Noah’s ark is one of the best known and most well-loved Bible stories. Noah is so famous he has had numerous books written and films made about him. He’s even been a Radio 4 Profile subject.
The Jewish tradition has named a parasha after him but is ambivalent about his greatness. Noah is introduced to us in Genesis Chapter 6 verse 9, ‘Noah was a righteous, blameless man in his generation. Noah walked with God.’ The tradition asks the well-known question, why the mention of ‘his generation’? Is Noah’s righteousness in doubt? We have two possible answers. The first says Noah is righteous only when compared to his own generation of mediocrity. Had he lived in the time of Abraham he would have been entirely irrelevant, not even mentioned. The second suggests the opposite: had Noah been surrounded by greatness he could have been an even greater man.
Noah is a lovely, if slightly vague, hero. In the first two verses of the parasha his name, meaning comfort, is repeated four times, as though the writers are reminding us, here be comfort, after humanity’s tumultuous beginnings. Noah has named his sons Shem, Cham and Yephet, names connected to continuation, warmth and beauty. Noah’s very nature is good.
However, unfavourable rabbinic comparisons between Abraham and Noah abound. Noah is accused of worrying only about his own comfort. Noah walks with God, Abraham walks before God. Noah does nothing to influence God. Not for him the long conversations with God that Abraham enjoys, nor bargaining with God to save the people. No angels visit Noah. The people in Noah’s generational story notice nothing, nor ever ask him anything about the ark he is building, and they are wiped out.
But maybe through worrying about his own comfort, Noah brings comfort to others. We know that it is those who are comfortable, not those overburdened by life, who truly bring comfort and stability to others. Noah is silent, and it is within silence that we find serenity.
Noah, his family, and specific animals are saved. Noah is given a promise, that God will not destroy the world again, and a commandment, to repopulate the world. God makes a covenant with the world, symbolized by the rainbow. Then, at the end of the parasha, we meet Abram, the man who will become the first Jew. To some extent, it seems as though the need to provide a lineage for Abram and his family is the only reason the Noah story is there.
Noah builds his ark but does nothing to change the world. He uses his immense influence for nothing, and when he humiliates himself with drink, rather than admitting that drink is not his friend, he curses his grandson for knowing.
Very few can be Abraham. Noah, who will never be referenced again, lets us know that being a comfort and putting the needs of one’s own family first is praiseworthy. Doing no harm is adequate. But Abraham, and later, Moses, remind us that there is much more than simple kindness and comfort to aspire to. As the year and the Torah readings continue we will laugh, cry and wrestle with God. A whole framework of literacy, law and spirituality will offer transformation far greater than comfort ever can.
Dina Pinner is a teacher living in Jerusalem and co-founding director of KayamaMoms, www.kayamamoms.org, creating supportive communities for Jewish single mothers by choice.