One thing you’ll find, if you spend a lot of time reading the literature of the ancient world, is that a lot of that literature focuses on stories of giant heroes, men who were incredible warriors and leaders because they were simply more gifted than the normal run of humanity—especially physically, as they were usually tall, powerful, and athletic. Don’t think Shaq, think a guy who could bench-press Shaq and then dunk him for good measure. The Babylonians had the story of Gilgamesh—which, by the way, includes a flood story. The Irish sang of Fionn mac Cumhaill and Cúchulainn. The British gave the world the epic of Beowulf, who killed the monster Grendel in single combat. And of course, the Greeks told tale after tale of demigods and other heroes, from brutal Hercules to crafty Odysseus, as well as the legend of the great city of Atlantis, lost beneath the waves.
Now, your professional academic skeptics will tell you that these are all myths, and the first thing they’ll mean by that is “complete inventions”; but I’m not so sure. I won’t say that I believe a one of these stories happened exactly as we have them, but in my experience, stories don’t come from nothing, either; and the fact that we find these sorts of stories in so many different human societies—and not just on the European continent, either, though they do take on some different forms when you get to, say, Africa, or the Americas—well, it seems to me that suggests that there’s a kernel of memory lurking there in the back of the mind, that then works its way out in stories that are particular to each society and culture.
One of the things that makes me think so is that the Bible, too, knows of the existence of these heroes of old, these men of renown—but as is so often the case, it has a rather more skeptical take on them than the rest of the world. Part of this is that those heroes of old were such violent people as a whole; for all the complaints from some quarters about all the wars in the Old Testament and all the times God commands the Israelites to utterly defeat another nation in judgment for their idolatry, the Bible nowhere celebrates war, it has no long passages offering lovingly-detailed descriptions of battle, and it never glorifies warriors for their feats of arms. War is certainly presented as a necessity in many places in the Old Testament, but there is no trace of the theme common in other societies that the purpose of life was to win glory and the way to do so was through valor in combat. That’s a big, big difference between the Scriptures and, say, the Tain, the account of Cúchulainn and the great Ulster cattle raid.
So where does that idea come from? From human sin, with a little help. Look first at the way these heroes of old are labeled in verse 4: they’re called the Nephilim, the “fallen ones.” Then look where they came from: “The sons of God saw that the daughters of men were beautiful, and they married any of them they chose.” What that means is much disputed, but for the best explanation I’ve found, let me tell you a little story. As we talked about last week, God showed Cain grace after Cain murdered his brother, and Cain went off into the land of Nod, and over time, a society developed there; and from what we see of it in chapter 4, it suggests that Cain did not use God’s grace well, for it was a society ruled by brutal and vindictive people. After all, force can be a very effective way to gain power over others; it can be countered by more peaceful means, but doing so requires a lot of people, and there just weren’t that many around back then. These tyrants were very much in rebellion against God, and they just kept getting worse, to the point that their evil offered an opportunity for evil spirits to possess them and take over. The “sons of God” in verse 2 are clearly human, but just as clearly they’re more than merely human; they are, I believe, demon-possessed rulers, fallen ones in their own right, who had children of unnatural physical presence, power, and ability—the heroes of old.
This created a dire situation for the future of the human race. These tyrants weren’t the only people on earth, but there was no one capable of resisting them; imagine how World War II would have turned out if the Nazis had had the only modern military on the planet, and you have an idea how this must have looked. Drastic measures were necessary to redress the balance, and the only one around to take those measures was God—and God will not allow human sin, injustice and violence to flourish unchecked. Sooner or later, he will bring down the hammer of his judgment on the unrighteous; and so he did. He raised up Noah, and he said to Noah, “Human society is so corrupt and so violent, it’s beyond repair; so I’m going to wipe it out. I’m going to send a great flood, and that will be the end of it. But you have been faithful to me, so I’m going to be faithful to you; I’m going to preserve you and your family. Build a giant boat and fill it with every kind of animal and every kind of food, and I will save you in the midst of the flood.”
Verse 22 tells us that Noah did everything God told him. All it gives us is that bare statement, but there has to have been a lot more to it than that; for starters, it has to have been a hard sell to his wife, trying to convince her that he hadn’t just gone stark raving mad. There was simply no logical reason for him to build a boat that big, and the reason he was offering—namely, God told him to—doesn’t always sound very logical. Building the ark was one of the biggest acts of faith in human history—but Noah did it. He must have put up with a lot of mockery for doing it, since we see in verse 3 that God decided to give humanity 120 years’ grace between his decision to send the flood and the time when he actually did so; Noah must have thought at times that converting the thing into a restaurant would make more sense than hanging around waiting for something he’d never seen before to happen. But he obeyed anyway, trusting that God was about something more than just making a fool of him; and so he and his family were saved.
And you know, they couldn’t have been saved any other way. There simply were no other options. There never are, really, as 2 Peter points out, but we usually like to think there are; we would rather believe that we’re in control, that it’s in our own power to save ourselves. Under normal conditions, we can usually convince ourselves that’s true. And then a crisis comes, and suddenly, we’re out of our depth, and we know it; or we reach a point when the consequences of our own wrongdoing and our own failures come back on us, when we know we’re getting what we’ve earned, and we understand just how far beyond our ability it is to save ourselves. And sometimes, the two are one and the same, as we face a disaster of our own making, and all we can do is cry out for mercy, pleading for a salvation we do not deserve and cannot possibly make happen by our own efforts.
And the amazing thing is, when we do, God responds; he doesn’t always shield us from the consequences of our sin, but he saves us through them. He didn’t give up on the human race, even when violence and corruption were everywhere; he found the one faithful family through whom he could rebuild, and he saved them. And he doesn’t give up on us, either; no matter what we may have done, no matter how deep the flood waters may be in our lives, if we turn to him and cry out for help, he will lift us out. We can’t save ourselves, we can’t get free of the power of sin in our lives—not by our own strength; but he knows that, and so he did it for us. He sent us his Son, Jesus Christ, to do for us by his death and resurrection what we could not do for ourselves; Jesus paid the penalty for all our sin by accepting his judicial murder, being put to death on a cross, and he shattered the power of sin and death in our lives by rising again from the dead.
He has purchased our salvation, and he offers it to us as a free gift; we don’t have to work to earn it. That’s not to say it won’t change us; it will. That’s not to say that he won’t give us work to do; he will. After all, when he offered Noah and his family salvation from the flood, he still left it up to them to build the boat—he didn’t build it for them. In truth, the work he gives us is part of the blessing. But it is to say that we don’t have to earn his love, or his attention; we don’t have to earn the right to be saved. All we have to do is receive the gift.