Was Noah a Success or a Failure?

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Noah is a popular and well known Biblical character. Since Noah is such a popular and well known character there are lots of facts known about him, some of which are true. Because the Noah story has been popularized to such a great extent, it’s no wonder that many assumptions have been tacked onto the story and become commonly accepted. Some of those assumptions can at least be inferred from the Biblical account, others are simply imagination.

The story of Noah and the ark is a credible story, and one that is presented and treated in the Bible as simple history. It’s a very dramatic story, and one that lends itself to embellishment. Let’s consider a few of the common assumptions about Noah.

It is generally believed that there had been no rain or flooding on the earth before The Flood. This is not exactly stated in the Bible, but is a conclusion drawn mainly from a statement in Genesis 2:5-6. It may well be that the atmosphere (or firmament or expanse, Genesis 1:6-8) was sufficiently different in the early earth that there was no rain, but a different sort of weather cycle. However, the passage in Genesis 2 doesn’t necessarily say this. In context the reference may only speak of the early part of the creation week when cycles had not yet been established, and man had not yet been created. For some corroboration of the assumption that it did not rain before The Flood , at least it sounds like there were neither clouds nor rainbows prior to that event (Genesis 9:12-16). After the flood there may have been a sharper demarcation of seasons than previously (Genesis 8:22), but there had been some variation of seasons since the beginning (Genesis 1:14). Even if there was no rain, there must have been a weather and water cycle within those seasons, some mechanism of atmosphere or geology by which fresh water systems were renewed (as described in Ecclesiastes 1:5-7, in the weather cycle we know today). And if there were weather cycles, or some mechanism by which fresh water sources were replenished, then the possibility of flooding must have existed as well. In fact, in the account of God’s commission for Noah the word rain is not used, but floodwaters are spoken of (Genesis 6:17) so that we could suppose some flooding had occurred before, whether it had rained or not.

Another assumption sometimes expressed about Noah is that no one knew what a boat or a ship was in his time. This seems very unlikely, since whenever people have lived near water they have built boats of some sort to take advantage of the opportunities to travel upon it. Noah’s world included both “seas” (Genesis 1:10) and rivers (Genesis 2:10ff), even if in a different configuration than the world we know. Men must have traveled over the water in those days, and it is very unlikely that the idea of building a box that floated originated in God’s commission to Noah. A companion assumption to this one is the idea that Noah built his ark far from water, and seemed ridiculous for doing so. This assumption also has no particular support in scripture. In fact, it would have made a lot of sense to build the ark near water. Noah needed a huge amount of “cypress” lumber for this project, and even in modern times the easiest way to move logs is by floating them. If Noah built his ark far from water the labor and cost of supplying materials was far higher than it needed to be.

Assuming that there had never been rain or floods, that boating was unknown, and that Noah built the ark far from water, has made it easy to assert that Noah was ridiculed for his dedication to this project. Perhaps he was, though the assumptions that underlie this one are at least uncertain in themselves. In fact, the Bible says nothing about Noah being ridiculed for building the ark. If anything, Jesus implied that Noah was largely unknown or ignored (Matthew 24:36-41) in his own time. Knowing human nature as we do, we may suppose Noah was made fun of for his ark project, but it is only a supposition, and several of the reasons for the assumption are not well grounded. We could just as well assume that Noah went to an established ship building center with his God-given plans and hired contractors to build the ark. This approach would have been consistent with later God-given building plans when “Solomon built the temple” and “Moses built the tabernacle.” These men built the structures God told them to build, but they did so by acquiring the needed resources and directing those who did the work. Noah might have done the same.

The fact that Noah could have used hired or volunteer labor leads to some obvious uncertainty about another assumption often expressed, that it took Noah 100 years to build the ark. The Noah story has various time references, but none of them tell us just when he started building the ark. The story says he had three sons “after” he was 500 years old (B>Genesis 5:32). We also know that the flood came when Noah was 600 years old (Genesis 7:6). This gives us a hundred years, which somehow has been transmuted into the period of ark building. However, when God commissioned Noah he told him the ark would be for himself, his wife, his sons, and their wives (Genesis 6:18). It would seem that at the time Noah was told to build the ark his three sons were already grown and married, using up at least several of those one hundred years. Noah’s building project probably took no more than a few years at most, and probably included not only the efforts of his wife and sons and daughters-in-law, but other laborers as well.

Putting the ark into context, we should also note the assumption that Noah, referred to as a “preacher of righteousness” (2 Peter 2:5), invited his neighbors and others to enter the ark and be saved from the flood. This simply cannot be true. First of all, the ark was specifically built for eight people, named at the outset (Genesis 6:18), plus an abundance of food (Genesis 6:21), and the animals Gïd would bring to Noah (Genesis 6:19-20, note that Noah did not have to gather the animals, they would come to him). Noah was commissioned to build an ark for eight people, named by God. He had no right to invite anyone else into it, nor any facilities to accommodate others if they had accepted such an invitation, and God never issues an empty invitation. Nevertheless, Peter described Noah as a preacher, so what was his message? Peter says Noah was a “preacher of righteousness.” He proclaimed righteousness. He preached a message of turning to God for true salvation, not a message of avoiding drowning. If people has listened to Noah in sufficient numbers then perhaps the flood would have been unnecessary (recall Jonah’s experience at Ninevah, Jonah 1:2, 3:4-4:2). But whether people listened or not, the offer of salvation was real, and not an offer of salvation from drowning, but of salvation from hell. Righteousness prepares us to be with God. This is one of the points Peter makes in 1 Peter 3:18-4:6. Peter mentions that Jesus died in the body, but was made alive by the Spirit (3:18). He also says that Jesus preached through the Spirit to the disobedient spirits from Noah’s era (3:19-20). At that time eight were saved from drowning (3:20), but the possibility is that many others were saved from hell. As Jesus was put to death in the body and made alive by the Spirit (3:18), the opportunity had been extended to those now dead to be “judged according to men in regard to the body, but live according to God in regard to the spirit” (4:6). Noah, as a preacher of righteousness, had set out to prepare souls for life after death, to prepare them for the savior’s work of redemption. He preached in the spirit of Jesus, a message of reconciliation with God. Peter implies that Noah succeeded not only in saving his family from the flood, but also in saving some who experienced the bodily judgment of the flood, yet were prepared to live according to the spirit when Jesus opened the prison doors of death.

The implication of scripture, assumptions aside, is that Noah was a success both as the ark builder and as a preacher of righteousness. Some of the things we “think” we know about him probably aren’t true, and don’t come from the scriptures, but what we do actually know about him should inspire us to take a firm position of faith as he did for the sake of ourselves, our families, our neighbors, and our society. As Jesus implied, most probably dismissed Noah’s message of righteousness and ignored him. But as Peter suggests, some must have gotten the point. Noah was not a failure. Anyone who follows God and proclaims his righteousness cannot be a failure.

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