3/23- Noah and God

 The redactors of “Genesis” were concerned with the development of technology, something that is immediately experienced, pervasive, and stands out from the natural world as a human artifact that confounds otherwise ordinary senses of scale and distance. That is true of even the creation fable that leads off “Genesis”. The creation fable does not offer creation done instantly by a powerful god nor does it relate a story of conflicts between gods that would motivate a god to create the world. Rather, as was suggested previously, it offers the set of processes that have to be performed in a particular sequence whereby the natural world, as humankind would know it, might become established.  What is more fundamental comes earlier in the sequence. The separation between night and day had to proceed the separation of the water from the land and that had to proceed before the animals could be created. God stepped back after each day’s labor to note his accomplishment. So He made the heavens and the earth rather than simply called them into being. Joseph, at the other end of “Genesis”, offers the social technology whereby the results of a famine can be avoided. That, on a more mundane level, is also a story of how to get from here to there, the creation of an agricultural surplus a process and not simply an intrusion.

This interest in technology is so out of keeping with other ancient writings—Homer concerned about who could bend Odysseus’ bow, not who could invent a better one—that one hazards to suggest that the Western concern with technology has its deepest roots in the religious imagination of the Old Testament, an interest that is reawakened not so much by Rome as by the medieval inventions having to do with levers, clocks and other sorts of machinery that well predate the Renaissance, much less the Industrial Revolution.

The most striking case of this preoccupation with technology in “Genesis” is the story of Noah, which everyone knows is about the building of an ark that will withstand the Great Flood. Interpreters have been so concerned with plumbing its remarkable psychological depths, such as the significance of Noah’s son seeing him unclothed, and Ham being punished for that, and the hopefulness for mankind that is represented by the dove returning with an olive branch from its survey for land, that not enough gets made of the central magnificent task: the building of the great ark. Never mind whether the ark was to contain all the creatures, two by two, for there is no way it could have carried all the insects and all the microscopic life. Let us consider the discomforts of the traditional interpretations of the story before going on to consider it a story of technology triumphant.

Much of the preoccupation with other aspects of the story can be attributed to the fact that the overall story is presented in a quite confusing manner, texts garbled in ways that allows where the seams are to show. For example, and this is a particularly brutal pronouncement in Alter’s translation, God claims that he is going to destroy the earth, and yet what He goes on to do is merely to flood it, which will kill everyone on it but allows the Earth to remain. Was God being hyperbolic or, more likely the case, venting some anger, He sensing Himself as justified in destroying everything He had created and not just the people, but not willing to go through with it? God, in the brief story of Noah, two times says that he is going to destroy his creation. Then, at the end of the story, he offers a rainbow and a covenant so that the people will prosper. Why should God relent? There has not yet been time to see whether the new Adam and his offspring will live in a manner more moral than those of the generations that came before Noah, and so this guarantee of no further apocalyptic punishment does not seem warranted. Indeed, human shenanigans begin again within the human family. Noah gets drunk and condemns his son for having seen his nakedness. These people just can’t learn anything from what they have been put through.

The usual explanation by the ancient commentators on Noah’s story for God’s forbearance, according to James Kugel, is that Noah has redeemed the previous generations. Noah has made up for Adam’s sin and so the world has been reconstituted for him and God therefore makes promises to him as He had to Adam, except of a much more limited sort. God just doesn’t seem willing to give up on his creation. It is true that Noah is not restored to Eden, but he is restored to the Earth as it was after Eden. This interpretation, according to Kugel, was particularly telling for the early commentators on the story, though it strikes me that the Hellenistic commentators whom Kugel refers to were influenced by early or pre-Christian ideas of an atonement: that somehow the good deeds and sacrifice of one person can make up for the sins of one or many other people.

Noah, “Genesis” says, was “righteous for his time”, which can mean either extremely righteous in any other time or righteous enough in a time not known for righteousness. The trouble there is that what this lack of righteousness consisted of is not made clear other than that Noah lived during the period when there were a set of giants begot by intercourse of the angels with mankind. Well, if that were the case, why blame it on mankind rather than on the angels? Did God scourge heaven as well as the Earth of the unworthy? And the rest of mankind is also regarded as wicked, not merely the giants, without specification of what their evil was. And is the level of Noah’s righteousness enough to redeem mankind? He is hardly identified as a son of God, only as a righteous man for his time, which can mean no more than that he is what any person is supposed to be. So neither the evil to be made good or the coin in which it is paid off seem up to the exchange that is made.

The facts of the Noah story that have already been cited can be put in a different context. The Noah story is a fable. Noah is a normal human being though with some exaggerated characteristics. He orders his family around so that they will build his ark. He is someone who will later be a drunkard who acts immodestly. There is nothing more to his nudity before his son than that. He is acting gross which is what an old codger might do. Noah also happens to hear the voice of God and goes off on his own singular course of action which involves him in subsequent actions that are also exaggerations of the things that ordinary people are able to achieve. He, after all, saves humanity because of the voices that this old coot hears but without any magical transformations or other form of miraculous intervention.

Instead of being a magician, Noah has a role that in a modern industrial society would be recognized as a combination of marine engineer, sea captain and the organizer of a very large scale project. Such roles win praise not for what the people who do them are but what the roles accomplish. People become like tools; they are indifferent to their technical use, whatever are the emotional effects of doing the work upon them. Is Noah a burnt out case after he has completed his mission and so becomes a drunk for that reason? “Genesis” doesn’t say, as if it doesn’t matter what happens to him after his work is done, that just what a present day journalist would call a “human interest sidebar”.  All of the stories of what happens after the flood therefore can be taken not as having important moral points to make but merely as the foibles of an old man who is merely human. The story of his nakedness is not profound; it is merely comic exaggeration of the drunken state of an old man who is already a legendary figure.

Noah’s ability to get the job done is therefore not of  the same order of things as the exemplification or transvaluation of moral virtues, which is what one usually looks for in a heroic figure. You don’t have to be a good person to be good at being an engineer, though it will be the case that David’s questionable sexual morality may or may not be a basis for deciding whether he is good at being a king. Maybe a king has to be a womanizer if he is to be something other than a priest, or maybe it is the risk run by all people who have power. But an inventor or a soldier is not known for what he did in his personal life; he is known for what he accomplished in the laboratory or on the battlefield.

The supremely important utility of what Noah had done rather than what he is is the point of the fable. That message is emphasized by the fact that, on the one hand, the narrative does point out just how high the water rose, including how far its final level was above the mountains, but the narrative then fails to record any devastation to the earth after the waters had receded. The three families simply climb out of the ark and resume life as it had been, not having to clear away the mess and begin to plant so that they would not die. There is time enough on the hands of these New Earth settlers for Noah to withdraw to his tent to drink, his great service to God over, there being no need to tell the tale of rebuilding. Noah has become superfluous, lived past the time of his greatness, just as Columbus did.

The early commentators had trivialized the Noah story to fit their own Hellenistic sentimentality and moral conventionality. One event is supposed to redeem another, just as they did when the Judith story shows her to have emerged from her confrontation with Holofernes unscathed either morally or emotionally. She is beyond the need for human compromise and so too is a Noah conceived of as a second Adam. One can say one is taking in the depths of the story only by dealing with its moral and psychological dimensions, especially as those establish something of a theodicy in which everything works out for the best. Such an approach would, of course, be contrary to the spirit of “Genesis” stories which are for the most part about the uncertainty of what justice means, as in the story of Cain and Abel, where the punishment is so much less than the crime, or as in the story of the rape of Dinah, where Jacob’s sons overdo their sense of justice by killing off a tribe just because there was to be a mixed marriage or, most significantly, where Adam and Eve are condemned to lead life pretty much as it really is, which suggests that all of us are to be punished for what they did, a conflation of crime and punishment which is taken to be a religious mystery because it might otherwise be regarded as an absurdity.

Facing up to the contradictions in the “Genesis” idea of justice as well as the limitations in looking for moral interpretations of key biblical stories allows us to see the Noah story in a different light, to consider what the story introduces into our understanding that we have come to take for granted rather than what familiar old saw a biblical story is supposed to exemplify which, in this case, is that Noah, after the restoration of mankind in the person of Noah’s family to the land, suffers a great let down, a kind of punishment for his labors.  

Look instead at the list of Noah’s accomplishments. Noah was, first of all, the person who cleaved to God’s message to him to build an ark that would withstand the coming floods. This would have been a difficult and surprising message to receive from God. If God were going to destroy the earth or even just mankind why would he turn around and ask Noah to build the ark? He could have simply changed his mind on the basis of the fact that Noah was righteous enough to redeem mankind. But no, he had to go through this entire process, for reasons that are unclear. It therefore makes sense to think that Noah was not more righteous than others of his time or of any time and simply regard him as righteous enough to be worthy of and to follow God’s orders. God could have chosen other righteous men to do the job, which suggests there might have been enough of them so that the world need not be destroyed. Again, contemplating the righteousness and redemption story just gets us going in circles.

What can be said of Noah is that his virtues, in the sense of his abilities, were multiple and made up for the deficiencies of his character. First comes his ability to keep a secret. God speaks to him of His own plans and also provides instructions to Noah about what Noah is supposed to do. This is not a general communication to mankind or meant as such. Noah proceeds to carry out the plan only by using his own family members. So Noah does not take his role to be the later one of prophet and proclaim the end of the world as it was known or that everybody should embark on the building of a fleet of arks to save as much of mankind as possible. The message, delivered as a very long speech by God, is meant for Noah’s ears alone, which is enough to suggest that Noah alone heard it, that it was an inner voice, and so was more like what a modern understanding of God’s voice would say it was: an inspiration about what should be done once it had dawned on Noah, for reasons only God knows, that a great Flood was coming. That is very different from the speech between God and Adam, which seems to be natural, or the speech between God and Abraham, which proceeds as if it were natural and is even carried out through the medium of angels who exchange courtesies with Abraham and Sarah as if the angels were normal people passing through on their way to Sodom. It is also very different from the speech through which God communicates with Moses. There, God speaks through a burning bush or provides a private communication at the top of Mt. Sinai the gist of which is presumably preserved in the tablets Moses brings down with him to inform the people of what had transpired, and which they are willing to accept as God’s word if for no other reason than because they are willing to give up worship of the Golden Calf and return to worship the God from the mountain who Moses claims was the one who presided over their rescue from Egypt.

If that is the case, that Noah is inspirited with the words of God in a way not visible to other people, his is a rather sophisticated understanding of religion, and that may have been transposed to him by the later editors who would be familiar with a doctrine of an invisible God-- or, perhaps, it is that this doctrine of an invisible God was there already present. What it would mean, among other things, is that Noah might well have been and acknowledged for the visionary he was only because the flood actually came. Noah was one of those people, very sacred or very mad, both being possibilities for all subsequent religious geniuses, who could listen to the voice of God no one else heard and devote the efforts of his family as well as his own self to activities that others think foolish. If there had been no flood, he would have been a failure. His fortitude in his conviction is what makes him or marks him as the righteous man spoken of, not that he was righteous to begin with.  

Abraham has a parallel story. He is ordered by God to sacrifice his son. There is no hint that anyone other than Abraham has heard this command and Isaac only alludes to a technical question of where is the animal to be sacrificed, perhaps suspecting he is the one, to which Abraham offers no satisfactory technical answer, only the moral dictate that God will provide. If Abraham had returned home after doing the deed, would he have been greeted as a madman or as a holy man? Noah sets the model of the ambiguity of the role assigned to the religious man.

If Noah is taken to be inspirited with God’s words, then one can ask what message it was that God wanted to deliver other than that the world would come to an end. What action was He recommending that Noah grasp as something he was supposed to do? God could have motivated him to pray for God to change his mind; God could have motivated him or given him the vision to prepare himself for the doom of which he was forewarned. Instead he takes God’s voice to be telling him to build an ark, which is a very counterintuitive thing to do because it is to undo or circumvent what God is about to set in motion. “Genesis” does not record God as giving any explanation for why he gives instructions which will circumvent His own future action, and so it is to be assumed that Noah took this as an opportunity to make use of a circumstantial feature of a flood, that it would end while the world survived, to find a way to literally float above it, and that would be by building a boat. This is very profound stuff. Noah is inventing a technical solution, one that has no inherent moral dimension, to get around a moral directive, and he believes that doing so has God’s blessing and approval. He uses the means of the practical world to hamstring God’s will and he believes that God wants him to do so. That is adding a whole new dimension to religious life: the world is not simply a stable place over which man acts as God’s steward; to the contrary, it is an ever changing place that allows the use of the technology to turn it to man’s will, the presumption being that such is also God’s will, whatever God had said to the contrary. If God gave you a brain, He wanted you to use it. Right?

That understanding goes very deep into the understanding of the relationship between God and man that pervades “Genesis”. That God punished Adam and Eve by saying that males would in the future earn their livings by the sweat of their brow and that women would suffer in childbirth did not mean that people could not circumvent that injunction by having some people live off goods produced by others (as is the case with kings and millionaires). Not everyone is required to be a laborer, even back then. Similarly, there is no reason, then or now, that the pain of childbirth cannot be alleviated through drugs or other mechanisms, though it is only in the last century that the promise of alleviation has been significantly met, and no religious group I know of insists that women suffer the full pain of childbirth because it has been a punishment assigned to womankind. The idea that morality is subject to technical ways around it is so deeply embedded in the Judeo-Christian tradition that it is difficult for people to specify that they use the distinction between the moral and the technical all the time. One can go farther, and say that the emphasis on this distinction is peculiar to the Judeo-Christian tradition in that other religions tend to suspend the technical should it conflict with the ritualistic or the moral. We have here, then, the beginning of another of the differences between Western religion and other religions.