Before the Flood
Imagine you live in a village and you stroll along the riverbank where you used to play as a child. Imagine each morning you walk outside, feeling the coolness of the dew-filled grass beneath your bare feet, and look at a cloudless blue sky where the sun always shines. Imagine your three boys have grown up and left your homestead to live with their wives. Imagine your husband telling you one evening in front of the fire that God has spoken to him about a flood.
Imagine you’re Emzara: Mrs Noah.
God said to Noah, ‘I intend to make an end of all that lives, for through men the land is filled with violence; and behold, I am about to destroy them together with the land. Make yourself an ark of gopher wood; make in it rooms (stalls, pens, coops, nests, cages, compartments) and coat it inside and out with pitch (bitumen). … For behold, I, even I, will bring a flood of waters on the earth, to destroy all life under the heavens in which there is the breath and spirit of life; everything that is on the land shall die. But I will establish My covenant (solemn promise, formal agreement) with you; and you shall come into the ark – you and your [three] sons and your wife, and your sons’ wives with you. And of every living thing [found on land], you shall bring two of every kind into the ark, to keep them alive with you; they shall be male and female.’
Before Noah started to speak, Emzara might have wondered about what Noah wanted to tell her, but nothing could have prepared her for that conversation – the first time Noah introduced such strange, terrifying and unfamiliar words that God had spoken to him. In that moment any certainty Emzara had about the plans she’d made or the thoughts she had about their future were changed. Something new and unexpected was going to happen. A flood. All life destroyed. Noah was going to build an ark. Only their family would survive.
The words must have reverberated around Emzara’s head as she searched for their meaning, to try to make sense of something she had no idea about. In the shock of such news she must have felt disbelief; surely this wasn’t really going to happen? Just her, Noah, their sons and daughters-in-law were going to enter an ark, but no one else.
Who were Noah’s family?
We know when God spoke to Noah, He made it clear that Noah and his immediate family would be saved. The implications of this news was that it would affect them too; like Emzara, any plans they had made about their lives were also changed.
We may be familiar with the main character of the ark story, Noah, but he also had three sons: Japheth, Shem and Ham (Genesis 5:32). There are different interpretations about who Noah’s eldest son was but I think Japheth was the eldest because Genesis 10:21 refers to Shem being ‘the brother of Japheth the elder’ (NKJV). Genesis 9:24 also tells us that Ham was Noah’s younger son so that makes Shem the middle brother.
Though the Bible tells us who the sons are, we only know their three wives entered the ark. The Bible doesn’t identify either their names or the name of Noah’s wife; neither does it give us an explanation about why they weren’t recorded. Irrespective to their names remaining unknown to us, these four women did exist. They were real.
For the purposes of my book I’ve named the women to help us as we consider them as characters. I feel doing this enables us to bring their story to life, as we think about the times they lived in and the role they might have played. In the Book of Jubilees, an ancient Jewish text, Emzara is the name given to Noah’s wife so I have kept to this. The fictional names I’ve created for their daughters-in-law are: Tia, the wife of Japheth; Sarah, the wife of Shem; and Mert, the wife of Ham.
I’m not stating their names as fact or intending to alter the Word of God. I believe wholeheartedly everything written within the Bible is God-inspired, infallible and authoritative (see 2 Timothy 3:16). The information we can rely on is contained within the Bible, and it is always this we will return to, as the truth of His Word.
The pre-flood earth
When God spoke to Noah telling him to build an ark, this would have indeed been a surprise. But I don’t think the state of the earth would have been a surprise to Noah or Emzara. The Bible is very clear about what the pre-flood earth was like in the days of Noah. When God spoke to Noah about the flood, He told him, ‘the land is filled with violence’ (Genesis 6:13). All that people could think about was ‘evil continually’, there were no moral or spiritual standards, and violence was displayed across many forms: blasphemy, law-breaking, the deep need for power (Genesis 6:5,11-12). And we’re not just talking about one group of people on the earth here, we’re talking about all of the population alive at that time.
We have to remind ourselves the Noah’s ark story is in Genesis, the first book of the Bible, and only six chapters into it. Only five chapters since God created the world and thought all of His creation was ‘very good’ (Genesis 1:31). Since then, humanity had completely imploded into itself, so that during the before-the-flood days, God grieved over the level of sin in the world (Genesis 6:6). When Adam and Eve disobeyed and ate from the tree of knowledge, having been tempted by the serpent (Satan), this fruit gave them the recognition and understanding of what was good and evil (Genesis 2:9; 3:1-7). But despite knowing what good was, and ‘[the difference between] good and evil’ (Genesis 3:5), the majority of people’s intentions on the pre-flood earth was only to do evil. They couldn’t stop themselves.
What do you think the pre-flood earth looked like? We haven’t got any pictures in the Bible. But there are clues that people didn’t wander about in an ignorant, nomad state of existence after Adam and Eve left the Garden of Eden. No, the pre-flood earth was a civilised society. Why do I say that?
Adam and Eve’s son Cain founded ‘a city’ (Genesis 4:17). It takes intelligence to think about creating the components, suggesting the formation of buildings being constructed and city-like activities. Also in Genesis 4 it talks about Cain’s descendants playing ‘the lyre and flute’ (Genesis 4:21). They were experts ‘in forging tools of bronze and iron’ (Genesis 4:22, NLT). We’re talking about sophisticated knowledge, both culturally – to create, learn and skilfully produce music on instruments – and industrially – to manufacture tools. Given how the Scriptures talk about violence, I would think they used their metal-working abilities to forge weapons too.
They could have drunk out of gold cups or worn jewellery because one of the rivers flowing from the land of Eden went into Havilah, which is where the purest form of gold was found (Genesis 2:11-12). It’s not unlikely, if they knew how to find the materials to work with bronze and iron, that they were able to work gold. They had access to precious onyx stones and resin (Genesis 2:12). Among the population there were construction and agricultural experts. They had to work the ground, which God had cursed after Adam and Eve ate the fruit. Just like farmers have to work hard today to plough, sow and reap their crops, so did the pre-flood farmers.
There would have been a lot of people to feed. Remember that people lived long lifetimes and they were able to raise many children so the population of the pre-flood earth would have been large. Noah was the seventh great grandson of Adam. They lived on an earth that had no rain, where mists watered the soil (Genesis 2:6).
Yet within all of this sophisticated and civilised society, all the hearts of humanity were not given towards godly behaviour. And as the generations from Adam increased and progress was made, we now have, at the time when God spoke to Noah, the peak of lawlessness and the love of self running rife and unrestricted throughout the earth.
Noah and Emzara would have witnessed the change in people’s behaviour. Perhaps when Emzara had a chance to reflect on what Noah told her, she was relieved to think they would be escaping the world around them. Living in that kind of environment must have caused her to be in a constant state of fear about the safety for her family. If Emzara had any doubts about what Noah said, the evidence of why God was sending the flood was visible around her. We don’t know every evil-filled detail of those pre-flood days, but we do know it was continual evil in all its shades of darkness, and it sorrowed God’s heart.
The sorrow of God’s heart
When we think of the flood story, it could be easy to misinterpret God’s character by trying to understand why everything was destroyed, except the eight people and animals on the ark. But I don’t think God made the decision to flood the world lightly at all. He didn’t just get annoyed and bang His fist on the table. When God looked at the earth He:
saw how debased and degenerate it was, for all humanity had corrupted their way on the earth and lost their true direction.
He was deeply disappointed in people’s continual desire to sin and ‘that every imagination or intent of the thoughts of his [humanity’s] heart were only evil continually’ (Genesis 6:5, addition mine). God’s heart was sorrowed with grief, and we know sorrow is a strong, tangible emotion. It’s a pain we feel. I’m sure we’ve all experienced this feeling in our lives, and God has too; Genesis tells us this. And now He was going to destroy the people and animals He had created; significantly alter the world He had made through the overwhelming waters. This had never been God’s intent because God’s heart isn’t to destroy. ‘God is love’ (1 John 4:8). He doesn’t have ‘pleasure in the death of anyone who dies’ (Ezekiel 18:32).
Genesis 2 gives us a picture of what the world would have been like if sin hadn’t entered. The Adam and Eve story isn’t as simple as them eating an apple; it’s about the serpent, Satan (Genesis 3:1), otherwise known as the devil, Lucifer, the dragon, the enemy, who robbed us of that perfect relationship with God by lying to Eve. Humanity fell once the fruit was eaten. The world couldn’t veer off the self-destructive, sinful path it had led itself to; not even Noah could save it. And the only reason he could save himself and his family was because God told him to build an ark.
How did the family react?
We can only imagine how Noah and Emzara shared the news with their sons and daughters-in-law. Perhaps they all came to the homestead for a family meal, anticipating a time to enjoy being with each other. Instead, strange words again filled the air. Did Sarah start to cry? Did Tia interrupt and ask lots of questions? Did Mert storm out? Had Noah already told his sons so they could comfort their wives and weren’t in shock themselves?
Tia, Sarah and Mert had married into the family. They had been given protection against the flood’s judgement because Noah was their father-in-law. There must have been relief that their lives would be saved, but coupled with this would have come the guilt that no one else they knew would survive. And what of their own families? Even if Tia had rushed to her mother, told her all about what Noah had said, she wouldn’t have got the consolation she sought. Her mother and all her other relatives would have been consumed in their own schemes. No one would believe judgement was coming. The darkness was so thick and immense that they wouldn’t even be able to spot a glimmer of light. No, Tia, Sarah and Mert surely couldn’t rely on their families for any solace; seeing them would be a reminder about what they’d be leaving behind.
Let’s take a step back here. We know how the ark story ended; we’ve read or can read Genesis. But did the women?
All they knew was the beginning. I don’t think we can minimise at all how difficult it must have been for them to comprehend the fact they would enter the ark, but no one else would. I’ll say that again: no one else on the earth was going to go with them. No parents, no siblings, no best friend, not even Noah’s father, Lamech. And Lamech had prophesied when he named his son, about the ‘rest and comfort’ Noah would bring (Genesis 5:29), but he wasn’t going to experience it himself. Whoever was alive at the time when the flood came would be destroyed.
Though it was only Noah who heard God speak to him, the result of those words was that Noah’s family unit were gathered in tightly together. Among the sin-stained world, where ‘all humanity had corrupted their way on the earth and lost their true direction’ (Genesis 6:12), were eight people. They were the only eight people who knew the flood was coming. The only eight people who would survive, and 50 per cent of them were women.
The unfamiliar and unexpected
There are many times in our lives when we feel that nervous jolt from doing things we aren’t completely sure about. The first driving lesson. Taking an exam. Meeting strangers. Walking into a building we’ve never been in before for an interview. When we do these things, along with the feeling of the unfamiliar comes some confidence of certainty. We can reassure ourselves internally with messages that we’ve experienced something like this before. We can prepare and research. We can say, ‘This may not be the same, but I’ll get through it. I did it before, I can do it again.’
After Noah shared with Emzara the unexpected news about the flood, how could she reassure herself? Everything she knew and had lived through gave her nothing concrete to centre her emotions on to. Nothing to give her a solution to the wave of emotions she must have felt. She couldn’t pick up her mobile phone and search for what an ark looked like. In a moment, her life switched from the regular routines of the ordinary into the sudden extraordinary, with Noah chopping down gopher-tree-filled forests to build an ark for a flood, which she had never experienced, let alone seen.
Can you imagine the kinds of questions Emzara must have had? If it was me, I would have asked Noah, ‘When exactly is the flood going to happen? Sorry, but did you say animals were going to live with us? What does a flood look like?’ Noah, though, wouldn’t have had the answers to these questions.
I think it’s natural when we come across something we don’t know about to want to ask lots of questions. In our helplessness at the situation we seek to have some form of knowledge. I am someone who likes to know all the details. My instinct is to explore, prepare, check things out, think through all the scenarios. Essentially what we’re doing, though, when we act this way, is wanting to control our circumstances, but this isn’t always possible, neither is it restful for our state of mind. Particularly when we’re greeted with the unexpected, and we can’t immediately solve it, we’re unable to know how to react. The reality of the unexpected is that we can’t know everything. We can’t have all our questions answered.
The world was thrown into such an unfamiliar situation in 2020, when for the first time in our lives we were all experiencing the unexpected – invisible virus. We all, like Noah and his family, heard strange, new words, which would have seemed unfathomable a year earlier. We couldn’t understand what everything meant. There was no immediate solution. There weren’t answers to all our questions. We had to learn to adapt what we did to protect each other and ourselves. Our daily lives became dictated by something unprecedented in our lifetime. Decisions made by our governments determined how we lived and what we could and couldn’t do. There were, and continue to be, so many impacts across the world as a result of what lay behind those virus-related words that entered our lives and affected them.
How do we not send ourselves into emotional chaos?
The unexpected we’re thinking about here isn’t like when there’s a rain shower and we can put up an umbrella. It isn’t easily resolvable. Beside the shocking times we have experienced with the pandemic, there are many forms of the unfamiliar and unexpected that manifest in our lives. And we know the strength of our emotional reaction when we encounter them; when we can’t see our way out of the maze and there are no directions.
We can cripple ourselves with the desire to control the unexpected; our natural attempts to solve the problem in front of us. In those times when I’ve felt helpless, I’ve made impetuous decisions based on my feelings in the moment. I’ve let worry slump me into the sofa so I end up comforting myself with cake. I’ve thought I’ve made myself happy, and then something small has snapped it away, like a crocodile sneaking up silently for its prey.
So, what can we do when we don’t see any answers? When there is no hope around us?
Though we may feel numb and exhausted from the storm of emotions, we still have each day to live through, and we may ask, like David did, ‘What am I doing in the meantime, Lord? Hoping, that’s what I’m doing – hoping’ (Psalm 39:7, The Message). The kind of hope David was speaking of here isn’t the power of positive thinking, because that relies on our mental strength, and in the emotional chaos, mental strength can be something we lack. It relies on our efforts to try to solve our problems.
However, there is another way out; the hope through our faith in the Lord. This enables us to say, ‘For my hope is from Him. He only is my rock and my salvation’ (Psalm 62:5-6). We can stand firm on it and, while there may be no confidence in anything around us, we can be confident in the hope He gives us.
We are indeed not hopeless but hopeful in Him.
So what did the women do?
After Emzara’s conversation with Noah, she still had all those unanswered questions; the emotional reactions which wouldn’t have been easy to process. All I think she could do was
work with what she knew. Though they didn’t have all the information, they weren’t completely ignorant. They knew a flood was coming. They knew the ark needed to be built. They knew a pair of every living thing would enter. These were the things that among all of the uncertainty she could focus on.
Then, as Noah set out and began to cut the trees down in the forests, hewing the trunks into planks, it gave a visible daily reminder of the purpose God had given him. Did Emzara wonder what her purpose was within all of this too? Among all the pain and suffering, the weight of knowing what was to come and not being able to do anything to change it, I believe God’s love had a plan for the women. God saved them for a purpose; they weren’t an afterthought.
We may question God’s love among the extent of destruction and death that the flood brought to the earth. But it was God’s love that chose not to eradicate humanity completely, and God’s love would have considered the human lives who’d be taking that ark journey.
The Bible doesn’t tell us what the women did. They could have sat and watched everything going on from the sidelines, waiting until the day Noah told them they could enter the ark. Though, if we think about the characteristics of women, I can’t imagine them not doing anything. God had given Noah an enormous task. He didn’t just have to build the ark, but he also had to prepare for their time aboard:
Also take with you every kind of food that is edible, and you shall collect and store it; and it shall be food for you and for them.
Remember there were no timescales here. Noah didn’t know whether he had ten years or ten months until the flood. So though at first this verse sounds straightforward, is it really?
Food is an important part of our lives; we need to eat to live. We have to think about what we’re going to eat. We may plan meals and manage the money we spend on food. Rewind, though. God has told Noah to collect and store food not only for his family, but also for ‘every living thing [found on land]’ (Genesis 6:19). And rewind even more. Did God say anywhere how long they were going to be on the ark? No.
Think about times when the shops are closed over national holidays. We see some people panic, buying essential supplies so they know they have enough, and that’s just when the shop is closed for one day! But for Noah and his family, we’re talking about enough provisions for a journey with no end date.
I can’t imagine Emzara not wanting to support Noah with this tremendous task. When he told the family about all of the food he had to collect and store, wouldn’t it have been the women who would have had the experience of managing the meals for their households? Who would have had an understanding of the quantities and varieties of dishes to prepare? Wouldn’t it be them who would at least be cooking some of the food on the ark?
Then, what about the food for all the animals? Considering all the different kinds of food for all the different kinds of creatures they’d be caring for…
Somehow I don’t think Noah could have done it all on his own.
I think this is where the women could have stepped in and found their purpose. Maybe focusing on doing something necessary and constructive helped them with the turmoil of emotions brought from the unknown? As they entered the before-the-flood phase, the women had to go about their daily lives, while being conscious of the future change they all faced. They had to be productive in their preparations. It wouldn’t have been a case of packing a sack of dried fruit one day and then leaving the work for a couple of weeks. They’d have had to think about what moths ate. Experiment with storage methods. Determine how many cucumbers would need to be grown and pickled. Picture Emzara as she woke in the middle of the night to the sound of Noah snoring, with the thought, ‘How many jars of olive oil will we need?’
I believe Emzara, Tia, Sarah and Mert would have all had skills and abilities to manage and organise, plan and prepare, think creatively and problem solve; all of these would have a crucial part to play. And among the action, among Emzara’s constant checking of the tasks assigned to each of her daughters-in-law, would have still been the uncertainty. God had told Noah to collect and store food, but He hadn’t given Noah the same level of detail for that as He did for the ark’s specifications. All the women could do was work with what they knew.
Whatever their expectation had been for their lives, whatever the women thought their purpose was, it had shifted. And with this transition came the enormity of the challenge, the environment of the pre-flood earth and their own personal emotional reactions. As the ark was built, days turned into weeks, then into years, and any jars of pickled vegetables would have had to be eaten before they wasted – the day of the flood hadn’t yet come. Produce needed to be grown and harvested. The women would have had to continue to motivate and support each other because they wouldn’t know until the flood came whether they had done enough.
Working with what you know
When we think about how the women might have handled the before-the-flood days, don’t we frequently find ourselves having to do that – work with what we know?
This sounds similar to how I feel and how I’ve felt many times before. I have something to do in front of me, but it isn’t clear; I only know a piece of the picture. Sometimes, whatever that piece is, it feels or appears so small that at first it can be hard to even begin.
There is a difference between having a vision of what we’re doing in our lives and the energy that gives us, and the times when we struggle and find ourselves looking back, thinking we’ve lost our momentum. With no discernible goal in front of us it’s so easy to diminish the what we know work our hands have found to do against what we think they must be doing, or what we’ve done before.
Through the coronavirus pandemic, I had to learn to literally take each day at a time. To try to not drive myself into the chaotic state of mind created by thinking about what would happen. The truth is, I’m not superhuman. I wasn’t able to do any of this on my own. If I didn’t have Jesus in my life helping me, I know those months would have been even tougher with the level of anxiety the situation caused. But Jesus was with me, comforting me, filling me with the indescribable, unexplainable sense of peace that only comes from a relationship with Him. He helped me to understand even more what He meant when He said, ‘So do not worry about tomorrow; for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own’ (Matthew 6:34).
It’s easy to read this verse and agree, but to apply it in your life when you’re faced with the unexpected and unfamiliar isn’t easy. Jesus isn’t surprised by how we think or feel, though; that’s why He knows we need His hope. And that’s why He advised us not to use up all our energy and time worrying about what might happen tomorrow, even though He knows we want to do that!
This doesn’t mean we’re in the wrong if we find ourselves worrying or thinking about what’s ahead, but if we dwell on those thoughts, let them overtake us so we’re consumed, it’s not going to be good. As Jesus said, it’s not going to help us focus on any actual troubles which may face us on the day we’re living in if we’re worrying already about the next.
Emotions are strong and wonderful, a blessing and a burden. But don’t let your strength be sapped by them. The only answer we have to all those unexpected questions that arise, to the emotional chaos that could affect us in a crisis, is to turn to Jesus. He wants us to cast our cares on to Him (1 Peter 5:7). He wants us to have confidence in His hope.
Father, thank You that You know the beginning and the end. Let me draw confidence in Your plans, understanding that, despite all the uncertainty that came when You spoke to Noah about the flood, You gave him and his family enough information to help them with the task at hand. Fill me with the hope only You can supply. Help me to work with what I know when the unexpected and unfamiliar happens in my life. Help me today with the worries I have, with all those thoughts swirling around my head about what will be in my unexpected. I want to offload my burden into Your capable hands.
Before we move on, let’s take some time to think. Here are some suggestions to help you and, as we go through, there will be contemplation points at the end of each chapter. If, like me, you like writing down your thoughts, you can either use the next couple of pages or your own journal. Otherwise, feel free to express your thinking in whichever way works best for you.
- Familiarise yourself with where we are in the Bible and read through Genesis chapters 1–5, which lead to the flood.
- Think about how you would feel if you were one of the women, and write down any thoughts in your journal.
- Reflect on past times when you’ve experienced the unexpected and how you’ve handled it.