Okay, enough procrastinating and creating charts! It’s time to get to Noach because the rest of the world has already moved on to the next portion, Lech-Lecha.
The Noach portion, named for Noah’s name in Hebrew, covers Genesis 6:9, the beginning of the Noah story), to 11:32 the beginning of the Abraham story. That includes three main “tales”: the story of Noah and the Ark, the story of Noah and his drunkenness, and the Tower of Babil.
For me, the story of Noah has always been one of the more difficult for me to wrap my brain around. It’s not that the story is complex – it isn’t. My problem with the story is that it feels too much like mythology, like something that would happen to Odin, Zeus, or Heracles, rather than a story that we should take any great meaning from. It doesn’t help that God acts “out of character” and lots of innocent lives, human and animal, are lost. And, like all great mythology, it aims to explain in a supernatural way a natural phenomenon: the rainbow. This isn’t something that fits well in modern Judaism or Christianity, but still it’s an important story, certainly one of the most well known, and here it is already in week #2.
In the Hebrew Bible, the best and most noble of the patriarchs are not the ones that submit blindly to God, but rather the ones that question Him when it appears that God is doing wrong. It’s clear that much modern theology is about submitting in piety to God, but this isn’t the case in these early stories where questioning God is a clear virtue. Abraham, for example, barters with God to try and save Sodom and Gemmorah. Lot, in his way, even succeeds in saving some people in his discussion with God. Moses frequently intervened with God to prevent His wraith from destroying the Israelite people when they did wrong. Piety, when lives were on the line, wasn’t a virtue.
But with Noah, we only have submission. God tells Noah: there’s gonna be a floody, floody. Er, that there’s going to be a great flood and he alone, and his children, will survive. God gave specific, if confusing, instructions for the gathering of animals and the creation of the Ark. And in all of this, Noah says nothing. In fact, until after the flood is passed, Noah says absolutely nothing in the text. The first time he opens his mouth isn’t to give thanks, but instead to curse the descendants of one of his GRANDCHILDREN because his (the boy’s) father barged in on Noah while he was drunk. And yes, Noah is the character in the bible that not only invents the world’s first winery, he also is the first human on earth to get roaringly drunk. But, I suppose that if you were party to the slaughter of thousands (tens? hundreds of thousands?) of people, you might want to drink it off too.
I think you can tell that I’m not that happy with Noah.
What does the Bible say about Noah? First, that he was “a righteous man; blameless in his age”. (Genesis 6:9). In 7:1, God speaks to Noah plainly: “for you alone I have found righteous before Me”. I know from my other reading that a lot of great thinkers have considered this deeply. Noah was righteous among the people of his day, but how would he stack up against David? or Moses? or Abraham? Was he the least dull pebble on the beach or a diamond in the rough? Many greater men than I have considered this, but I’m drawn to a line an old comedy: “You are the best of what’s left.” God was making the most of it.
Confusingly, God isn’t really saving Noah to repopulate the world, is he? Noah already has three children, Ham, Shem, and Japheth. And there are not, contrary to what the “Children of the Lord” song may have you believe, young – they all themselves had wives (but none of them had any children yet). None of his children or their wives were “righteous before [God]”, only Noah. And yet they, not Noah, were the ones that would repopulate the Earth.
That doesn’t seem fair, but it does illustrate the type of justice that God was delivering in this story. Unlike our modern understanding of the concept, guilt was genetic and clonal. The sins of the fathers really did carry down to the sons, and vice-versa. The wicked sons of a good man, in this case Noah, were permitted to repopulate the world – and presumably not much better than before. While on the contrary, the innocent sons and daughters of evil men (children and babies, we have to assume) are punished with their parents despite never having done wrong. A one-day old child could not have sinned against God, and yet he too was drowned. For the purpose of the story we have to assume this is justice, but to a modern eye this seems wrong and even a greater example of the way that God is acting “out of character”.
I considered writing here a long tract about how the Noah story could not be taken literally. It’s an allegory of re-cleansing of the world, a nice story about the creation of the rainbow, and the story of a man presumably driven to drunken despair by taking part in the slaughter. If anything, I believe this story teaches us that we should not submit so easily when a wrong is to be done to another, even when that wrong is being committed by someone that you look up to and trust, that you would never otherwise consider talking back to. This story may exist to provide a contrast for the much better man that Abraham will be, only a few chapters from now, when he argues with God over His plans to destroy Soddom and Gemorrah.
Even so, I did put together some fun facts that I can share, in rapid-fire bullet form:
- Ever notice that the text isn’t consistent how many animals to bring? Genesis 6:20, 7:9, and 7:15 say two of everything, but 7:2 says to take seven pairs (fourteen) of clean animals and birds. It wouldn’t be so bad, but birds are one of the specific categories that are earlier cited as only needing a pair. My guess? An early redactor noticed that Noah was driving species to extinction in his sacrifice of thanksgiving to God after the flood and added a few extra animals to make sure they survive. (As if any animals could survive complete population collapse! What do the carnivores eat!?)
- The flood isn’t forty days and forty nights as most people assume. It rains for that long, yes, but the water didn’t subside for 150 days after than – and then only so that the Ark could “land” on Mount Arat. Six more weeks from there until other mountains showed up, then forty more days before the raven and the dove would be sent out, another week for the second dove… you get the idea. They were in the Ark a very long time.
- I searched for estimates on the number of species in the world – about 60,000 “higher animals” such as mammals, reptiles, birds, and amphibians. If you add the almost a million species of insects, you’d have to have two species enter the Ark every second of the week’s notice that Noah was given before the flood. Math is fun!
- Genesis 4, which was in last week’s portion, strongly implies that not everyone would die in the flood. Adal was the “ancestor of those who dwell in tents” and Jubal is the “ancestor of those that play the lyre”. Since neither tent-dwelling or lyre-playing seem genetic, that’s probably an exaggeration, but all the same neither of them would have had any descendants since they all died in the flood just a few years later. (Adal and Jubal were the same generation as Noah’s grandfather.)
- This chapter has Nephilim! Genesis 6:4 talks about the Nephilim: “it was then, and later too, that the Nephilim appeared on Earth”. The Nephilim are a tricky breed, one of the embarrassingly polytheist remnants in the Bible: “divine beings” (angels?) that have interbred with humans to produce super-human offspring, “the heroes of old, the men of renown”. How many half-Gods can you name in Greek myths? A few more than you can in Christianity, that’s for sure. Whether the Nephilim also survived the flood (they were semi-divine; maybe they could swim that long?) or whether more angels came back down later and breaded some more, the text doesn’t say.
And that’s all I’ll say about the Ark story for the moment.