“The ‘Myth’ of the Great Flood”
(updated and revised from Noah 5762-2001)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

Parashat Noah, the story of the flood, is a truly-intriguing Torah portion. Secular scholars, however, often speak of the story of the flood as if it were a myth, or a fairy tale.

Not surprisingly, several ancient documents report striking parallels to the story of the flood. Perhaps, the most famous document is the Babylonian “Epic of Gilgamesh” which tells the story of a man by the name of Utnapishtim. The “gods” decide to destroy the earth, there is a great flood, and because Utnapishtim is the favorite of Eau, one of the gods, he is saved.

Despite the strong parallels between the “Epic of Gilgamesh” and the Torah’s story of Noah, they are in fact strikingly different. In the Babylonian story, the gods arbitrarily decide to destroy the earth as if it were a plaything. Furthermore, the gods choose to save Utnapishtim only because he’s a “favorite” of theirs, not because he is worthy of being saved.

In effect, the Torah revolutionizes the flood story by introducing what is most significant–the element of moral accountability. The world is flooded not because G-d arbitrarily decides to destroy the world, but because the world had become corrupt and destructive. Noah is not arbitrarily saved. He is rescued only because he is deserving. He is, after all, referred to by the Torah, Genesis 6:9, as an אִישׁ צַדִּיק and תָּמִים הָיָה בְּדֹרֹתָיו, he is a righteous person who was perfect in his generation. In fact, it says of Noah, אֶת הָאֱ־לֹקִים הִתְהַלֶּךְ נֹחַ, that Noah walked with G-d.

According to tradition, Noah not only builds an ark, but when people pass by and ask Noah what he is doing, he tells them that he is building an ark because the world is going to be flooded due to the peoples’ evil ways. The Midrash Tanchuma 5, relates that in order to give the people an opportunity to repent, the building of the ark continues for 120 years. Finally, Noah enters the ark with his wife, 3 sons, and their wives. Once they’re in the ark, G-d waits an additional 7 days before bringing the flood, again, to give the people an opportunity to repent. And even when it begins to rain, the Torah (Genesis 7:12), relates that, וַיְהִי הַגֶּשֶׁם עַל הָאָרֶץ , implying that when the rain started it fell lightly. Even at this point, G-d would have reversed His decision and stopped the flood had the people only repented. But, alas, they did not.

It rains for 40 days and 40 nights. Noah and his family are charged with the unenviable task of caring for all the animals in the ark, not only for 40 days and nights, but, in fact, for an entire year, until the earth is sufficiently dry.

The Torah describes an unusual reaction on Noah’s part at the conclusion of that year. After caring for all the animals–a full year of feeding and cleaning, G-d tells Noah (Genesis 8:15-16), צֵא, מִן הַתֵּבָה, “Noah, get out of the ark, you and your wife, and your sons and your daughters-in-law!” Can you imagine, after being trapped in the ark, in this stench-ridden vessel, for a full year, G-d has to command Noah, צֵא, מִן הַתֵּבָה , “Get out of the ark!?” A normal person would have jumped out of his skin to get out of the ark. But Noah is hesitant to leave.

Elie Wiesel offers a poignant insight. Wiesel calls Noah the first “survivor.” The world had, in effect, experienced a Holocaust, and Noah is reluctant to walk out of the ark because he knows that the entire world is one giant graveyard, the final resting place of all the people whom he had known. Noah knows that if he left the ark, he would be walking on the remains of his neighbors and friends–and he could not face it!

The story continues. After giving thanks to G-d and bringing sacrifices, the Torah states (Genesis 9:20), וַיָּחֶל נֹחַ, אִישׁ הָאֲדָמָה, וַיִּטַּע כָּרֶם, Noah’s first activity after the flood is to begin to plant. Planting after a great destruction is surely a meaningful response, representing hope and belief in the future. But what does Noah plant? He plants a vine. Scripture (Genesis 9:21), then informs us, וַיֵּשְׁתְּ מִן הַיַּיִן, Noah drinks the wine of the vineyard, וַיִּשְׁכָּר , he becomes drunk, וַיִּתְגַּל בְּתוֹךְ אָהֳלֹה , and he wallows in the muck in his tent. Poor Noah, couldn’t face the fact that everybody except for himself and his immediate family had been wiped out by the flood. Noah needed an escape–and resorts to alcohol. He’s unable to face reality! He cannot work, he cannot function. Emotionally paralyzed, Noah becomes a drunkard.

Noah’s response to the flood is not dissimilar to the reactions of some Holocaust survivors in our own times. Some survivors were simply incapable of facing the fact that they were singled out to live, while their beloved friends and relatives, mothers, fathers, sons, and daughters, had all perished.

What are the reactions of those who behold Noah in this desperate state?

The Torah records (Genesis 9:18), that Noah had three sons: Shem, Cham, and Yafet. In the biblical text, Cham is always referred to as אֲבִי כְנָעַן –“Avi Canaan,” the father of Canaan. The Torah relates (Genesis 9:22), that when Noah was inebriated, Cham, Avi Canaan, the father of Canaan, “saw his nakedness” and told his two brothers outside. The Rabbis say that the biblical expression “to see a person’s nakedness” often has sexual connotations. In fact, they say that Cham did not just see his father’s nakedness and mock his father, but that he actually sodomized or castrated his father. He then went and told his brothers. Cham says to his siblings, “Our father is a drunk. This survivor, is incapable of facing reality, he’s become a vegetable, he’s a worthless drunk!”

But, the two remaining sons of Noah, Shem and Yafet, appalled by Cham’s actions, take a cloak, put it on their own backs, and while walking backwards so they could not see their father, cover their father’s nakedness.

The Bible then relates (Genesis 9:24), that when Noah awoke from his stupor, from his inebriation, וַיֵּדַע אֵת אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה לוֹ בְּנוֹ הַקָּטָן, that he knew what his youngest son, Cham, had done to him. Noah cries out (Genesis 9:25), אָרוּר כְּנָעַן , “May Canaan be cursed!” Oddly enough, Noah doesn’t curse his son, Cham, he curses his own grandson, Cham’s son, Canaan. עֶבֶד עֲבָדִים, יִהְיֶה לְאֶחָיו, “May he always be enslaved to his brothers.”

Very intriguing. Why does Noah curse his grandson and not his son? Perhaps it is because, of all the children, Cham was the only one who was himself already a father. Cham should have been acutely aware of how difficult it is to be a parent. Of all the children, Cham should have been most sensitive to Noah’s plight. Yet, he was the least sensitive! And Noah says, “if that’s the way you behave, if that’s the model you provide your children, if you respond to a person in need by acting callously and insensitively, the end result will inevitably be that your own child, Canaan, will be a slave. Just like you, he will be unable to control himself. He’ll be a slave to his own passions and needs, just as you are yourself.”

The story of the flood is not a myth. It is an extraordinary narrative replete with invaluable and fascinating insights, as is the entire Torah. All we need do is study and review it, and in it we shall find profound and resounding insights into all human life and human relations.

May you be blessed.