“The Story of Noah–Fact or Fantasy?”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This coming week’s Torah portion, Parashat Noach, the famous “Flood story,” is a truly intriguing portion. Academic and scholarly literature speak of the story of the Flood as if it were a myth, or a fairy tale. From the Jewish perspective, it’s a fascinating narrative, replete with incredible insights, some of which I would like to share with you.

It is not at all surprising that many of the ancient Near East documents contain parallels to the story of the flood. Perhaps the most famous is the Babylonian “Epic of Gilgamish” which tells the story of a man named Utnapishtim. The gods decide to destroy the earth. There’s a great flood, and Utnapishtim, who is the favorite of one of the gods, Eau, is saved.

If there really was a flood that inundated the ancient Near East, quite a few striking parallels between the Epic of Gilgamish and the Torah’s story of Noah are to be expected, and yet, despite the parallels, the stories are profoundly different. In the Babylonian story, the gods arbitrarily decide to destroy the earth, as if humanity is a plaything. Furthermore, the gods choose to save Utnapishtim only because he’s a “favorite” of theirs–-not because he’s moral, righteous or deserving.

The Torah revolutionizes the Flood story, and adds what is most significant–-a moral element. It’s not that G-d arbitrarily decides to destroy the world, but rather that the world had become corrupt and self-destructive. Noah himself is an “Ish tzadik, Tamim” (Genesis 6:9)–a righteous person who was perfect in his generation. In fact, it says about Noah that he walked with G-d, “et Ha’Elokim hit’halech Noach” (Genesis 6:9).

According to the Midrashic tradition, Noah builds an ark for 120 years, to give the people a chance to repent. People pass by and ask, “Noah, what are you doing?” He replies, “I’m building an ark. The world is going to be flooded because of the evil deeds of the people.” Noah enters the ark with his wife, his three sons, and his daughters-in-law. Once they are inside the ark, G-d waits an additional seven days before bringing the waters of the flood. Again, a delay, to give the people an additional opportunity to repent. And even when it begins to rain, the Torah tells us, “Va’yeh’hee ha’geshem al ha’aretz(Genesis 7:12), implying that the rain started to fall lightly, indicating that G-d would have reversed his decision and stopped the flood, had the people only repented, but they did not!

It rains for 40 days and 40 nights. Meanwhile, Noah has to care for all the animals that were on the ark. Although the rain stops after the 40 days, Noah, in fact, has to wait a full year for the earth to dry.

The earth is now dry, and Noah’s remarkable inaction is recorded in the Torah. After caring for all the animals for a full year, feeding them, cleaning them, living with elephants, bulls and orangutans, (you can imagine what it must have been like)–after a full 365 days have passed, G-d says to Noah (Genesis 8:15-16), “Tzay min ha’tayvah,” “Noah get out of the ark, you and your wife, and your sons and your daughters-in-law.” Can you imagine, after being cooped up in the ark, the horrible and smelly ark, for a full year, G-d has to tell Noah, “Tzay min ha’tayvah!” Get out of the ark?! Most people would have been jumping out of their skins to get out of the ark, but Noah is hesitant to leave!

Eli Weisel, the great writer/philosopher, offers a revealing insight to explain Noah’s behavior. He suggests that Noah is really the first “survivor.” After all, the world had experienced a Holocaust, and Noah was reluctant to leave the ark because he knew that the entire world was, in effect, one huge graveyard. If Noah would walk on the earth, he would be treading upon the remains of his neighbors and friends, and he simply could not face that fact.

After giving thanks to G-d, and offering sacrifices, the Torah tells us, Genesis 9:20-21, “Vayachel Noah eesh ha’adama, va’yeetah kerem,” Noah’s first reaction after the flood was to begin to plant–a vineyard. All this is very nice, a satisfying and hopeful action to take after a great destruction–to plant anew. But what does Noah plant? He plants a vineyard. Scriptures inform us, “Vayesht min ha’yayin” (Genesis 8:21), and he drank of the wine, “va’yishkar,” and he became drunk, “va’yitgal b’toch ohalo,” and he wallowed in the muck in his tent.

Poor Noah couldn’t face the fact that everybody except he and his family had been lost in the deluge. He looks for an escape–-alcohol–and becomes a drunkard. He could not go out to work, he couldn’t face reality! Noah’s reaction was not dissimilar to the response of some Holocaust survivors of our generation. Some were just unable to face the fact that they were singled out to survive, while their friends and relatives, mothers, fathers, sons, and daughters had perished.

In his state of inebriation, Noah is terribly vulnerable. Something very shocking happens. The Torah tells us that Noah had three sons: Shem, Cham, and Yafet. In the Torah text, Cham is always referred to as Avi Canaan, the father of Canaan. The Torah tells us that when Noah was well inebriated, Cham, Avi Canaan, the father of Canaan, saw his father’s nakedness and told his two brothers outside. The Rabbi’s note that the expression “to see a person’s nakedness” often implies a sexual encounter, in fact they suggest that Cham did not just see his father’s nakedness, or merely mock his father, but that he actually sodomized his father, and he went and told his brothers. He said to them, “Come see our father the drunk. Noah, the survivor, has become a vegetable. He can’t face reality. He’s a simple drunk!”

But the two remaining sons of Noah, Shem and Yafet, feel their father’s pain, and rather than participate in Cham’s mortification of their father, take a cloak, put it on their own shoulders, and walk backwards. Covering their father’s nakedness, they do not see their father’s nakedness.

The Bible then relates that as soon as Noah awakens from his alcohol-induced stupor, “Va’yeda et asher asa lo b’no hakatan,” (Genesis 9:24) he knew what his little son, Cham, had done to him. Noah says, “Aroor Canaan,” (Genesis 9:25), may Canaan be cursed! Note that Noah does not curse Cham, but rather curses his grandson, Cham’s son, Canaan. “Eved avadim yee’yeh l’eh’chav,” may he always be enslaved to his brothers.

Why does Noah curse his grandson, rather than Cham, his own son? Perhaps it is because of all the children, Cham was the only one who was himself at this time a father. Of all Noah’s children, Cham was certainly aware of how difficult it is to be a parent. Consequently, of all the children, he should have been most sensitive to Noah’s plight. Yet he was the least sensitive! And Noah says, if that’s the way you expect to act, if you intend to be an indifferent, insensitive parent, you should know what impact your behavior will have on your own child, Canaan. As a result of his own inability to control himself, he will perforce become a slave. He will be a slave to his own passions and wickedness, because the example provided to him by his own father is one of subservience to unbridled wickedness.

The story of the flood is not at all a myth. It is a fascinating historical record replete with incredible insights, as is the entire Torah. All we need do is to study it and review it, and in it we shall find the most amazing secrets of human life and of human relations.

May you all be blessed.