Noah is a familiar character to us all. His story, with the animals entering the Ark, two by two, is one of the most famous in the world: the subject of innumerable murals in nurseries, the inspiration of movies and the subject of many debates about the nature of God. If you want to familiarise yourself with the story you’ll find it in Genesis chapters 6, 7, 8 and 9. Perhaps the key verse to note is Genesis 6 v8 “But Noah found favour with God.”
Some key things to note:
The Number 40.
Several numbers are important in scripture. Where we see them on the page, they are a call to sit up and take notice. One of those numbers is 40. Here, in the Genesis account of Noah, we find that the rains came for 40 days and 40 nights. Later we find God’s people wandering in the desert for 40 years, Jesus in the desert for 40 days and 40 days between the resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit. The number 40 flags up that the Noah narrative is a key passage in salvation history. It’s appropriate that we take note.
A word used 40 times.
The key verse in understanding the Noah story is Genesis 6 v8: “Noah found favour”. The Hebrew word is translated simply as “grace” or “favour”. Its meaning is deeper and wider. It means an undeserved favour, one that is not earned and one that could be withheld. There is no sense that the giver is in any way obliged to bestow this favour. Neither is the receiver in any way entitled to its receipt. Interestingly, the word is used about 40 times in the Old Testament. I suspect that its use 40 times implies an indication of its importance in the biblical understanding of God’s dealings with humankind?
Noah is no different to any other human.
After God created humankind, He reflected on all of his creation and saw that “it was very good” (Genesis 1v 31) Five short chapters later “ The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great… and The Lord regretted that He had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to His heart.” (Genesis 6 v 5-6) When Genesis 6 describes humankind as wicked, the Hebrew word used is all inclusive. There are no exceptions! We so often miss this when we read the familiar story. We know how it ends, so we often, subconsciously, make Noah the exception. We assume he was a good guy. We want to believe that there was something special about Noah. After all, God saved him and his family, so, we assume that he must have been good. He must have been the exception. But that’s not what the scriptures actually say. They include him in the judgement… all humankind is wicked, Noah and his family included.
Noah and his family are unique, not because they are better than the rest, but rather because, for some reason God reaches out to them with an undeserved favour and rescues them from the judgement of the flood. Therein begins the principle theme of the Old and New Testaments: we all, like Noah are subject to God’s judgement, but by His grace, not our doing, He reaches out and offers rescue from that judgement.
Grace and Righteousness.
Despite what’s written in the paragraph above, within two short sentences we find these words: “Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation. Noah walked with God”. (Genesis 7 v9). At first it seems a contradiction: Noah is as guilty and as imperfect as the rest of humankind, yet he is righteous. The key to making sense of this, of course, is that sentence “But Noah found favour with God”. Standing between the judgement of verse 6 and the righteousness of verse 9, “finding favour with God” is the key to transformation. Grace, God’s favour radically transformed Noah. Noah metamorphosed from a man under judgement to a man with three dimensions.: (1) he is righteous, made right in God’s eyes (2) he lives differently, distinctive from the people of his day (3) he is in fellowship with God. That bond of friendship, broken by Adam and Eve in the garden has been restored. None of this is Noah’s doing. It is simply by Grace, by God’s favour.
Grace and Obedience.
Noah didn’t receive God’s grace because he was obedient to God’s commands. Rather he obeyed God’s commands because he received God’s grace. The scriptures are careful in the order in which the events unfold. We find all of humankind under judgement. Then we read that Noah found favour. Then we read of the transformation. It is only after he finds favour with God that we see his commitment to working out God’s plans. It is all initiated by God. From the very earliest stages, the scriptures make it clear that our own efforts don’t make us right with God. Rather, He reaches out to transform us. But Noah illustrates that understanding and experiencing God’s grace drives us to obey his word: even building the Ark when all around thought him a crazy.
Humanity not perfected, but offered a second chance.
Noah had a three dimensional transformation, but he wasn’t made perfect. The drunken episode of Genesis 9 v 20-21 illustrates this. Nevertheless, humanity was given a fresh start. God’s command to Adam to be fruitful and multiply is echoed to Noah and his family in the opening sentences of Genesis 9. It’s a clear indication that humanity has new beginning. Of course, this was still short of the offspring of Adam and Eve who would eventually crush the serpent.
The word “but” is essential to our understanding of this passage and, indeed, the rest of scripture. There is no escaping the great thrust of this passage: all are worthy of judgement “but Noah found favour with God” The “but” is essential. It marks the action out as undeserved, contrary to logic and contrary to justice. It sets the scene for the rest of the salvation narrative in the scriptures. Fast forward to the New Testament and we find the following: St Paul, writing to the Roman church tells them that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 2v 23) Like Noah, you and I are included in that “all of humanity”. Yet there is a “but” and there is God’s grace in our story too “The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6 v23) Like Noah, we too find that God offers His grace and his favour. For those who accept and experience His grace, there is a three dimensional transformation. First, made right and acceptable in His sight, despite our imperfections. Second, we are called to live differently amongst the people of our day. Third, our relationship with Him is restored.
Yes, it’s undeserved, beyond logic and contrary to justice, but the scriptures tell us that “the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord”. It’s nothing we do, it’s a gift we receive. We find favour with Him.
No different to Noah.
Noah, who found favour with God and who lived differently to the people around, obeying God’s commands, presents us with one last challenge. We end the story with the episode of drunken nakedness. It demonstrates that, despite being chosen by God, he’s still imperfect. We can recognise that in ourselves. The challenge comes in our expectation of others.