The supposed distinction between the “Old Testament God of Wrath” and the “New Testament God of Love” remains far too common in both religious and irreligious circles. According to this bifurcation, the God of ancient Israel was angry and capricious, but underwent a positive personality shift by the time of Jesus. In order to test such a theory, a good place to begin is the flood story—the first and most wide-reaching instance of corporate divine judgment. While God would have had good reason to be upset before the flood, the narrative contains no references to anger; instead, God is sorrowful about the state of human beings who have already destroyed the earth before the flood. Rather than a disgruntled deity, Genesis presents a grieving God who longs for righteousness.
In the days of Noah, “the Lord saw that the evil of humanity was abounding on the earth, and that every inclination of thought in its heart was only evil every day” (Gen 6:5). If ever there were a time for heavenly ire, this would be it. However, God is not angry at the sight of human corruption; rather, God is sad: “The Lord regretted that he had made humanity on the earth, and he was grieved (יתעצב; yitatsev) to his heart” (6:6). The Hebrew for “grieve” (עצב; atsav) is grammatically reflexive, which shows that God’s grief is a sorrow that penetrates to the core of the divine being. Genesis presents a God who is deeply saddened by human behavior, not a deity who is filled with anger or contempt.
Ultimately, the Lord sends a flood to wipe out humanity, saying, “The end of all flesh has come before me, for the earth is filled with violence…. I will destroy (שׁחת; shachat) them with the earth’” (6:13). Yet, this declaration of divine destruction comes after humans have already destroyed the earth through their sins. Before God resolves to send the flood, the text states, “The earth was destroyed (שׁחת; shachat) before God, and the earth was filled with violence. God looked upon the earth and, behold, it was destroyed (שׁחת) because all flesh had destroyed (שׁחת) its way upon the earth” (6:11-12). In sending the destructive flood, God only underscores what humans have already done to themselves; God grieves the violent “destruction” of our own making. The flood is a time of heavenly weeping, rather than wrath, and God’s blessing after the deluge (Gen 9:1) is a reminder of divine love and reconciliation.