Monday, August 31, 2009

The Righteousness of Noah

Genesis 6:9, 22 (KJV)
9These are the generations of Noah: Noah was a just man and perfect in his generations, and Noah walked with God. 22Thus did Noah; according to all that God commanded him, so did he.

I have been rereading Genesis and it surprises me that while growing up as a Christian I never heard anyone challenge the morality of the patriarchs. We know they're human and fallible but since they followed the will of God we just assumed they were morally upright people. What really surprised me is that Jews have already challenged (and continue to challenge) the righteousness of the patriarchs. Noah, blameless in his generation, followed God's command and saved his family from the wrath of God. So what's so wrong with following the orders of a God who's about to destroy everything and everyone you know?

[The Drunkenness of Noah, Sistine Chapel ceiling (fresco), 1509, Michelangelo Buonarroti]

I pity Noah after rereading his story found in Genesis chapters 6-9. God picks and speaks to Noah out of the blue stating that He will destroy EVERYTHING. The knowledge of doomsday alone would be enough to drive a man to despair and even worse that only he and his family will be spared. But why Noah? Again, I don't know Hebrew but I thank God for Google. Noah is the only person in the Old Testament (if you know Hebrew please correct me if I'm wrong) that is described as צדיק‎ (Tzadik), which means righteous or just, and bears this description twice in Gen. 7:1 and Gen 6:9 and once in Ezekiel 14:14. Yet when we read the text it states that Noah is perfect within his own generation. Does that mean that he was righteous relative only to his time? If Noah would have lived in another time would he have been less righteous? More importantly does this mean that God's definition of a righteous person change throughout history?

Noah follows God's instruction without questioning his instructions or intentions. In fact, the first time we see Noah speak is when he curses his innocent grandson, Canaan, because his son, Ham, saw him naked. He doesn't say a word, he just builds his ark, loads the animals and wait for the world to be washed clean of mankind. When I was a kid, I remember seeing pictures (and I believe a film) of Noah preaching away trying to convince people to join him on the ark. Repent and be saved. The medieval commentator Rashi held that the building of the ark took 120 years so that Noah could preach to the sinners. In the Islamic tradition, the Qu'ran has Noah warning people for almost 1000 years. The image of Noah preaching, warning, and pleading with the people to repent and join him on the boat is almost heart-wrenching. This Noah is seen desperately trying to save other people even though he did not express this desire to God. This is the caring Noah who believes that his fellow man is worth saving. The Noah in Genesis does not question nor bargin with God like Abraham who boldly challenged Him when he was told of the impending destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Noah is a yes-man, and he follows God's instructions to the letter. Noah doesn't even complain when it seems that God forgets Noah aimlessly drifting out in the open sea. What could be running through Noah's head as he looks out across the waters? Everything and everyone he ever loved is now gone.

God then, maybe out of pity for Noah, promises that he will never again destroy the world with a flood. But the damage to the human spirit has been done, because the first thing Noah does after his talk with God is plant a vineyard and begin to drink. Ham walks in to his father's tent and sees him sprawled out naked after a night of heavy drinking. Noah, maybe suffering from survivors guilt, does not curse Ham, but Ham's son, Canaan. Noah avoids taking responsibility for his actions and instead takes it out on an innocent bystander. Throughout history the curse of Ham has been used to justify racism and slavery and as Armstrong states, "some of the worst atrocities have occurred as a result of this type of scapegoating, when we blame others for our own crimes and inadequacies". (In the Beginning: A New Interpretation of Genesis)

So what can we learn from Noah? If we see injustice, do we sit idly by or do we speak out against it? Must we be limited to the morals of the Bible or do we try to transcend them? Some Christians speak about God's disgust for homosexuality yet proclaim that they love the sinner, they are still bound to God's prejudices. Must we hate what God hates, and only love what God loves? Are we bound to following orders and never question God's will? Should we not question the divine even if we feel injustice in the command? A God who resorts to mass destruction and genocide is like a child who tosses a toy away when he's bored with it. How can this be the same Compassionate and Loving God who loved the WHOLE world that he sent his son to redeem it? Being yes-men and secluding ourselves in a spiritual ark may save our own skins, but we might begin to lose our compassion for humanity by separating ourselves as an elect group among a sea of sinners. Even after wiping out every living thing God admits that even the survivors have the same evil inclination as those he destroyed. Humanity's morality should always progress forward even if it means that we must challenge and become stronger than the God who did not even have the strength to deal with a sinful creature.


Don said...

Tell me, how do you take these stories in Genesis? As real, as metaphor, or how? I am really interested in your thoughts after reading the last several posts. Thanks!

Eruesso said...

That is a topic that deserves a post entirely to itself which I plan on writing once I finish reading Genesis. I believe that these tales may have been historically true (to a point) which have survived in oral tradition (Walter Ryman has a very interesting book on the local flood theory of the Black Sea.). There may have been an actual Noah who collected his people and a few provisions and survived a local flooding which may have been expanded for many reasons and included into scripture. But now that we have the story penned down I like to read and compare how the original writers may have understood it, how Traditional Christianity interprets it, and by shifting through other various interpretation of the tales I can draw out a better understanding on the Divine AND how humanity relates to It and to each other.

That answer may have been a bit confusing (I just woke up and haven't had my coffee) and will try to clarify in a dedicated post. Although I would like to point out that I absolutely LOVE the way scripture is analyzed, studied, and meticulously picked apart in Judaism. They can take one tiny blurb from Cain and write whole books on the topic. Thanks again Don for all of your comments.

Eruesso said...

I guess the short answer would be metaphor based on a pinch of historical oral tradition. Although oral tradition does not imply that the characters in the story were historically true (e.g. Lot, or even the characters in the parables of Jesus).

Don said...

Thanks for that input. Invaluable!

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