The story of Noah has one very telling truth about God which is often overlooked: He means it.
When we talk about Noah, we talk about several things. We talk about the righteousness of Noah, and how the righteousness of one man can be a saving grace to the world. (Think ahead: Jesus.) We talk about God's crazy command for Noah, and His provision throughout the whole thing. We talk about God's regret over destroying the world, and His promise never to do it again. And we talk about the rainbow. We always talk about the rainbow.
But have you paused lately to see what's really going on here? God destroys the world because it has become so wicked. So wicked that He thinks the only resolution, at this point, is to start over. And it's easy for us to think that since God brought all of Creation off a boat rather than forming it from scratch with His hands, that it wasn't really a new start. It was a reboot, maybe, but all the hardware and software of the world remained essentially the same, essentially pre-flood. He started again with one righteous, but imperfect, man.
That's not quite...true. Look again at the story in Genesis 8-9.
Just after the flood is over, God promises Himself that He's never going to do that again. Then He turns to His righteous man:
God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, 'Be fertile, increase in number, and fill the earth. All the wild animals and all the birds will fear you and be terrified of you. Every creature that crawls on the ground and all the fish in the sea have been put under your control. Everything that lives and moves will be your food. I gave you green plants as food; I now give you everything else.' (9:1-3)
There are a few tweaks here - specifically, the last bit - but at its heart, this is the very same blessing that God gave Adam and Eve...pre-Fall. In Genesis 1, God created them...blessed them and said, 'Be fertile, increase in number, fill the earth, and be its master. Rule the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky, and all the animals that crawl on the earth. ...I have given you every plant with seeds on the face of the earth and every tree that has fruit with seeds. This will be your food." (1:27-29)
It's the original blessing of man - given to Adam and given again to Noah. When God says He's starting over, He means it. He's starting over. He's starting with a righteous man and blessing him as though he was the first man all over again.
And Noah, that righteous man, that one righteous man who took God at His word and built an enormous boat in the middle of dry land, is standing at an altar of his own making, unable to fathom that he is, now, a new creation. A restored creation. A redeemed creation. He has just been given the blessing of all creation from the very beginning, and even Noah cannot walk in the garden.
He can only stand at the altar.
So even Noah struggles to understand what God is really doing, what his own story even means. He knows that God has saved him, but what does saved mean? To Noah, it means only that God has preserved him. That God has protected him from wrath and judgment. That God is allowing him to continue his righteous/faithful existence, to keep living his life the way he's always been living it - before the altar.
To God, I think this saving meant something more. It meant redemption. It meant starting over. It meant wiping the slate clean and blessing this man as though he was the first man to ever walk in all of creation. It meant inviting him to walk with God, to really walk with Him in the cool of the day and to share a sacred universe with Him.
And Noah settles for a sacred spot.
He's righteous, but fallen, a trap that we as men and women just can't seem to get out of. He loves God, as most of us do. He tries to live a holy life; so do we. But there's something in his heart that just can't fathom his own story, that just doesn't understand what God is really doing, even when God pours out His blessing on the man. That's so much us, too. At least, it's me.
God comes restoring, redeeming His creation. Men. Women. Us. You. Me. He comes and clears the land, wipes the slate clean, calls us out of one journey and into another, declaring...here is the Creation. Walk in it with Me.
And oh how easy it is, even from what feels like such a holy or righteous place in my heart, to say, here is the altar.