This week we come to the story of Noah and the flood. God becomes dissatisfied with all flesh on the earth, and thus plans to destroy them. But he does save one family, that of Noah, who was the most righteous of his generation. Noah is commanded to build an ark that will house male and female of every species and a few extra of the clean species. The floods come; all land life is wiped out except that preserved on the Ark. After the Flood subsides, God promises not to do that again, sealing the covenant with a rainbow. Noah, unable to deal with the new world, gets drunk and stupid. After the unpleasantness of this incident, a few more generations are born. With only a rainbow as a contract, these later generations don’t completely trust God. They decide to make a tower at Babel to prevent a flood from happening again. God intervenes, and soon no one can communicate with one another. These peoples are scattered across the world, becoming the various nations of the world. Following the genealogy of Noah’s son Shem, we end the portion introduced to some interesting characters: Abram, his wife Sarai, and his nephew Lot.
The first line of this week’s portion reads:
9. These are the generations of Noah; Noah was a righteous man and perfect in his generations, and Noah walked with God.
Many commentaries discuss the phrase in his generations. How righteous was Noah really? Some argue that he was, in comparison to everyone of his generation more righteous, but in comparison to those of later generations like Abraham or Moses, not really that righteous. Others argue the opposite. To be righteous in such a quagmire requires an inner strength later generations of righteous people did not need. Noah walked with God, as his great grandfather Enoch had. No one else walked with God directly in the biblical text, though often the Israelites are admonished to walk with the commandments.
Abraham Joshua Heschel in his book The Prophets starts with a question I’ve been mulling over for the past week: What manner of man is the prophet? In this week’s portion, was Noah some kind of prophet as he was walking with God?
There is some evidence there was some form of prophetic activity going on. The Midrash states
For a whole one hundred and twenty years Noah planted cedars and cut them down. On being asked, ‘Why are you doing this? ‘He replied: ‘The Lord of the universe has informed me that He will bring a Flood in the world.’ [Gen R. XXX: 7]
The hundred and twenty years comes from the following verse:
3. And the Lord said, My spirit shall not always strive with man, for he also is flesh; yet his days shall be a hundred and twenty years. [Genesis 6]
The verses plain meaning is that a human life span will never exceed 120 years. Yet in Genesis 9:29 we know that Noah lived nine hundred and fifty years. Noah’s son Shem’s descendants after the flood listed in Genesis 11 often exceed 120, contradicting the statement above. However, given the context, the rabbis concluded that this was God setting a time limit of 120 years before he wiped everything off the planet.
This however sets up a bit of a problem. We also read:
6. And Noah was six hundred years old when the flood of waters was upon the earth. [Genesis 6]
Which implies that Noah was 480 years old when he started growing trees. But we read two verses that aren’t far apart from one another.
32. And Noah was five hundred years old; and Noah fathered Shem, Ham, and Japheth. [Genesis 5]
9. These are the generations of Noah; Noah was a just man and perfect in his generations, and Noah walked with God.10. And Noah fathered three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth.
By repeating the phrase Noah fathered Shem, Ham, and Japheth in each verse, rabbinic thinking links the verses together. We therefore can infer that whatever follows in Genesis 6 happens in the five hundredth year of Noah’s life.
11. The earth also was corrupt before God, and the earth was filled with violence.12. And God looked upon the earth, and, behold, it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted its way upon the earth.13. And God said to Noah, The end of all flesh has come before me; for the earth is filled with violence through them; and, behold, I will destroy them with the earth. [Genesis 6]
This rabbinic tradition therefore concludes Noah was told about the flood and to make the ark when he was 500, not 480. Another Midrash explains it this way:
This alludes to the five hundred years to which he had attained when he gave birth to progeny; as it says, And Noah was five hundred years old; and Noah begot, etc. The reason why he postponed carrying out the duty of procreation was because of the iniquity of his generation which he constantly beheld. This continued until the Holy One, blessed be He revealed to him the matter of the ark. Then it was that he took a wife and gave birth to children. [Num R. XIV: 12]
While it is not necessary to reconcile two commentaries, it does present an interesting perspective of the biblical story. One says Noah began working on preparations for the ark 120 years before the Flood, another 100 years before. What happened in that 20 year gap?
As we already mentioned, Noah walked with God, one of only two people to do so. Of the other, Noah’s great grandfather Enoch, we read
21. And Enoch lived sixty five years, and fathered Methuselah; 22. And Enoch walked with God after he fathered Methuselah three hundred years, and fathered sons and daughters; [Genesis 5]
We are given an important piece of information: Enoch only walked with God after his son’s birth. In the case of Noah, we learn Noah walked with God, then immediately after we have a repetition of
Noah fathered Shem, Ham, and Japheth.
We can conclude from this association Noah too did not walk with God until the birth of his sons. While Numbers Rabbah above believes that Noah first heard about building the Ark and then had a family, I believe it was the reverse. Noah did not hear God’s specifications for the ark until he had a family. This isn’t the only precedent for this. In the case of Moses we read he had his son Gershon [Exodus 2:22] and then The angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush; [Exodus 3:2]
Walking with God may be some form of prophecy. In its form, it requires a family. It is of course not the only conditions for prophecy. Jeremiah started when he was still in his pre-teens, and ordered by God not to have a wife or children [Jer. 16:1]. Yet, unlike late prophets like Jeremiah, we hear nothing of Noah demanding repentance of the people. Unlike Moses and Jeremiah, we hear nothing of him trying to avoid the role God has for him. All Noah does is build the ark, collect the animals and board. Unlike Moses or Abraham, who when told God was going to wipe out a civilization made forceful objections, Noah does not object. This lack of argument is the usual reason most do not consider Noah a prophet. There is an debate going as far back as rabbinic times, that Noah was too much of a wimp to be a prophet. He obeyed God completely, missing the Jewish iconoclasm in his makeup that marks many of the prophets, particularly Moses and Abraham.
Prior to the verbal prophecy found in abundance in the books of the prophets, Noah might have been a different kind of prophet – a visual one. There are other cases of such. The Plagues in Egypt or the yolk Jeremiah wore [Jer. 27:2] are examples. Visual prophecy never has objections in the biblical text. Like Noah, Moses never lifts a finger of objection to God wiping out the first born. Instead he starts disseminating orders [Ex. 12:21] Jeremiah simply straps on that wooden yolk.
If Noah got the specifications for the ark when he was 500, but the flood did not come till he was 600, there is another possibility for his actions. The ark was the visual prophecy. It begged the question ‘Why are you doing this?’ and then Noah could try to get anyone who asked to repent. God left the 120 years as a time where people could repent. Indeed the rabbis say God gave every chance for repentance possible. According to one midrash as the year of Methuselah’s death equals the same year as the flood, Noah’s Grandfather Methuselah died the same day as the rains began. But God did not flood the world completely for seven more days in order for people to mourn Methuselah. Had they done so they would have been redeemed, [Sanh. 108b] instead they scorned Noah [Eccl R. IX: 17] and so died.
I think Noah was some form of prophet, though not of the same caliber as the Jeremiah, Moses, or Abraham. There was a sequence to his prophesy. God decided 120 years before the flood to wipe out life on earth. Noah, who was righteous in his own way, knew something was different and wrong in the 480th year of his life. His righteousness let him pay attention to signs from God, like Moses was curious about the burning bush. Yet he was unable to truly walk with God until he had a family, which took twenty years. In all likelihood it was very hard to find a righteous woman worthy of the endeavor and of raising righteous children in such a society. Once he did walk with God He got the plans for the ark. Since he had an inkling of what was going on, as a farmer, he had spent the last twenty years growing cedars, and so had wood to begin the project of building the ark almost immediately. The construction brought many curious questions, and when asked he told people of what was to come due to their evil, though they would only scorn him. This went on for a hundred years. When the deadline came, God filled the world slowly with flood waters just to give everyone one last chance in those last seven days, but again they did not repent, while Noah and his family and his cargo of plants and animals survived in the sealed up ark.
Noah was a visual prophet, the only prophet to be completely such. Others would combine words and images. One of the important lessons of the story of Noah is that pure visual prophecy doesn’t work. The work of an artist or a visual demonstration might enhance the verbal rebuke of the prophet, but tends to be ignored. The slow prophecy of a hundred years also presents problems as well. Taking a hundred years to build the ark, and making a statement in its building, lent itself to people forgetting or ignoring the prophecy. All too often today from financial to environmental crises such events still occur. As a visual artist, I look at the statements I make in my own art work, and realize how meaningless they really are. Statements, whether intentionally placed there or unintentionally from the themes of my work, will be misinterpreted or ignored. The effect of a statement in a work of art is like the effect one bucket has on an ocean. It might make a splash, but will disappear quickly.
Noah’s work of art was functional of course, a piece of performance art which allowed the survival of species. Noah’s art made him think differently, much like the Jewish thinking which led me to the story I told in this piece. Such a story is impossible in Greek logic, and is only possible with the thinking of the Rabbis, of biblical thinking. Many times we need to change our thinking to find answers. Next week, we’ll look at the point when thinking really changed.