“The Story of Noah–Fact or Fantasy?”
(updated and revised from Noah 5763-2002)

by, Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This coming week’s Torah portion, parashat Noah, that features 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 is, not only, a fascinating narrative, but is also a parasha that is replete with groundbreaking insights, and profound messages for humankind.

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 Gilgamesh” which tells the story of a man named Utnapishtim. In the Epic narrative, 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.

Of course, 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 more 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 described, (Genesis 6:9), as an אִישׁ צַדִּיק תָּמִים–a righteous person who was perfect in his generation. In fact, it says about Noah (Genesis 6:9), underscoring his specialness, that he walked with G-d, אֶת הָאֱ־לֹקִים הִתְהַלֶּךְ נֹחַ.

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 daughters-in-law. Once they are on the ark, G-d waits an additional seven days before bringing the waters of the flood. Again, a delay, giving the people an additional opportunity to repent. And even when it begins to rain, the Torah states, (Genesis 7:12), וַיְהִי הַגֶּשֶׁם עַל הָאָרֶץ, implying that the rain started to fall lightly, indicating that the Al-mighty 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 are 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 and cleaning them, living with elephants, bulls and orangutans, (you can hardly imagine what it must have been like!)–after a full 365 days have passed, G-d says to 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 cooped up in the ark, the horrible and smelly ark, for a full year, G-d has to command Noah, צֵא, מִן הַתֵּבָה?! Get out of the ark! Most people would have jumped out of their skins to get out of the ark. But Noah is hesitant to leave!

Elie Wiesel 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—the people with whom he had partied and played. He simply could not face the fact that he had survived, while they did not.

After giving thanks to G-d, and offering sacrifices, the Torah informs us, Genesis 9:20-21, וַיָּחֶל נֹחַ, אִישׁ הָאֲדָמָה, וַיִּטַּע כָּרֶם , that Noah’s first reaction after the flood was to begin to plant—a vineyard. All this is very nice, a gratifying and hopeful action to take after a great destruction–to plant anew. But what does Noah plant? He plants a vineyard. Scripture records (Genesis 9:21), וַיֵּשְׁתְּ מִן הַיַּיִן, and he drank of the wine, וַיִּשְׁכָּר, and he became drunk, וַיִּתְגַּל בְּתוֹךְ אָהֳלֹה, and he [Noah] 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—and finds it in alcohol, and becomes a drunkard. He could not go out to work, he couldn’t face reality! Noah’s reaction was not unsimilar 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, spouses, mothers, fathers, sons, and daughters had perished.

In this state of inebriation, Noah, who is terribly vulnerable, something very shocking happens.

The Torah records that Noah had three sons: Shem, Cham, and Yafet. The Torah text, always referred to Cham as “Avi Canaan, the father of Canaan.” The Torah reports, (Genesis 9:22), 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 Rabbis 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 or emasculated his father, and went and told his brothers. He said to them, “Come see our father the drunk. Noah, the survivor, has become a vegetable. Can’t face reality. He’s a plain drunk!”

But the two remaining sons of Noah, Shem and Yafet, empathize with their father’s pain, and, rather than participate in Cham’s mortification of Noah, 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, (Genesis 9:24), that as soon as Noah awakens from his alcohol-induced stupor, וַיֵּדַע אֵת אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה לוֹ בְּנוֹ הַקָּטָן , that he knew what his little son, Cham, had done to him. (Had Cham only mocked his father, Noah would not have known. Cham obviously did something physical to him.)  Noah says, (Genesis 9:25), אָרוּר כְּנָעַן , “May Canaan be cursed!” Note that Noah does not curse his son, Cham, but rather curses his grandson, Cham’s son, Canaan. עֶבֶד עֲבָדִים, יִהְיֶה לְאֶחָיו , “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 the challenges of parenthood. 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.” Because of his own inability to control his own behavior, he will, perforce, become a slave to his own wicked passions, 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 incredibly revolutionary insights, as is the entire Torah. As with all of Torah, it must be studied and constantly reviewed, for in it we shall find the most profound secrets of human behavior and of human relations.

May you all be blessed.