What does Genesis 8:21 mean?
ESV: And when the LORD smelled the pleasing aroma, the LORD said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth. Neither will I ever again strike down every living creature as I have done.
NIV: The LORD smelled the pleasing aroma and said in his heart: 'Never again will I curse the ground because of humans, even though every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood. And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done.
NASB: The Lord smelled the soothing aroma, and the Lord said to Himself, 'I will never again curse the ground on account of man, for the intent of man’s heart is evil from his youth; and I will never again destroy every living thing, as I have done.
CSB: When the Lord smelled the pleasing aroma, he said to himself, "I will never again curse the ground because of human beings, even though the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth onward. And I will never again strike down every living thing as I have done.
NLT: And the Lord was pleased with the aroma of the sacrifice and said to himself, 'I will never again curse the ground because of the human race, even though everything they think or imagine is bent toward evil from childhood. I will never again destroy all living things.
KJV: And the LORD smelled a sweet savour; and the LORD said in his heart, I will not again curse the ground any more for man's sake; for the imagination of man's heart is evil from his youth; neither will I again smite any more every thing living, as I have done.
Verse Commentary:
The previous verse recorded Noah's first act after leaving the ark: to build an altar and offer animal sacrifices to God. Now God responds to this humble act of worship. We're told that God smells the pleasing or soothing aroma of the sacrifice and, apparently greatly pleased, makes a new commitment. This is the only time Scripture shows God explicitly smelling the aroma from a sacrifice, though that is the direct intention of many sacrifices described later in the Bible. This is not meant to be read as if God is literally inhaling smoke. Rather, the reference to smoke, and its scent, is a common Scriptural metaphor involving prayer, and how our sacrifices are received by God.

God's commitment is to never again curse the ground or the earth as He has done through the flood. This should not be read as God lifting the original curse on the ground in response to Adam's sin. The curse of weeds and frustrating toil and the work required to bring crops from the ground remains to this day. Instead, God's commitment here should be seen as a decision not to annihilate life on the ground as He did with the flood. The flood brought destruction on the whole earth, on all the ground. God is declaring that He won't do that again.

God seems to make this commitment while acknowledging that human nature has not been changed by the flood. Human beings will continue to harbor evil intentions from youth and throughout their lives. God knows this and decides not to respond to human sinfulness in the same way again by cursing the earth with a flood. In addition, God promises to never again strike down every living thing. He will not wipe out humanity and animal-kind with a global and fully life-ending catastrophe as He has done with the flood.

We are meant to be comforted by these promises and to be intrigued about how God might respond to human sinfulness, instead.
Verse Context:
Genesis 8:20–22 describes Noah's first recorded act after leaving the ark. He builds an altar to God and offers clean animals as a sacrifice. Using a common metaphor, Scripture says God smells the aroma and is pleased. God commits to never again curse the earth in the way He did with the flood, and never to strike down all life on earth. As long as the earth remains, the cycles of nature will continue as God had designed them.
Chapter Summary:
Even as all other life was being destroyed, God didn't forget Noah and the animals. He stops the deluge of water flowing from above and below and causes a great wind to blow to begin drying out the earth. The ark comes to rest on the mountains of Ararat. There, its occupants wait for the flood waters to go down. After a full year aboard, Noah and his family and the animals finally disembark. Noah builds an altar in worship to God and offers animal sacrifices. God commits to never curse the earth as He had through the flood, and to never again strike down all life on earth.
Chapter Context:
Genesis 6 and 7 explain the events leading up to the flood, and the actual catastrophe itself. After the devastation and destruction are over, God begins to dry out the earth in Genesis 8. The waters recede, Noah and the animals finally leave after a year aboard, and Noah offers animal sacrifices in worship to God. God commits to never again strike down all life on earth at once. As long as the earth remains, living things will enjoy the cycles of day, night, and seasons. The following chapters describe the re-population of earth by mankind, leading up to another instance of God's intervention, at the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11).
Book Summary:
The book of Genesis establishes fundamental truths about God. Among these are His role as the Creator, His holiness, His hatred of sin, His love for mankind, and His willingness to provide for our redemption. We learn not only where mankind has come from, but why the world is in its present form. The book also presents the establishment of Israel, God's chosen people. Many of the principles given in other parts of Scripture depend on the basic ideas presented here in the book of Genesis. Within the framework of the Bible, Genesis explains the bare-bones history of the universe leading up to the captivity of Israel in Egypt, setting the stage for the book of Exodus.
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