When we left Noah and his family last week, the floodgates of heaven had just burst open, the waters of the flood were beginning to rise — but God had shut the door of the ark.
And then, Moses tell us,  for forty days the flood kept coming on the earth, and as the waters increased they lifted the ark high above the earth.  The waters rose and increased greatly on the earth, and the ark floated on the surface of the water.  They rose greatly on the earth, and all the high mountains under the entire heavens were covered.  The waters rose and covered the mountains to a depth of more than fifteen cubits.  Every living thing that moved on land perished—birds, livestock, wild animals, all the creatures that swarm over the earth, and all mankind.  Everything on dry land that had the breath of life in its nostrils died.  Every living thing on the face of the earth was wiped out; people and animals and the creatures that move along the ground and the birds were wiped from the earth. Only Noah was left, and those with him in the ark.  The waters flooded the earth for a hundred and fifty days.
 Now the springs of the deep and the floodgates of the heavens had been closed, and the rain had stopped falling from the sky.  The water receded steadily from the earth. At the end of the hundred and fifty days the water had gone down,  and on the seventeenth day of the seventh month the ark came to rest on the mountains of Ararat.
Now, all of this is pretty straightforward reading; everyone who reads this understands what is going on: the earth is flooded, and every air-breathing creature outside the ark dies — and, not just dies, “perishes”, a special word in the Hebrew that means judgement.
So it is painfully ironic that this passage, which is — in one respect — so very clear, has become the center of some very bitter debates among Christians.
I’ll give you a brief history of the discussion so we can all know why it has become such a hot topic:
Since the earliest days of Christianity this passage has been taken at face value: that Noah’s flood was a world-wide flood.
But as the centuries went by, and as more and more of the earth was explored, doubt began to set in. The globe is really large, and some parts of it are really tall. For instance, Mount Everest was discovered, and other mountains immense beyond imagining. And it became harder and harder to believe that the flood had covered all of them.
And so, about 200 years ago a movement of secular scholars rose up in Europe and said, “Look, clearly this flood story is just a myth: a global flood is just not scientifically possible! Which means that the bible is full of myths, and Christianity is nonsense!” And many people in Europe and America said, “Huh! Well, when you put it that way, I guess there’s no reason to be Christian anymore.”
Now, many conservative Christians noticed that this was happening, and they became alarmed. So they began to push back against those scholars and say, “No, you’re wrong! The bible is not full of myths, and the bible says this was a global flood, therefore a global flood must have happened!” And they began a counter-movement, trying to prove that a global flood is scientifically possible.
In short, one side is saying, “Science teaches that a global flood is impossible. Therefore the flood is a myth!” The other side is saying, “The bible teaches that a global flood is possible. Therefore the flood is a scientific reality!”
Unfortunately, this entire argument is based on a flawed premise. The argument is about something the bible does not actually say. Because, when we read the text carefully, we find that the bible does not actually say that Noah’s flood was a global flood.
It says that Noah’s flood was a world-wide flood.
And some of you are going to say, “Ummm, so…what’s the difference?”
I am so glad you asked! Because, seriously, this little detail changes the entire conversation.
See, Moses did not know that the earth is a globe. The Greeks only figured that out about 1000 years after Moses. He — and everyone else in the world at his time — believed that the earth was like a flat dish, with huge mountains around the outside edge holding up the solid roof of the sky, like pillars holding up a temple roof. The easternmost pillars of the sky were the Zagros mountains (which are now in Iran) and the northernmost pillars were the Ararat mountains (which are now in Turkey). The western and southern pillars were too far away to be known at that time. And everyone believed that above the solid sky, and beneath the earth, there was this cosmic ocean pressing in on all sides.
So when Moses says that the sky broke open, and the earth cracked, and water came gushing in until all the high mountains under the entire heavens were covered…in his mind, in his world, he is saying that even the mountains on the edges of the earth that held up the sky were covered. He is saying that the entire hollow habitat of the earth was completely filled up with the chaos of the cosmic ocean — just like a sunken ship! — with just a little bit of air trapped somewhere near the top where the ark floated.
Moses is not describing a global flood, he is describing a world-wide flood. And understanding what Moses actually meant changes the conversation for us. Now, instead of arguing about what exactly happened — because, obviously, none of us believe that the earth is a dish that got filled with water — now we are free to talk about what it means. Now we are free, as Christians, from having to prove somehow that Noah’s flood is scientifically possible, because — clearly — Moses is not speaking scientifically.
Nor is he speaking mythically. Moses is describing a real ancient catastrophe that was so terrible and so traumatic that — even thousands of years later! — the descendants of the survivors were psychologically damaged by the memory of it.
And we know this was a real flood because Moses’ flood story is not the only one. Several ancient cultures at that time had a flood story, and — this is the interesting part — they all tell roughly the same story: the gods lose their temper for one reason or another, and resolve to wipe out mankind with a flood. But one man receives a warning of some kind, so he builds a large boat, he fills it with people and animals, and survives a flood that covers most or all of the mountains and completely wipes out mankind.
Now, what is interesting is that these ancient flood stories all come from the same part of the world: the ancient Middle East. Ancient African cultures don’t have stories like this; neither do ancient Europeans, ancient Asians, or ancient American Indians. So what we conclude from this is that, at some point in the last 10,000 years, there really was a flood so massive that it wiped out almost the entire primordial population of the Middle East, and resulted in a collection of cultures that lived in constant terror of the gods, believing that — if they did not keep the gods happy! — the gods would wipe them out again.
So Moses, inspired by the Spirit of God, is writing here, as a shepherd, to comfort God’s traumatized people. The ancient Israelites had grown up hearing these terrible flood stories; they had grown up being taught to fear the gods, to fear chaos and judgment. Now Moses is not going to deny the reality of this flood, he is not going to deny that there is real chaos and real judgement in the universe. But he is going to refashion the ancient flood stories in order to show his people why they do not need to fear chaos and judgement. Moses is writing as a pastor, not as a scientist.
But, to be clear, I do want to say it again: Moses is talking about a world-wide flood, and that is important, because that detail is a big part of the comfort and encouragement for God’s people. Because if the flood was not world-wide, that would mean that some of the tyrannical sons of Cain could have survived. And that would mean that God failed to bring complete judgement upon those who had been actively destroying the world. And that is why Moses makes a point of saying, several times, that water filled the entire basin of the earth, including the mountains that held up the sky, and that every living thing on the face of the earth was wiped out. Of course Moses had no idea that beyond the Ararat mountains there was this place called Europe, and that beyond the Zagros mountains there was India and China. As Moses knew, the flood was world-wide. That is what he writes. And that is what he means.
But that raises a question for us, doesn’t it? Because in our church we believe that Moses was inspired by God to write Genesis, and God surely knew about Europe and China and everywhere else. So why didn’t God correct Moses? Why didn’t God say, “Well, Moses, um, actually there are no springs of the great deep because the earth is not a dish that can crack, and there are no floodgates of the heavens because the sky is not a solid roof, and besides that there is no cosmic ocean out there anyway, you are actually on a globe that is is hurtling through the vacuum of outer-space. So everything you’ve written here is actually innaccurate, you’re going to have to erase it and do it again!” Why didn’t God do that?
Well, because God is not revealing himself to Moses as the ultimate science teacher; God is revealing himself as the ultimate shepherd to his people.
God is the ultimate Father. He knows his children. He knows how they think, and he knows how much they can handle. He knows how to speak so that they can understand him. God could have completely dismantled Moses’ conception of the earth, torn it all down and rebuilt it to reflect our modern scientific understanding — but that would have literally destroyed their culture. Modern sociologists tell us that massive shifts in cosmology put an immense strain on a society; changes in understanding need to be made slowly if they are to be done safely. And God is not in the business of destroying his children; he is not in the business of “revealing the true scientific nature of the universe to mankind”, he is in the business of revealing who he really is.
So the bible does not say that Noah’s flood was a global flood, it says that it was a world-wide flood. However, it is clear, from the way Moses describes it, that his understanding of world-wide is very different from our understanding. But this does not mean that Moses was wrong and the bible is full of nonsense. What it means is that God speaks gently to his little children: he comes down to our level and communicates with us using concepts we can understand.
Friends, we do not have to choose between understanding the flood scientifically, or understanding the flood mythically. That is a false dichotomy, and it is a mistake to offer people only those two choices. There is a third option: we can read this through the eyes of the original audience, the ancient people of Israel. We can learn what it meant to them, and from that we can learn what God wants to say to us.
So what did this mean to them?
Well, many of the details in these verse would have been standard details that the ancient people of Israel grew up hearing: the cosmic ocean comes pouring in and fills the entire basin of the earth with chaos, wiping out mankind. But one small group of people and animals are saved in a boat, which bobs around on the water and eventually washes up against one of the pillars of the sky: the mountains of Ararat, in this case. And as the water recedes, the boat slides gradually down the pillar until it finally comes to rest in the foothills at the base…all of these were the usual flood story tropes.
So what makes Moses’ flood story different?
The difference is this: the God of Moses, the God of Israel, does not lose control in any way.
In the other flood stories, the gods have a temper tantrum, they release chaos upon mankind — and then they lose control of it and almost destroy themselves. In those stories, chaos is a force greater than the gods themselves.
But the God of Moses is different. He rules over himself: he does not have temper tantrums. And he rules over chaos. His presence brings order to chaos. And Moses has been saying this from the very fist verses of Genesis: In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the surface of the waters.
God created the cosmic waters of chaos; he created the earth as a place that was formless and empty, submerged in the waters of chaos. But he was always there, hovering over the surface of the waters, and when the time was right he breathed, and his spoken word parted the waters and lifted the earth out of chaos and filled it with life and order.
All that has happened here, in the flood, is that he has reversed that process: he has allowed the waters of chaos to swallow the earth once more; the earth has once more become formless and empty, submerged in the waters of chaos, just as it was in the beginning.
But — just as it was in the beginning — God is still there, hovering over the surface of the water. And Moses so urgently wants his readers to get this point that he actually repeats the same exact words that he used in the beginning. During creation, he told us, the Spirit of God was hovering over the surface of the waters. Now, during the flood, he tells us, the ark was hovering over the surface of the waters.
The only real difference between these sentences is that the Spirit does the hovering in creation, but the ark does the hovering in the flood. But this difference actually reinforces the point Moses has been making since he began the Book of Noah: God’s Spirit has left the Garden of Eden, just like he promised he would. When he left, that last point of perfect order on earth was left unprotected, and chaos came pouring in to replace it. But God’s Spirit has not left the planet — he is there, in the ark, with Noah and his family, filling it with life and order even as everything around them falls apart. The ark is a prototype for the tabernacle of God, the presence of God with his people: it is the only safe place in the whole world. It is the only remaining center of order.
And Moses adds to this sense of order by using numbers. For many centuries now, scholars have noticed how beautifully stylized and structured the flood story is. If we were to zoom out and look at the flood narrative as a whole, we would discover that the flood begins with instructions for seven days of gathering, followed by the actual seven days of gathering, followed by 40 days of rain, 150 days of the ark floating in chaos, followed by 40 days of waiting, seven days of waiting, and another seven days of waiting before Noah leaves the ark. So we find this balanced structure to the story: 7-7-40-150-40-7-7, a dramatic rise and fall of numbers that mimic the rise and fall of the waters.
And if you’re paying really close attention, you’ll discover that Moses has actually structured the flood narrative itself so that it has seven movements: 7-7-40-150-40-7-7.
And then, on top of all this, back in verse 11 Moses was very careful to tell us the exact year and month of Noah’s life that the flood began: in the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, on the seventeenth day of the second month.
Why? Why all this structure and precision? Because Moses wants to show his people that God is in absolute control of this whole process, even though it looks and feels like everything is out of control.
But there is more. Because this sense of order in the midst of chaos does not just point to God’s control, it also points to God’s purpose: why he is doing what he is doing. All these very precise numbers and dates are designed to focus our attention on this moment in verse 4: and on the seventeenth day of the seventh month the ark came to rest on the mountains of Ararat. Exactly five months after the ark was lifted off solid ground, the ark landed back on solid ground. Exactly five months after the ark was carried away into chaos, it was returned to the foundation of order. And this happened on the seventeenth day of the seventh month.
Now, by this point, we have all learned to realize that the seventh month has got to be special because it has the number seven in it. And we are right; in fact, we have no idea just how right we are, because — in the ancient calendar of Israel — the seventh month is the month of atonement. On the tenth day of the seventh month of every year, the high priest of Israel would enter into the presence of God at the very center of the tabernacle, and he would sprinkle blood — seven times! — on the golden box that was the footstool of God’s throne. And this ritual washed away all the sins of all the people for that whole year. Every year, this ritual would bring the people of God back out of the chaos of sin, and carry them back into the life and order that can only be found in God’s presence.
So Moses is not just showing his people that God is in total control, he is showing them that God’s control has a specific purpose: to cleanse the earth of sin and violence, to atone for the sins of God’s people, and to make all things new.
So on the seventeenth day of the month of atonement, the ark is redeemed from the waters of chaos. It touches down on solid ground, the foundation of order, and Moses tells us that:  God remembered Noah and all the wild animals and the livestock that were with him in the ark, and he sent a wind over the earth, and the waters receded.
God remembered Noah.
And these words, like many of the other words in this narrative, are deeply symbolic. If we insist on taking them literally, then we are saying that God can forget — which is blasphemous! God’s Spirit is in the ark with Noah, he is the captain of that ship, so it is not as if he has forgotten about his passengers.
No: this phrase is a covenantal phrase. It is a way of describing the process whereby God says to himself, “Now is the moment for me to keep redeem my people.”
And the people of Israel, when they heard Moses use this phrase, would have remembered their own recent history: how for 400 years — that’s 40 years multiplied by 10, that number is also significant — how for 400 years they had been caught in the darkness and chaos of slavery in Egypt, and how they had cried out to the Lord for deliverance, and how God had remembered them, and how he send a wind over the earth, and how the waters of the Red Sea receded, and how he led them out of the darkness and the chaos and the consequences of their sins onto solid ground at the foot of the mountain of God.
So what we are seeing here is that Moses’ flood story is very carefully written for a very particular purpose: to teach God’s people about God’s true character, and set them free from fear. All their lives they had been taught to fear the gods, to fear judgement and chaos. And looking back on their own history they had good reason to believe that God had abandoned them; after all, how else can you explain the fact that they were slaves in Egypt for 400 years? How else can you explain the fact that they have been wandering around in the wilderness for 40 years?
Well, Moses is giving them a different explanation, a different perspective on those years: he wants them to understand that they have been safe within the walls of God’s covenant presence the whole time.
For 400 years in Egypt it looked like they were under God’s judgment, lost in the chaos — but actually they were safe within the covenant promises that God had made to Abraham, the promise that God would rescue them from Egypt after 400 years.
And for 40 years in the wilderness it looked again like they were under God’s judgment, lost in the chaos — but actually they were safe within the covenant that God had made with Moses, the promise that God would lead them safely home after 40 years.
In the same way, for 40 days in the ark it looked as if Noah had been lost in the storm of God’s judgement — when the truth is, he was safe in God’s presence the whole time.
What we are seeing here, in Moses’ flood story, is a description of God’s discipleship program for his people. Moses started last week by using patterns of seven to highlight how God gathers his people together into his covenant, and baptizes them, making them holy. This week, he has added on patterns of 40 to help his people see that life within the covenant is safe…but it is also a time of testing and discipleship.
We don’t often think about it this way, but Noah’s time in the ark was a time of testing, to see whether he would continue to be obedient to God’s commands. Noah was the last true son of Seth on earth, he was the last true son of God. Which means that — just like every true son — Noah is subject to the discipline of his Father.
Twice Moses has pointed out that Noah did all that the Lord commanded him. God told him to build an ark, and Noah did all that the Lord commanded him. Then God told him to gather his family and the animals into the ark, and Noah did all that the Lord commanded him. But in many ways that was the easy part. Now Noah has to sit in the darkness while the entire world around him disappears into chaos. Can you imagine what that must have been like?
Quite honestly…it would have felt in many ways like a living death. After just a few days of storm you might begin to wonder if maybe everyone else outside the ark actually got the better deal: after all, drowning only takes a minute! It’s a horrible minute, sure — but at least then it’s over. But Noah has to pass living day after day through the violence of God’s cleansing judgement upon the world, and every day must have been an exercise of faith. I’m sure his wife came to him many times and said, “Are you sure that God is going to deliver us from this chaos? Are you sure he is not just maybe toying with us, giving us hope and making us suffer for a while before he finally sinks us in the sea? Wouldn’t it have been better to just enjoy life along with everyone else right up until the last day, and then just die, quickly and simply?”
What guarantee does Noah have that they are going to survive?
All he has…is God’s promise. Right back at the beginning of the story, God came to him and said, “Son, everything on earth is going to perish. But I will establish my covenant with you.”
And has that happened? Has God established a covenant with Noah? Not yet.
So Noah waits in faith, through 40 days of storm and then 150 days of silence. He is dead to the world, and the world is dead to him. All he can do is wait, and remember God’s promise — the promise that God will remember him and raise him back up out of the waters of death to stand rejoicing upon the soil of an earth made new.
And that is what Moses wants his people to realize also: that their 40 years in the wilderness were a time of testing. They were a time of discipline. It might have looked like they were lost in chaos, tossed back and forth by the judgements of God — but actually their sufferings and uncertainty were evidence of how much God loves them, how much he wants his children to grow in faith and joy and obedience.
Moses wants his people to remember this reality as they cross the Jordan River and begin the long process of inheriting their land. Tough times are coming! But that does not mean they are lost, it actually means they are exactly where they need to be.
Friends, the application is the same for us. Sometimes we look around at the world and we feel like God has totally lost control. Sometimes we look at our lives and we wonder if God has actually abandoned us. When that happens, when those feelings of abandonment and fear come, Noah’s experience in the ark is meant to remind us that what we are going through is normal, that — in fact! — what we are going through is God’s discipleship program.
See, being gathered into the ark does not take much time. In Noah’s case, it only took seven days to properly consecrate the ark and the family and the animals. In the same way, when we are gathered into the Church, the baptism process is over in a moment, and then we are inside.
But then the 40 days of testing and discipleship begin, and the 150 days of bobbing around in the midst of chaos until we touch down again, and then another 40 days of testing while we wait for the water to recede…friends, this is the Christian life! Within the walls of Christ’s covenant community we are perfectly safe from God’s judgment — but often it does not feel like it.
In fact, often it feels like our life before Christ was better, more peaceful. We were eating and drinking, getting married, buying and selling property, life was fine! And then, suddenly, someone preaches the gospel to us, the Holy Spirit wakes us up, and we find ourselves in this new life with a new community, and for a few minutes everything is great! — until someone shuts the door and the storm begins, and there we are, sitting in the dark, being tossed back and forth by the waves.
And it is very common, brothers and sisters, for us to wonder at that point, “What was I thinking? What have I gotten myself into?” And it is very common for us to look out through little cracks in the wall of the ark, and out there it looks like everyone is having a big swimming party: they are splashing around, shouting, having a good time, and we sometimes start to wonder if maybe we are the ones who are under God’s judgment, while everyone else outside gets to live life however they want.
Friends, our Father very urgently wants us to know that, yes, judgement does begin with the family of God, we are experiencing a judgement that people outside the Church do not experience. But the judgement we suffer is a corrective judgement. It is the corrective discipline of a Father who loves us, a Father who is not content to let us continue in our childishness. He has baptized us with his Spirit, and marked us as holy, adopted into his family — and now that we belong to him, he is going to make sure we grow up and become productive members of his family.
But the judgement that is falling outside the walls of the covenant — the judgment that sometimes looks like a giant pool party — that judgement is a destructive judgement. Friends, brothers and sisters, do not envy them. The world outside is to be pitied. They want us to think that their cries are cries of delight and freedom! — but actually those cries are the cries of rage and despair, because they are reaping the consequences of their actions.
Now, if you are here today and you are not a believer, you might be thinking to yourself, “There, see? I knew it: these Christians are all so arrogant, they think that they alone are holy, while all the rest of us are going to hell!” — if that is what you are thinking, I want to be very clear about something: we too should reap the consequences of our actions. We are, in ourselves, no better than you. The only reason we are inside the ark is because we cried out for mercy and God gathered us in. In many respects we are still just as sinful as you are. The only difference between us is that we are very aware of God’s judgement because we are on the inside being tossed about by the violent waves of God’s judgement — while you are outside, under the open sky, and you are still trying to tell yourself that the water is not going to continue to rise.
So, friend, in light of this, I just want to ask you: how long can you swim? One day? Two? Three? Maybe you have a life-vest. Maybe you have built a raft out of the pieces of your career, the pieces of your family, pride in your special identity — but are you sure, are you absolutely certain, that what you have build is big enough and strong enough to survive the world-wide storm that is coming?
Friend, I know that sometimes, in the quiet watches of the night, doubts some creeping in, and you know the truth. That is why you are so angry. That is why you shout: because, deep down, you know the truth. You hate the truth. And you want to drown it out before it drowns you.
Friend, it is not too late for you. If you are hearing these words, then it is not too late for you. God’s Word is not telling you to stop shouting. Shout! Cry out! Let the fear and the despair rise up within you! Admit the truth: you are lost unless the great God of the universe reaches out and gathers you in. Admit the truth. Cry out for mercy to the God of judgement. Ask him to save you — and he will.
I promise you that you if you do this, you find that the God you have feared and fought against all your life is actually the kindest and gentlest and most loving Father you have ever known.
Friend, aren’t you tired of swimming? Join us, and let Jesus give you rest in the midst of chaos. I know it doesn’t always look like it, but the Church really is the only truly safe place in all the world.
But if you are here today, and you have been baptized into the covenant community…hold on. Our Father is with us, in the darkness. Sometimes our faith can feel like a living death. Sometimes it feels like just one long period of testing. But we have this great promise: one day that door is going to open again, and on the other side we are going to find a world washed clean where we will live forever in peace under the lights of heaven.