In describing the the corruption of man, why focus on “every imagination of the thoughts of his heart” (Gen 6:5)? Why not focus on evil actions?

The word translated “imagination” is rendered “intent” by the NASB and “inclination” by the NIV; the Hebrew יֵצֶר, yetser, is glossed “a form, framing, purpose.” In any case, we are speaking of the intentions out of which actions begin. God could see into men’s thoughts, and they matter greatly in the OT and NT alike. One of the deep and easy-to-miss themes of the Bible is the crucial importance of having the right beliefs and attitudes; foolish and vicious thoughts are often said to result in evil acts, and even the Ten Commandments has a law governing emotions and motives (the tenth, concerning envy). Considering all this, the reason for the focus on the “imagination of the thoughts of his heart” must be theological: motives and imaginations and thoughts are every bit as significant as acts, for a spiritual creator. Ultimately, the true corruption of mankind was the corruption of his heart.

Why would God create a “very good” world only to allow it to fall so far that he had to destroy it (Gen 6:7)? Does not the talk of God’s “repentance” imply he had no knowledge or control over the state of the world?

First, let us get clear on this: to say “it repented the Lord” (i.e., “the Lord repented”) does not mean either that God admitted to himself that he had done something wrong or had made a mistake, or even that he had changed his mind on some point of principle. What had changed was man’s moral merits, and God’s attitude toward man reflected this moral fact. This still left a problem, which is really a variant on the problem of evil, unsolved. There is little in the Bible, as far as I can tell, that clearly reveals God’s purposes in permitting evil, although it is absolutely clear that he does permit it and also that he even achieves important purposes by permitting it. The book of Job clearly implies we must not expect to learn God’s purposes. But a theory that is at least consistent with the Bible makes it at least plausible: God did the least he could to help rebellious man until repentant man could be redeemed and purified by the perfect sacrifice. God kept a righteous remnant alive so this was possible—and thus he did not repent of his original purpose in creating man, namely, to create intelligent beings, acceptable to the Lord, who would freely glorify and take delight in the Lord. There is much more to the theory than that, but it is enough to suggest the answer to this question. By the way, the word translated “repent,” נָחַם or nacham, is the same as that used by Lamech in his prophesy saying Noah will “repent (nacham) us”; it is as if God were saying, “You were right, Lamech: Noah would bring “comfort (nacham)” in the sense of “repentance (also nacham),” although not in the way you meant. My repentance would put an end to your work and toil—with death.”

While the evil of man might explain why God destroyed man in the Flood (Gen 6:7), why allow him to continue on after that, and why bother with the destruction, if he is going to continue to be wicked after the Flood (Gen 8:21)?

In other words, after the Flood, God’s assessment of the merits of humanity seems little changed: “I will not again curse the ground any more for man’s sake; for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth” (Gen 8:21). If he is going to preserve man whose “heart is evil from his youth,” why destroy him in the first place? Perhaps part of the answer is that man would, ever after that, never be quite as corrupt as the antediluvians were. In other words, while it was very true that man was a fallen sinner “from his youth,” it does not follow from that sad description that “every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (6:5); the three words I italicized here represent a significant difference. With the exception of Noah (and perhaps his family), man was utterly without merit. This suggests that the Flood was intended for, and successfully served a moral purpose, namely, it improved mankind’s moral stature. Man was never so completely corrupted as before the Flood. Even in the end times, there will always be a faithful remnant beyond just eight people.

What therefore was God’s purpose in (nearly) destroying man (Gen 6:7)?

I think it is fair to say that he was, literally, putting the fear of God into mankind ever after. His act was that of a sovereign exercising absolute prerogative over his own creation. He was, once and for all, establishing the absolute sovereignty of the Lord. This is a thing that God does over and over in the Bible: he demonstrates his sovereignty over one aspect of the creation, and that, typically, fairly early on in the narrative. Other examples include exile of Adam and Eve from the Garden, and of Cain from his presence; of the Tower of Babel, an attempt to raise man to the level of “the gods”; of the thoroughly corrupt but prosperous cities, Sodom and Gomorrah, of the (then) green rift valley east of the Promised Land; of the Egyptians, the first great empire of the Bible; of those who would use pagan idols to worship God, beginning with Rachel; of Nadab and Abihu, destroyed as a sign of his sovereignty over the priestly activities; of the wandering men who refused to trust in God’s guarantee of the Promised Land; later, of the fall of Israel and Judah, showing his sovereignty over the Promised Land when the Hebrews failed to keep up their part of the covenant; ultimately, he will demonstrate once and for all his total sovereignty over all creation at the end of time. So in the case of Noah, he chose to (all but) destroy man in order to clarify to wicked man from nearly the beginning, his sovereignty over his creation: we should not expect to be able to live in such wickedness forever. In the Psalms in two places there are two instances where the image of a flood, or of The Flood, is used to illustrate God’s sovereignty. “The Lord sitteth upon the flood; yea, the Lord sitteth King for ever.” (Ps. 29:10) Little could be clearer than that. But consider also: “Your throne is established from of old; You are from everlasting. The floods have lifted up, O Lord, the floods have lifted up their voice; the floods lift up their waves. The Lord on high is mightier than the noise of many waters, yea, than the mighty waves of the sea.” (Ps 93:3-4)

“But wait,” a nonbeliever will insist. “It seems unnecessary for an entity so powerful to have to demonstrate his sovereignty by total destruction (Gen 6:7). Why would he want to?”

Is it due to a kind of divine sadism? Or does it demonstrate some sort of emotional pettiness and neediness? There is a sound question lying behind the objectionable wording, but I wanted to put the question in this sort of objectionable way because it does capture a nonbeliever’s natural reaction to the Flood story that it is important to address. So let us be very clear: the point of God demonstrating his sovereignty is neither (a) because it is sadistic fun for him to hurt us, nor (b) because he had some sort of perverse (really, it would be quite evil) need to assert his mastery over us. No, in each case in which God demonstrates his sovereignty, the demonstration is for the benefit of all humanity to come, as recorded in the Bible. The Flood disaster shows once and for all that God’s patience will not last forever, and that he reserves to himself the absolute moral right to, as it were, pull the plug on the whole game that he started. This is just one reason we ought to have the fear of God. That fear, as the Bible reiterates time and again, keeps us on the straight and narrow. It is also worth reiterating that the antediluvian people, like the later Sodomites and the Canaanites, were unusually wicked: “every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” (Gen 6:5)

It seems obvious enough why God feels grief at man’s evil, and this is why he might wish to destroy man; but why “beast, and the creeping thing, and the fowls of the air” (Gen 6:7)?

There may be two reasons. The broader animal kingdom was created for man, who had responsibility for it; with man destroyed, it would make sense to destroy animals. A second reason, perhaps, is that these creatures too had been corrupted in the Fall, even as the land has sprouted “thorns and thistles.” A remark in Gen 6:11 is consistent with this: “all flesh”—not just human flesh—“had corrupted his way upon the earth.” That would certainly be true if the wolf originally lay down with the lamb, but became a carnivore after the Fall. This is suggested by the notion that nature would once again live in peace in the new creation: “The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.” (Isa 11:6)

It is important that we understand the notion that “Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord” (Gen 6:8), since that grace saved him and us. So what is it?

The word “grace” in the OT translates the Hebrew חֵן, chen, a word which is used in the phrase “find favor” and often followed by “in the sight of” or “in the eyes of.” This is not really the same as the doctrine of grace in the NT; but in the present case it certainly has similar effects, since the grace shown to Noah by God involved mercy, forgiveness, and the ultimate hope for mankind.

In the toledoth that begins at Gen 6:9, what does it mean to say Noah was “perfect in his generations”?

The sentence is: “Noah was a just man and perfect in his generations, and Noah walked with God.” This does not mean he was perfect, full stop, because of the drunkenness incident, and because he died. Besides, surely “walking with God” does not require absolute perfection. Surely too God would not require a standard of Abram, whom God instructed, “be thou perfect” (Gen 17:1). Let us look to the Hebrew: the word is תָּמִים or tamim, glossed as “complete, sound.” Applied to men, this often means something like “possessed of integrity.” But why “in his generations”? Does the word mean the same here as earlier in the same verse? The Hebrew word is different: דּוֹר, dor, glossed “period, generation, dwelling”; it was confusing and misleading for the KJV to use the same word “generation,” because whereas toledoth can refer to offspring, dor cannot. So we should not say that the meaning is that Shem, Ham, and Japheth were singled out as tamim. The same issue arises with Gen 7:1, where God tells Noah, “Come thou and all thy house into the ark; for thee have I seen righteous before me in this generation [dor again].” An apparently better interpretation is supplied by, for example, NASB’s terse “blameless in his time” and the NIV’s more explicitly interpretive “blameless among the people of his time.”

Are Gen 6:11-13 a good example of repetition across toledoths?

Yes, because not only does it repeat themes brought out not long before—in a way that might well seem tiresome to a casual reader, or an indication of different sources, to a skeptical one—it is a highly germane elaboration. In other words, each “these are the generations of” sections marks a new beginning, and there is often blatant repetition across them. In Gen 6:11-13, the text reiterates the corruption of the earth (meaning mostly, but probably not only, the corruption of man), adding here that the earth was “filled with violence,” which was not specifically mentioned before, but it is certainly a natural consequence of “mighty men” (6:4) full of plans springing from “evil” thoughts (6:5). Verse 12 adds that God specifically took notice of this corruption, a repetition of 6:5, but adds that “all flesh had corrupted his [i.e., God’s] way upon the earth.”

How does God’s resolution to punish mankind (Gen 6:7, 13) prefigure later events in the Bible?

After a long period of patience—hundreds of years have passed since Cain went into the wilderness—God’s patience wears out. Finally, his cup of his wrath spills over. This is seen repeatedly in the case of Israel, e.g., in the 40 years’ wandering, in the punishment of Canaan at the hands of the Israelites, in the later subjugation of the same Israelites and their loss of land in the time of the judges, and in the loss of land and then exile in the time of the divided kingdom. It is prophesied to happen again in end times, as explained most forcefully in Revelation.

What is the significance of “with thee will I establish my covenant” (Gen 6:18)?

This is the first instance of this important word’s occurrence in the entire Bible. While one might say that God had a covenant with Adam and Eve—do not eat of that one tree, and you can continue to live in the Garden—it is not named by God as a covenant, which is a thing God does do later. But what is the covenant God refers to? Consider that, immediately after declaring that he would make a covenant, he says “thou shalt come into the ark.” So, is ordering Noah into the ark, or even promising to save Noah, the covenant? No. The word’s proper context is given by the previous verse: God just got done saying “every thing that is in the earth shall die,” except you, Noah, and why? Because it is with you that I will establish my covenant after the Flood. And indeed God does so when Moses sacrifices to God in gratitude, and God in turn sets the covenant rainbow in the sky, signifying the “common grace” under which all humanity would live (Gen 9:8-17), which seems to be closely associated the preceding, brief Noachian code of law (of Gen 9:1-7). For more, see questions on Gen 9.

Is it not implausible indeed that two of every species were preserved in the ark (Gen 6:19)? Is this not wholly inconsistent with science?

Notwithstanding the heroic efforts to defend the Noah’s ark story on scientific grounds, it certainly is implausible. But then all miracles are implausible by their very nature; they would hardly merit the epithet “miracle” if they were plausible. But that this is a miracle is obvious, since nothing else would explain the congregation of so many different species, appearing docile and ready to be led on board the ark. (Not “species,” however, but “kinds”: the modern concept of a species did not exist when Genesis was written). Now, is this inconsistent with science? A worldwide deluge might be inconsistent with science—a question we will take up later—but what about all the species being reborn from a single place in Turkey some mere thousands of years ago? They would have to all fit on the ark; a number of people have crunched some numbers and concluded that, yes, the kinds could all have fit on an ark that large. Very well, but then in a matter of some mere thousands of years, a single species of cat would have to give rise to all the cats, great and small; similarly with all the other many species and varieties. I am not a biologist but this also sounds extremely unlikely. Further, they would have to repopulate every continent and island, migrating throughout the world, in a matter of some thousands of years. As a scientific hypothesis, one of the consequences regarding the fossil record, but we seem to find nothing in the fossil record showing species fanning out from Turkey. We will have to consider this further later, in connection with the questions of science for the Flood.

So God obeyed by building an ark (Gen 6:22). How long would this enormous vessel require to build?

We are told (Gen 5:32) that Noah was five hundred years old when he began to father Shem, Ham, and Japheth. There is a short excursus about the descent of evil upon the world and God’s resolution to destroy it (6:1-7), and then the narrative returns to Noah, where a new toledoth begins (6:9) and we are told again that Noah has fathered his three sons. There is no further narrative until we are told God instructed Noah to build the ark. This seems to imply that Noah started the ark around the time of, or shortly after, the birth of his first son. The next marker of time has it that Noah is 600 years old (7:6), so up to 100 years would have passed—that seems like enough time.

How similar are Flood stories from other ancient near east sources, and why suppose these could pose any sort of problem?

The issues here are very similar to those mentioned above, with respect to the creation of the universe, the creation of Adam, and the Garden. But the similarities between Genesis 6-8 and at least two ancient Mesopotamian sources—the Atrahasis and the story of Utnapishtim in Gilgamesh—are truly striking. They are not merely accounts of a great flood. They are accounts of a world-ending universal flood, created by the gods to destroy man, with one man singled out for salvation, being instructed to build an ark to specific dimensions and to populate it with animals. In the Utnapishtim story, he even releases different birds to determine whether it is safe to venture forth after the flood; and then he sacrifices to the gods. The reason this could pose a problem is that Bible-believing Christians and Jews take the Noah story seriously, as revealing God’s master plan, one that is discussed and incorporated into the rest of the Bible narrative. The similarity to ancient pagan sources suggests thatthe Noah story might have had some pagan source. If it did, the narrative is false.

But so what? Why think the Noah story originated from a pagan source?

There is no reason to think the Noah story predates the other stories, say skeptics; we do not know which originated first. Indeed, it is probable that all the stories had some common origin, due to their striking plot similarities. This is not positive evidence that the Noah story (the exact date of which is unknown) was derivative, but it is evidence that the story underwent a oral retelling process that resulted in distortion, in at least some if not all cases. So why think the Noah version is the original?

Indeed, let us answer this: why think the Noah version is the original?

Let us state the bad news first: there is no knock-down argument that the Noah version is the original, apart from the argument that begins that the Bible is the word of God. It is all speculative. (Some claim that Gilgamesh greatly antedated the Bible, but that too is greatly speculative.) But now the good news: there are several plausible points to insist upon in defense of the Noah story. (1) It is the longest and most detailed of all the Flood stories. (2) It is embedded in a relatively “naturalistic” and otherwise theologically coherent (and sane) set of background beliefs. (3) By contrast, other details in the other versions of the story feature things like a mother goddess giving birth to the first seven couples, the gods requiring the food and drink of sacrifices, and generally gods acting much like primitive and corrupt human beings.

If the Flood story is inconsistent with science, then does that not indicate more strongly that it is merely borrowed from some common pagan source?

Let us elaborate the question. There is a separate problem about the Noah story that does not depend upon it being derivative: if, as seems to be the case (see questions about Gen 6 and 7), the story is inconsistent with science, then does that not indicate more strongly that it is merely borrowed from some common pagan source? Does that not indicate that the Noah story, and thus the Bible generally, has very questionable sources and thus lacks any credibility? As far as I am concerned, this is certainly one of the hardest problems for any Bible believer who does not accept a Young Earth theory. One way through, of course, is simply to take one horn of the dilemma and espouse the Young Earth theory, attempting to defend the claims made. There are ways to do that that are more plausible than might appear at first glance, but I have not learned about how creationists attempt to shift scientific paradigms. Another way is to deny that there is anything terribly wrong, theologically, with a Bible the first eleven chapters of which contain legendary or mythic elements shared with other traditions. Those traditions were recast in terms of a true theology, which is why those old stories did not completely sink into the mists of time but gained a lease on life by being dignified by association with Moses and those who followed after him. But this strikes me as unsatisfactory for the simple reason that so much of the rest of the Bible takes Gen 1-11 for granted as literal truth.

What light does Matt 24:37-39 shed on this moment of the narrative (Gen 7:1)?

Here is the text in question: “But as the days of Noe were, so shall also the coming of the Son of man be. For as in the days that were before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noe entered into the ark, and knew not until the flood came, and took them all away; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be.” (Matt 24:37-39) We are here to understand that, at the second coming of Christ, several things will occur again that occurred in Noah’s time: (a) blithe and corrupt man will live as if he had all the time in the world, (b) a faithful remnant will be saved, while (c) destruction will come upon the rest suddenly. The Flood is the first of several scenes of total or near-total destruction: that of the Egyptians; of the Canaanites; of Israel (the northern kingdom) and then Judah (the southern kingdom); of others as well; and then, finally, of the second coming and the destruction, followed by the new creation, of the whole world.

If the food laws were not yet in existence, why is there a distinction between clean and unclean beasts (Gen 7:2)? And does this not imply that people were indeed eating animals before being specifically permitted to (Gen 9:3)?

And furthermore: does the latter passage (Gen 9:3) not imply that there was no clean/unclean distinction? This seems to be a fair question, because here we have references to “every clean beast” and “beasts that are not clean.” But let us clarify that, after the Garden, men probably stopped being vegetarians, if they were vegetarians before that. It seems likely that men began eating animals with Abel, the first keeper of livestock, especially considering that (a) he made a sacrifice, and that (b) there is a distinction in the present verse between “clean” livestock and “unclean” wild beasts, a distinction without a difference if no animals are eaten. But if this is correct, then indeed, why does God specifically permit Noah to eat “every moving thing that liveth” (9:3)? I simply do not know. God’s laws were introduced gradually. A very, very stripped-down version of a legal code is offered at Gen 9. So perhaps there was a distinction between clean and unclean animals for a long time, but there was no notion of “ritual impurity” in those early times. If so, then the clean/unclean distinction would be given a new purpose with the arrival of the purity and food laws.

Is there evidence in the text (such as that in Gen 7:2) that the author of the story meant to compare what transpired to what took place in the tabernacle?

This is an apt observation by Sailhamer. Consider: God gave instructions for building, even in terms of cubits as he gave to building the tabernacle; God distinguishes clean from unclean beasts; makes provision for sacrifice (later); invites Noah and his family into the ark “for thee have I seen righteous before me”; God shuts Noah in securely; it rains 40 days and 40 nights, even as the tabernacle serves as the vessel for God’s presence; and everything on earth dies, except for God’s anointed (so to speak), as a consequence of sin.

Why was Noah told to load seven of clean livestock and only two of unclean wild animals (Gen 7:2)?

This seems to have a very straightforward practical answer: because of the importance of the former for food, and because he would have to sacrifice some of them. Wild animals only needed to be preserved, but large and healthy herds needed to be preserved, and it seems reasonable to suppose that Noah and his family ate of those herds for the year that they were on board the Ark (by the reckoning in the ESV Study bible, 370 days). That these “clean” animals—cleanliness being a notion known to God, but not yet introduced in the Bible record to Noah—would be needed for sacrificing can be found at Gen 8:20.

What exactly is the sequence of events in Gen 7? It seems rather confusing, starting from “For yet seven days…” (Gen 7:4).

It merely requires a close reading. First, God orders Noah to start loading his family and the animals (Gen 7:1). He warns that the rain will begin in a week (7:4). Then, one week later, when the family and animals are duly loaded, the rains begin and the fountains of the deep open up (7:11). That the loading was complete is reiterated, and Noah and family are shut in by the Lord (7:16). After that, it rains 40 days and nights (7:17). The water rises and rises (“prevailed”; 7:17-19). After 40 days, or shortly thereafter, water covers all (7:20). Everything has died (7:21). Although the text does not specifically say, it was to rain for 40 days and nights, so presumably when the 40 days are over, the rains do end. Finally, the waters bury the earth for 150 days, total, from the beginning of the rains; by my calculation, that means for another 110 days (Gen 7:24). It is possible that the text means the waters continued to cover the earth for a total of 150 days after the last mountaintop was covered.

Why are there so many occurrences of the number 40 in the Bible (Gen 7:4,17)?

This is one of several “round numbers” to be found in the Bible. Four of many different things; ten plagues and commandments; a dozen tribes and apostles. The number 40 appears not a few, but quite many times in the Bible: days of Moses on Mount Sinai; years of wandering in the desert; days Jesus was tempted in the wilderness. Now, four often indicates completeness (as in the four directions of the compass, indicating every part of the land). So 40 would seem to be “a fullness of days,” but particularly days of grace in the face of testing. So, whether or not it was precisely 40 days that it rained, the number stated in the text does indicate that it rained fully as necessary, i.e., for as many days as were needed, to completely drown the world, and yet God saved Noah during that most perilous time.

What does it mean to say “the same day were the fountains of the great deep broken up” (Gen 7:11)?

This is a mystery. While “fountains” suggest springs (the Hebrew is מַעְיָן or mayan, spring), the quantity of waters suggests something else. The suggestion rather is that there was a “deep” source of water beneath, or perhaps above, the earth, and that water poured in that way. Perhaps it is consistent with this text that a giant icy comet smashed into the earth, scattering water into the atmosphere which fell for 40 days, and while the water started out on the surface, it eventually sank into the crust, at which point we were left with the continents we have today. I’m not aware of any scientific evidence for such a theory. In any event, Matthew Henry points out Ps 33:7: “He gathereth the waters of the sea together as an heap: he layeth up the depth in storehouses.” The suggestion is that in the Hebrew geology in operation, there were some manner of “storehouses” of waters of the deep, which might be different from or in addition to the oceans. Note: I will not ask all the questions that could be asked about the Flood. I could ask things like, “How did the people and the animals eat on the ark? Was such a floating zoo really possible?” and “Where did all the water go?” It requires a special study.

The ark is “lift up above the earth” (Gen 7:17) and its inhabitants will, after a year, emerge as survivors of a passage through the Flood. Does this not suggest other passages through waters?

So it does, and this is a recurring theme in the Bible. The next instance, perhaps, will be Abram’s crossing of the Euphrates into the Promised Land (cf. Gen 12:4-5; 15:18; and 31:21, with the latter establishing that the journey did require crossing this water). The most famous of course is the crossing of the Red Sea (Gen 14:22), with a similar feat repeated by Joshua (Josh. 3:15-16). These trips through water—and Noah’s specifically—were recapitulated symbolically by baptism, as Peter makes explicit (and as Henry points out): “… once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water. The like figure whereunto even baptism doth also now save us…” (1 Pet 3:20-21) The trip through water accomplishes two related things: it announces the travelers to be under God’s protection, and the passage allows them to pass forward into a new promised blessing: the new, post-Flood earth, cleansed of sin (for a short time); the Promised Land (twice); the Mosaic Covenant; and the state of grace, i.e., the salvation by the blood of Jesus and the blessedness of the Holy Spirit. It is not without significance, in this connection, that “the deep” and “floods” held terrors for the Bible writers, meaning awful death and symbolically representing a watery state of chaos before the creation. To cross over such a flood is to defeat death and chaos indeed.

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.

How is the reiteration of “Be fruitful, and multiply” (Gen 9:1) significant?

It serves two functions. First, it underscores the notion that Noah and his family are blessed by presiding over a new Earth, as it were a new creation; it was after the introduction of man to the first creation that God gave him the same blessing. Notice this serves not just as a command but as a blessing, the profundity of which becomes only clearer between this verse and others concerning the sanctity of life, leading up to Gen 9:7 where “be fruitful, and multiply” is again reiterated. The second function is to make a general statement of approval of the notion that human life on earth is to be replenished, even though God has just stated grimly that “the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth.” (Gen 8:21)

Why only now should it be that “the fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth” (Gen 9:2)?

The observation seems to imply that animals were not previously afraid of man. This seems unlikely, however, not only from a scientific point of view but from a narrative one; there was no hint of it earlier, and the suggestion does not seem to serve any obvious role in God’s plan. So I propose to look for a different way to understand the statement, and it is not hard to find one. Along with “be fruitful, and multiply” in Gen 1:28, God bade man to “replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion” over animal creation. And here in the present passage there is a similar injunction to fruitfulness as well as a statement that “every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you” (Gen 9:3). So perhaps this is just another way to state that man has dominion over the beasts of the earth; fearing man, they are able to be dominated by man. So the claim, I suggest, is not that man and beast were previously on more polite terms, nor that man had somehow become more dreadful or that animals had become more timid, but instead a reiteration has license to rule the natural world as God’s representative.

If “every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you” (Gen 9:3), does that not mean that there was no unclean meat?

So it appears, and this is despite a statement not long before (Gen 7:2) that some animals were “clean” (טָהוֹר, tahor) and others not. Some commentators attribute this to two different authors of the text (the P, or priestly, text would talk about clean versus unclean animals, while the Gen 9 verses would by from something like the J, or Yahwist, source. This, of course, undermines the credibility of the text. Is there another sensible way to reconcile the text? Perhaps this way: Moses would describe tame livestock raised by Noah as “clean,” even though Noah might not; he might attribute those words to God, and who knows, perhaps God employed them with Noah. But times were simpler, and God was permitting all food sources to them, so that they had the best chance to succeed in life.

So does the text imply that Noah, and mankind, were vegetarians before Gen 9:3 (“every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you”)?

I have already discussed this question above, but let us re-examine it briefly in light of this passage. I think it is tolerably clear from what we said earlier that, probably, men were not just vegetarians. The Cainites were surely not above eating meat. But in that case, why say the animals “shall be meat for you; even as the green herb have I given you all things”? That is a fair question. After all, the text seems to be an allusion to this: “Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat.” (Gen 1:29) Perhaps it also refers to “in sorrow shalt thou eat of [the ground] all the days of thy life” (Gen 3:17), which God told to Adam; there, too, there is no reference to animal meat. Could it be that God did not approve of meat eating, even though he tolerated it, but that here, now he officially sanctioned it on grounds that man would certainly continue in his practice, just as he would continue to have multiple wives? That would imply that God’s laws become laxer in order to accommodate was once regarded as sin; and that sounds unlikely. I think it is fair to say that God always did approve of meat eating, and the reason he says man may eat meat now, whereas he did not before, is that in the times before the Fall, man did not eat meat because he did not have to. Now, essentially, the difficulty of life in a fallen world has made meat-eating a practical necessity. God specifically blesses meat-eating because man is beginning a renewed life in this fallen world, in which meat-eating is necessary.

Why does God so specifically forbid the eating of blood (Gen 9:4)? How does this, and other verses in this passage, point up the sacredness of life?

Blood is not just a symbol of life (as in the word, “lifeblood”; see the next question), it carries essential, life-giving oxygen and nutrients throughout the body, and death comes when it stops coursing through the body. It is, of course, a symbolic act to avoid the blood. But why is it so important to avoid it? After all, in order to eat meat, one must kill an animal, ending the actual life of which the blood is merely a component and symbol. To answer, let us consider several other points related to life in the passage: (1) Noah and family are invited to reproduce human life; (2) animals will fear for their lives before Noah, as well they should, since (3) Noah is given authority over the lives of those animals, any of which could be eaten; (4) but life of men could not be taken (and this is put in terms of “man’s blood”), and (5) whoever does so take it, forfeits his own life (and will pay with his own blood). The upshot, clearly, is that life per se is deeply sacred, and if it should be that man may eat meat in this fallen world, he must never forget the sacredness of the life given up for that meat, even if it is merely animal life. Such respect for the sacredness of life is symbolically expressed in this injunction against eating blood.

Is it not the case that the prohibition on blood first appears here, and that this is because meat is first explicitly permitted here (Gen 9:4)?

This is, I believe, precisely correct. Again, while man might have begun eating meat just after the Fall, he was doing so without the explicit permission of God. God had not given his explicit permission in Gen 1 because the Fall had not yet happened; food from plants was at that time doubtless much more nutritious and tasty. But now, again, because the world is starting anew, and God is passing out the new rules of the game, only now does he acknowledge that eating meat is permitted. But if he is going to permit that, he had better (so goes the thinking) forbid the eating of blood, lest man think that is ever permitted. It is not, because (see above) the lifeblood is respected deeply as a symbol of the sacredness of life—of all life that draws breath. The importance of treating the blood as sacred is underlined more explicitly in Lev 17:10-14, which is well worth reviewing in full:

And whatsoever man there be of the house of Israel, or of the strangers that sojourn among you, that eateth any manner of blood; I will even set my face against that soul that eateth blood, and will cut him off from among his people. For the life of the flesh is in the blood: and I have given it to you upon the altar to make an atonement for your souls: for it is the blood that maketh an atonement for the soul. Therefore I said unto the children of Israel, No soul of you shall eat blood, neither shall any stranger that sojourneth among you eat blood. And whatsoever man there be of the children of Israel, or of the strangers that sojourn among you, which hunteth and catcheth any beast or fowl that may be eaten; he shall even pour out the blood thereof, and cover it with dust. For it is the life of all flesh; the blood of it is for the life thereof: therefore I said unto the children of Israel, Ye shall eat the blood of no manner of flesh: for the life of all flesh is the blood thereof: whosoever eateth it shall be cut off.

Are such laws as that against eating blood (Gen 9:4) and murder (9:5-6) the first legislation in the world? Was there no human law before this?

On the one hand, God had set rules and requirements for man previously; insofar as any command of God constitutes law, then there was law before this. Moreover, there was something like human law in the form of Lamech’s bold and shameless declaration, “If Cain is avenged sevenfold, Then Lamech seventy-sevenfold” (4:24). Some commentators portray this as a kind of law; if Lamech could back up his boast, as he probably could, then it could have been something like a (deviant, unjust) law. But on the other hand, the laws set forth here are indeed the first divinely-promulgated law which was nonetheless to be enforced by man. In this regard, it is the original of the sorts of laws given to Moses.

Why does God pass off responsibility of law enforcement to man (Gen 9:5)?

God personally punished the first crimes, much as he gave the first devastating punishment to all mankind in the Flood, and for that matter, much as he destroyed Nadab and Abihu as examples to future careless priests. Notice in every case that God is incredibly strict (on which, see below). What is interesting in every case is that, while God initially is the law enforcer, in time he passes the responsibility to man. So—why? To begin with, in each case when God passes off responsibility to enforce law, he specifically deputizes man, though only properly righteous and consecrated man. In this way, he appears to be training man to be fellow judges and executioners with him. Now, as to why he does not simply continue in this original role, it is probably not as if the role were beneath him; rather, this is a rite of passage as man leaves his nonage. As man is created in the image of God, more righteous or godly sort of men (if that is permitted to say) ought to be able to serve as judges over other men. God is building his church and the inhabitants of the future kingdom of God. After being placed in authority over Israel by Yahweh, Moses specifically deputizes literal judges over Israel (see Ex 18). Future men will be made, explicitly, judges of a much holier kingdom, of the twelve tribes of Israel in the Kingdom of God—as Jesus says of the twelve apostles. “And I appoint unto you a kingdom, as my Father hath appointed unto me; that ye may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” (Luke 22:29-30) Practice would seem to be in order.

God has by now certainly proven himself to be quite strict, as in, just for example, ordaining capital punishment for murder (Gen 9:5-6). How and why, in his original examples of law enforcement, is God initially very strict?

Let us review his strictness. Consider the examples. For their original sin of eating a piece of forbidden fruit, God exiles Adam and Eve from the Garden (but not entirely from the presence of God), and assigns them limited lives of toil and pain. He punishes Cain’s murder with exile from the presence of God and God’s people. He destroys mankind for their unmitigated wickedness, except for Noah, who walked with God, and his family. Though it was Noah who issued the curse on Canaan, it seems God did carry out the sentence (as the Bible’s history books, especially Joshua, make very clear). And when man outrageously attempted to build a tower to heaven, God confused human languages and scattered the people. Later, when the Pharaoh refuses to obey God and honor God’s people, God devastates the land. And when two of the first priests fail to strictly follow God’s rituals, he destroys them. All of these examples, without exception, show God’s first punishments to be surprisingly strict, indeed, harsh. And yet, also in every case, many later examples of the same (and worse) crimes are not touched by God. I believe God literally made an example of the first in each case: the first sin, the first murder, the first corrupt society, the first disrespect of parents (or perhaps the first incest), the first organized occult attempt to displace God, the first oppression of his chosen people, and the first disrespect of priestly duties. God demonstrates in this way both his high standards and his sovereignty. Afterward, it is mostly whole nations (and their leaders) that God personally punishes, and often the punishment still takes place at the hands of other nations.

If God so cherishes life, why does he require capital punishment (Gen 9:5-6)?

An answer is given right in the text: “For in the image of God he made man.” Severe punishment for murder is meted out because man bears the image of God. Still, we can ask: do not murderers also bear the image of God? Why are they killed, then? The answer, clearly, must be that time and again in the Bible, lawbreakers lose their rights. Murderers lose their right to live. Adam lost the right to live in the Garden, and to immortality. Cain lost the right to be in the presence of God and live among God’s people. The evil of nearly all of humanity caused them to lose the right to live. And that is just the first six chapters of the Bible; the theme goes on to the end. Moreover, the famous articulation of lex talionis, “eye for eye” (Ex 21:24), occurs in a distinguished place, i.e., just one chapter after the Ten Commandments. God is very far from being a gentle, tolerant liberal. God cherishes life, it is fair to say, indeed; so, naturally, he hates that which is so hostile to life. But more precisely, it is ultimately not lives per se but lives that serves righteous life that God loves.

What is the theme of Gen 9:1-7?

There is indeed an interesting, unifying theme. To wit, we must reproduce, feed up, and cherish life; naturally, we must not destroy life, except in jealous defense of it.

What is the meaning and force of “covenant” (Gen 9:9)?

It is not merely an agreement, because God’s covenants do not necessarily require anything of man, as here. It is also unlike an agreement in that there is no negotiation between the parties. That is, God hands each covenant down to man as a fait accompli; God’s covenants are all announced unilaterally by him. Usually man is required to do something, and there is punishment or loss of rights if he does not do that; but here, man has no requirements and it is just God declaring his intentions. A covenant also establishes, so to speak, the context in which God and man are thereafter to interact. It may include commands, laws, rewards, punishments, blessings, and curses—these all or mostly couched in the form of promises. You might call covenants “God’s parameters for man.”

Is the content of the covenant at Gen 9:11 identical to the promise given to Noah at Gen 8:21? What is the relationship between the two similar statements?

This seems to be a fairly typical example of Biblical repetition, but the difference, as Henry pointed out, is that in the first passage, what “the Lord said in his heart” is, remarkably enough, revealed to us, while the second passage says what he said to Noah. Both specify that God will never again destroy man in a Flood. But in fact, the Gen 8 divine self-reflection is more elaborate than the Gen 9 covenant, except that the covenant includes the bit about the rainbow. It is possible that there were indeed two separate oral narratives (i.e., texts written to be read) written down by Moses and placed one after the other, and like the toledoths, they featured repetition because they overlapped. The first is backward-looking, letting the eight remaining people know they need not fear something so terrible happening again. The second is forward-looking, being placed in the context of new instructions to “be fruitful,” and of the first law.

Why is the symbol of the covenant a rainbow (Gen 9:13-16)?

The “bow in the cloud” image is repeated three times here. It is explicitly called a “sign,” which is remarkable in that it proves once for all—if proof were really needed—that God does use signs or symbols as memorials used in teaching. Of course, such signs can be found throughout the Bible. It is an appropriate symbol since rainbows generally appear when the rain ends. That we are to look to this as a symbol that God will never again flood the Earth suggests that the rains will always end; if the rainbow will always come out, then the rains will not go on so long as to wipe everyone out again.

Did God create a rainbow at this point?

One commentator (Ross) takes the bold view that since no rain had fallen before the Flood (Gen 2:5), there had been no rainbows before this. But this is quite a stretch; the text only says that, at some time before Adam was created and before there were any plants (itself relevant to say because Adam was to be a tiller of the soil), there had been no rain. In short, that text hardly establishes that there was no rain between Gen 2 and Gen 6 (for literally hundreds and hundreds of years). My view is that surely God did not create rainbows at this point; the laws of physics do not change, so we must not understand “I do set my bow in the cloud” in this way. After all, the rainbow need not have been created at that moment for God’s statement to be true. The point might just as well be stated this way: “Henceforth, whenever you see a rainbow, remember this promise.” Besides, God always knew this would happen; you might say the laws of physics were so arranged as to create rainbows, and it is now that he announces their purpose.

What is the significance of calling the Noachian covenant an “everlasting covenant” (Gen 9:16)?

This is the first of many instances of this phrase. The Hebrew עוֹלָם, olam, is glossed as “long duration, antiquity, futurity.” That it cannot be an “eternal” covenant seems clear if the implication is that God will never again destroy the earth—because he will, after all, at the end of time. Moreover, some things that are called “everlasting covenants” in the text do fail to apply to certain descendants of those with whom they are made. For example, after some generations, distant descendants of the Jews will not be bound by the Mosaic covenant because the temple will be destroyed, or because a new covenant replaces the old. Hence “everlasting” would seem to be better rendered “long-lived” or “indefinitely long.” This is not to deny that God does not have any number of, indeed, eternal covenants. It is just that an olam covenant is not necessarily eternal. It is just long-lived.

The Canaanite line of Ham is soon to be cursed; who else is said to be in that line Gen (9:18)?

We need only look in the genealogy which we are about to read: “And the sons of Ham; Cush [Ethiopia], and Mizraim [Egypt], and Phut [Libya], and Canaan.” (Gen 10:6) Interestingly, together, these are the southern enemies of Israel. Of course the Canaanites will, in the future, become the wicked inhabitants of the Promised Land. As a people they are to be extirpated for their sins, which will become as monstrous and widespread as those of the antediluvians.

Noah’s behavior (Gen 9:20-21) is treated as quite shameful. Why?

First, getting quite drunk is portrayed as sinful, or at least very foolish, in a number of places. For example: “Wine is a mocker, strong drink is raging: and whosoever is deceived thereby is not wise.” (Prov 20:1) But while nakedness is itself is no sin, public exposure (even being “uncovered within his tent”) is treated as shameful in the Mosaic code. (And throughout, we must remember that the author of Genesis was the author of the Mosaic code; and that God was the real author throughout.) Noah’s nakedness while drunk raises the question why he was naked; there may be some implication of sexual impropriety; see next question.

What was the nature of Ham’s sin (Gen 9:22)?

Was it really sinful or wrong to catch a sight of one’s father naked at all, let alone when drunk? First, note that Lev 18:7 makes it unlawful to “uncover” the “nakedness of thy father,” although, to be fair, the text does not say Ham did this, but only that Ham caught sight of Noah’s uncovered body. Still, one view has it that this is a euphemism for incest. But this interpretation is not, strictly speaking, required by the text. Perhaps merely being able to see his uncovered father was the shameful thing. This seems unlikely to us today, because for us, since family members of the same sex regularly accidentally see each other’s nakedness, the boys merely seeing their father’s naked body was probably not unusual or shameful. But Ross claims, “To the ancients…even seeing one’s father naked was a breach of family ethic.” If so, then some euphemism is meant. It is also entirely possible that Ham’s sin is not sexual but rather the fact that he has dishonored his father by mocking him to his brothers.

Why was Canaan cursed for the sin of his father Ham (Gen 9:25)?

We are not told why. After all, Ham did have other sons, and in just a few verses (Gen 10:6), we will see in the genealogy that (apparently) Canaan was the youngest; though perhaps he was listed last due to his shame. In any event, we are forced to conclude that there was some special reason, known to Noah but unknown to us. Since the curse is generational, it might very well be incest (or be some lesser perversion that develops into incest), a thing known to run in families. Moreover, in Ex 18, God forbids the entering Israelites to behave “after the doings of the land of Canaan, whither I bring you” (Ex 18:3), and he then rattles off a long and disgusting list of varieties of incest, child rape, child sacrifice, etc., and concludes the list of horrors by saying, “Defile not ye yourselves in any of these things: for in all these the nations are defiled which I cast out before you” (Ex 18:24). Henry aptly points out that in saying this, Moses was partly justifying for the sake of the Israelites the justice to be meted out to the Canaanites—the justice which God was presently ordering, and which the Israelites were to administer.

What are we to make of the blessings Noah gives to Shem and Japheth (Gen 9:25-27)?

Particularly since they immediately precede the report of Noah’s death (though it might have occurred hundreds of years after this incident), this recalls the prophesies of the twelve tribes given by Jacob (Gen 49). They also recollect the contrasting blessing and curse given by Isaac to Jacob and Esau (Gen 27). In any event, due to the shame of his father, Canaan (or rather, his line) will, much later, become a “servant of servants” (in a few later Bible instances) of the Israelites. It is particularly the line of Shem, which will eventually include the Israelites, which will be master over the Canaanites. Again, this might serve for Moses as encouragement to the invading Israelites. As for Japheth, he will “dwell in the tents of Shem.” The meaning of this is obscure, some believing it to mean that descendants of Japheth (such as the Greeks and Hebrews) would in time occupy Semite (Israelite) land; some like Henry even maintain it is a prophesy of the new covenant, insofar as Gentiles will come to be united through the Gospel with the Jews.

Can the story of the shame of Noah and curse of Canaan (Gen 9:18-29) be compared to the story of the Garden and the Fall (Gen 2-3)?

This is a view taken by Sailhamer, for example. The parallels are indeed numerous. God and Noah both do planting: the Garden and a vineyard. Adam and Eve wickedly ate the forbidden fruit, while Noah drank too much of the fruit of the vine. As a result, Adam and Eve recognized their nakedness, while Noah became naked. They made themselves clothing (and God later made them better clothing); the more righteous brothers covered their father. The wrongdoers were confronted (by God, and by Noah). Finally, there followed curses, which affect the more wicked descendants of the father, as well as blessings. Clearly, the stories exhibit a similar sort of structure, and they do have some themes in common. I am not totally convinced that the similarities are intentional. Perhaps the biggest difference is that the story of the Fall—a word significant and unique, so that we capitalize it—is about the fall of man from his original sinlessness. Meanwhile, Noah’s and Ham’s sins are not quite a second fall, because they are already certainly fallen.

Do not such similarities (just mentioned, between Gen 9:18-29 and Gen 2-3) suggest contrivance by the author, rather than faithfulness to some events?

How likely is it that the events were designed by God to match each other? This might turn out to be a general problem: when the carefully contrived details of a narrative seem best explained by choices made by the author, that would certainly seem to indicate that the narrative was literally contrived, i.e., fictional and mythic, rather than actual. I do not believe we have seen many other examples so far; still, the symmetrical structure of the weeks and months given in the Flood, discussed above (q.v.), are another example. Yet my approach in this case is slightly different. We need only observe that the events in both cases here flow naturally, and that adequately explains their similarity. It was inevitable that Adam, and Noah, would sin; after that happened, they would (at some point, in the case of Noah) be caught, and the nakedness in both case just happens to be integral to the story. That a mixture of merciful blessing and just punishment follows is perfectly natural. Now, it is possible that, out of the sins of Noah, this one was selected because it involved his nakedness that resulted from consuming the fruit of the vine, this in turn because it recapitulates the symbology of the Fall (the fruit of temptation and the nakedness before God that follows sin). It is also possible that God permitted Ham to be tempted to gaze upon his father and mock him to his brothers, because this prophetic lesson would result.

Why punish the son, or even worse, all the descendants (as at Gen 9:24-27)?

“Have we not seen by now numerous examples,” a critic asks, “of a sort of mean-spirited stereotyping by God? Why support this unfair treatment based on their accidental family grouping? Is this not merely a primitive sort of tribal bigotry, which is being put into the person of the Holy God?” How are we to answer this question? Early, primitive people were very tribal and bigoted; as with other unfortunate practices, such as wars of conquest, slavery, and polygamy, words in a holy book were sadly not going to extirpate these practices. Only time, under the gentle guiding hand of religion, would have a chance to affect that. You will notice here that the curse is given by Noah, not by God, who does not mention it in justifying the invasion of Canaan and the extirpation of the Canaanites. God has his own reasons, which we will return to. Note also that Cain’s entire family line was not specifically cursed; only Cain was. But Cain’s bad habits happened to give rise to bad descendants. So, thus far, we do not have any examples of God himself engaging in anything like “mean-spirited stereotyping.” But we will have to come back to this and similar issues later.

What, really is wrong with a naturalistic explanation?

“But wait,” continues a skeptical critic. “Throughout these answers you have constructed a lot of Just So Stories to fit the hypothesis that God exists and acted as described in Genesis. But are not all the puzzling details of the text much more elegantly explained by saying, ‘Clearly, it was all simply made up?’ Can you submit any non-question-begging reasons against such a naturalistic approach?” Typically, nothing at all is wrong with naturalistic explanations. Elegant and naturalistic explanations are usually the best because the universe works according to rationally describable natural laws—when God is not involved. When God is involved in the events and working “wonders,” as the Bible puts it, then of course naturalistic explanations are not appropriate. Since the Bible concerns the movement of God in the universe, obviously it features many supernatural explanations. If you do not believe the Bible, then just as obviously the preferable explanation of the details of the text is, “Clearly, it was all simply made up.” And if you are genuinely not sure, if you are torn, then the mere availability of naturalistic explanations for how the text reads is not going to settle the matter. In short, it is actually the skeptic who begs the question if he infers from “A naturalistic explanation for how the text reads is available” to “The Bible is just carefully contrived fiction.”

The list of tribes in Gen 10 seems provincial, restricted to the world known to the Israelites; would not a God’s-eye view of history be broader?

Here is the purported problem: surely the reason the tribes listed in Gen 10 were from the areas surrounding Israel is that this was the world known to the Israelites. But does this not undermine the scriptures’ pretensions to give a God’s-eye view of human history? There are three possible reasons (not necessarily mutually exclusive) for what appears to be a provincial listing: (1) these were the only known tribes; (2) these were the first descendants of Noah, and it was from these places relatively near to the landing of the ark that the rest of the earth was populated; (3) these were the descendants of Noah who figured in the lives and history of the Hebrews. First, it is true: these were the only early tribes known to the early Hebrews. But on the other hand, the assertion is that these were the men who lived within just a few generations of Noah. Hence of course it does not presume to give a history of all of humanity. Finally, it is also quite true that the Bible deals with just that portion of humanity that deals directly with the Hebrews. The text purports to be written with inspiration from God, but not to teach things irrelevant to the covenants God made with the Hebrews. So all three of the explanations are reasonable.

Is the Table of Nations of Gen 10 generally plausible?

Anthropologists have found homo sapiens skeletons in many places going back thousands of years—well over 100,000 years—in many places. These are surely inconsistent a Young Earth history, and particularly with a view in which Adam was created in the fifth millennium B.C., or even a few millennia before that. Considering that, it is probable given the extra-Biblical evidence that mankind has been roaming earth for tens of thousands of years. You might say that even if that were true, mankind might have been wiped out in the Flood and then the Table of Nations would still be accurate as a snapshot circa 2500 B.C. of the nations centered around Israel. The problem with that response is that we have evidence that the ancestors of today’s Australians are ancient pre-Flood Australians, and the ancestors of today’s Europeans are ancient pre-Flood Europeans, and so forth. Moreover, it does not seem likely that the Flood, if it lived on in global memory from ancient times, could have lived on in that way for literally many thousands, let alone tens of thousands, of years. If the Flood of the Bible, it would have had to have happened roughly when it was supposed to have happened—sometime between 4000 and 2000 BC, say (Henry puts it at 2349 B.C.). So this is one question on which I am afraid that in all honesty I have no good answer. I simply do not see how the Table of Nations is plausible, at least when combined with a worldwide flood.

The Sons of Japheth

Sons of JaphethLocation Notes
GomerJosephus and Holman have them settled in central Turkey. Josephus adds that they became the Galatians, from whom the Gauls were descended; ESV puts them east of there, in the southern Caucasus region.
MagogJosephus identifies them with the Scythians, i.e., people who settled north of the Black and Caspian Seas. ESV has them in the southern Caucasus with Gomer, while Holman puts them in central Turkey.
MadaiAll my sources agree in identifying these with the Medes, of northern Iran and who later joined with the Persians.
JavanJosephus identifies these with “Ionians” and says all Greeks descended from him. The other two sources put them in the Aegean islands, anyway.
TubalJosephus says these became the “Iberes”—Iberians? But the ESV map puts Tubal in modern-day Georgia in the Caucasus, while Holman places him in central Turkey (Cappadocia).
MeshechBecame the Cappadocians (in central Turkey), says Josephus; its capital was called Mazaca. ESV places them somewhat east of there, still in Turkey, while Holman places them slightly west.
TirasJosephus says they became Thrace, on the north of the Aegean Sea, and Holman agrees, but encorporates the suggestion that it included ancient Troy; Etruscians, speculates ESV.

Note: seven sons, a “complete” number representing others.

The Sons of Gomer

AshkenazJosephus says the the Ashkenazis were “Rheginians,” but what this means is not totally clear. The Talmud purportedly places this in east-central Europe. The ESV and Holman both place them in Caucasus.
RiphathJosephus identifies this with Paphlagonia, on the north-central coast of Turkey, while Holman places them in eastern Turkey and ESV has no opinion.
TogarmahJosephus identifies them with Phrygians, in western central Turkey, while the other sources have Togarmah in eastern Turkey or Armenia.

The Sons of Javan

ElishahJosephus says they are “now the Aeolians,” on the northern part of the Aegean coast of Turkey. The ESV and Holman both put them on Cyprus.
TarshishThe location of “Tarshish,” in the Bible, is famously unknown, but Josephus confidently has it as Cilicia, the capital of which was Tarsus, on the southeast coast of Turkey. The ESV speculates it is Tartessos in Spain, while Holman says that it is in Italy, or some point thereabout.
KittimAll agree that Kittim is Cyprus.
DodanimReading “Rhodanim,” ESV and Holman have this as Rhodes; Josephus does not mention it.

Note: these two latter groups together also make seven in number.

The Sons of Ham

The Sons of HamLocation Notes
CushThe name is well-known to mean Ethiopia, although it might have been located around present-day Sudan.
MizraimAgain, well-known to mean Egypt.
PhutAll sources agree (although not all are confident) that this is probably Libya, on the African coast to the west of Egypt.
CanaanThis is well-known indeed.

The Sons of Cush

Note: To save time, from now on I will be using only the Holman Atlas for place names. There is some disagreement, as above; e.g., the ESV says Havilah is at the tip of the Arabian peninsula, not in Africa.
Seba, HavilahBoth far to the southeast in Africa, along the entrance of the Red Sea, around present-day Eritrea.
Sabtah, RaamahBoth around present day Yemen, near the southern corner of Arabia.
SabtechahLocation unknown
Sons of Raamah: Sheba and DedanSheba is widely thought to be around Yemen, near the southern corner of Arabia, while Dedan is placed just east of the Gulf of Aqaba—close to the place where the Midianites were thought to dwell. Note that Noah was married to a woman described as a “Cushite,” who was also a Midianite; perhaps she was called “Cushite” simply because the Midianites were among the “sons of Cush.”
NimrodHe was said to have started four cities, Babel (i.e., Babylon), Erech (i.e., Uruk), Accad (i.e., Akkad), and Calneh, all in “the land of Shinar,” which evidently is in southern Mesopotamia and might have meant either “Sumer” or “Akkad,” and some references say simply “Babylonia,” referring to the entire southern Mesopotamian region and the cultures that grew up around there.
Asshur (“out of that land”)Asshur is the name of a chief city in the future Assyria; this included Nineveh, Resen, Calah, all in northeastern Mesopotamia, and Rehoboth, the location of which is not known.

The Sons of Mizraim

LudimAround present-day Tunisia.
AnamimLocation unknown.
LehabimAround present-day coastal Libya.
NaphtuhimThe Nile Delta region.
PathrusimAppear to be around the ancient (more northerly location of) Ethiopia; possibly just Upper Egyptian?
“Out of whom came Philistim.” Placed in present-day coastal Libya. This offers a different origin to the usual one given of the Philistines; archaeologists believe them to have originated in the Aegean islands.
CaphtorimFrom Crete.

Note: From here I will go much faster, as this is simply taking too long. Note also, among the sons of Ham, Phut/Put is here skipped.

The Sons of Canaan

Sidon, Heth, Jebusites, Amorites, Girgasites, Hivites, Arkites, Sinites, Arvadites, Zemarites, HamathitesSidon is of course the famous city. Heth, located north of the land of Canaan, is the source of the Hittites. The rest are all to be found in or very near to the land of Canaan, where they can be specifically located at all. Information about the tribes can be found throughout the following notes.

The Children of Shem

These are the so-called Semites, or Semitic tribes.

ShemHe is placed in and north of the Arabian Peninsula.
Children of Shem: Elam, Asshur, Arphaxad, Lud, AramElam, Asshur, and Aram (Syria) were all Mesopotamian. Lud was purportedly located in northwest Asia Minor, while the location of Arphaxad is unknown.
Children of Aram: Uz, Hul, Gether, MashUz and Hul were apparently in the desert south of Syria, near Canaan, while Mash was north of Elam and Gether’s location is unknown.
Children of ArphaxadHere was have not a list of Arphaxad’s immediate offspring but instead a genealogical line, as follows: Arphaxad > Salah > Eber > Peleg and Joktan. Salah’s location is unknown, but Eber—after whom the Hebrews were named—and his son Peleg lived in northern Mesopotamia, in southern Turkey, or northern modern Syria. Joktan lived in the Arabian desert.
Children of JoktanThe names of Gen 10:26-29 are, like the line of Cain and many more to follow, listed in detail as “the road not traveled” by the genealogy that would lead to the kingdom of Israel and the Messiah. The names, which I will not bother listing, are all held to be the 13 original and “purest” Arabian tribes. The names can be found around the Arabian peninsula, especially the southern end, and even (in the case of Ophir) possibly in Africa on the other side of the entrance of the Red Sea.

Who was Shem (Gen 10:21-31) and why was he important? What about Eber (10:21, 24-25)?

As to his location and those of his descendants, see the table above. His name is the source of the word “Semite.” This implies that not just Hebrews, but all the Arab tribes, as well as Syrians, probably the Babylonian and Assyrian peasantry, and a number of others, were considered Semitic. But among those who were not deemed Semitic included the Canaanites (most importantly), the Egyptians, and Nimrod, the founder of Babylonia if not many of the people. Note that not all the people who were purportedly descended from Shem spoke a language of the Semitic language family; some spoke an Indo-European language. That the connections are close enough is interesting. As to Eber, it was he after whom the Hebrews were named.

Was Terah’s journey not a homecoming to the land of the sons of Eber (Gen 10:21, 24-25)—the “Hebrews”?

The name “Eber” means “the other side” as in “the other side of the flood,” so the other side of the Euphrates. This was the land of Haran, from which Isaac and Jacob got wives. If the homeland of Eber was in northern Syria, as it is widely thought, then indeed it might be identified with the land of Haran, where Terah took his family, including Abram, after they left “Ur of the Chaldeans.” So, whatever the reason for the move, they were coming back to their ancestral homeland. Abraham sought a wife for Isaac from the same place, and Rebekah told Jacob to find a wife there as well.

Why is it plausible to say “the earth was of one language” (Gen 11:1)?

The earth was “of one language” (Gen 11:1) because relatively few generations had passed since the sons of Noah disembarked. If the scattering of the tribes and languages of earth happened with the generation of Peleg, that was merely four generations after Shem. Moreover, the text makes clear that all humanity lived within close proximity of each other. In Peleg’s day “was the earth divided” (Gen 10:25); the people fear being “scattered abroad” (Gen 11:4); but God does so scatter them (Gen 11:8). Besides, the text makes it abundantly clear that all his names ancestors going back to Noah are still alive in the time of Peleg. So this is, essentially, a large tribe.

Why “of one language, and of one speech” (Gen 11:1)?

Is this not redundant? The question is whether this is mere redundancy for emphasis, or if there was meant some distinction between the words translated “language” and “speech.” The NASB usefully renders this “same language” and “same words”—and then the thought becomes clearer. Not only was the language the same, they actually used the same words for things, unlike the situation where those with a similar language used different words for some things in dialects. The Hebrew rendered “speech” or “words” here, דָבָר or dabar, is glossed “speech, word,” and seems to be used for individual words in a language. So perhaps the sense is “the same language and dialect.” The implication is that people understood each other very well indeed, unlike the situation in the time of Moses, when there are countless dialects of many languages, which make peaceful intercourse between the nations difficult.

Who is “they” in Gen 11:2?

Moreover, at what point of the genealogies of Gen 10-11 did “they” make their move (11:2) and begin the city and tower (11:3-4)? Considering the longevity of the post-diluvian patriarchs, who was alive at the time? The pronoun grammatically refers back to “the whole earth” in Gen 11:1, which seems to imply all of humanity. Again, consider that it was in the day of Peleg, the great-grandson of Shem, that “the earth [was] divided” (Gen 10:25). Assuming that this means the division of mankind at the Tower of Babel, some interesting consequences fall out of the text. Noah and his named descendants through Peleg were all alive at the time of the Tower of Babel, as can be seen by comparing Gen 9:28 (“Noah lived after the flood 350 years”) with the ages assigned to his descendants in Gen 11:10-19. Indeed, Noah’s descendants from Shem through Peleg’s father, Eber, all outlived Peleg by a significant number of years; they even outlived Abraham. It is surprising that the text does not mention or report anything about these startling consequences. In any event, “they” therefore very probably means “all of humanity living,” at least, all of humanity acknowledged in the Bible.

Why are “they” said to “journey from the east,” especially considering that that place is already rather far east among the Table of Nations (Gen 11:2)?

First, considering that humanity was not “scattered” yet, and that there was some good reason to believe that they all lived, as it were in an extended family or tribe, near one another, we have a few possibilities. Without reviewing them all, I will say simply that I am inclined to follow the NASB, which says the word (מִקֶּ֑דֶם, miqqedem) is not from the east but rather to the east, or as the NIV puts it, “eastward.” The implication in any event is that the tribe was moving “eastward”—actually, in all probability, south-eastward, following the Euphrates—perhaps in search of better farmland and grazing. Moving eastward toward Babylon, as the Israelite exiles did, would have been highly symbolic and meaningful for later readers; see comments above on 2:8 and 3:24.

What sort of structure was the “tower” (Gen 11:3)?

And what significance is there in the observations that they wished to build with brick and “slime” (Gen 11:3; and what is that)? While this is not entirely clear from the text itself, it is very likely to be a ziggurat, with the identity supported if not confirmed by the description of the materials as being brick and “slime,” i.e., “tar” in the more modern translations, also identified as “asphalt” and “bitumen,” which are both in Strong’s gloss of חֵמָר, chemar. The building materials, even at the time of Moses, might have been known to break down relatively quickly, at least compared to stone, and might have already been thought to exhibit the vanity and ephemerality of the greatest works of man.

What “city” is meant at Gen 11:4?

And why was this of significance both for the current narrative and the rest of the Bible? We are told, in fact, that it was “Babel,” and this understood to mean Babylon. This is significant as being the first city mentioned in the post-Flood world (being first listed at Gen 10:10). Babylon later became the nemesis of Israel and a symbol of decadence. It became if anything an even greater and more proverbial symbol of decadence by New Testament times.

Might Nimrod have had something to do with the building of the city and tower of Babel (Gen 11:3-4)?

Yes, and in fact this is tolerably clear from the text, considering the background on him given in the previous chapter (Gen 10:8-12). In that section, we were told that “the beginning of his kingdom was Babel” (10:10). And here we have the first listed city—and one specially distinguished by being discussed at such length. In the same way that Nimrod is singled out for his earthly accomplishments, Babel is singled out. So it seems likely, even if it is not stated in so many words, that the person behind the building of the Tower and the City of Babel described in Gen 11 was Nimrod. Moreover, given the length of years of lifetimes, it is wholly plausible that Shem’s great-grandson Peleg would have been present, a man in his prime, at the same time that Ham’s grandson Nimrod made a name for himself as a “mighty hunter” and, it seems, not just a king but the founder of Babylon.

What is the ambition and fear described at Gen 11:4 that they wished to build a “tower” with a “top…unto heaven,” to “make a name” in order to prevent being “scattered” over “the whole earth”?

To begin with the ambition. In a few places in the Bible, intimidating cities are described in a way reminiscent of these plans for Babel: for example, the cities of the doomed Amorites “are great and walled up to heaven” (Deut 1:28), while the “high-walled fortress” of Moab “will be brought down” (Isa 26:12). As to making a name for them, this means attaining a measure of earthly glory, similar to those “mighty men which were of old, men of renown” (Gen 6:4), or to David who “gat him a name” after smiting “the Syrians in the valley of salt” (2 Sam 8:13). Here, of course, the monument will be, like the pyramids of Egypt, a supposedly-lasting testimony to the power of the king who builds it. As to being “scattered,” part of the thing to be feared here is the peril of diminished numbers, when different camps might begin to wage war on each other. There is another sense in which being “scattered” would be a curse: God said that if the Israelites follow the gods of the idolatrous Canaanites, “the Lord shall scatter you among the nations” (Deut 4:27), which indeed is precisely what happened later on in the history of Israel.

Aren’t the ambitions described at Gen 11:4 actually laudable?

What is sinful about them—or, if they are not sinful, why did God wish to stymie them? The Babelites’ ambitions are described in a way that sounds reasonable. What is wrong with settling in a fertile plain, building a city and a high tower there, and wanting fame and to remain together, with safety in numbers? The problem is that this is not all there was to the Babelites’ ambitions, as can be seen from the ordinary course of history as well as the actual history of Babylonia. Building a city in those days almost guaranteed brutal tyranny, slavery, and worship of gods that approved of all manner of immorality and injustice, at least when done by those in power. The tower was not merely high, its “top may reach unto heaven,” competing with God. The “name” that the likes of Nimrod might establish would probably be at the expense of many dead, enslaved, and subjugated; the fame he wanted was likely that of a dictator. It is also possible that, when they were instructed to “multiply, and replenish the earth” (Gen 9:1), to “bring forth abundantly in the earth, and multiply therein” (Gen 9:7), God meant them to scatter themselves over the earth; but instead they were staying all in one place. God, clearly, wanted man to spread out across the earth, not all under the rule of a single prideful, impious despot who might cause the people to forget to call upon the name of the Lord, and to walk with the Lord, as Seth’s line did, and as Noah and some of his descendants did.

Is there archaeological evidence for “the Tower of Babel” (Gen 11:4)?

There is some archaeological evidence for a very early ziggurat on what is believed to be the original site of Babylon. A few years ago, a tablet was found that purports to be a picture of a ziggurat at Babylon., although this one was a reconstructed tower built a the behest of Nebuchadnezzar (who lived 2,000 years later). And Titus Kennedy, in Unearthing the Bible, also points to the story of Enmerkar (a name that shares important consonants with “Nimrod”), which shares interesting parallels to the Biblical Babel story, with significant differences. In that regard the epic bears rough likenesses that are themselves roughly similar to likenesses that other Mesopotamian and Egyptian texts have with other Gen 1-11 stories, such as about the creation, Eden, and Noah. As with those stories (see above), the question is whether the Bible story, or its folk ancestor narratives, are the origin of the other narratives, or vice-versa—or if all the stories share a common ancestor. I am inclined to think the latter is the case.

Did God come down to earth personally (Gen 11:5) to observe the work? Was this necessary?

Of course God did not have to come down to earth personally. But just the same, it would be a mistake to suppose that the text was certainly an anthropomorphism. He did, in fact, appear on earth, in various theophanies, beginning with his appearance in the Garden. For another example, he appears to be one of the “three men” (Gen 18:1) who appeared to Abraham, and he declared his intention to “go down now, and see whether [the people of Sodom and Gomorrah] have done altogether according to the cry of it, which is come unto me” (18:21). While this was a theophany, matters were different when, from the burning bush, God declares, “I am come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians” (Ex 3:8); he did not appear bodily during the ten plagues. But God did appear in some sort of human-like shape when, for example, he “came down upon mount Sinai, on the top of the mount” (Ex 19:20) to give the law to Moses, or perhaps not until he allowed Moses to see him from behind (Ex 33:23). These examples all make perfectly clear that God could have come down in some bodily form. But the text would be satisfied just as well if his spirit were on hand.

God observes that the builders of Babel have one language, that “this they begin to do,” and that “nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do” (Gen 11:6). What does all this mean?

“This” presumably refers to the building activity. The things the Babelites “imagine” they could do would probably not extend beyond then-present experience; so we should not think that God is ascribing divine or even super-human abilities to the Babelites. He is, rather, concerned that they will further unify all mankind under the yoke of an idolatrous regime. As a famous psalm puts it, “Why do the heathen rage, and the people imagine a vain thing?” (Ps 2:1) As to having one language and dialect, this is a prerequisite of such a universal empire (as the lingua franca of Latin in the Roman Empire, or English in the present British-American Empire).

Does the plural “let us” (Gen 11:7) indicate that God was speaking to some other spiritual beings, or what?

This is not altogether clear, but see comments on Gen 1:1 above for some notions. In this case, a significant possibility is that God was accompanied by assistants around the time that he punished the evildoers to confuse their language, as when two angels were with him before he destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 18-19), and when “the destroyer” (Ex 12:23) slew the firstborn of Egypt. This is the sort of detail that the Bible might well leave to implication and inference, because the fact did not merit direct statement.

In confounding human speech (Gen 11:7), is God not doing something he temporarily undid at the Pentecost?

Yes. At the Pentecost, “they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues.” (Acts 2:4) It was then that “devout men, out of every nation under heaven” (2:5) heard the speech and wondered. In fact, many nations are listed, and people present from those nations did “hear them speak in our tongues the wonderful works of God.” (2:9-11) This was precisely the opposite of what happened at Babel, where God confused languages to prevent the accomplishment of the vain and ultimately (in this case, anyway) evil works of man.

How did God accomplish the scattering abroad from Babel (Gen 11:8-9)?

At least part of the answer is that God confused the language of the inhabitants of Babel. But that just raises the question how he did that, too. How he accomplished these ends, we are not specifically told and there is no way to know for sure. But we should bear in mind that God often accomplishes things through unwitting human agents. It seems to me that, if this was the first city and tower of the post-Flood world, and if they told themselves they would make a name for themselves and reach to heaven, they had grand ambitions, as Moses would have known the Babylonians did have. Different men might well jockey for position as leader; and one might well get the notion of using different words for things, as signs of allegiance and as a secret code indecipherable to enemies. Thus ambition would lead to speaking in competing codes; as a result, trust would evaporate and work would stop. The scattering would come when the people began to view each other as not just rivals, but as dangerous enemies. And that is just what we might expect of Noah, who was still on hand if all of living humanity were united, and his more decent offspring. They certainly would not trust the likes of Ham, Canaan, and especially Nimrod. Moreover, Noah might tell the people that God intended that they split up and go their separate ways. But, of course, this is all purely speculative. Again, we simply do not know.

In what sense does the text strongly imply that were they were “scattered” (Gen 11:8-9)?

Again, we have already been told that in Peleg’s day “was the earth divided” (Gen 10:25), implying that they were not divided into nations before that (see the question about “they” in 11:2, above). If so, this strongly implies that they migrated from Babel to the homelands that came to be associated with each nation, Mizraim going to Egypt, Japheth going to Greece, etc.

How and why did they “leave off to build the city” (Gen 11:8) of Babylon?

Indeed, since the city was Babylon, was the city construction temporarily halted, only to begin again later, or what? Probably what is meant is that the “city” then being planned, because it would include all people then alive, was going to be far greater and more splendid than the one that emerged, which included (perhaps) only Nimrod and his followers.

What is the significance of the name “Babel” (Gen 11:9)?

The name, בָּבֶל or Babel, might well be derived from בָּלַל or balal, which is glossed “mingle, mix, confuse, confound,” since the text explicitly states that the city was called Babel “because there the Lord confused the language of the whole earth”. The implication is that the future Babylon—which would have been well known to Moses—had roots in this city founded on the “confusion” wrought in their defiance of God.

What characterizes the short toledoth at Gen 11:10-26?

Also, what is its function? Was it really necessary? What do the genealogy and years lived imply about the faith of Abram? The toledoth recounts “the generations of Shem”—the originator of the Semites—and we must bear in mind that it is not first and foremost about Shem himself but his family, or descendants. So this connects Shem, Noah’s son, with Abram, the focus of the next great narrative. Noah was blessed, and he passed on that blessing explicitly to Shem (Gen 9:26-27) and his line. The promise of Shem, and by extension the promise of the “seed” (3:15), passed on through this line ultimately to Abram. That is the main point. The genealogy also illustrates two facts, one already announced—that the span of man’s life would be 120 years (6:3)—and one more obscure—that the first five generations from Noah were alive, if not on hand, even into the time of Abram. This further entails that a living memory survived to Abram’s time not only of the Lord, but of the sacrifice and God’s covenant, of the Flood and its reason, and of evil, antediluvian days. Unless the families were utterly separated, which is quite possible, or lost touch with the old faith, which is also possible, the memory of the Lord and of sacrifice would not have to be wholly renewed in Abram.

Is it not remarkable that Gen 5 and 11 show ten generations each? And are there not eleven generations listed in Luke 3?

From Adam to Noah (inclusive) was ten generations, while from Shem to Abram (also inclusive) was ten generations. Does this mean there was some contrivance? Not necessarily; such an isolated detail could easily have been a coincidence, or God could have arranged this as some sort of subtle lesson, though I confess I do not know what that would be. It could also, or instead, mean there was selection by an author or redactor of Genesis; in fact, there are eleven generations listed from Shem to Abraham in the genealogy of Luke 3:34-36. So, one might argue, perhaps there was a deliberate omission, and creating two sets of ten names seems a plausible explanation of the omission. The problem is that the earliest versions of Septuagint lack the name “Cainan” (as Genesis 11 lacks it), while some later versions added it. That would explain how Luke got it in his copy. Still, does this not represent an error in the inerrant text of Luke? Well, no, and here things get even more interesting. As the great Baptist theology John Gill has it, “This Cainan is not mentioned by Moses in Gen 11:12 nor has he ever appeared in any Hebrew copy of the Old Testament, nor in the Samaritan version, nor in the Targum; nor is he mentioned by Josephus, nor in 1 Chron 1:24 where the genealogy is repeated; nor is it in Beza’s most ancient Greek copy of Luke: it indeed stands in the present copies of the Septuagint, but was not originally there”. In other words, the name “Cainan” was added to the text of Luke by copyists who were relying on erroneous copies of the Septuagint to “correct” the text of Luke. So the originals of both Gen 11 and Luke 3 probably had ten names apiece. As to the whole issue of contrivance, see entries above that mention this concept; there is no new challenge here.

Did Terah’s family worship the Lord (Gen 11:26)?

We are told that the family lived in “Ur of the Chaldees,” which might imply that they followed the beliefs of the Chaldeans—i.e., Semitic people who later joined and became interchangeable with Babylonians. Since from an early age the Babylonians were known to worship a pagan pantheon, the implication would be that Terah and Abram did as well, although Yahweh might have been one of the gods they adhered to. The family also is to relocate (perhaps back) to the land of Haran (Gen 11:31), suggesting they might have followed the religion of the Arameans. Outside of the Bible, we might note that ruins of an ancient temple to the Mesopotamian moon god, Sin, can be found at Haran. There are several bits of evidence on this question from other parts of the Bible. In Gen 24, when Abraham’s servant meets Laban, and tells the story giving all the evidence that the meeting with Rebekah was blessed by the Lord, her brother and father repeat back the servant’s frequent endorsement of the Lord: “Then Laban and Bethuel answered and said, The thing proceedeth from the Lord: we cannot speak unto thee bad or good.” (Gen 24:50) In the next generation, we have the story of Rachel, who “had stolen the images that were her father’s” (31:19), i.e., Laban’s. Since Rachel was Laban’s daughter, she was Nahor’s great-granddaughter; as Nahor was Abram’s brother (Gen 11:26), Rachel was Abram’s great-great-niece. The point, in any event, is that Abram’s family in Haran did worship other gods (probably the curiously-named god Sin, as we will see shortly). But, third, later in the same chapter, Laban reaches an important agreement with Jacob, and calls upon God himself to witness it: “The God of Abraham, and the God of Nahor, the God of their father, judge betwixt us.” (Gen 31:53) This makes it sound as there was a shared tradition of worshiping a single God, Elohim, the creator of the universe, which had passed down to Terah, and from him to his sons Abram and Nahor. This might not be correct, however, because the plural verb “judge” (not singular, “judges”), might imply that Laban was referring to a plural number of gods. Also explicit is this declaration in Joshua: “Terah, the father of Abraham, and the father of Nachor…served other gods.” (Josh 24:2) Clearly, the context shows this means other gods in addition to the only true God, Yahweh. Finally, as we will soon see, the Lord seems to require no special introduction to Abram at the beginning of the next chapter. He simply begins commanding Abram, whose obedience is immediate, or reported next in the narrative; this strongly implies that Abram did already know the Lord. So, on the one hand, we see excellent evidence that Terah’s family was familiar with and did worship the Lord; Yahweh was not entirely forgotten from the days of Noah. But, clearly, the faith had been intermixed with paganism, just as it would be later by the backsliding Israelites.

What are we to make of the repeated refrain, “And the evening and the morning were the [ordinal number] day” (as at Gen 1:5)?

I propose to gloss the sentence this way: “After an evening, and with the dawning of the next morning, the first day ended.” In the text, these sentences come after the descriptions of each day’s creation activities, implying that the evening and the dawn came after those activities. If this sentence were, instead, a recapitulation of the whole day—a day lasting from “morning” until “evening”—then it is hard to know why the word “evening” (עֶ֥רֶב, ereb) always occurs before “morning” (בֹ֖קֶר, boqer). It seems that, contrary to the usual Hebrew day which begins at sundown, each 24-hour day begins at dawn and ends with the conclusion of the following night.

How long is a “day” (as at Gen 1:5)?

In this text, a “day” (י֔וֹם or yowm) need not mean a standard 24-hour period, however much some insist on this. Elsewhere in the Bible itself we are told, “a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past” (Psalm 90:4), a verse Peter seems to have recalled when he wrote, “one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.” (1 Pet. 3:8) Moreover, the seven “days” are recounted on a divine scale, as for most of the time, God is the only actor. It is also a strong and perfectly acceptable argument to point out that, on the most plausible account of the meaning of the events described—an account that attempts to be squared with a respectful, good-faith, scientific observation of the God-made creation before us—the events would quite naturally (but also divinely) extend over billions of years. Given this, the purposes of the sentences seems clear enough: they divide up and order the events using a metaphor.

How many things here is God said to “divide” (as at Gen 1:4), and so, what might its significance be?

God is said to divide light from darkness (Gen 1:4); the waters under the sky (the sea) from those above (the clouds, I think; 1:7); day from the night (1:14); light from darkness again (1:18), but on my interpretation this really is the same insofar as it is the sun’s light, whether obscured by the proto-earth’s clouds or not, that performs this function. Moreover, although the text does not explicitly say so, the land is clearly “divided” from the sea (1:9). These “divisions” seem to distinguish the main components of the visible universe, which was at first “without form.” Hence with these actions God gives form to the world.

What is the purpose and significance of God’s declaration, as at Gen 1:4, that the things he has created are “good”?

This is a good illustration of the Bible’s understatement and tendency to require the reader to pay close attention in order to get the full message. The message here is not merely that God approves of his own creation, but that creation was, at first, good; but this changes, as we will see, with the Fall of Man in Gen 3. It is this change that makes the emphasis apropros.

Is there not a fair bit of repetition of verbal formulas in the six “days” of creation?

Indeed there is. As one can see in Gen 1:3-5, with “And God said…and there was…,” then “God saw…” and “it was good”; and all is followed by “the evening and the morning were the nth day”. Commentators make much of this repetition: there is the report that God said something, then there is the command (or “divine fiat”) itself, then a report of the action being done (the “fulfillment formula”), then God names the thing created, judges it good (the “approval formula”), and finally, the day comes to a close.

What is the “Spirit of God” and why is it said to move upon “the face of the waters” in Gen 1:2?

Here we are invited to picture the proto-earth as being one giant ocean, as a 2020 study theorizes actually happened in the proto-earth. It is precisely the Spirit of God that, in other places in the Bible, is said to be the original creator and mover of the universe. It helps to bear in mind that the word for “Spirit” here, רוּחַ or ruach, also means “breath or wind,” and that it is one of the products of “breath”—the Word of God—that is elsewhere said (and demonstrated in Gen 1) to be particularly creative. As Psalm 33:6 puts it, “By the word of the Lord were the heavens made; and all the host of them by the breath [ruach] of his mouth.” The notion that some agent of the Godhead was present to initially move things about is also consistent with theology going back to ancient times, not just in Aristotle’s Prime Mover argument but also on the view that divine intervention is always needed to sustain the universe in its existence and activity. So it is particularly apropos that God’s presence and activity are noted precisely in the first moments of the chaotic proto-universe.

What is the “light” that God created on the first day (Gen 1:3), particularly if not the Sun (created on the fourth day)?

The way to make this narrative cohere best both with common sense and with science is to envision the events of the narrative unfolding from a point of view on the very early proto-earth, making use of human-type perceptual equipment, not from way out in space or from some abstract, scientific point of view. Hence, we can imagine the light from the sun shining through the proto-earth’s gas cloud, there would be periods of light and periods of dark, as the gas blob began to rotate (Gen 1:5). Atmospheric conditions at some early point might well be such that there were no distinctive clouds visible from the planet surface, and so neither “firmament” nor solid ground or ocean, but merely a massive, slightly opaque dust cloud. So in fact the “light” might have been the Sun, but enshrouded by clouds of as yet unthinned and un-”divided”, formless dust and ice. Another possibility, that strikes me as being a little too anachronistic, is the notion that this is the light following the Big Bang. This general theory is explored in more detail below.

In Gen 1:2, what does “without form, and void” mean? How about “the deep” and the primordial “waters” and their “face”?

It seems what was initially created by God was something like “raw stuff,” Aristotelian matter without form; it was essentially chaotic, without order. It had to be given some shape or nature by God, and it did not originally have any such shape or nature. Hence, to say that the earth was “without form, and void” is to say that it was an amorphous, chaotic blob. That nicely coheres with scientific theories about the formation of the primordial earth out of a disc of dust and gas, floating formlessly in space. The early earth was deep, dark, wet (at least, full of frozen water molecules), chaotic, impenetrable mass of earth and (ice) water. That is what is meant by a “heaven and earth” that is nonetheless “without form, and void.” Then certainly “the deep” and “the waters” both might be understood as descriptions of such a chaotic and wet mass.

What word is used for “create” in Gen 1:1 and why does it matter?

TThe word in Gen 1:1 for “create,” בָּרָ֣א or bara, is used here, while in other contexts, a word meaning “made,” עָשָׂה or asah, is used. The distinction appears to be that between creating out of nothing and assembling out of pre-existing parts—between originating and transforming. Basically, God is said to bara things out of nothing, while he asah them by assembling them from pre-existing things.

So did God create the universe ex nihilo in Gen 1:1, according to the Bible? What reason is there to think so?

Yes, although perhaps the text does not say so in a way that would satisfy a critical philosopher on the point. The argument, briefly stated, is theological: the first sentence of the Bible is, “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth.” Is there anything other than the heaven and the earth? The author doubtless did not think so; and if so, then this statement amounts to saying that God created everything there was to create. Peter in Acts 4:24 is perhaps more explicit on this point: “Lord, thou art God, which hast made heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all that is in them”. Even more pointed is a verse that Grudem rightly makes much of in this connection: “Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear.” (Heb. 11:3) Unless the author here is saying—as he very probably is not—that visible things are made out of invisible things, this implies that all visible things are made ex nihilo.

Is Gen 1:1 to be translated as part of an adverbial phrase or as an independent main clause?

In other words, is it “God created” or is it “When God created, …” with either Gen 1:2 or 1:3 the consequent of “when”? In the first case, God created a primordial universe, then structured and filled it; in the second case, God created a complete universe, and thereafter that previously good universe was reduced to chaos—as if there were a “gap” between 1:1 and 1:2. This is a common theory, but, without getting into the tedious details, there is nothing in the text to support it. For one thing, “when” does not appear in the text. Moreover, the notion that God would begin with an unshaped, empty universe makes excellent sense considering that the rest of Genesis 1, he is shaping and filling the universe.

God is said to create the heaven and the earth in Gen 1:1, and yet he creates “heaven” in 1:6-8 and “dry land” or earth in 1:9-10. Is this a contradiction?

No. There are various ways of explaining this, but the way that makes most sense to me is that what is created is neither heaven in the sense of the sky (which does not appear until the second day, Gen 1:6) nor earth in the sense of dry land (which does not appear until the third day, 1:9). So what is it? We are told its features, or rather, its lack of features: it is “without form, and void,” it is described as “the deep,” which has “waters” that are evidently not gathered-together “seas” (such seas do not appear, with the dry land, until the third day, 1:10). Indeed, the very fact that “waters” need to be separated from “waters” in order to make a “firmament” or expanse, which is only then (second day, 1:8) to be called “heaven” or “sky,” means that the initial “heaven and earth” are very strange and primordial indeed. Hence, to say that God created “the heaven and the earth” is simply to say that God created the universe.It is possible that we should interpret “heaven” here to mean the spiritual dwelling-place of God, but presumably that existed well before the material universe or “earth” in that sense (this is discussed more below).

What did God create first, precisely (Gen 1:1)?

As the text says, he created “the heaven and the earth.” This is a phrase that Sailhamer calls a hendiadys—a unitary concept formed out of two words conjoined with “and”—to mean the entire universe. This does not mean that he first created everything in all its glory and detail, because in the very next sentence, he says the earth that he just created was “without form, and void.” Also, see the next question.

Why is the plural form of the Hebrew word elohim, employed for “God” (Gen 1:1)?

Why is אֱלֹהִ֔ים, or elohim, used for a singular God in Gen 1:1 and so many places later? Indeed, and not only that, why is a pluralized word meaning “in our image” (בְּצַלְמֵ֖נו, betzalmenu) used (1:26), if “the Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Deut 6:4)? A common and traditional explanation is theological: this is because the Holy Spirit and Jesus were part of the Godhead, and it was, apparently, acceptable to refer to the Godhead using the plural. While true enough, it does not seem this is why the plural was used here, because the author of this text presumably did not believe in a trinitarian Godhead and hence not intend to refer to one. But perhaps the author was inspired to use the plural, for reasons he himself did not quite understand. Another traditional explanation, however, is possible: this was what is called in Hebrew grammar the emphatic plural or the plural of majesty.By using the plural form (for the noun) with singular verb forms, the author conveys particular respect or emphasis. So this was not any old god; it was God.

What is the function of Genesis 1?

There is, as one commentator pointed out, a polemic at work in Genesis 1. This polemic does not aim to undermine modern science, of course—but instead ancient pagan religions. Genesis stands against ancient religions that taught that different gods were responsible for different pieces of the creation, that some were champions of chaos and evil, that matter pre-existed the gods, that the gods were limited, had foibles, and were even mortal. Only one divine personage matters here, and it is not the highest god of some pantheon. It is the god with a capital “g,” God himself, El Shaddai, God Almighty—named Lord, or Yahweh, i.e., he whose essence is to exist, and whose existence is sovereign. The text, qua polemic, replaced pantheons of capricious and deeply flawed gods with a single all-powerful creator god.