This post is a chapter excerpted from my upcoming book, “Gory Stories of the Bible.”
They were eating and drinking and marrying and being given in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all. -Luke 17:27
Have you ever thought about how horrifying baby storybook Bibles are? My one-year-old daughter’s Bible includes bright, cheerful illustrations and summaries of such happy stories as:
Daniel getting thrown into a pit of ravenous lions. For some reason, her baby Bible leaves out the end of the story where the king’s wise men are ripped to pieces by said lions. What kid wouldn’t get nightmares from that story?
Or David decapitating Goliath with his own sword. That’s the kind of inspirational role model I want my kids to look up to (but hopefully not imitate too literally).
And then there’s the worst of the worst: Noah.
My daughter’s story Bible depicts Noah smiling in a cute little boat stuffed with happy animals, with a rainbow arcing through the sky above. It’s the kind of scene reproduced in a million children’s books and a thousand nursery walls.
Jesus’ summary of Noah’s story in Luke 17, however, reminds us of some lurid details left out of the kid-friendly version: “They were eating and drinking and marrying and being given in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all.” A world full of people living ordinary lives—eating and drinking and marrying—until they were snuffed out in a wave of destruction.
Imagine, for a moment, what an accurate nursery room depiction of Noah would look like. “Look, honey, here are Noah and the animals. And there are the bloated corpses of the wicked floating on the water! Over in the corner is a drowning puppy. Oh and look, here’s a mommy and daddy trying to keep their children afloat in the flood. Do you see the fear in their eyes? How cute!”
No wonder the kids are messed up.
In fact, the story of Noah is even worse than that. It doesn’t just begin with the near-extermination of the human race (not to mention the destructive reboot of the animal kingdom). It ends with Noah black-out drunk and naked. Yeah, I haven’t seen that in a children’s storybook Bible either.
Read the disappointing postscript on an already gory story:
Noah began to be a man of the soil, and he planted a vineyard. He drank of the wine and became drunk and lay uncovered in his tent. And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father and told his two brothers outside. Then Shem and Japheth took a garment laid it on both their should, and walked backwards and covered the nakedness of their father. Their faces were turned backward, and they did not see their father’s nakedness. When Noah awoke from his wine and knew what his youngest son had done to him, he said, “Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be to his brothers.” (Genesis 9:20-25)
Why couldn’t we just end with the rainbow and happily ever after? Because it would be a lie; there are no happily ever afters in a fallen world. This sad coda to Noah’s story shows that the Flood hadn’t fixed the fundamental problem with humanity. The serpent survived the storm, alive in the hearts of Noah’s family. And just as sin followed humanity out of the garden and through the Flood, the curse did too. In Genesis 3, the original blessing of Eden collapsed as God laid a curse on humanity and creation itself. In Genesis 9:1, in an act of re-creation, God reestablishes that blessing: “God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.’” But just like in Eden, the blessing doesn’t last long. It only takes twenty-four verses for the human project to self-destruct again, as Noah curses the line of Canaan. It’s the Fall all over again, just with a different kind of fruit.
Like so many other Bible stories, the tale of Noah suffers from its sanitized Sunday School treatment. By trivializing the tragedy of judgment and whitewashing the drunken ending, we miss what the story is all about.
Noah’s Flood is a profound story of wrath and mercy. On one hand, you have the most catastrophic judgment this side of the Second Coming—the near-extermination of the human race. God’s wrath doesn’t get much bigger than this.
And yet in the midst of wrath, there is mercy. Turn to Genesis 6 and you’ll see the surprising heart of God on display, shining above the sea of human evil.
The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the LORD regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the LORD said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens, for I am sorry that I have made them.” But Noah found favor in the eyes of the LORD. (Genesis 6:5-8)
In response to the rising flood of depravity, God vows to bring down a devastating and comprehensive judgment. But even in his wrath, God is so unlike his twisted image bearers. He does not break out in a capricious rage. Lamech and his ilk glory in their violence, but God doesn’t respond tit for tat by gloating over their destruction. Yes, judgment is coming. Yes, it will be terrible and swift and just.
But don’t miss what’s so obvious in the text and yet so easy to overlook:
He is “grieved to his heart.” God’s wrath doesn’t burn; it weeps.
That’s not to downplay the horror of sin or the magnitude of God’s righteous anger against it. Again: this is a horrifying retelling of destructive judgment.
He’s grieved to his heart. The Almighty, wounded to his core. God’s heart doesn’t rage; it breaks. He mourns the rebellion and ruin of his image bearers. Yes, he’s a just judge who upholds the standards of his holiness and punishes evil. But he doesn’t relish such retribution. What he really loves is mercy.
I’m reminded of Lamentations 3:32-33, written in the smoking rubble of God’s wrath: “Though he cause grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love, for he does not afflict from his heart or grieve the children of man.” Wrath, when it does arrive, doesn’t come from the center of his being. He doesn’t “afflict from his heart,” but in spite of it. “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked,” God says in Ezekiel 33:11, “but that the wicked turn from his way and live.” Wrath gives him no pleasure. Repentance, on the other hand, causes heaven to pull out all the stops and put on a party (Luke 15:7).
John Piper weighs the justice and grace in the heart of God and concludes, “God’s anger must be released by a stiff safety lock, but his mercy has a hair trigger.” When judgment falls, it is after every avenue has been exhausted and evil rises beyond remedy. But mercy breaks loose without any provocation and goes running after sinners. The prodigal’s Father is still chasing down and winning over rebels with relentless grace.
Noah is one of those rebels. Noah “found favor in the eyes of the LORD,” not because he was morally upstanding (see: his drunkenness), but simply because of his faith in the promise of God. Hebrews 11 tell us that “by faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen… became an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith.” His righteousness was rooted not in his sobriety but in saving faith in a saving God.
And because the saving God of Noah is the same God today, this gory story contains good news for rebels like us. In the damp aftermath of the flood, God promises to never again destroy the earth with water. Unlike most covenants in the Bible, which depend on some measure of faithfulness from both parties, this is a no-strings-attached, unconditional guarantee from the God of the universe. Sheer, unqualified grace, pointing forward to a greater grace. In Isaiah 54, on the heels of a promised suffering Servant who absorbs God’s judgment for God’s people, God makes another promise of unmerited favor:
“This is like the days of Noah to me: as I swore that the waters of Noah should no more go over the earth, so I have sword that I will not be angry with you, and will not rebuke you. For the mountains may depart and the hills be removed, but my steadfast love shall not depart from you, and my covenant of peace shall not be removed,” says the LORD, who has compassion on you. (Isaiah 54:9-10)
Unmerited, unconditional favor for drunks and failures and rebels, bought by the blood of Jesus for all who will put their hope in his rescue. The wickedness of man is still “great in the earth,” but now there is grace that is greater than all our sin. The intentions of our hearts still bend toward evil, but the gory story of Noah has good news: every intention of His heart still bends toward mercy.
Go ahead, tell the kids that story.