Why “God remembered Noah” (Gen 8:1)? Had God forgotten him?

Of course not; that God had forgotten Noah is not at all the force of the statement. Rather, the force of the statement is to assert for the benefit of the faithful reader that God could, in this case too, be counted upon to do what he promised. Throughout the Bible, in the same way, God “remembers” (זָכַר, zakar) the promised blessing of many. For example, in Gen 19:29, God “remembers” Abraham before destroying Sodom, and so brings Lot out of Sodom; Abraham had extracted a promise from God to save Sodom even for 10 souls (Gen 18:32). So he was willing to stay his hand as Lot’s family had the opportunity to leave. This is one of many examples.

Why should “God made a wind to pass over the earth” (Gen 8:1)?

The key word “wind” translates רוּחַ or ruach, which can also mean spirit. This was no ordinary wind; it is not merely a dramatic narrative flourish. It was doubtless the spirit of God, and this appearance of the Holy Spirit serves the same initializing, creative purpose it had when “the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters” (Gen 1:2)—the last time that the world was covered by the deep. In other words, the Spirit is on hand not just to save the ark but to prepare the reborn world, just as the last time the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters, what resulted was the separation and filling of creation.

What is the sequence of events beginning at Gen 8:2?

When we left things at the end of Gen 7, the waters were flooding the earth for 150 days. Then the waters began ebbing for 150 more days. It appears to have during this “abatement” period that the ark came to rest “upon the mountains of Ararat” (8:4), located by tradition in Turkey. It seems it was after 40 more days that Noah sent forth a raven (8:6-7) and a dove (8:8-9), apparently both on the same day; but since the dove immediately returned, they waited another seven days (8:10); then Noah sent out the dove again, and it came back the same day with the “olive leaf,” whereupon he waited another seven days (8:12), sent the dove out, and it did not return. Now, all these days so far do not add up to the next observed date: Noah’s 601st birthday (and recall that at 7:11 the text states that the flood began in the second month, 17th day, of Noah’s 600th year; so something like 318 days had elapsed). Then he removed the roof of the ark (probably only enough to get a clear view), looked out, and saw that the land was dry. But they still did not sally forth. They waited until the second month (of Noah’s 601st year), on the 27th day (for a total of one year and ten days), when God said “Go forth of the ark” (8:16). Exactly matching dates to events is a bit of a challenge, but it is something other commentators have done.

Was there significance to a raven and a dove (Gen 8:7-8)?

One commentator points out that the black raven, a scavenger, is an unclean bird (Lev 11:15); it wandered here and there (as Satan did; so he said in response to God, after returning “From going to and fro in the earth”; see Job 1:7). Meanwhile, the white dove is gentle, quiet, and here, returned with evidence of renewed life, of an olive tree that might was good for food and oil. It is perhaps not surprising that the dove became a symbol of the Holy Spirit, particularly after the Holy Spirit descended bodily to Jesus (e.g., Matt 3:16). Interesting, these two birds are sent forth at the end of a 40-day period, just as the twelve spies were sent (Num 13:2) to learn about the Promised Land (but at the beginning of a 40-year period). In both cases, one portion was unfaithful and worthless (ten of the Israelites, and the raven), and another portion was faithful and helpful (Joshua, Caleb, and the dove).

Is there not a symmetrical structure in the specific weeks and months given in the Flood narrative (Gen 7-8)?

Yes. As Wenham and others have pointed out, there is a symmetrical structure to the days and weeks described in the Flood narrative. That is, matching 7 days of waiting for the Flood (Gen 7:4) were 7 days of waiting for the dove to return (when it did not); similarly, 7 more days of waiting (Gen 7:10) matched 7 days of waiting for the dove to return (when it did); there were 40 days of heavy rain and flooding, and 40 days between the landing of the ark and opening of the window; and there were 150 days of flooding and 150 days of ebbing.

Does the symmetrical structure of the weeks and months given in the Flood (Gen 7-8) indicate that the narrative was carefully contrived?

There are at least three possible reactions to this observation (and to similar literary devices that indicate careful construction), and each bears mention. First, a skeptic might well say that, since the details were so contrived, it follows that the story was equally contrived and hence obviously merely mythic. Second, we might infer that this merely shows divine guidance, which is obvious throughout the whole narrative. Third, we might state that while the details might not correspond to reality (because they fit a contrived narrative form), this does not mean the events did not unfold roughly as reported. The key question, of course, is whether we are to believe the Flood of the Bible actually happened, at least roughly according to how it is described in Gen 6-8. If it did, then it was caused by God, who deliberately saved mankind by saving Noah. Since we know that the God of the Bible teaches through symbols and ritual, it is not at all unusual that the destruction of the Earth and the salvation of mankind would contain much in the way of symbol and ritual. That God might direct a symmetical 7-7-40-150-150-40-7-7 structure, not just to the narrative but to the events themselves, is easy enough to concede. After all, God is said to create through a divine Word; if mere human words have a narrative structure, why would not divinely creative Words also have a similar sort of structure? Hence the second option is what believers ought to maintain. Of course, if you do not believe the Flood happened, the first option will obviously seem the right one. If you think the Flood was merely a roughly true story, embellished with myth, but with deeper, more meaningful lessons, then the third will obviously seem the right one. And then there are those who believe that God created the entire universe ex nihilo, inspired the Bible, and did not employ mythic stories in Gen 1-11; they should have little difficulty believing that narrative structure might well mirror divine intentions.

Why does God instruct Noah in every aspect of his salvation—even the exit from the ark (Gen 8:15-19)?

It is true: from Gen 6:13, upon commissioning the ark, until 8:19, when the last animal exits the ark, Noah’s actions are mostly in direct obedience to God’s explicit instructions. There are few times when any individual is so specifically directed by God for such a long period, and for such a momentous purpose. But this certainly makes sense, considering that the salvation of Noah meant the salvation of the human race. Thus God, for something so important, left nothing to chance, i.e., the chancy, fallible powers of human judgment. It is no accident that God chose Noah, a man who walked with God, because Noah was capable of being strictly obedient to God; his fate and ours depended on that holy talent. But more broadly, this divine hand-holding is a precursor and symbol of the precise steps required by redemption through sacrifice, of certain actions taken by prophets (one thinks of how extensively Moses was directed, and of Ezekiel’s exhibitions of prophecy), and later of obedience to the Holy Spirit that every Christian hopes to practice.

Is this the first altar made (Gen 8:20)? What is the function of an altar, anyway?

It does appear to be the first altar in the Bible. If Abel used an altar, we are not told so; if any of the other antediluvian patriarchs used an altar, again we are not told so. The Hebrew is מִזְבֵּחַ, mizbeach, literally, “place of slaughter or sacrifice.” Beyond that we are not really told much. It could have been a heap of stones, logs, or earth. It was probably nothing so elaborate as the altar of the Mosaic code, which was a very specific, and rather different, type of altar, albeit serving a broadly similar purpose.

In Gen 8:20-21, we have references to four features of later sacrifices. What are they and what significance might they have?

Indeed, four features of Mosaic-style sacrifices can be found here, which might suggest anachronism (to a semi-attentive reader), but not necessarily: the author could just as easily be offering the authority of Noah in establishing the legitimacy of certain basic features of Mosaic-style sacrifice, claiming that these were merely the divinely-ordained antecedents of practices later codified. The four features are: an altar (albeit not quite of the sort God tells Moses to make); the use of “clean beasts” and fowl, only, for sacrifice; the use of animals of various kinds for an important sacrifice (here, one of each is offered); and the sacrifices were a “sweet savour” to the Lord, a phrase frequently repeated in Leviticus in describing what sorts of sacrifices God wanted. As to the significance of these practice, first, the altar sets the victim apart, making quite clear what is in the offering. The clean beasts are mostly livestock and poultry, i.e., animals man raises—although, interestingly, some clean beasts, such as deer, though good for food, are not specified as sacrificial victims in the Mosaic code. Clean beast requirement means the animals are among those God is to give the Hebrews for food, hence they are sacrifices indeed, the giving up of food. Using multiple kinds of clean beasts, when only seven were left in the world (plus whatever young were born on the ark), indicates thankfulness for all the food animals that were saved and kept available. As to the “sweet savour,” see the next question.

What is this business about a “sweet savour to the Lord” (Gen 8:21)?

This was not meant in any literal sense, considering that, not being essentially material, God had no need of food, he had no nose, etc. The smell of the sacrifice was probably not unlike that of delicious, savory food; the “sweet savour” thus describes how the sacrifice smelled to those offering the sacrifice. But, regardless of the smells wafting in the air to human noses, not every sacrifice was a “sweet savour,” because sin and trespass offerings did not have such a savor; while God required them, those sacrifices (symbolically, of course) smelled like sin to him. Hence the symbolic meaning of a sacrifice with a “sweet savour” is that the sacrifice was acceptable or welcome to God. This is plausible because Noah’s first activity upon disembarking was to sacrifice—his first thought was of God. It was not the scent of the meat but the performance of faithfulness that God enjoyed, and evidently, Noah was not making a sin offering for dead men; the dead were dead and no sacrifices for them were possible. These sacrifices were on behalf of Noah and his family, the living remnant. Indeed what follows this sweet-smelling sacrifice is “I will not again curse the ground any more for man’s sake” (8:21); and two verses later, beginning at 9:1, God blesses the remnant with man’s first laws and follows that with a covenant of divine peace. All was right with the world once again, for a short time.—Another common observation about “sweet savour” is that the root word rendered “sweet” is Hebrew נִיחוֹחַ, nichoach, glossed by Strong’s as “a quieting, soothing, tranquilizing”; hence it is said that the savor is actually a “savour of rest” (as Henry puts it). In this case, what the sacrifice metaphorically smelled of, to God, was not so much sweetness as restfulness. (It seems the Septuagint used ὀσμὴ εὐωδίας, which is where “sweet savour” came from.) Later uses of the phrase in connection to sacrifice are sometimes held to be allusions to this original “sweet” savor; the sacrifice gives spiritual rest to the penitent as Noah’s landing gave him rest from his yearlong peril. Thus Noah’s journey in the ark was not unlike that of Moses’ with the tabernacle: “My presence shall go with thee, and I will give thee rest.” (Ex 33:14)

What does it mean to say God “will not again curse the ground any more for man’s sake” (Gen 8:21)?

Let us be clear that he is quite specifically talking about the ground.He is not saying he will never again curse man. Rather, he is saying he will not give any further curse of the ground—of the sort given to Adam, then to Cain, and then to the whole of humanity in the Flood—i.e., the ground from which man lives. The remark, “I will never again destroy every living thing,” extends the promise of clemency. Moreover, the short poem of 8:22 I believe elaborates the meaning of “curse the ground,” by saying that the sunny days and the seasons of planting and harvest will continue; that would seem to undo Cain’s curse in particular, thus making it possible for all men to engage in farming again (though some, like Nebuchadnezzar, would be specifically cursed to engage in nothing but hunting and gathering). But we continue to live under Adam’s curse of the ground, which yields its fruits only after much toil; as Paul says, “the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain” (Rom 8:22).

Why did God say he would never again curse the ground (Gen 8:21)?

“Very well,” one might ask after reading the latter answer, “why not? After all, God just said that ‘the intent of man’s heart is evil from his youth’. Why not continue with the cursing and destroying of man?” The answer, I believe, is that the curse of the ground, i.e., the curse for Cain’s crime, for which God appeared to turn his face away from a whole line of people, has as it were “played out.” That line is destroyed; the world is reborn, and the reborn world is given a law and a covenant. It is as if God says, “See what you can make of this, ye hapless men with evil hearts; at least I will not utterly destroy you or curse the ground as I did Cain’s line, which was unusually wicked.” But since soon some (such as Canaan) were to be cursed (9:25-27), albeit by Noah, not by God—it seems God respected the curse. This makes it particularly clear that God means that all of humanity would not be cursed, at least, not as long as “the earth remains.” It is significant that God, in the end, will indeed destroy the earth again, as he utterly curses and destroys his enemies forever (see Rev 21:1 and its context). The time of clemency that began with Noah will not be forever.

God considers that “the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth” (Gen 8:21) when he announces he will never “smite any more every thing living”; but this is the same reasoning he used to destroy man (see Gen 6:5). What are we to make of this?

This is discussed above in connection to Gen 6:5, but let us return to the issue. Often such puzzles are solvable only if one assumes that the text is written with a surprising amount of subtlety. Fortunately, the text of the Bible bears up under such scrutiny; it really does have a surprising amount of subtlety. In this case, we are to compare what God says about “the imagination of man’s heart”—it is “evil from his youth”—to what he says about the antediluvians—“every imagination of the thoughts of [their] heart was only evil continually” (6:5); the three words I italicized here represent a significant difference. Man henceforth will, or at least should, be restrained by such practices as sacrifice, law, and awareness of God’s covenant and frightening sovereignty. He might still be “evil from his youth,” and so deserving of damnation; but at least his every thought will not be only evil continually. That is progress.