Aside from the ark, the flood story has all the features of decreation and a return to the beginning of creation. Yet the ark would seem to be the main point, and it introduces the dominant pattern in the rest of scripture: “For a brief moment I forsook you, but with great compassion I will gather you” (Isa. 54:7).
Floods of trial, slavery, exile, persecution, and even the flood of death on the cross—all these winnowing and purging episodes of suffering are for the sake of finding our way into the future of fellowship with God. In this sense, the flood sets out patterns of divine loyalty to his creatures: “Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it” (Song 8:7).
The covenant with Noah, however, is the ambiguous first stage in the divine project of realizing this loyalty in the flesh and blood of human life. It does not so much move history forward as stay the destructive effects of sin. For this reason, the flood is best understood as the covenant of God’s patience. The protecting mark of Cain stays the hand of those who seek to kill him. The covenant with Noah has similar effect.
The blessing that changes human relations to animals and establishes the basic duty to punish transgression lays the foundations for human survival. The family tribe, held together by rough justice, enters the flow of history. This human-centered change is mirrored in the divine-centered promise never again to unleash the primal forces of nature against humanity.
Water will return as a remedy for sin in the history of the covenant, but it will be the irrigating, life-giving water of Gen. 2 rather than the primal waters of Gen. 1 that overwhelm the world in Gen. 7: “I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses” (Ezek. 36:25).
Looking back on the flood episode, therefore, we can see that the massive project of worldwide cleansing does not create a new future for humanity. It hits the pause button on the doleful, destructive thrust of sin and brings a modicum of stability to human history.