I recently reread the account of the flood in Genesis, expecting to sail through the story without any snags. After all, countless Sunday school lessons and songs had taught me everything I needed to know about gopher wood arks and olive branches—or so I thought. As I visualized what I read—my preferred approach to studying the Bible—I was surprised to find a leaf in the dove’s beak instead of a branch (Gen. 8:11).
Then I read Genesis 8:21, and it was as if I’d never read it before.
“The LORD said to Himself, ‘I will never again curse the ground on account of man, for the intent of man’s heart is evil from his youth; and I will never again destroy every living thing, as I have done.’”
Am I wrong, I thought, or is there tenderness here? A touch of mercy after all this destruction? I knew God had spared Noah and his family, but it seemed like such a small dispensation of grace, in light of the massive loss of life caused by the flood.
“I will never again curse the ground on account of man, for the intent of man’s heart is evil from his youth.” Here, God seems to issue something of a pardon, and the words of Christ on the cross come to mind: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).
It reminds me of the surprise I felt when reading the book of Jonah, where God’s mercy showed up when I didn’t expect it. After the Ninevites repent, their Creator spares them, and this angers Jonah. But God asks the prophet, “Should I not have compassion on Nineveh, the great city in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know the difference between their right and left hand ... ?” (Jonah 4:11).
After disciplining Adam and Eve—His love for them still smoldering—God soon accommodates His fallen creatures.
Or consider the leafy trees of Eden, where Adam and Eve, newly ashamed of their nakedness, “sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loin coverings” (Gen. 3:7). After disciplining Adam and Eve—His love for them still smoldering—God soon accommodates His fallen creatures. “The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and for his wife, and clothed them,” says Genesis 3:21. And here we see how the Creator dresses Adam and Eve in more enduring attire—prefiguring “robes of righteousness” in Christ (Isa. 61:10).
Growing up as the son of a Baptist minister, I always thought of Christ’s crucifixion as the point in human history where God reveals His mercy. But in truth, a thread of mercy runs throughout the entire Bible, and we can trace it from verse to verse, page to page.
Recognizing the Creator’s clemency, however, is not the same as fully comprehending it. Consider for a moment that Noah’s grandson, Cush, built Nineveh (Gen. 10:11).If God hadn’t preserved Noah and his family in the first place, then there wouldn’t have been a Nineveh to spare years later.
Which begs the question: Instead of eradicating evil altogether, why does God forgive and permit us to live, knowing we will continue to sin? Genesis 6:6, which precedes the account of the flood, says, “The Lord was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart.” So, why does He pardon us when it pains Him so?
Instead of eradicating evil altogether, why does God forgive and permit us to live, knowing we will continue to sin?
I suppose God loves us so much He’s willing to endure the agony of being the perpetually jilted Lover. This is difficult for us to fathom; we retreat from pain. When we trace the thread of God’s mercy throughout the Bible, we recognize the truth of Isaiah’s words: That our Creator’s ways are not our ways, that His ways are higher than ours (Isa. 55:8-9). This means we sometimes don’t recognize God’s mercy, even as it’s unfolding before us in Scripture.
“How could a merciful God command the Israelites to wipe out the people of Canaan?” I asked my dad one day after reading a particularly confounding passage in Deuteronomy.
Before the Israelites claim the Promised Land, it’s occupied by the devious descendants of Canaan—another one of Noah’s grandsons. More than simply evicting the Canaanites from the territory, the text says, “Completely destroy them ... as the Lord your God has commanded you. Otherwise, they will teach you to follow all the detestable things they do in worshiping their gods, and you will sin against the Lord your God” (Deut. 20:17-18 NIV).
“What am I to make of that, Dad?” I asked.
“Look back at Genesis 15,” he said. “God says the Israelites are going to be enslaved for 400 years before they go to Canaan. Notice the phrase, ‘for the iniquity of the Amorite is not yet complete.’ The Amorites are one of the peoples of Canaan. God is slow to anger here: He gives the people of Canaan 400 years to repent before commanding the Israelites to destroy them. Isn’t that a picture of a longsuffering God, son? A merciful God?” (See Deut. 22:13-16.)
“Four-hundred years,” I said, “Is a long time.” If this world is God’s to do with as He pleases, I cannot understand His decision to withhold judgment for such a long period of time, except for His mercy.
Sometimes in Scripture, the thread of God’s mercy is hidden from plain sight, but this doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. No, it runs through the lives of the Bible’s protagonists. If we look at our own lives, we might be surprised to find it running through our stories, too—the living grace of God at work in and through us.