While preparing to write this series on Genesis 1-11, I was puzzled by the lack of attention given in most resources to chapter eight. For many it seems only a place holder, a necessary pit-stop telling us that the water did in fact go down. In the narrative view of the text, this chapter is much more substantial. In a sense, chapters 1-7 could make for a complete story on their own, though a very different one. God creates. Man defiles. God destroys. This could easily be the end. The fact that it is not the end is the very substance of the Christian faith. We are people who live in the hope that God is not finished with us yet.
But God remembered Noah and all the beasts and all the livestock that were with him in the ark. And God made a wind blow over the earth, and the waters subsided. (Gn 8:1)
Like passages hinting at God changing or repenting, texts such as Genesis 8:1 are troublesome for the theistic philosopher. Omniscient God does not, indeed logically cannot, forget information and therefore cannot remember information. No one seems to have informed the Old Testament of this fact. Israel’s God is quite capable of both forgetting and remembering (especially in poetic texts, such as Psalm 13:1; Isaiah 43:25). The issue at hand is two different ways of speaking about God. The theological/philosophical approach is looking for precision and absolutes, a necessary pursuit in and of itself. For this line of thought, I recommend reading Ron Highfield’s chapter on divine knowledge.1
What the Genesis texts and others like it accomplish is a different task. In human experience, sometimes we need to describe the feeling of our relationship with God. When blessings abound, it feels as though the radiance of God’s face is shining on us (Psalm 31:16). When we suffer, it feels as though he has turned his face away, leaving us without his care (Ezekiel 7:22). Likewise, when God’s blessings and redemption rains down, we feel remembered for good (Psalm 25:7). When the rain is a destructive flood, we feel forgotten (Psalm 13:1). The narrative and poetic texts of the Bible tend to emphasize the human experience or feeling more than the philosophical questions.
In Genesis 7, we see a world forgotten by God. The hand upholding the heavens turns away, and the cosmos collapses. The God of order has looked away. In Genesis 8, we learn the important lesson that this is not how the story ends. Setting an important precedent for the rest of Scripture, we learn that while God may look away, he never stays away. His mercy never ceases. He remembers why he created us in the first place.
With the memory of God comes the end of the cosmological crisis.
The fountains of the deep and the windows of the heavens were closed, the rain from the heavens restrained, and the waters receded from the earth continually. (Gn 8:2-3)
His care returns the creation to a state habitable by Noah and the animals on the ark.
The Work of Hopefulness
For Noah, this restoration of care does not happen overnight. The imagery following captures the spirit of hope which is so essential to Biblical faith.
Noah opened the window of the ark … and sent forth a raven. It went to and fro until the waters were dried up from the earth.” (8:7)
Hope has wings and a mind of its own. Like prayers, we send the bird out in hope of return, but we cannot see how hope will end. Sometimes God is silent though our prayers have many words. Hope requires patience. Some days hope is a lost raven. It travels but brings no good news. Is it wasted? I don’t believe so. The bird which does not return comes before the one which does.
Then he sent forth a dove from him … But the dove found no place to set her foot, and she returned to him to the ark, for the waters were still on the face of the earth. (8:8-9)
When hope’s winged messenger is sent out, it does not always return with good news. Hope cannot always find an easy foothold in a world so dark. The believer asks, How long? Despair like a raven says, Nevermore. The dove says, Not yet. We live in a “not yet” world. Despair is the enemy’s tool, and hope is our response. “So he put out his hand and took her and brought into the ark with him.” Hope has to be brought in and held close.
He waited another seven days, and again he sent forth the dove out of the ark. And the dove came back to him in the evening, and behold, in her mouth was a freshly plucked olive leaf. So Noah knew that the waters had subsided from the earth. (8:10-11)
When hope brings good news, it is rarely a full reality all at once. It is a token of God’s goodness still ripening, a lone branch in the place of a rescued world. The Christian sees Jesus as our lone Branch, the token of a world to come, rescued from sin and death. For the hopeful, the branch is enough. By the branch we know the fullness to come.
Then he waited another seven days and sent forth the dove, and she did not return to him anymore. (8:12)
We wait for the day when our dove flies and does not return. Christians live in the days of waiting. Despair has passed, and we have received our Branch from the grave on that bright Sunday morning in Jerusalem. Now we wait for the dove to fly again, the Son of Man in the clouds, bringing to culmination the end of our waiting for the goodness of God.
When Noah exits the ark, the world begins afresh. Peter well describes it saying, “the heavens existed long ago, and the earth was formed out of water and through water by the word of God, and that by means of these the world that then existed was deluged with water and perished” (2 Peter 3:5-6). What exists after the flood is new, though not perfect. The task of creation, fruitfulness, is reconvened (Gn 8:16-17).
What remains to be seen in the concluding chapters of the primeval history is what will come of this fresh start and the people who fill it. Will humanity repeat its folly? Will God turn again in wrath? What does the future hold?