“Nondum considerasti, quanti ponderis sit peccatum!” wrote Anselm in his famous work on the incarnation, Cur Deus Homo. Translated, it means: “You have not considered how weighty sin is!” Low views of sin breed tepid views of the Gospel — views that the modern church is inclined to adopt. Salvation thus becomes a therapy of self-help rather than a deliverance from God’s wrath. Consequently, these opening chapters of Genesis are all the more counter-cultural in this postmodern age of ours. The opening chapters of Genesis depict for us a number of issues resulting from Adam and Eve’s rebellion in the garden.
First, and fundamentally, Adam’s relationship with God changed. In place of peace and communion came (on Adam’s side) the sense of shame and the culture of blame, and (on God’s side) inquisition, rebuke, and judgment (3:8–19).
Second, and equally important, Adam’s sin had an effect upon his posterity: he bore a son “in his own likeness” (5:3) — meaning more than just that Seth looked like Adam. Seth inherited the same propensity to sin as Adam now had. Adam’s disordered nature — lawless, egoistic, idol-forming — was now reflected in his son too. The sequence of Genesis 6:5–7 says it all: “man…man…man.” Without exception, the whole human race is sunk in sin, outwardly (“in the earth”), inwardly (“the thoughts of his heart”), without exception (“man” qua man), subject to God’s judgment of death. Thus Genesis has charted the progression of sin from Adam and Eve (3:1–24) to their offspring (4:1–6:7). The history of mankind from this point onward is one of rebellion against God without any period of respite (“continually”). In Adam all die (1 Cor. 15:22) and thereby incur God’s grief (Gen. 6:6) and liability to judgment (6:7). This is original sin that we all inherit, establishing the historical ground for Paul’s pastoral reflection: “For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot” (Rom. 8:7).
Third, human relations are now disordered. Man is hostile to his brother. The sequel that follows Eden is a tale of envy, malice, hatred, homicide, polygamy, and violence. We have moved from light to darkness on a cosmic scale. Thus Cain kills Abel (Gen. 4:8), Lamech, amidst evidence of common grace in the arts, boasts of embracing jungle law (4:23–24). All of this climaxes with a summary of the effect of disintegration: in a section that is both difficult to translate (compare the niv and esv on 6:3) and interpret (who are the “sons of God” and the “daughters of men” in verse 4?), one thing is clear — God is grieved over that which He has created (6:5–7). Whatever is going on here (promiscuous relations with angels, spirits, or even demons according to some, evil kings or rulers according to others, godly men [marrying ungodly descendants of Cain] according to a third view), it was the last straw as God viewed the growing ungodliness of the world.
In an age where sin is little appreciated, these chapters are about as counter-cultural as can be imagined.
Fourth, a new element emerges — death! The funeral bell tolls continuously: “and he died…and he died… and he died” (5:5, 8, 11, 14–15, 18, 25, 28). Even given man’s relative longevity at this period of history, he cannot escape the fact that his life has a terminus: “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). The funeral pyres are expressive of a disintegration of man’s constitution.
The flood, the next great event in the Genesis story, is sent because the Lord “saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth” (Gen. 6:5). But, despite what seems like an opportunity for a new beginning, the first reported event after the flood is Noah’s drunkenness — further attesting to sin’s hold on man. After this, there is the monument to man’s hubris — the tower of Babel (11:1–9). God is said to be “sorry” and “grieved” that He had created man (6:6). The language is (as Calvin would say) “accommodated” to our human capacity. God doesn’t change his mind or have second thoughts in the ultimate sense. But God is said to “repent,” indicating that the divine experiences emotions too, even though the future is completely known to Him in advance.
Fifth, a new formula emerges at this point: “x found favor (grace) in the eyes of y.” It occurs about forty times in the Old Testament, and its first occurrence is of Noah finding grace in the eyes of the Lord (Gen. 6:8). This is like a shaft of light that shines brightly over the darkened landscape of predicted cosmic catastrophe. The flood will not destroy all of mankind. One family will be delivered, but not on account of inherent good (as the story of Noah will depict all too clearly; Noah is a sinner like the rest of mankind).
What is ultimately in view here is God’s saving purposes to redeem His people according to the mystery of His electing grace. He chooses Noah and his family and passes by the rest of humanity, consigning them to a cataclysmic judgment. It is not for us, however, to ask questions impugning the judgments of God. The whole point of the story has been to underline the undeserving quality of God’s intervention. Sin robs all of us of the argument that God is obligated to do us good. Death and judgment is what we deserve. Grace is God’s unmerited favor shown toward us.