This article was originally written for Christ Hold Fast.
Renowned Scottish philosopher, writer, and historian Thomas Carlyle once quipped, “The History of the World [is] the Biography of Great Men.”1 Carlyle, himself, was one of the leading proponents of the “Great Man” theory, which sought to explain the course of history by the impact of “great men,” or heroes. These pivotal figures in time changed the world through their force of personality, strength of character, mental prowess, or political deftness. This theory appealed to many during the 1800s, most notably through the influence of Carlyle and his most famous work, On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History, in which he proceeded to expound and explain how the events of history turned on the decisions and determinations of a select group of “heroes.”
In On Heroes, Carlyle gives an intricate analysis to each of his supposed “great men,” a list which includes the likes of Mohammad, Shakespeare, Luther, Rousseau, Cromwell, and Napoleon, among others. It was his conviction that a thorough consideration of each of these “heroes” would enable one to discover one’s own heroic side. “We cannot look, however imperfectly,” he writes, “upon a great man, without gaining something by him.”2 An examination of great men, he believed, would lead one into greater degrees of maturity and personal development and, perhaps, reveal the hero that resides in one’s true nature. The hopes of which, I presume, lie in the endeavor to better mankind by the emulation of these “heroes.” The maturation of men through the meditation of “great men” results a peaceful society.
“Society is founded on Hero-worship,” Carlyle says.3 And I can’t help but think that myriads of Christians have been sucked into a similar malaise of “hero-worship,” duped by a like theory that seeks to read, understand, and apply Scripture as if it’s the divine retelling of a few “great men” and “heroes of the faith.” We see these inspired men and hope our sons and daughters become like them, in one way or another. These patriarchs fill our Sunday School curriculums and emblazon our sermons with lessons about discipline, character, morality, and faith. We draw particular attention to these “heroes,” men like Abraham, Isaac, Gideon, Moses, Joseph, Daniel, and many others, even going so far as singing songs about them and challenging our children to be like them. (“Dare to Be a Daniel” anyone?)
Now, I don’t wish to necessarily undermine the merits of daring to be like Daniel. But I do believe that our affinity for heroes bleeds into our spiritual sensibilities and mars the true message God would have us see, hear, and understand by the Spirit’s inclusion of their lives in the canon of Scripture. Nothing included there is by accident. The Word of God was recorded and has been preserved by the same Spirit that “breathed out” the words in the first place. (2 Tm 3:16 ESV) Men were “moved by the Holy Ghost.” (2 Pt 1:21 KJV), and thus we now know and remember the Balaams, the Boazes, the Ruths, the Andrews, the Jameses, the Onesimuses, and so forth, of the Bible.
It’s with that understanding, then, that we come to Hebrews 11, or what most of us know as the “hall of faith.” Nowhere is Christian hero-worship more plainly seen than in this record of “great examples of faith,” as the New Living Translation titles it. This archive of men and women from various points of Christian history has been told and retold as the register of God’s exemplars of the faith. It is to these figures we ought to point our young ones to follow and imitate. Or so we’ve been told. A conscientious reader will note the persons listed here and recognize that their lives are spotted with dark and dastardly blemishes. We might look to Moses and his murder (Heb 11:23), or Jacob and his lies (Heb 11:21), or Rahab and her promiscuity (Heb 11:31), and wonder how they were ever included. How did they get into this club? And then we read about Enoch, Abel, and Joseph and seem to find a stark contrast of the people listed here. Some who should and other shouldn’t belong. One such figure we don’t often question is Noah.
Noah is a most distinguished biblical character mostly known for building the ark and bringing in the animals two-by-two. But besides our colloquial understanding of Noah, what I hope to instill is a deeper awareness of who this man was and why we’re reading about him some 3,000-odd years later. My aim isn’t that we’d emulate this man from history, but that our eyes would be further opened to the marvelous grace we see in his life, and ours too. The Scriptures say, “By faith Noah, after he was warned about what was not yet seen and motivated by godly fear, built an ark to deliver his family. By faith he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith.” (Heb 11:7) Noah was a man of peculiar honor, one of whom it was said “walked with God.” (Gn 6:9; cf. 5:22) He ushered in a new era of human history by providentially surviving the flood. He was an old disciple, around 600 years of age at the time of the flood, already having long sustained a life of fidelity in the midst great evil. (Gn 5:5–6) He’s certainly one of the most distinguished figures in the Bible, elsewhere described as “a preacher of righteousness.” (2 Pt 2:5) And if there were ever constructed a Mount Rushmore, of sorts, of the “great men” of the Bible, Noah would surely be one of them.
“Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord.” (Gn 6:8 KJV), and was given the warning of the impending judgment and detailed instructions on how endure it. (Gn 6:11–20) And it’s his submission to the will of God and subsequent obedience that serve to us as a model of faith. “Thus did Noah,” it says. (Gn 6:22 KJV) Noah courageously believed God and obeyed him despite the torrent of criticisms and jeers of those around him. His belief of things not yet seen led to the “saving of his house.” (Heb 11:7 KJV; cf. Gn 8:18–20) And so we see the great lesson of faith as “the proof of what is not seen.” (Heb 11:1) Faith steps out into the unseen but not into the unknown. Faith isn’t some blind leap in the dark or plunge into the abyss of the future — it’s a confident step forward in the knowledge of what is known about God. Faith isn’t presumptuous about the future or about what might happen next, but it is presumptuous about an all-knowing, ever-faithful, ever-gracious God who has promised never to let you go or leave your side. (Jn 10:29; Is 43:1–3; Heb 13:5; 2 Cor 4:9; Ps 37:25) Noah undoubtedly knew this and believed this, pushing forward into the unknown because of what he knew about God, resulting in the salvation of his family the recreation of the whole earth.
And if we were writing the story of Noah, no doubt it’d end with verses 15–17 of Genesis 9 and God’s covenant of the rainbow. “I will remember my covenant between me and you and all the living creatures: water will never again become a flood to destroy every creature. The bow will be in the clouds, and I will look at it.” (Gn 9:15–16) We’d stop the story right there. The flood has subsided, Noah and his family have survived, and the Lord has given his pledge of grace to the inhabitants of a new earth. We’ve got the rainbow, we’re only missing the unicorns for a truly saccharine sweet ending. But the happiness of this scene is merely a prelude to the haunting scene to follow.
We can’t talk about Noah’s faith without also mentioning his failure. Doing so would give only a limited portrait of both this man of God and this God of grace. The next few verses in Genesis 9 seem to be so at odds with everything else we know about Noah. We find out that he’s taken up farming after the flood, specifically tending to a vineyard. (Gn 9:20) It’s been awhile since all the events of the ark and God’s subsequent covenant, long enough for Noah’s vineyard to flourish and produce enough harvest to begin pressing and fermenting wine. And it’s here that find out that Noah’s not so great, he’s not a hero. Actually, he’s sinner just like you and me. “Noah, as a man of the soil, began by planting a vineyard. He drank some of the wine, became drunk, and uncovered himself inside his tent.” (Gn 9:20–21) These verses beg the question, Where’s unclothed, intoxicated Noah in all our stories about him? Seems odd that he’d be known as the “preacher of righteousness” right now, right? But, in fact, it’s not so at odds if you’re reading the Bible rightly.
We often like to edit the Bible by leaving out the dark stuff, by putting the skeletons in the closet. That’s why we stay away from parts of Genesis and most of Judges. The stories there are just too dark, too sordid. But that’s precisely why they’re there. The dark background of man’s sin brings out in greater relief the grace and mercy and patience of God the Father. Noah’s biggest failure was after his greatest success — and yet, he’s still counted as righteous. This reveals a startling truth: If your theological system doesn’t account for the fact that your biggest blunder is ahead you, it’s time to get a new theological system. Think of all the “great men” of the Bible and none of them have flawless résumés. Noah had his drunkenness. David had his adultery. Paul had his persecution. Peter had his denial. And so it goes.
The point is, while we’re obsessed with hiding our skeletons, God puts them front and center. The Bible’s never afraid of airing its dirty laundry. Just read the genealogy of Christ in Matthew 1 and study the lives of some of the names included there. It’s chock full of mess ups, wrecks, and screw ups. We’re given stories like these to show us the type of God we have. It’s not that we find comfort in more bad people doing bad things, but that our Father is one who doesn’t trash people when they do. Our God is “ready to pardon, gracious and merciful, slow to anger.” (Neh 9:17 ESV; Pss 86:15; 145:8) He’s not afraid to get his hands dirty! He reaches down into the filth of the world to rescue broken, bruised, and dirty sinners, to redeem those who know they need saving. Don’t let the blunders of “great men” shake your confidence in the truth of the gospel. Because, in fact, the world isn’t the biography of a few great men. Its axis doesn’t turn on the decisions of heroes. There are no “great men.” There are only great sinners, and an even greater God who seeks out, saves, and uses them.
Thomas Carlyle, On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History (London: Chapman & Hall, 1840), 17.