In the Hebrew text, the word perfect is tamîm (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 tamîm 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 tamîm. 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, it is 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 tsaddîq (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.
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.
This is reinforced in Genesis 7:1, in which the Lord says to Noah, ". . . I have seen that you are righteous before Me in this generation." 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.