Formations 03.16.2014: Judgment and Grace

Genesis 7:1-5, 11-12; 8:13-18; 9:8-13

af23_2_031614_xsmNoah, a movie starring Russell Crowe and based on the account of Noah’s flood in the book of Genesis, is scheduled to open on March 28. Like every other biblical movie ever made, it is likely to take liberties, both large and small, with the actual Scripture text. Some Christians will no doubt reject the movie on those grounds. Others may decide, given the overall moral bent of Hollywood features, that a theologically deficient biblical movie is better than no Bible-based movies at all.

I haven’t seen the movie and can’t offer an informed opinion, but whatever your take on Noah, there is no denying the power of the biblical story on which it is based. Centuries after the story was first written (in two originally different versions according to scholars), the themes of human depravity, divine judgment, and divine grace continue to resonate with many. If these themes come through clearly in the film, I would hesitate to quibble over secondary issues.

The Great Flood is an ancient story of humanity’s failure to live up to the potential we see in the creation story of Genesis 1–2. There is something dark and foreboding about the story of the flood. In it, we see a God who is saddened by human sin and willing to judge it without remorse. Rather than soothing words that would make us feel better about ourselves, Noah’s story forces us to confront our sin and turn back to God.

Despite God’s decision to judge the unrighteous, there is abundant grace in this story as well. Grace is implicit in the call of Noah to build an ark in which he, his family, and the animals can be saved. As the story comes to a conclusion, God gives a token of this grace in the rainbow.

Jerry Johnson, “Noah: Five Positive Facts about this Film,” The Exchange, 28 Feb 2014

________, “Noah: Five Negative Features about this Film,” The Exchange, 3 Mar 2014



• What do you hope to see in any movie based on a biblical story? Is 100% faithfulness to the text a realistic expectation?
• What do you believe about humankind’s capacity to commit great evil? How should a God who is both loving and just respond to human sin?
• How do grace and punishment fit together in Noah’s story? How do they fit together in the story of Christ? How do they fit together in your personal story?
• How should Christians respond when we are the recipients of God’s mercy?

Reference Shelf

Mesopotamian Flood Stories

Flood stories from diverse cultures exist throughout the world; one scholar has documented more than 220 such accounts. Most of the stories differ so radically from the biblical account that no connection is discernible. Notable exceptions, however, are three stories from the ancient Near East.

The oldest of these comes from the Sumerians who invented writing ca. 3300 B.C.E. Only a fragment of a nineteenth century B.C.E. copy of their flood story has survived. In it King Ziusudra, the Sumerian Noah, described as “humbly obedient” and reverent, was warned that the gods had decreed the destruction of humanity by a flood. After the hero survived the inundation of seven days and seven nights in a huge boat, he made sacrifices to the gods, bowed before Utu, Anu, and Enlil (gods), and was granted “breath eternal.”

The oldest Babylonian flood account is the Atrahasis Epic, of which a copy dating to perhaps the seventeenth century B.C.E. is extant. The hero, Atrahasis, learned from the god Ea that Enlil, chief of the gods, planned to destroy humanity with a flood because his sleep was being disturbed. Atrahasis was commanded to build a large boat and bring aboard his family, certain animals, food and other provisions. The flood lasted seven days and seven nights.

The best known parallel to the biblical flood story is found in the Epic of Gilgamesh, where extant copies date to ca. 1500 B.C.E. Utnapishtim, the hero of the flood, escaped the deluge of six days and six nights because the god Ea had warned him to build a ship. Aboard the ship he took his family, and wildlife, and in the end received the gift of immortality.

It is clear that there is general agreement between the biblical and other Near Eastern flood stories. Thus, a connection may be assumed, especially since Abraham migrated to Palestine from Ur in Mesopotamia, the homeland of the other stories. Yet there are fundamental differences in the accounts. In the Bible it is human sin that brings judgment, not mere noise disturbing the sleep of the gods. Moreover, the biblical account is monotheistic rather than polytheistic. Above all, the biblical account, with its themes of sin and righteousness, reward and punishment, and judgment and grace, is a story with a moral. Its purpose was to provide divinely inspired insight into the God-human relationship.

J. Randall O’Brien, “Flood,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 303–304.

Beginning Again

The smell of the sacrifice did not go unnoticed, as Yahweh “smelled the pleasing odor” (8:21) and responded favorably. Although the Yahwist’s anthropomorphic image portrays God as enjoying the heady aroma of meat over the fire, it stops far short of the Babylonian flood story, in which Utnapishtim offered sacrifices and the “gods swarmed like flies” over it because they had gone hungry during the flood, apparently forgetting that they relied on humans for sustenance.

Yahweh did not respond by zooming in for a bigger whiff of the sacrificial smoke but by recognizing Noah’s obedience and promising a continued relationship with humans, despite their sinful nature. This is most interesting because God apparently realizes that destroying all human families but one has not changed human nature: people will remain prone to sin. This, apparently, is precisely why Yahweh determines to pledge a continued, though suffering presence with humans: “for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth” (8:21). As Terrence Fretheim puts it, “The way into the future cannot depend on human loyalty; sinfulness so defined humanity that, if human beings are to live, they must be undergirded by the divine promise. Hence, because of human sinfulness, God promises to stay with the creation”….

Humans remain responsible for the created order but cannot fulfill their duties without assistance. Thus, God promises to stick with humankind—even at the cost of continued grief—and to guarantee an orderly world of predictable seasons “as long as the earth endures” (Gen 8:22).

Tony W. Cartledge, Sessions with Genesis: The Story Begins (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2012) 31.

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.


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