Noah: a cautionary tale to take us out of our comfort zone

Everyone knows the story of Noah. He was a good man, God gave him instructions to build a boat and he obeyed. He collected all the right kinds of animals, did everything God said, and so allowed a remnant of the original Creation to survive. When the flood waters finally abated, and God sent the rainbow as a sign, Noah and his family and the animals returned to dry land and got on with the business of repopulating the earth….

Well, that is the story we tell our children. And rainbows are a really beautiful image to put on our walls or use to represent diversity and natural benevolence; and anyway, it is a fairy tale isn’t it?

I have a real fondness for parashat Noah, not least because it is my own batmitzvah sidra, but that said, I also have enormous problems with it. Nobody comes out very nicely in the story of Noah. We begin with a list detailing the ten generations from Adam to Noah, and are told that in that ten generations humanity has created violence and corruption and destruction and brutality and bloodshed, so much that the whole world is awash with it. And God, who only ten generations earlier saw that the world was good, even very good, is now sickened and appalled and furious. God wants to wash the whole thing away. God wants out of the creation business. But not completely, it seems. Because there is a bit of God that is open to the understanding that wanton destruction won’t get entirely the result that God wants – God wants creation to keep going, just not like it currently appears. God is prepared to save the world.

But unfortunately, neither God nor Noah seem to have the ability to do anything rather than the obvious. The earth really is a dreadful mess and clearly something must be done to help it return to its divine purpose. According to the Midrash this world is not the first that God created, but that many worlds were created and destroyed when they did not turn out as intended – it is almost as if having made so many attempts God got tired of having to start right at the beginning yet again. But God still hadn’t quite got the hang of what else could be done when faced with a problem of this scale. And Noah, well Noah was not a great man, he is described as being “ish tzadik v’tamim b’dorotav” a man who was righteous and whole hearted in his generation”. What is the purpose of that qualifying phrase – in his generation. We know that the generation was appalling – was Noah just a bit less appalling? Compared with the others, Noah was a Tzaddik?

Noah doesn’t speak. Not ever. He doesn’t ask any questions of God, he certainly doesn’t argue with God (unlike Abraham who will come ten generations later), he doesn’t go out to the populace to warn them, he doesn’t even talk to his wife and children about it. He just gets on with the commandment – he will save himself and his family and the animals according to God’s instructions.

We are told about Noah that he walked with God. It is as if there is no space between them, they are confluent and therefore unable to see another viewpoint. Even the inhabitants of the Garden of Eden had more about them than Noah. Maybe if he had asked his wife the story would have been different!

To compare Noah once again with Abraham, Abraham did not walk WITH God, he was told by God to ‘walk before me and be wholehearted” – in other words, by the time of Abraham, ten generations after Noah, God had understood the need for Creation to be separate, to grow away and develop into who they must be. It was a lesson first given at Eden, but it took both God and humanity some time to absorb and act upon it. That God must be God and that we must be fully us. We are different. We will not always see the same way, we will not experience the world in the same way, and God will see things that we do not, and will never be able to understand. In the same way, we will see things our way, follow our instincts or our desires even knowing that our choices are not God’s choices. people have free will to be able to do things they shouldn’t. That is the deal.

But we haven’t really got there yet, here in the second weekly reading of Torah, only ten generations away from Creation. Here in this text we meet a God who has much to learn about relating to Creation, and we meet a human being who has much to learn about their own possibilities in relating to God. We have a God who responds to violence with violence. A human who seems to find it perfectly acceptable not to challenge that, who seems to have no problem with wholesale destruction, of the punishment of the innocent with the guilty. Tradition ascribes to Noah the position of toddler in the relationship with God, meaning that he is powerless in the relationship, but that certainly isn’t my experience of toddlers! – Noah simply isn’t up to the job of challenging God and putting a robust argument for the defence of the world because he, like we, is flawed. And he hasn’t had a long tradition of ethical argument to fall back upon, he has no role models of note, he is living in a dangerous world and he is afraid. Noah never really overcomes that fear. Even after the floods are gone and he is back on the cleansed earth, his first act is to sacrifice some of the animals he has saved in order to appease the divine power and to give thanks for the survival of his own family – an act which clearly exasperates God. The only other thing we are told about him is that he plants a vineyard, makes wine, and spends his declining years as a drunk, presumably because he cannot face the horror of what has happened to the world, the pain of his loss and the knowledge of his own inadequacy. He has learned an agonizing and heart-rending lesson about himself and about God. And it will be his descendants who will take the learning forward, Noah himself cannot.

God, however, can and does learn. God immediately repents of the destruction of the flood, takes responsibility, promises not to bring about such devastation by water again. And God gets involved with people, learning to relate to them, learning to see them as separate individuals with their own authenticity and validity. After catastrophe comes something quite amazing – acceptance of each others flaws, readiness to learn and to be, divine and human consideration of each other. So when humans once again become arrogant and dangerous, determining to build a tower to rival heaven, preferring the symbols of technology and empire to the humanity of each other, then God once more steps in, but this time creates diversity and difference, rather than trying to force the world into one narrow way of being, at the expense of individual emergence.

By the end of sidra Noah, both people and God have found many ways to express themselves – not always constructively nor easily, but with a healthy multiplicity of being. And so the Torah readies us for endless possibility in the pathways to become who we really are – all of us in the world are betzelem elohim, made in the image of God.

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