Great Moments in Bible History
Our lives are determined to an amazing extent by our ancestors. Where we live, our political views, our religious views, the kind of work we do—all are determined to a greater or lesser extent by who our ancestors were. The ancestors who made the most difference to our lives are Adam and Eve. Before their unfortunate choice to eat the forbidden fruit life was idyllic. After that choice life became grindingly hard. Not only that, but sin filled the lives of their descendants. All of us can see that it has filled the lives of each one of us. We saw in an earlier issue of Great Moments that by the time of Noah people had become so sinful that violence filled the earth (Genesis 6:11). As a result God decided to destroy the entire human race with the Flood. Noah was the sole exception. God made a covenant with Noah and so He saved him and his family in the ark.
In a very real sense Noah is a new Adam—the founder of a new race of people. Every one of us is descended from Noah and we are all benefitting from his righteous life. Not only did he save the human race from extinction but he gained a wonderful promise from God that stands to this day. Noah received that promise shortly after he left the ark. “Then Noah built an altar to the LORD and took some of every clean animal and some of every clean bird and offered burnt offerings on the altar. And when the LORD smelled the pleasing aroma, the LORD said in his heart, ‘I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth. Neither will I ever again strike down every living creature as I have done. While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.’ ” (Genesis 8:20-22)
This really is a wonderful promise. Certainly there are still floods on earth, but when those come people can generally get out of the way by moving to higher ground. While some people die each year from those floods, nothing comes close to wiping out the human race. God’s promise holds for other natural disasters as well. He promised that as long as the earth remains there will be seedtime and harvest, summer and winter, and day and night. We don’t have to worry about a giant asteroid hitting the earth and wiping us all out.
Why did God make such a promise? He certainly did not have to. He was completely within His rights to send the flood in Noah’s day. He would be within His rights to do it again someday if it were not for this promise. Was it because human nature had changed and would not be so evil in the future? God’s statement contradicts that theory: “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth.” No, we have the same human nature that Noah’s contemporaries had. Clearly the sacrifice that Noah offered had something to do with this new promise. We will look at that aspect in more detail in the next article, but at this point we can say that God was under no obligation to make this wonderful promise to us. He did it out of the kindness of His heart. In the Bible when God does something simply out of the kindness of His heart, it is called grace. We can honestly say that if it were not for the grace of God, we might have all been wiped out by now.
What does all this have to do with ancestors? Well, if Noah (our ancestor) had not been a righteous man who pleased God, God would never have made such a gracious promise. The human race has remained on earth until now and will remain on it as long as the earth itself remains, because of a wonderful promise made to our ancestor Noah.
A Sacrifice that Smelled Nice
There’s nothing like the smell of a good meal simmering on the stove. But if you leave it on the stove too long, the smell of food being burnt is far less appetizing. So it is rather surprising to read that when Noah offered a bunch of animals on an altar as burnt offerings, “the Lord smelled the pleasing aroma.” That is not the only surprising thing about that statement. Why would God even care about burnt offerings? Most people in the ancient world believed in multiple gods. Their gods were just like them and—among other things—they liked to eat. So if you offered a lamb on an altar to one of those gods, the god would do nice things for you because he or she was hungry and appreciated a good meal. There are societies not much different from that today. In both China and Africa many people make offerings to their ancestors. They believe that if they give them a nice gift of food, their ancestors will give them good luck. But the God of the Bible is very different from those ancient gods or ancestors. “Every beast of the forest is mine, the cattle on a thousand hills. I know all the birds of the hills, and all that moves in the field is mine. If I were hungry, I would not tell you, for the world and its fullness are mine.” (Psalm 50:10-12) Why, then, did God ask the people of the Old Testament to offer Him sacrifices? And why did Noah’s sacrifice please God so much that He gave us a great promise?
One of the wonderful things about the Old Testament is that many of the ceremonies that God gave to people back then were designed to foreshadow things in the life of the Messiah (the Christ) who would come centuries in the future. One of the clearest and most amazing is when God told Abraham to sacrifice his son. We will devote a future issue to that story, so I won’t go into a lot of detail here, but it is clear that there is a parallel between Abraham sacrificing his son and God sacrificing His.
Another parallel comes from a story we covered in a previous issue about God providing clothes of animal skin for Adam and Eve (Genesis 3:21). In that earlier issue we saw that the use of an animal skin to cover their nakedness demonstrated the seriousness of their sin, since an animal had to die to cover their nakedness. Later in the Old Testament when God provided priests to offer sacrifices for the people He commanded that the priest got to keep the skin of the burnt offering (Leviticus 7:8). This pointed forward to Jesus. “For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” (Galatians 3:27) Jesus offered Himself as a sacrifice on the cross in order to clothe our spiritual nakedness. Just like Adam and Eve we are all naked spiritually. We have sins that need to be covered and Christ covers those sins with His sacrifice.
The sacrifice of Christ also explains the statement about the soothing aroma of Noah’s sacrifice. “And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” (Ephesians 5:2) “A fragrant offering” is another way of saying a “pleasing aroma”. And this shows us why Noah’s sacrifice was so pleasing to God. It was not because of all the animals being offered to God, but because of what those animals pointed forward to—the sacrifice of God’s beloved Son Jesus.
When we understand the link between Noah’s sacrifices and the sacrifice of Jesus, we are finally in a position to understand why God made His gracious promise never to flood the whole earth again. He made that promise because of the sacrifice of Christ. He had determined even back then to solve the problem of human sin by giving His Son as the ultimate sacrifice. That was a true gift of God’s grace. And it was on the basis of that sacrifice that God was willing to restrain His righteous anger against our sins and promise never to flood the whole earth again.
God Hung Up His Bow
It is wonderful that God promised never to flood the whole earth again and that it was a no-strings-attached promise, but God did not stop there. He turned His promise into a covenant—the most binding agreement there is. But He didn’t stop there, either. He added a sign for the covenant. “I have set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.... When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” (Genesis 9:13, 16)
In the language in which Genesis was written (Hebrew), the word for bow can mean a rainbow or a bow used with arrows. In those days the bow and arrow was one of the most powerful weapons used in war. I suspect God was making a deliberate play on words when He gave the bow as the sign of His covenant. It was as if He said, “I am hanging up my weapon. I promise never to go to war against earth again.”
That is a promise intended to last until the end of time. In the last book of the Bible—the Book of Revelation—there is a scene in which God’s throne in Heaven is described. Part of the description includes this statement: “Around the throne was a rainbow that had the appearance of an emerald.” (Revelation 4:3) We can be very thankful that God has hung up His bow and is now dealing with us on the basis of grace.