Once Upon a Time, God Was Sorry (Genesis 6)
And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.
And it repented the Lord that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart.
And the Lord said, I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth; both man, and beast, and the creeping thing, and the fowls of the air; for it repenteth me that I have made them.
But Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord.
What an unusual passage! It shows us God’s vulnerability—what seems to be the emotional fatigue* of a creative genius who is watching his masterpiece fall to pieces. A few verses earlier, God has said, "My spirit shall not always strive with man," which shows us that God has been appealing to and wrestling with people who stubbornly resist a union that could bring beauty and life to the earth.
Sometimes I forget that when Jesus appeared in the flesh to allow himself to be hurt by humans, he was stepping into a greater narrative--he was continuing in a Divine suffering that began in the emotional realm thousands of years earlier. Since the first days of our existence, we have hurt God. Over and again, he has laid open the wideness of his heart for us to pierce.
Of all the non-Christian beliefs that I have studied, I find Deism most tragic. This worldview suggests that an unengaged god whipped up a clockwork universe before checking out--a slap in the face to an intimate Lord who has repeatedly made himself vulnerable to us. "God isn't dead—he just doesn’t care," they say. Yet in Genesis 6, we find a God who didn’t simply hover over the earth at creation, but who hovers bare-chested, within firing range of the continual rebellion of man.
The old word “repenteth” sometimes throws cerebral readers for a loop, leading them to ask why an all-seeing, all-knowing, all-powerful God would have a need to repent.** But the shock of this word also holds its fiercest beauty. “Repenteth” connotes the heavy sigh that emerges from our lungs when we are suffering grief. A shudder. A gasp of sorrow.
What could evoke such a response in the God of the universe? To find out, let's unpack two words from verse five: “every imagination."
Once again, I love the King James translation best. Instead of the more humanistic, cerebral wording of the ESV (“every intention”), "every imagination" captures a truer picture of the essence of humans. These people weren't just processors--they were free-agent inventors, made in the image of God.
If you’ve been following along with The Bible Project,*** you know that humans were formed imago Dei to be creative. God made us “like him” so that we might rule and fill the earth. We were given God’s image, commissioned (and entrusted) to have a micro-god-like sovereignty on the earth. But instead of blossoming in this role, humans were using their liberty and potential to do harm.
As God looks down on his sons and daughters, he sees those beloved artists that he has made, divine offspring that he has placed in a planet full of resources for invention and design. But all this is thrown away--beings formed in his likeness are using the gift of creative force to do work that is anti-life.
Think about this from God’s perspective. He’s given humans a unique ability among all life forms--the ability to innovate, to rule, to bring order. Instead, they have chosen to invent greed and violence. They are creative in death and destruction instead of in life and beauty. They hover over the surface of the earth and whisper, "Let there be chaos."
This passage reminds me of a principle that Dorothy Sayers teaches while discussing the origin of evil. She writes that Shakespeare’s creation of Hamlet automatically creates a second category of non-Hamlet. Anything that isn’t Hamlet is necessarily non-Hamlet. However, a third category could also arise if consciousness and will were ever imparted to a play. In such a situation, non-Hamlet could also become anti-Hamlet.
A similar principle applies to the creative nature. In the midst of the world that God made, he entrusted consciousness and will to humanity. By doing so, human creativity was automatically given the potential to become anti-God. We zoom into the middle of this spiral toward darkness in Genesis 6, where we find a God grown sick over the inclinations of humanity. In his grief, he nearly wipes the whole self-defeating project off the earth. Why give such freedom to creatures who will only propagate harm?
Then he sees Noah, a man whose Hebrew name evokes a different sort of sigh than the sigh of despair. In Noah, we find the sigh of a long rest. The old word “repose” fits here. Imagine the breath Frodo takes as he wakes up in Rivendell after a terrible journey. Imagine the sleep a parent sinks into at last after finding out that her adult child has made it safely home after a long drive on icy roads.
God looks upon the creative power of humanity and sees his entrusted image used to destroy and to wound—until he gets to Noah. In this one man, he sees potential for the sort of God-man union he desires. In Noah resides imago-Dei innovation that listens to the heartbeat of the Creator and follows its creative commission—even when that commission runs as counter-cultural as a set of boat blueprints for a land in which rain never falls.
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*At first blush, it might seem that God's exasperation in Genesis 6 contradicts teachings like Isaiah 40:28. "Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable." However, if humans can feel frustration while possessing moral strength, couldn't God do so at an even higher level? I think it's possible for God to be "tired" of a given dynamic without having the type of fatigue that lessens his power. Part of the confusion here results from the metaphorical nature of all human language, but if we look at how being alive and responsive actually works in us, we can follow that trajectory and catch a better understanding of God's complexity as well.
**I suppose it's necessary to develop certain formal principles of stand-alone doctrine, but we should always be aware that such principles have the potential to distort interpretation if we idolize them. The text itself trumps human conclusions about the text. Always. When our doctrine doesn't allow for the nuances of Scripture to stand, doctrine should become subservient to mystery.
***Jon and Tim aren’t the only thinkers to suggest the divine, human commission of Genesis. If you’re interested in this topic, I’d particularly suggest Andy Crouch’s book Culture Making to unpack the call of humans to be artists and gardeners. And if you’re up for a little bit harder (but even better) read, Dorothy Sayers’s The Mind of the Maker integrates the creative process with the divine calling of humanity.