The Problem with Noah

Jewish communities around the world read the Biblical story of Noah and The Flood this week. For most of my life, I’ve thought that this story is horrible. Sure, the idea that God cares enough about all life to include every species of animal in an escape plan is niceand certainly makes for cute wallpaper in a nursery!but when you remember that the destruction of pretty much all living things on the earth is God’s will…well, it’s just awful. Why anyone would want to teach children about this angry, vengeful, uncaring god that destroys life was beyond me.

If that were the complete story, I still wouldn’t want to teach it to my children. Growing up outside of Judaism and Christianity, the religious traditions that include it as part of their sacred canon, I had no personal connection to the story of The Flood, and no religious context in which to put it.

I’ve since learned that no story from the Bible—or from any other sacred text from any tradition—should be interpreted in isolation, cut off from its religious context. I have also, as an adult, chosen to become part of the Jewish tradition, so I now have a personal connection. Even so, I still find the story of Noah and the Flood to be difficult. In the larger context of Jewish tradition, though, it is one I would now—and do—teach my children.

See, in the Hebrew Bible, God’s relationship with people evolves over time. We find the story of Noah and the Flood early on in Genesis. Here and for a long while afterwards, God is plagued with doubt, unsure about these troublesome humans. Much as a potter at the wheel might choose to collapse the wet clay back into a ball when, mid-throw, the pot shows itself to be off-center and unbalanced, God repeatedly wonders through much of the Torah whether humanity is a flawed, lost cause.

I can almost empathize with God’s position. Here we are, thousands of years later and seemingly so advanced—and yet war persists. And hunger. And slavery. And cruelty. If I were a caring, invested god looking at my creation, I might consider starting over from scratch, too.

But there’s more to the story of The Flood. God isn’t the only actor here; Noah also plays a role—and here’s where things get really interesting. In Jewish tradition, Noah is a questionable character. The Torah tells us that he was “a righteous man; he was blameless in his generation” (Gen. 6:9).  But Jewish commentators throughout time have wondered: just how righteous was Noah’s generation? Because in the righteousness department, Noah seems a bit lacking.

When God tells Noah that the earth and all life is about to be destroyed by a flood, why doesn’t Noah run to his neighbors and warn them? Perhaps they would have repented of their evil ways, returned to God, and been able to save their families. Or, why didn’t Noah argue or plead with God on humanity’s behalf, as Abraham did when God threatened to destroy Sodom; or as Moses did, when God spoke of wiping out all the Israelites and starting over with Moses?

To his credit, Noah didn’t actively take part in the destruction of his fellow humans (and all other life), but he didn’t do anything to try and save them, either. Noah followed instructions, exactly as given, but did nothing more.

There’s the rub for Jewish commentators: Noah did nothing more. He was in a unique position, in conversation with God, to advocate on behalf of the people—but he chose to focus just on himself and his family, instead.

This brings us to the question at the heart of the matter for Noah’s generation as well as for our own: Are we just for ourselves, or are we part of a larger human and life community?

A lot of things look broken to me right now. As I write this, the government shutdown has begun—our Congressional leaders unable to reach a compromise basic enough to keep the doors open. Along with hopes for basic government functioning, the Farm Bill also died at midnight on October 1. Most immediately, this means that safety net programs for dairy farmers, conservation programs for wetlands, disaster relief for livestock producers, a program to help low-income seniors access fresh foods, and international food aid programs are gone—poof!—until Congress is able to pass the Farm Bill or an extension.

One reason passage of the Farm Bill has been so difficult is congressional wrangling over funding for SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), or “food stamps.” In the Farm Bill, House leaders have voted to continue controversial farm subsidies that overwhelmingly benefit the wealthiest farmers and agribusiness, while at the same time, removing the SNAP program from the bill entirely—or, when a couple of weeks ago the bill came back to the House with the SNAP program re-attached, they voted to cut the program by $39 billion over the next ten years.

All of that might sound like a bunch of policy wonk mumbo-jumbo, but the effects of these policies are very real, and very human. In a typical month in 2011, SNAP helped almost 45 million low-income Americans—that’s one out of every seven people. Most of those Americans, nearly 75 percent, have families with children, and more than one-quarter are in households with seniors or people with disabilities. In one of the richest countries in the world, where we have so much food that 40% of it goes to waste, people are going hungry.

In the modern-day story of Noah and The Flood, I wonder: who are we? Are we a disappointed, frustrated god who has given up on humanity and wants to start over? Are we Noah, living a personally decent life, taking care of ourselves and our immediate family, maybe giving some to charity and voting each November, but doing nothing more?

Here we are, in a broken mess of a system that isn’t meeting the basic needs of all its people and that, as of this morning, isn’t even functioning—and we have a choice to make. Are we just for ourselves, or are we part of a larger human and life community?

We live in a democracy, in which we each have a right and a responsibility to participate in the crafting of the policies that define our life together as a community. If our community is to be a moral one in which we do as Jewish and Christian scripture insists we do and ensure the well-being of others—the widow, the orphan, the stranger—then we need to do more than just look out for our own individual needs.

Recognizing our interconnectedness with other people and the larger community of life of which we are a part, we need to do more than Noah did. We need to pray to God, yes—and also argue, wrestle, plead, and advocate with our elected officials on behalf of those in our community who might not be in a position to advocate for themselves.

We need to step it up, folks. In our generation, let’s aim to be less like Noah, and more like Abraham and Moses.

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Above photo used courtesy of Waiting for the Word, via Flickr Creative Commons.

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6 thoughts on “The Problem with Noah

  1. As an avid reader of the thought of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin I see the interconnectedness of humanity progressing DESPITE the blockage of those who are just for themselves and who fear change that they can’t control.

    Chardin, even in the trenches of WWI, was an optimist. And I try to maintain my optimism about the future of Spaceship Earth…but it is hard to do in times like this!

    1. I agree, Roberta–that is a nice way to look at things. That bit about fearing change is spot on… and we (that is, humanity) is in a serious change phase right now, so the resistance is to be expected. That doesn’t, of course, make it easy! Peace to you.

  2. Hooray for arguing and wrestling, both as a mode of politics and as one of theology!

  3. Yaira, great questions! A very close friend of mine from college and I were discussing Noah a few days ago. We’ve both migrated a bit from the Evangelicalism we grew up with, though his wife holds to it stronger than ever to “make up for it” as they raise their two children. He told me he “just can’t bring [himself] to read or talk about” a 6-day/24hr creation and “especially Noah.” Like you, he questioned, “What kind of message does that send?”
    I notice that you turn this a bit, though. You say you sympathize with God wanting to destroy the world, then ask why Noah wouldn’t try to save it. Wouldn’t that go against God’s plans?
    With such a clear precedent in scripture (ex: Abraham, Moses, Jonah and the prophets) of working against God and praying for those we are opposed to (re: Matt. 5, Rom. 12), would you go far as to say that tikkun olam is, in some sense, creating a cosmic tension where we are doing good things *against* the will of a “good” god? This isn’t so much a challenge to your essay here as much as a slight smile at how much I relate to this idea, doing “bad” things (against God’s will) so as to achieve “good” ends.

    1. Randall, thanks so much for your comment–and your great questions! You’re right–if, in fact, God is directing things around here, then it is logical to conclude that the brokenness we see & experience is God’s will, in which case working to improve conditions would be going against God’s purposes. And you’re right–in the stories of the Hebrew Bible, we do see a god that sometimes directs things (like plagues) that harm people.

      I see the Bible as a collection of stories that are full of meaning, but that shouldn’t be taken literally, though. In my understanding, God loves us and the earth and all of creation, and yearns (that’s anthropomorphizing… here, I run up against the limitations of language) for us to live peaceably and well together. In that understanding, God partners with us in our work to repair the world, in tikkun olam.

      That said, yeah–if we take the story of God & Noah literally, then what I suggest Noah should have done would have been counter to God’s will… which is exactly what Abraham & Moses do later on. Of course, in those examples, God changes God’s mind, based on the pleadings of his prophets… Fun with the Hebrew Bible! Shabbat shalom. 🙂

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