by Richard T. Ritenbaugh
"This is the genealogy of Noah.
Noah was a just man, perfect in his generations.
Noah walked with God."
It is common knowledge that the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible was published in 1611—six years shy of 400 years ago. Since that time, the English language has accumulated hundreds of thousands of new words, and word meanings have shifted (technically called "semantic drift"), in some cases drastically. The KJV contains many instances of this, for example:
» apprehend = lay hold of (Philippians 3:12)
» charity = love (I Corinthians 13)
» consolation = encouragement (Acts 4:36)
» superstitious = religious (Acts 17:22)
This is not to bash the KJV but simply to explain that, since English has evolved over the past four centuries, we need to be careful to understand the true meaning behind the English words. This means that we have to ascertain the author's intended meaning, not the translators' meaning, of a scripture. Most of the time, the difference is not critical, but sometimes it can make a huge difference—creating doctrinal error.
Genesis 6:9 is one of these misunderstood verses that has spawned doctrinal error. Some have used this verse to justify their belief in their racial superiority, and others have wielded it to break up mixed-race marriages and exclude believers of other races from the church. These false doctrines are based upon a misunderstanding of the English translation and the Hebrew text behind it.
The Two Generations
At first glance, Genesis 6:9 seems straightforward: "These are the generations of Noah: Noah was a just man and perfect in his generations, and Noah walked with God" (KJV). However, the phrase "perfect in his generations" has been interpreted to mean that Noah was racially pure, that is, all of his ancestors had been of the same racial stock, making Noah the only "perfect" human being of his generation. Some have deduced from this that racial purity was a determining factor—along with the fact that he "was a just man"—in God's choice of Noah to build the ark and then replenish the earth on the other side of the Flood.
In a mind susceptible to prejudice, this misinterpretation can lead to simple condescension toward or even to outright rejection of whole races as somehow "subhuman." From this have sprung extreme movements such as Aryanism, white supremacy, and Identity cults, all of which preach racial purity and combine it with various levels of isolation and/or segregation, persecution, and militancy. Even in the church, where "there is neither Greek nor Jew" (Colossians 3:11), it can cause distrust, marginalization, and respect of persons, disrupting fellowship and destroying unity.
Unfortunately, the New King James Version (NKJV) fails to correct the translation of Genesis 6:9, although its marginal note on the word "perfect" offers two alternative renderings. The NJKV translators, like their colleagues who worked on other modern translations of God's Word, should have made the change in the text itself to remove all question.
The verse actually contains two problems. The first is that the KJV translates two different Hebrew words as "generations"! The first occurrence—"These are the generations"—is rendered from toledoth (Strong's #8435; note that it is plural), meaning "descent," "history," or "genealogy." The NKJV corrects this first error by using the word "genealogy"—"This is the genealogy of Noah"—although this is still a singular word. Other translations read:
» "the records of the generations" [New American Standard Bible (NASB)]
» "the account" [New International Version (NIV)]
» "the story" [Revised English Bible (REB)]
» "the descendants" [Moffatt translation (MOF)]
» "births" (Young's Literal Version)
» "the family records" [Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB)]
The second occurrence of "generations"—in the phrase "perfect in his generations"—is from the Hebrew word dôr (Strong's #1755), which means "properly, a revolution of time, i.e., an age or generation." The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (TWOT) adds:
Generation. By a thoroughly understandable figure, a man's lifetime beginning with the womb of earth and returning thereto (Gen 3:19) is a dôr; likewise from the conception and birth of a man to the conception and birth of his offspring is a dôr. A special use . . . is to mean simply "contemporaries," . . . cf. Gen 6:9 . . . "in his own generation and those immediately contiguous."
[My Servant, Jesus] was taken from prison and from judgment, and who will declare His generation? For He was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgressions of My people He was stricken.
This is better rendered, as in the English Standard Version: ". . . and as for His generation [or, contemporaries], who considered that He was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people?"
Generation (dôr) simply means a period of time, in the same way we use the phrases "the life and times of Ronald Reagan" or "the Age of Napoleon." The Hebrew implies the context or milieu of a person's life, the situations and events that occurred during his lifetime, including, as TWOT shows, his "contemporaries." Thus, many modern translations have rendered in his generations as:
» "in his time" (NASB)
» "at that time" (The Living Bible)
» "of his time" (Today's English Version; REB)
» "among the people of his time" (NIV)
» "among his fellow-men (The Modern Language Bible)
» "among his contemporaries" (HCSB)
» "among the men of his day" (MOF)
The two generations in Genesis 6:9 are quite different words and should be translated to distinguish them and to rule out misunderstanding.
Was Noah "Perfect"?
The crux of the matter, however, is the word perfect. In the Hebrew text, this is tamiym (Strong's #8549), and its basic meaning is "complete" or "entire." It does not mean "perfect" as we think of it today, as "without fault, flaw, or defect." Other English words that translate tamiym better than "perfect" are "whole," "full," "finished," "well-rounded," "balanced," "sound," "healthful," "sincere," "innocent," or "wholehearted." In the main, however, modern translators have rendered it as "blameless" in Genesis 6:9.
This does not mean that Noah never sinned, but that he was spiritually mature and that he had a wholehearted, healthy relationship with God, who had forgiven him of his sins, rendering him guiltless. The thought in Genesis 6:9 extends to the fact that Noah was head-and-shoulders above his contemporaries in spiritual maturity. In fact, the text suggests that he was God's only logical choice to do His work.
The New Testament concept of perfection, found in the Greek word téleios (Strong's #5056), is similar to tamiym. Perhaps the best-known occurrence of téleios occurs in Matthew 5:48: "Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect." Certainly, Jesus desires that we become as flawless as we can humanly be, using the utter perfection of the Father as our model, but His use of téleios suggests something else. His aim is that a Christian be completely committed to living God's way of life, maturing in it until he can perform the duties God entrusts to him both now and in His Kingdom. In harmony with this idea of spiritual growth toward completion, téleios is well translated as "mature" in I Corinthians 2:6, and in Hebrews 5:14, itis rendered as "of full age."
In addition, unlike Greek, biblical Hebrew is a rather concrete language, expressing itself in colorful, often earthy terms, and emphasizing its meaning with repetition and rephrasing. Because his vocabulary was limited by a relatively small number of words, a Hebrew writer relied on syntax, metaphors, puns, and other figures of speech to make his meaning clear. Perhaps chief in his bag of verbal tricks was parallelism.
Parallelism is similar to the use of appositives in English. When we say, "Fred Jones, the pharmacist, often rode his bicycle to work," we restate the subject of our sentence and add information at the same time. The Hebrew writer did the same thing, but he was not limited merely to renaming nouns; he worked in phrases, clauses, and whole sentences. For instance, a well-known parallelism appears in Psalm 51:2: "Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin." Many of the proverbs of Solomon also follow this form, for example, "Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall" (Proverbs 16:18).
In the same way, "perfect in his generations" acts as a parallel thought to Noah being "a just man." Just represents the Hebrew tsaddiyq (Strong's #6662), meaning "just," "righteous," "lawful" (in accord with a standard), "correct." Noah was a man who lived in accordance with God's revealed will, unlike all others of his time. In writing this description of Noah, Moses' use of parallelism emphasizes Noah's unusual righteousness for a man living among the spiritually degenerate humanity of his day.
Noah Found Grace
The thought of Noah being spiritually complete or righteous beyond all of his contemporaries fits hand-in-glove with the context.
Then the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart. So the Lord said, "I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth, both man and beast, creeping thing and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them." But Noah found grace [favor, acceptance] in the eyes of the Lord. (Genesis 6:5-8)
His fear of God, exhibited in his obedience to God's instructions—his righteousness—is why God chose Noah, not his supposed racial perfection! In fact, the verse contains no connotation of race at all but is entirely interested in Noah's spiritual résumé. God wanted Noah, a man of integrity and morality, to build the ark and reestablish human society on a godly footing. The biblical account testifies that he performed his responsibility as well as any man could.
From what we have seen, a fair translation of verse 9 would be:
These are the records of Noah. Noah was a righteous man, blameless among his contemporaries. Noah walked with God.
As God says in Isaiah 66:2, "But on this one will I look [have favor]; on him who is poor and of a contrite spirit, and who trembles at My word." Such a man was Noah.
The apostle Paul writes in Galatians 3:26-28:
For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
Physical traits—such as genetic "perfection," social status, or gender—are not high on God's list of priorities regarding His children, but putting on the faith and righteousness of Jesus Christ is what impresses Him. In Noah's case, these qualities are what led to his salvation—not anything as insignificant as the color of his skin.