Putrid vs. Perfumed Worship: Calvin on Gen. 8.20-21
Noah's first deed upon exiting the ark -- at least as recorded in Scripture -- was to build an altar and offer unto God sacrifices from the "clean" animals and birds which had accompanied him and his family on his recent water-based adventures. God, for his part, smelled Noah's sacrifices and apparently found the scent of them agreeable (Gen. 8.20). Calvin is quick to point out the anthropomorphic and anthropopathic nature of the activity and sentiment thus attributed to God, lest anyone think that God actually has nostrils or, even worse, actually deems pleasing per se the "filthy smoke of entrails, and of flesh."
Calvin is, of course, equally keen to discover what it was about Noah's sacrifices that particularly pleased God, and so to learn how we might perform acts of worship that bring pleasure to the one who has redeemed us from the flood-waters of sin, death, and hell. Calvin ultimately discovers two ingredients in Noah's worship that rendered it pleasing to God.
The first is Noah's faith. Faith is, according to the author of Hebrews, the sine qua non of pleasing God (Heb. 11:6). Noah was a man who, by virtue of his recent experiences, had a fair share of confidence in God. Calvin discovers evidence of just how strong Noah's faith had grown in the biblical record of Noah's departure from the ark. Even when Noah had removed the door of the ark and found the earth dry (Gen. 8.13), he remained in the ark until God bid him leave it (Gen. 8.15). "Thus we see,"Calvin observes, "that by a continual course of faith, the holy man was obedient to God; because, at God's command, he entered the ark, and there remained until God opened the way for his egress; and because he chose rather to lie in a tainted atmosphere than to breathe the free air, until he should feel assured that his removal would be pleasing to God."
Noah's reluctance to exit the ark without divine bidding was apparently informed by the tremendous episode of judgment and salvation he had just witnessed/experienced. God, it was clear to Noah, was no one to be trifled with. God, it was equally clear, was a God who kept his promises and was absolutely reliable. The only sensible thing to do, in light of who God had just revealed himself to be, was to cast himself entirely upon God's mercy and obey his word even to the minutest detail. It was this very remarkable sense of God's reality and power, and God's utter trustworthiness, which informed Noah's sacrifices and rendered them fragrant to God. Such faith should, of course, inform every person's worship of God: "This general rule, therefore, is to be observed, that all religious services which are not perfumed with the odour of faith, are of an ill-savour before God."
We should not, however, conclude that any old act of worship informed by faith is pleasing to God. The second ingredient -- also absolutely essential -- to sweet-smelling worship is careful attention to God's own instructions regarding how he wishes to be worshiped. Calvin admits that no explicit command to Noah to offer sacrifices is discovered in the biblical text, but nevertheless argues that Noah "rested upon the word of God, and... in reliance on the divine command... rendered this worship, which he knew, indubitably, would be acceptable to God." God's intention for Noah to offer animal sacrifices to him as an expression of gratitude for his salvation following the flood is discernible, Calvin argues, in the pre-flood instruction to take on board seven (three pairs plus one) of every clean animal, the seventh, un-paired animal being included "for the sake of sacrifice." It would, of course, have been useless to include a seventh specimen of every clean animal "unless God had revealed this design to holy Noah, who was to be the priest to offer up the victims."
The pre-flood "divine command" to sacrifice post-flood is also discernible in the distinction noted between clean and un-clean animals as such. "It is certain that Noah did not invent this distinction for himself, since it does not depend on human choice." All in all, it is apparent, in Calvin's judgment, that God had given Noah fairly detailed instructions regarding the sacrifices that he should make following the flood, even before the first drops of rain fell. "We conclude that he undertook nothing without divine authority." Calvin's argument certainly makes good sense of what Noah actually did upon exiting the ark. Noah got busy making sacrifices as soon as his feet hit dry ground because God, who had just revealed himself to Noah in a remarkable episode of judgment and salvation, had previously instructed him to do just that.
The lesson we are meant to take from this is decidedly not that we, however full of faith, should offer animal sacrifices unto God. Animal sacrifices in the Old Testament were picture prophecies of the Seed who would come to crush the head of the Serpent by offering himself up as an atonement for the sins of his people. "It was right that [Old Testament believers] should always have before their eyes symbols, by which they would be admonished, that they could have no access to God but through a mediator. Now, however, the manifestation of Christ has taken away these ancient shadows." For that matter, however, Noah's sacrifices (in Calvin's judgment) were more like the "first fruits" offerings the people of Israel would eventually bring God in grateful acknowledgment of God's deliverance of them (cf. Deut. 26) than those sacrifices which properly pre-figured Christ (the true sin-bearing sacrifice).
In any case, the lesson we are meant to take from Noah's sacrifices is that our own worship, if we would have it be pleasing to God, must likewise be performed in faith and careful attention to God's own instructions about how he should be worshiped. We are, of course, not free to simply go through the proper motions of worship, without hearts full of faith. We are, equally, not free to worship God in whatever way we deem suitable, provided our hearts are full of faith. Both worship uninformed by faith and worship unsolicited by God are putrid in his nostrils. Only when we worship him as he has expressly commanded us to do, and do so in faith, is our worship fragrant to him.
Noah's faith, as noted, was informed by his participation in a rather remarkable episode of judgment and salvation. We who stand on this side of the Cross have been made witnesses to and participants in a rather more remarkable episode of judgment and salvation; we have been spared the flood-waters of God's wrath insofar as they have been poured out on our substitute. The faith that informs our own worship has no less substantial a foundation than Noah's faith had.
And we, like Noah, have been given very clear instructions in Scripture concerning the kind of worship we should offer unto God, whether in private, familial, or corporate-ecclesial settings.
May we, then, be as quick and ready as Noah was to offer unto God our own faith-full and obedient sacrifices.
Aaron Clay Denlinger is professor of church history and historical theology at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, FL.
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