Noah was a righteous man; he was blameless in his age; Noah walked with God. Noah begot three sons: Shem, Ham, and Japheth. The earth became corrupt before God; the earth was filled with lawlessness. When God saw how corrupt the earth was, for all flesh had corrupted its ways on earth, God said to Noah, “I have decided to put an end to all flesh, for the earth is filled with lawlessness because of them: I am about to destroy them with the earth.” (Genesis, 6:9–13)
Then Noah built an altar to Adonai and, taking of every clean animal and of every clean bird, he offered burnt offerings on the altar. Adonai smelled the pleasing odor, and Adonai said to Himself: “Never again will I doom the earth because of man, since the devisings of man’s mind are evil from his youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living being, as I have done. So long as the earth endures,/Seedtime and harvest,/Cold and heat,/Summer and winter,/Day and night/Shall not cease.” (Genesis 8:20–22)
Rabbi Simeon said: In the hour when God was about to create Adam, the angels were divided into different groups.… Love said, “Let him be created, and he will do loving deeds.” But Truth said, “Let him not be created because he will be all deceit.” Righteousness said, “Let him be created because he will do righteous deeds.” Peace said, “Let him not be created because he will be all quarrelsome and discord.”
What did God do? He seized hold of Truth and cast it to the earth, as it is said, You “cast truth to the ground” (Daniel 8:12). Then the angels said to God, “Why do you despise your Angel of Truth? Let Truth rise out of the earth, as it is said, ‘Truth springs out of the earth’” (Genesis Rabbah, B’reishit 8:5).
Among these, the least essential is Truth. Righteousness, Peace, and Love are central to the cosmos and central to our faith. As for the question of Truth, we must put it aside if we wish to understand why the story of Noah is among the premier passages in our Torah. Truth and historicity are beside the point.
You might say to yourself, “Well, of course. I don’t believe in the Flood story. Not literally.” Don’t tell that to the Bible Archeology Search and Exploration Institute (BASE). Its main purpose is to search for archaeological evidence to help establish that the Bible is true, that human history validates what the Bible reports. The institute has spent the last fifteen years scouring the Middle East, searching for Noah’s ark. Their search is powered by the certainty of faith and a variety of personalities. James B. Irwin of the Apollo 15 mission has hunted for Noah’s ark and proof that the Noah story is historical. Explorer Robert Cornuke has “covered thousands of weary miles by plane, helicopter, horse, jeep, and on foot,...pouring over maps, ancient manuscripts, and musty books” (Robert Cornuke and David Halbrook, In Search of the Lost Mountains of Noah).
They wish to authenticate the Bible with historical truth. But the way we know that the Bible is authentic is because it teaches us to be righteous, to be peaceful, and to love.
The story of Noah derives from the deluge folktales of the Babylonians and Sumerians. These pre-biblical accounts, recorded on cuneiform tablets, tell of an enraged multitude of deities who bring about a flood. In the earliest version, the Sumerian one, a flood is decreed by an assembly of gods. And why are the gods so angry with humankind? It appears that the human species has become numerous and is making a lot of noise, thus depriving Enlil, the chief deity, of his sleep. Sleepy-eyed Enlil sends a series of lesser cataclysms, but they just don’t do the trick. Having failed to quiet the mortals, Enlil finally employs the ultimate divine weapon—a flood.
Well known as this powerful myth must have been throughout the Ancient Near East, it was unworthy of inclusion in our Torah. What, after all, was the meaning of this story? Don’t awaken God? God acts capriciously? These concepts were not appropriate for our Torah, but the story was too good and too famous to dismiss. So the authors of Genesis retooled the tale to teach a lesson about righteousness.
The Torah’s version tells us that human beings could have averted the destruction if only they had conformed to God’s will and lived righteous and peaceful lives: “Adonai saw how great was man’s wickedness on earth and how every plan devised by his mind was nothing but evil all the time. And Adonai regretted that He had made man on earth, and God’s heart was saddened” (Genesis 5–6). The Eternal God of the Torah brought the Flood because human beings were depraved and violent. Enlil brought a flood because human beings were loud and annoying.
Is the story of Noah true? Is it historical? This question distracts from the Torah’s purpose. The Bible’s Flood story is intended to show that God cares about both the kind of society we create and the way we live our lives. It is this message that makes it an authentic Jewish teaching. Should Mr. Carnuke ever find Noah’s ark, his discovery will do nothing to validate the authenticity of this story or our canon.
The test of the value of the Hebrew Bible and of our thousands of Hebrew canonical texts lies not in whether their stories were reported in the annals of their time. What matters is that they teach us what God wants of us in the world: loving deeds, righteousness, and peace.
By the Way...
[Noah said:] And in those days the word of Adonai came to me, and God said to me, “Noah, behold your lot has come up before Me, a lot without reproach, a lot of love and of uprightness.” (I Enoch 67:1)
“Noah walked with God” (Genesis 6:9). Rabbi Judah said: The phrasing may be understood from the parable of a king who had two sons, one grown up and the other a child. To the child he said, “Walk with me”; but to the adult he said, “Walk before me.” Likewise to Abraham, whose [spiritual] strength was great, God said, “Because you are wholehearted, walk before Me” (Genesis 17:1). But to Noah, whose [spiritual] strength was feeble, Scripture says, “Noah walked with God.” (Genesis Rabbah 30:10)
The question, after all, is not only who wrote the Bible but who reads it. (Richard Elliott Friedman, Who Wrote the Bible? p. 245)
Beliefs, in short, are really rules for action; and the whole function of thinking is but one step in the production of habits of action. If there were any part of a thought that made no difference in the thought’s practical consequence, then that part would be no proper element of the thought’s significance. (William James, “Philosophical Conceptions and Practical Results,” Pragmatism, The Works of William James, p. 259)
Compare the passages from I Enoch and Genesis Rabbah. Why do the two interpret the statement “Noah was a righteous man” differently?
Do you agree with Friedman that the key issue is who reads the Bible, not who wrote the Bible? In your opinion, does the importance of Noah and the entire Torah diminish if their stories are not historically true?
William James wrote that beliefs “are really rules for action.” What are some actions that can stem from the beliefs inherent in the story of Noah?
At the time of this writing in 2002, John Friedman was the rabbi of Judea Reform Congregation, Durham, NC.