The Primeval History of Genesis 1-11: The Breaking Point

posted in: Textual Studies | 0

Note: If you are interested in the Nephilim passage (Genesis 6:1-4), then read my side note on that topic here.

The spiral of man’s descent begun in Genesis 3 and chronicled in Genesis 4 comes to a head in chapter 6. Having given us a picture of humanity, the text returns to its beginning. What sort of God are we dealing with here, and how will he respond to humanity’s dismal and multiplying failures?

The Breaking Point

Having already determined that man’s progress in evil must be deterred in Genesis 6:3, God makes a more sweeping observation in verse 5, 11-12:

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. … Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. And God saw the earth, and behold, it was corrupt, for all flesh had corrupted their way on the earth.

What does this tell us about God?

First, it reminds the reader of God’s proximity to his creation. He is not the distant god of epicurean philosophy. He is near, aware, and very much active in the creation.

Second, it asserts once again that God is a being of moral concern. Previously this was only discussed in terms of a fruit tree in chapter three and a farmer’s sacrifice early in chapter four. These alone do not strongly distinguish God from the fickle gods of the ancient world, infamously rash and unpredictable. Now God judges more discernibly, condemning both the violent act and the violent intent. The violence he condemns is not even against him. It is the personal interactions of humans that concern him.

Compare this to the Babylonian pantheon in the Enuma Elish, where the perpetual invention of violence is laid at the feet of the gods:

And Tiamat harkened unto the word of the bright god, and said: “… let us wage war!” …
They banded themselves together and at the side of Tiamat they advanced;
They were furious; they devised mischief without resting night and day.
They prepared for battle, fuming and raging;
They joined their forces and made war … 1

Ancient gods did not oppose war. Ancient gods created war! Only YHWH, the creator of the Genesis account, purposely works for peace and rest for his creation. Likewise, the ancient gods of Mesopotamia were said to have sent the flood because the humans were too noisy, an inconvenience to be silenced. This is a large distinction from the concern of YHWH in Genesis. The Mesopotamians imagined gods who shared in and even fathered the evils of humanity, whereas Genesis depicts a God who denounces evil and its human perpetrators.

Third, it implies divine patience. In fact, this is a Genesis trend. Adam and Eve are not immediately slain. Cain is not immediately smitten for his poor choice of sacrifice, and then is extended further mercy after his act of murder. The God of this story abhors evil, but also patiently waits for it to turn. He is the polar opposite of the ancient pagan gods who act without either moral compass or patience.

Another telling feature of God’s depiction in the text is the emotional response to evil. He is not merely inconvenienced by it, nor is he depicted in a furious rage. Instead, he is grieved, regretful, and sorry (v. 6-7). This Hebrew term has a broad range of meaning. Some passages in the Hebrew Scriptures emphasize God’s inability to commit evil or repent of it (1 Samuel 15:29), whereas others such as this passage describes the very real sadness of God. For example, 1 Samuel 15 uses the term in both ways (1 Samuel 15:10, 29, 35). This is sadness at having created something which could make him sad. God is not harmed, but he is hurt. We cannot fathom this paradoxical characteristic because all substances we experience are either strong and hard or else weak and soft. We have no human language for communicating the sweet tenderness and infinite strength of YHWH. The seeming contradictions of the text in this matter are not sloppy oversights, but rather revelations of the unspeakable nature of the divine.

Creation Ended, Covenant Begun

And so as the creation was made with a hymn of creative joy, the creation is unmade with a dirge of divine grief. The punishment fits the crime. The Hebrew verbs for humanity’s corruption of the earth (v. 12) and God’s destruction of the earth (v. 13) come from the same root word.

However, God is ever moved with pity toward his creation, and so “Noah found favor in the eyes of the LORD” (v. 8). This enigmatic phrase captures the nature of salvation throughout the Scriptures. On a human-sized perspective, Noah is an active participant in his rescue. He is righteous and blameless (v. 8-9). He finds favor rather than having it thrust upon him. He is no passive agent, spending the years to come in ark building (v. 22):

Noah did this, he did all that God commanded him.

This small scale story though disappears in the work of God that follows. It is, after all, grace that Noah finds, not divine debt for righteous deeds rendered. The universe is falling apart (more on that when we discuss chapter seven), and the stakes are too high for mortal man. Noah, even after his herculean feats of architecture (v. 14-17) and ecology (v. 19-21), still has only a rudderless, wooden box. It isn’t even a proper ship with a sail. It is a fitting coffin in which to ride out the judgment. When viewed on this scale, we see that Noah does not survive because of his obedience, but only because God saved a pitiable box.

The typical, biblical description of this sort of lop-sided cooperation between God and man is the language of covenant (v. 18):

But I will establish my covenant with you, and you shall come into the ark, you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives with you.

God invites humanity to participate in the story, while at the same time affirming that humanity is helpless to do much more than not get in the way. God’s story will continue despite humanity’s sin because God has willed it. We have taken the story to the breaking point. God will break it and build it back again.


  1. You can read the entire text here:
Follow Benjamin Williams:

Pulpit Minister for Glenpool Church of Christ (Glenpool, OK); BS in Astrophysics from University of Oklahoma; MDiv in Ministry from Oklahoma Christian Graduate School of Theology

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