Friday, January 6, 2017

Noah and his Ark

One of the best known stories of Genesis is that of Noah's Ark:

Because the world was filled with evil people, God "regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart." He decided to blot humans out. Luckily for humanity, though, Noah found favor in God's eyes. God gave Noah precise instructions on how to build an ark to protect Noah, his family, and pairs of every living thing of the world from the flood. After they were safely ensconced in this ark, "the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of the heavens were opened" (Genesis 7:11). The rain fell for 40 days and 40 nights. The earth was covered even to the tips of the highest mountains. And the water remained for 150 days. Another 40 days elapsed, and Noah released a dove from the ark to determine if it were safe to disembark. On the second attempt, the dove returned with an olive branch, and on the third, it didn't return at all. But Noah still waited until God told him to come out before disembarking. (I'd say this was probably the wisest choice.) When the occupants of the ship were safely on dry ground, God made a covenant with Noah and his descendants that he would never again destroy the earth by flood. The rainbow is the sign of that covenant. 

This flood story is likely one that was well-known in the region when the book of Genesis was written, given its similarities to Utnapishtim's flood story in the Epic of Gilgamesh (which precedes the book of Genesis). In order to determine what was important in this story, it is interesting to compare the similarities and differences between the two legends. 

For instance, both stories have a flood that destroys the earth - leaving only one protagonist, his family, and a pair of every living thing to survive. Both have an ark, in which all of these lucky survivors seek refuge. Both end in a covenant saying the earth's occupants will no longer be destroyed. This is the skeleton of the story around which the author of Genesis and the author of Gilgamesh weave their details. This is the adventure part of the story. The part we all remember. But the differences are the parts that make Noah stand out from Utnaphishtim. 

The main differences I notice in the story are all about righteousness. First of all, the reason the gods had to destroy the earth in Utnapishtim's story was simply that men were loud and annoying. The LORD God's reason, on the other hand, was because men were enmeshed irrevocably in evil. In Noah's story, therefore, there is a moral - if we become evil, we will suffer for it. Whereas in Utnapishtim's story the moral (if there is one) is that the gods make arbitrary choices that we have no control over. 

Another difference is that in Utnapishtim's story, he was told to lie to his neighbors, telling them that if they helped him build the ark for the gods, a season of plenty (beginning with some nice heavy rains) would ensue. Noah, on the other hand, was saved because he was a righteous man, and God wouldn't tell a righteous man to lie to his neighbors. In fact, the author of Genesis leaves it a complete mystery how Noah's neighbors reacted to his ark and how Noah managed to build the thing all alone. 

(I've always thought that Noah warned the people around him of the impending flood, but to no avail. I see no reference to that in the Genesis story. Does this omission mean that Noah kept it a secret? Is that really a righteous thing to do?)

Noah's story continues with a debacle which throws a shadow on Noah's righteousness. After the flood disperses, Noah goes into his tent and drinks to the point of passing out. His youngest son, Ham, enters the tent, finds his father naked, and goes out to gossip with his brothers. His brothers don't find the situation worthy of gossip, though, and they back into the tent (so as not to see their father naked) and cover him with a blanket. When he awakens, Noah curses Ham and his descendants and blesses his older sons. 

Why did the author of Genesis include this little tail end to the story, which until then held Noah in such a fine light? Was it to show that evil did still pervade humanity despite the flood? 

1 comment:

  1. This is a brilliant post Rachel.

    I love your comparison with Utnapishtim's flood.

    I just reread the Koran where the story of The Flood is also presented. In that work, the fact that Noah tried to warn the people is emphasized.

    I think that you are correct with regard to Noah's drunkenness. That little story at the end seems to show that vice and sin would live on.