Why Doesn't the Jewish Tradition Hold Noah in Higher Esteem?

Abraham and Moses are considered wholly righteous men, but Noah isn’t quite. That’s because, unlike them, he does what he’s told without question.

A 12th-century Venetian mosaic depicting Noah releasing the dove. Wikipedia.

A 12th-century Venetian mosaic depicting Noah releasing the dove. Wikipedia.

Oct. 15 2015
About the author

Atar Hadari’s Songs from Bialik: Selected Poems of H. N. Bialik (Syracuse University Press) was a finalist for the American Literary Translators’ Association Award. His Lives of the Dead: Poems of Hanoch Levin earned a PEN Translates award and was released in 2019 by Arc Publications. He was ordained by Rabbi Daniel Landes and is completing a PhD on William Tyndale’s translation of Deuteronomy.

Atar Hadari discussed this piece on the Mike Allen Show. Listen to him here (the conversation begins about 13 minutes in):

This week’s reading of Noah (Genesis 6:9 – 11:32) actually starts in the previous week’s portion of B’reshit as the Almighty becomes gradually disillusioned with the human race in the period after Adam and Eve, Cain, and the sadly missed Abel. What exactly is it that bothers Him?

And it came to be that men started multiplying over the face of the earth
And they bore girls:
And the sons of God looked over the daughters of men,
Because they were fine, and they took for themselves wives
From among any they fancied. And the Lord said,
My spirit will not judge man for all time
For he is also flesh, so let his days last a hundred-twenty years.

The sons of God, as the text refers to them, were not acting like sons of the true God but like upstarts, taking women without consideration, by force and in excessive numbers, to satisfy their lust and not for the sake of the marital bond and for children. The Lord’s solution is to limit mankind’s lifespan to 120 years—unlike the lifespan of the previous generation, which lasted for centuries—and in that defined span to give them the time to repent. But repent they don’t, and in the end, a much more radical solution is called for:

And the Lord looked over how great was man’s wickedness in the land
And how every urge of his heart’s scheming was only evil all day long
And the Lord thought again about having made man in the land
And he was saddened to his very heart: and the Lord said,
I’ll wipe out the man I created from upon the face of the earth
From man to beast, to creepy crawlies, to the birds in the sky
Because I’ve thought again about having made them.
But Noah I’ve taken a shine to.
These are the chronicles of Noah. Noah was a righteous man,
He was unblemished in his generations,
Noah walked with God.

So far, this sounds like a pretty good write-up for our Noah. But that brings us to a central question that arises from this week’s reading: why doesn’t the Jewish tradition hold the hero, Noah, in higher esteem? Abraham and Moses are considered righteous men, but Noah somehow is not, or not quite. Why not?

The nub is in that phrase, “in his generations,” which rabbis and commentators have seized upon to draw invidious comparisons. “Compared with the rest of his generation,” says the Talmud, “he was a righteous man, but if he’d been in the generation of Abraham, he wouldn’t have been considered anything at all” (Tractate Sanhedrin).

What’s the difference between Noah and Abraham?

And God said to Noah, The end of all flesh has come before me
For the earth is filled with bloodshed
And I am going to eradicate them with the land.
Make yourself a case of cedar wood. . . .
I am bringing the streaming water over the land
To destroy all flesh that has the spirit of life in it from under heaven,
All that is in the land will give up the ghost
But I will found my covenant with you,
You’ll come into the case. . . .
And Noah did exactly as God commanded him, that’s what he did.

Curiously, these last words about Noah are echoed precisely in the phrase later used of Moses, surely the greatest righteous man of all. Instructed to build the Tabernacle, another large container designed for the public good, “Moses did exactly as the Lord commanded him, that’s what he did.” (Exodus XX). But if you compare Abraham and Moses with Noah—or with Lot, who is similarly instructed to clear out of a place (Sodom) because the Lord is about to wipe it out—the difference between the righteous and the not-quite-righteous becomes clear. It lies in the presence or the absence of any dialogue, or if you will, argument, with God.

We’re told that Noah walked with God; so did Abraham. But Abraham’s stroll with the Almighty involves conversation, interaction. When the Almighty informs Abraham, as if by the bye, that He’s about to destroy Sodom, does Abraham immediately text his real-estate agent to offload his property down in the Cities of the Plain? No, he tries to talk the Lord out of it. Likewise, later in the Torah, when the Lord wants to wipe out the children of Israel and start over, does Moses respond, “Good idea, I was sick of them” (which he certainly was)? No, he talks Him out of it.

Of course, Moses still builds the Tabernacle, and Abraham does offer up his favorite son without a word of protest, but when it comes to the fate of their generation or their people, these righteous men go back and forth with the Lord to save what can be saved.

And Noah? He does as he’s told. That is why he’s a righteous man only in his own generation. He walked with God, but he did not carve out a path for others to follow. He saved their flesh, but did not shape their spirit. That is why Jews look back at Abraham as their father, while the rest of humanity is categorized as “sons of Noah” and is not considered to be subject to the Law revealed at Sinai. The Torah’s spiritual path has to wait for Abraham and Moses. You have to argue with God to get to hear the Law.

Indeed, Noah’s moral example did not pass down even to his own sons. Look what happens after the wiping out of mankind in the Flood:

And the sons of Noah who came out of the ark were Shem, Ham, and Yafet
And Ham was the father of Canaan: these three are Noah’s sons
And from them the whole land multiplied. But Noah set out
As a man of the soil and planted a vineyard
And he drank of the wine and grew drunk
And revealed himself in his chamber.
And Ham father of Canaan looked over his father’s nakedness
And he told his two brothers outside,
And Shem and Yafet took the robe and put it over both their shoulders
And they walked backward to cover their father’s nakedness
With their faces turned backward and didn’t see their father’s nakedness.
But Noah woke from his wine and knew what his younger son had done to him
And he said, Cursed is Canaan, they shall be slaves to their brethren.

The question of what exactly Ham had done has exercised commentators for centuries—with the talmudic rabbis Rav and Shmuel, for example, differing on whether it was castration or merely buggery. The biblical scholar David M. Goldenberg suggests that in the culture of ancient Mesopotamia, staring at someone’s genitals implied mastery over them, justifying Ham’s punishment of slavery. In any event, nobody thinks the Torah is saying only that Ham looked at his father’s nakedness (though even looking will be explicitly forbidden by a literal reading of Leviticus). The fact that, by contrast, the two older sons go out of their way to preserve their father’s dignity shows why Noah is still considered a righteous man—evidently, that bit of moral uprightness rubbed off.

I would suggest that declining to reason with the Almighty to save your neighbors is not just a failure to argue, to open a dialogue; it is also a refusal of compassion, of fellow feeling, and one that inevitably invites such treatment in return. Take Lot, who does not even try to talk the angels out of destroying Sodom. After fleeing the city and taking shelter in a cave, he passes out from wine given to him by his daughters, who then use him sexually in his sleep. It’s the same scenario: in both cases, a parent who has treated his neighbors as so many expendable objects finds himself treated as an object by his children, his own lack of compassion revisited upon him in the most painful way.

Even when Abraham finally does what he is told, it is always with a sense of regret and sorrow. Forced to send his firstborn Ishmael away—not the Almighty’s test but Sarah’s demand, which the Lord went along with—he felt  grief and compassion for the lad. Were he incapable of compassion, he could not have founded a faith, just as Moses, had he been incapable of compassion, could never have shepherded the Israelites for 40 years in the wilderness. You teach your children or your flock to be human only by showing them how you regard others, even those less than entirely unblemished—in their own generation, or in anyone else’s.

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