent from Noah’s ark.  Lastly, of course, we have the ‘fourth option’, which nearly all Christian scholars would take, which is that the original OT will itself have different numbers from any of these textual traditions (Jewish scholars, unlike Christians, hold the MT itself to be God’s word, where as Christians hold the OT, distinct from the MT, to be God’s word)9.

For what it’s worth, since it’s Flood related, we also have the issue of Gen 4:17-22, which seems to imply that the sons of Lamek (via Cain’s line) survived the Flood (otherwise we have no creators of civilization), despite again the entire crux of the narrative ‘depending’ on Noah and his household being the sole survivors.  Arguments from silence are dangerous, but are often relied on here to deal with the problems from an inerrancy perspective.

Also of worth mentioning is that the ‘best rated’ evangelical commentaries on Genesis summarize the current state of thought by summarizing some rather ingenious attempts at solutions to the math problems with summary statements that such attempts have met with no real success (including even Barnouin’s impressive attempt).  If there’s a solution to the problem, there is not one current in the scholarship that has not been rejected by mainstream evangelical scholarship as too weak.  This includes the popular attempt at saying the list is incomplete and skips generations here and there, an approach that has met with considerable success in coming to terms with the problems of Jesus’ genealogy in Matthew and Luke.  This same approach is rejected in the case of the Genesis genealogies because the Hebrew strongly disallows gaps in the generations10.  Most of this is made moot by the point that we simply don’t have the original OT, and by most research’s accounting, we aren’t even confidently close yet, as we haven’t even published the first ‘truly modern’ critical text of the OT to match the NT as of yet (this will change sometime after 2020 when the BHQ is fully published).

As for the ‘consensus’, if we can speak of one, in the evangelical scholarly community, it is one that brings us back to the ‘inerrancy/infallibility’ debate, and most scholars only hold to the latter, and not inerrancy as well.  For them, then, the ‘point’ of the genealogy is the carrying on of the ‘image of God’ in an unbroken line from Adam to Noah (and therefore from Noah to all of humankind in history).  The numbers then lose their imposing weight of contradictions, as do the text-criticial issues in the genealogies.  But again, this brings us all back to the inerrancy debate, which needs to be addressed distinct from the Flood account before it is brought to bear on the Flood’s ‘historical accuracy’, whatever that phrase means to you.

(3) Sumerian King List

There is also the matter of the Sumerian King List, a work far more ancient than Moses’ Genesis, which also has a list of 10 names on it’s king list, all of whom lived extraordinary lengths of time (many on the order of tens of thousands of years longer than that found in Genesis).  The overlap, therefore, is a little to close to ignore, especially when we add to it that the King List is presented in relation to these lifespans being before a Great Flood, after which the lifespans were shortened.

What do you think about the tension of God both repenting of various deeds and thoughts, but also of never doing so according to other passages?  Comment below and get a discussion going!

What do you think about the death of all animal-kind as recorded in Genesis?  Have we ‘developed’ in God’s eyes since the time of the writing of Genesis, and if not, how do we account for the evil of humankind being inflicted on animal-kind as well?  Comment below!

This is the third post in an extended series on Noah and the Flood (Gen 6-9).  For the first two posts go:

1) Click here for a discussion on the Nephilim and sons of God in Gen 6:1-4
2) Click here for a discussion on the New Testament View of the Nephilim and sons of God in Gen 6:1-4
Click here for a discussion of the Cause of the Flood (Order vs. Chaos) in Gen 6:5-8

This is a detailed series that focusses on nuanced and more complicated findings.  For a friendlier and more user friendly version of the same content, see the “coffee break version” of this series over here.