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.

God learns about humanity, and God and Noah learn to live with imperfection

Parashat Noach contains both the story of the Great Flood with Noah and the Rainbow, and the story of the Tower of Babel. It is the source of much of what our children think they know about the bible and all of us probably have in our head the picture of the Ark with a giraffe’s head popping out of the roof, and a tower that looks quite a lot like the one at Pisa.

But there is SO much more to these stories than nursery decorations and we read them as fluffy children’s stories to the detriment of our understanding about what religion is really for.

For what we see in parashat Noach is the first description of God learning in response to the actions of humankind. And we begin to see humanity also starting to learn something important about what we are, and what God is. In last week’s sidra we read about the two different creation stories, the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden and the first murder – fratricide – in the story of Cain and Abel. It ends with God’s dismay at the evil humanity has committed on the earth and the decision to blot out everything created, with the exception of Noach.  Almost as if the Creation was a hobby to be done and erased at a whim.

Now Noach is problematic in so many ways. He never speaks to God at all, either to agree or to argue.  Nor does he speak to the other people in the world to warn them to change their ways and repent in order to gain God’s favour. He takes his time getting on to the boat, only doing so when the rising waters force him to do so, leading rabbinic commentators to suggest his faith is not so strong after all. His first act on returning to dry land is to build an altar (the first ever to do so in bible), and then to sacrifice by burning fully some of the animals he has saved.  He builds a vineyard and makes wine, he gets drunk and his sons see his nakedness. He curses the children of Ham who was the son who had seen him and told the others.  

He isn’t exactly the role model we would like to have had, and yet we are all b’nei Noach, the descendants of Noach – we have to deal with the flawed and slightly repellent individual the bible depicts in the text. And so does God. God has to see that Creation can’t be erased and rebuilt repeatedly; that built into humanity is a series of flaws that we – and God – just have to deal with.  The text tells us that when God smelled the olah, the burned offering that was sacrificed on the very first altar with the intention of creating a conduit between human beings and God, then God paid attention, smelled the sweet savour and resolved never again to curse the ground for the sake of humankind. And that God did so BECAUSE God understood that humanity is essentially and integrally imperfect. God resolves that whatever Creation is, God will work with it rather than try to suppress or destroy its reality.  And of course the sign of the promise from God is the rainbow, a symbol both of violence and of the beauty to be found even in the most grim of situations.

So both humanity (in the guise of Noach), and God demonstrate in this sidra that there is finally an understanding on both sides of our frailty and likelihood to mess up. And both humanity and God begin to see that once we acknowledge the shortcomings we have, we can get on with living better. God changes the divine mind, and Noach tries, albeit with some hiccups, to deal with all the things life has thrown at him. 

There are of course some that he simply can’t deal with. He is a survivor of catastrophe and he drinks in order to blot out memories. He has poor relations with his youngest son Ham, though he manages to relate rather better to Shem and Japhet, albeit in a way that could be seen by modern eyes as divisive of them. He has saved the world and allowed it to be destroyed at the same time.

What we know after the stories of Noach is that humanity is always going to be complicated, fraught, dafka – but that we will continue to try to reach God in our own imperfect ways, and that if we do so, then God will always respond. God may not like it, but is resigned to our deficiencies. We may not like all that God does, but are prepared to challenge and if necessary to forgive God. Our relationship isn’t perfect, there is an element of co-dependency, but together we and God find how to live with each other in the world we are jointly responsible for maintaining.

Not really a story for the kids after all.