Genesis 8:20 Then Noah built an altar to the LORD, and took of every clean animal and of every clean bird, and offered burnt offerings on the altar. 21 And when the LORD smelled the pleasing odor, the LORD said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; neither will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done. 22 While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.”
“when the LORD smelled the pleasing odor….” Though generally it is thought God was pleased by the scent of the roasting meat (as the mention of Noah in the in St. Basil’s Liturgy assumes), the story may have some ambiguity to it. For though God decides never to destroy humans again, it is precisely when He smells the burning sacrifice that He also remembers the human heart always inclines towards evil (8:21). The sacrifice has somehow reminded him of this awful truth. The fact that a rite is needed to bring about reconciliation between God and human, also reminds God of the reality of the separation caused by human sin between Himself and His human creatures.
“when the LORD smelled the pleasing odor…” The offering is a barbeque of each clean animal, and God appreciates the smell. The story suggests that the reconciliation between humans and God is accomplished. God is pleased once again with His human creatures. In what sense God can smell is unknown, but this is the first time in Genesis that this capacity is attributed to God. Orthodox to this day hope to please God and invoke His favor by burning incense in worship. Aaron was commanded to perpetually offer incense to the Lord (Exodus 30:8). In Orthodox services the censer and incense are blessed with the words, “Incense we offer to You, O Christ our God, as an odor of spiritual fragrance. Receive it upon Your heavenly altar, and send down upon us in return the grace of Your all-holy Spirit.” As we sing during the Lenten Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts, “Let my prayer arise in Your sight as incense, and the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice!” (Psalm 141:2) Noah’s offering incense is similar to the description of Aaron in Wisdom 18:21, “For a blameless man was quick to act as their champion; he brought forward the shield of his ministry, prayer and propitiation by incense; he withstood the anger and put an end to the disaster, showing that he was your servant.”
“…the LORD said in his heart, ‘I will never again curse the ground because of man…” The last words about God’s heart in 6:6 were that God was totally grieved by humanity. Here God is at peace and makes a new resolve – He is convinced that He must learn to live at peace with the creatures whom He knowingly endowed with free will – His stubborn, troublesome and evil-doing humans. He promises not to let the humans provoke Him ever again to such wrath and destruction. The author of Genesis has God speaking to Himself not to Noah in making this promise. However, read Ezekiel 20 in which God describes at least 3 other occasions on which He wanted to pour His fury upon the house of Israel because of their sins and totally destroy them, yet decided against it. The notion of the faithful remnant whom God saves from the midst of an otherwise sinful humanity becomes a common theme in the Old Testament.
“the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth” When all is said and done and flood waters have cleansed the earth of violence and wickedness, God expresses a realistic if depressing assessment of human beings – the human heart is still the source of evil in the world. Neither God nor the inspired scribes who wrote Genesis attributed the evil of the world to Satan. No amount of effort on God’s part to change the world can apparently bring about the change needed in the human heart. Humans did, do and will at times turn their hearts to the greatest of evils. For those who ask, “Why doesn’t God intervene in our world and change everything? Why does God let evil exist?” The answer from Genesis 6-9 is first because He continues to allow humans whose hearts constantly imagine evil to exist. Second, God did intervene once and it was an abysmal failure – for He wiped out all the wicked, but wickedness remains in the human heart. As long as there are humans, evil has a source and a home – our hearts. God wants humans to exist, and so He knows this means evil will exist as well. As long as humans have free will, the potential toward evil must be real and possible or humans are not free. God created humans not automatons. He created beings that He wanted to CHOSE the good. But to do this, He had to give them real and meaningful and dangerous choice. To have the power to choose the good, we must have the power to choose the evil. This also is the only way in which human love is possible. God is love. He created us in His image and likeness. We are capable of love, which means we must be able to choose in order to really love (otherwise it isn’t love it is reactive instinct). The flood story reaffirms what we learned in Genesis 3 about human beings and the reality and risks of free will and love. Even the flood which cleanses the world of wickedness cannot take away free will, love, choice and the potential for evil from human beings. And God comes to accept that love also means for Him unconditionally loving humans as they are – faults and sin and all. God’s love is not a reaction to us (and our God-likeness and our God-given goodness); God’s love is how He chooses to act towards us before we even existed and despite how we behave. God experiences that true love means pain and risk and rejection. And despite all the sinful, wicked and evil faults of humans, God so loves the world that He will send His only Son to save the world. This is true love. When in the Gospel Jesus teaches us to love our enemies, to love beyond those who love us, He is asking us to love as God realized love demanded Him to love – even those who reject Him and do not love Him back. God doesn’t ask more of us than He is willing to do. But He does ask us to do what He does. Jesus taught, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? … You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:44-48).