Noah — A Relatable Ancestor of Humanity
Ancient Flood Stories
The story of a divinely brought flood that wipes out all life on earth, except for one man and his family who are saved on a boat, was quite popular in the ancient world.
Akkadian and Sumerian – The earliest known version of the story appears in the Akkadian Atrahasis epic from the mid-second millennium B.C.E. In this story, the god Enlil decides to flood the world to end the noisiness of humanity, which is irritating him. However, the god Enki warns Atrahasis, the protagonist of the story, who builds an ark, and thus saves himself, his family, his workers, and some animals.
A similar story appears in Sumerian about a man name Ziusudra. The Atrahasis story was reworked in tablet X of the Neo-Assyrian Gilgamesh epic, with the protagonist renamed Utnapishtim, and the Ziusudra story was retold in Greek by Berossus (early 3rd cent. B.C.E.) in his Babyloniaca (the Greek version of the name is Xixouthros).
Greco-Roman – Another ancient flood story, similar to the Akkadian versions, is the Greco-Roman story of Deucalion. In this version, Zeus becomes angry and decides to destroy humanity, and Prometheus, who created humans, saves his son Deucalion and his wife Pyrrha by telling them to build an ark. After the flood is over, Deucalion and Pyrrha regenerate humanity by casting “the bones of their mother” (i.e., stones, since earth was their mother) behind them (Ovid, Metamorphoses, 1.395-415). Notably, the son of Deucalion is the discoverer of wine, just like Noah in the biblical account.
The Torah’s Noah Story: Two Versions
The most famous ancient Flood story for modern readers is the Torah’s story of Noah; in fact, this seems to be two stories. The Torah’s account of Noah is filled with doublets (elements of the story that happen twice), contradictions, and a back and forth switching between two different names of God (Elohim and YHWH). Critical scholarship has therefore long assumed that it was compiled from two different stories woven together by a redactor who wished to preserve as much as possible from both versions.
Most scholars attribute one version to the Priestly source (P) and another to a non-Priestly source (J). When the various doublets and contradictions are separated out into two documents, with the usage of God’s name consistent in each, we get two almost complete storylines with different literary styles and different conceptions about God and his relationship to humanity. The existence of this doublet suggests that this story was considered central by at least some ancient scribes. Even so, neither Noah nor the Flood is referenced in the rest of the Bible more than once or twice.
Brief mentions of either the person Noah and/or the Flood appear three times in the Bible outside of Genesis:
1. YHWH Sits Enthroned at the Flood (Ps 29:10)
Psalms 29 is a poetic description of the arrival of YHWH, emphasizing the sounds (קול) that accompany him. The end of the psalm refers to the flood (מבול):
תהלים כט:י יְ-הוָה לַמַּבּוּל יָשָׁב וַיֵּשֶׁב יְ-הוָה מֶלֶךְ לְעוֹלָם.
Ps 29:10 YHWH sat enthroned at the Flood; YHWH sits enthroned, king forever (NJPS)
The phrase is difficult to translate. It is often interpreted as temporal, dating God’s enthronement from the time of the flood, “YHWH has been enthroned since before the Flood.” Nevertheless, the presentation of YHWH earlier in the psalm as a storm God accompanied by sounds of thunder, might suggest a context of a conflict myth, describing YHWH as “sitting over the flood.” This image would imply an anthropomorphism of the waters of the flood as an entity God must subdue, somewhat reminiscent of the description of God imprisoning the sea in Job 38:8-10. If so, this would not be a reference to the Noah story, but to a different, now lost version of the flood myth.
2. Waters of Noah (Isa 54:9)
The passage in Deutero-Isaiah, which serves as the haftara for Parashat Noah, does not use the word flood (מבול), but twice, in the context of God’s promised reconciliation with Israel, speaks of “the waters of Noah” (מי נח):
ישעיה נד:ח בְּשֶׁצֶף קֶצֶף הִסְתַּרְתִּי פָנַי רֶגַע מִמֵּךְ וּבְחֶסֶד עוֹלָם רִחַמְתִּיךְ אָמַר גֹּאֲלֵךְ יְ-הוָה. נד:ט כִּי מֵי נֹחַ זֹאת לִי אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּעְתִּי מֵעֲבֹר מֵי נֹחַ עוֹד עַל הָאָרֶץ כֵּן נִשְׁבַּעְתִּי מִקְּצֹף עָלַיִךְ וּמִגְּעָר בָּךְ.
Isa 54:8 In slight anger, for a moment, I hid My face from you; But with kindness everlasting I will take you back in love — said YHWH your Redeemer. 54:9 For this to Me is like the waters of Noah: As I swore that the waters of Noah nevermore would flood the earth, so I swear that I will not Be angry with you or rebuke you.
This phrase is obscure, and some scholars have emended the text in the first occurrence to “the days of Noah” (כימי נח rather than כי מי נח), or understand נח not as the personal name of the flood hero, but as an adjectival phrase: the waters of rest (possibly with the pun intended, in light of Gen 5:29).
Moreover, while the oath to which Isaiah alludes may bring to mind the covenant with Noah and God’s commitment never to bring a flood again (Gen 9:9-17), the narrative refers to a covenant (ברית) rather than an oath (נשבע). It is possible that Deutero-Isaiah is assuming that this was a sworn covenant. Alternately, this author may have known a slightly different version of the story which included an oath.
3. Noah, Job, and Dan’il: The Three Righteous Men (Ezek 14)
Noah is mentioned in Ezekiel 14:12-20, where he is grouped with Job and Dan’il, as three well-known righteous non-Israelites. In this prophecy, YHWH tells Ezekiel that if he (YHWH) were to decide to destroy a people because of their sins, even if these three righteous people lived among them, they could do no more than save themselves but not the other people:
יחזקאל יד:יד וְהָיוּ שְׁלֹשֶׁת הָאֲנָשִׁים הָאֵלֶּה בְּתוֹכָהּ נֹחַ (דנאל) [דָּנִיאֵל] וְאִיּוֹב הֵמָּה בְצִדְקָתָם יְנַצְּלוּ נַפְשָׁם נְאֻם אֲדֹנָי יְ-הוִה.
Ezek 14:14 Even if these three men, Noah, (Dan’il) [Daniel], and Job, should be in it, they would by their righteousness save only themselves — declares the Lord YHWH.
This text only suggests that Noah was a righteous man like Job and Dan’il (a famous wise man known from the Ugarit epic of Akhat). It is possible that Ezekiel knew stories about Noah other than the ones preserved in the Bible concerning his role in the flood.
But even if all three references above are referring to the story of Noah and the flood, in comparison to the theme of “God took Israel out of Egypt” or “God made a covenant with David,” the story is not a prevalent biblical trope.
Noah in the Second Temple Period and Late Antiquity
The popularity of Noah and the flood story explodes in the Second Temple period, with references to both appear in all types of Second Temple Jewish literature.
Josephus (37-100 C.E.) recounts the flood narrative as part of his retelling of the biblical narrative in Antiquities of the Jews, while Philo (ca. 25 B.C.E.-50 C.E.) uses Noah’s narrative as a point of departure for a host of philosophical inquiries, including two essays on the topic of drunkenness and sobriety, and two on his role as the father of horticulture.
Noah is mentioned in various other books, including in Ben Sira’s renowned Praise of Famous Men (Sir 44:17-18), and in more extensive roles in Jubilees and in the pseudepigraphic books of 1 Enoch and 2 Enoch.
Dead Sea Scrolls – Retellings of biblical narratives such as the Genesis Apocryphon (1Q20 or 1QapGen; ca. 3rd cent. B.C.E. – 1st cent. C.E.) and 1Q19 expand on the story of Noah beyond what is found in Genesis, adding details about his birth and other details. Another fragmentary text, 4Q370, is an admonition based on the Flood. This text retells the biblical account of the flood, weaving in Second Temple traditions (e.g., an emphasis on the destruction of the giants), and other biblical texts, associating the destruction of the Egyptians with the flood, and then concludes with an exhortation to fear God and not to rebel against him. Finally, the Damascus Document cites the Flood as proof of monogamy (CD 5.1). This material indicates a heightened interest in Noah during the Hellenistic period.
Rabbinic Literature – The rabbis have much to say about Noah in the Talmud and midrashic literature. Perhaps most notable is the debate over his righteousness, whether the qualifier “in his generations” (בדורותיו; Gen 6:9) speaks in Noah’s favor or against him (Gen. Rab. 30:9; b. San. 108a). Traditions expanding and dramatizing the flood narrative are spread throughout the literary enterprise of rabbinic writings, not only in midrash but also in the Targum, the piyyut, and the mystical traditions.
Early Christian Texts – We also find mention of Noah and the Flood in the New Testament, where he serves as a model for the End of Days (Matt 24:37-39=Luke 17:26-27) and an exemplar of faith (Heb 11:7). 1 Peter 3:20-21 interprets the Flood as a form of baptism.
The “Hypostasis of the Archons” (meaning, “Reality of the Rulers”) from the Nag Hammadi codices, a gnostic exegetical work interpreting Genesis 1-6, tells a colorful story of Noah’s wife, Norea, “a virgin whom the forces did not defile.” When Norea is not allowed aboard the ark, she burns it with her breath (92).
Major figures of Early Christianity, including Justin Martyr, Origen, and Tertullian offer commentaries on the Flood narrative. Augustine famously sees the ark as a symbol of “the church, which is rescued by the wood” (City of God 15.26).
Qur’an – Noah is mentioned in several passages in the Qur’an, and even has one of the chapters named after him (Surah 71). Noah is fashioned after Muhammad himself, a prophet and herald trying to warn people and save them from destruction to no avail (Q. 7:59-64; 10:71-73; 11:25-40; 26:105-122; 40:5; 54:9-17; 71:1-28). In one of the accounts, the story is expanded with a dramatic dialogue between Noah and a son who refuses to come aboard the ark (11:42-43).
The Uniqueness of Noah
This brief survey is far from exhaustive, and only extends to late antiquity. In the middle ages as in modern times, Noah and the flood continue to captivate the imagination of readers and authors, and even Hollywood producers (most recently, Darren Aronofsky’s Noah staring Russel Crowe, released in 2014). No other biblical text has this reach.
The law of the Goring Ox appears in Hammurabi’s Code and later in the Talmud, but it is of little interest in Early Christian literature, or even in Second Temple Judaism. Paul is intrigued by Abraham, and consequently so are the Church fathers, but no parallel figure appears in ancient Near Eastern texts the way we encounter with Noah.
The uniqueness of Noah, what has made him so appealing to so many readers, may be the result of his being on one hand the father of humanity, since all other humans were destroyed, but on the other hand, a relatable character, since, unlike Adam, he is not divinely created but born to human parents like all of us. Unlike the account of Adam, Eve, and the garden, the Noah story offers a relatable beginning for humanity. Noah is the new Adam, an improved blueprint for all humanity.
Moreover, Noah is at once an admirable savior and a sympathetic survivor. His ability to survive the divine destruction makes him a prototype of l’homme révolté of Camus, defying the unjust chaos of the world.
Noah is Human and Fallible
As part of Noah’s humanity, he is fallible, or at least, is subject to normal human foibles, as is made clear in the story about his drunkenness. Of course, most of the Noah story focuses on his survival of the Flood, and how he saved humanity—and the animal kingdom—from extinction. Nevertheless, the final act of his narrative is his curse of Canaan in response for what “his youngest son” did to him when he was lying naked in his tent in a drunken stupor.
This picture of a fallible human fits with another important element of the story. Even though the story opens with Noah finding grace in God’s eyes, and praise for him being righteous, it ends with God accepting the imperfect nature of humanity.
בראשית ח:כא … וַיֹּאמֶר יְ-הוָה אֶל לִבּוֹ לֹא אֹסִף לְקַלֵּל עוֹד אֶת הָאֲדָמָה בַּעֲבוּר הָאָדָם כִּי יֵצֶר לֵב הָאָדָם רַע מִנְּעֻרָיו וְלֹא אֹסִף עוֹד לְהַכּוֹת אֶת כָּל חַי כַּאֲשֶׁר עָשִׂיתִי.
Gen 8:21 … and YHWH 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.
God decides never to destroy the world again, not because he has found a righteous progenitor that can ensure humanity’s goodness for all time, but because all humans, even the precious Noah, whom He singled out for salvation, are flawed.
Pushback: Noah’s Divine Birth
Some ancient authors, however, were uncomfortable with this all-too human progenitor of the human race—of us. Thus, several sources adopt an other-worldly Noah, by depicting his birth as a miraculous, making him more like the first father of humanity, Adam. For example, the 3rd century B.C.E. apocalyptic work, 1 Enoch, offers the following description:
106:2 And his (Noah’s) body was white like snow and red like a flower of a rose and the hair of his head [was] white like wool… and his eyes [were] beautiful; and when he opened his eyes, he made the whole house bright like the sun so that the whole house was exceptionally bright. 106:3 And when he was taken from the hand of the midwife he opened his mouth and spoke to the Lord of Righteousness.
In addition to this text, the story of Noah’s miraculous birth is preserved in two others from the Second Temple period, the Genesis Apocryphon and 1Q19.
The origin of Noah’s miraculous birth may have been exegetical, as it serves to explain his father’s proclamation upon his birth:
בראשית ה:כט וַיִּקְרָא אֶת שְׁמוֹ נֹחַ לֵאמֹר זֶה יְנַחֲמֵנוּ מִמַּעֲשֵׂנוּ וּמֵעִצְּבוֹן יָדֵינוּ מִן הָאֲדָמָה אֲשֶׁר אֵרְרָהּ יְ-הוָה.
Gen 5:29 And he named him Noah, saying, “This one will provide us relief from our work and from the toil of our hands, out of the very soil which YHWH placed under a curse.”
How would Lamech know this upon birth? Presumably, something was evident immediately upon birth that this son is unique.
At the same time, Lemach’s reaction implies that he saw something special and unique in him, and thus may be an early precursor to the Second Temple period concept of Noah’s miraculous birth. This miraculous-birth story is meant to single him out as something more than just a regular human, to claim that he was not chosen as an adult for his piety, but rather God designated him prior to his birth (cf. Jer 1:5).
Connecting Noah with Enoch
In Genesis Apocryphon (column 2) Lamech reacts to his son’s miraculous appearance as one of the angels, with the fear that he has been cuckolded by one of the “sons of Elohim” or “Watchers” who had been been mating with human women (Gen 6:1-4):
1 הא באדין חש֗ב֗ת֗ ב֗לב֗י די מן עירין ה֗ריאתא ומן קדיֹשין זרעא ולנפיל[ין] 2 ולבי עלי משתני על עולימא דנא…
1 And then I thought to myself, “The Pregnancy is from the Watchers, and the seed is from the Holy Ones and the Nephilim,” 2 and my mind was greatly disturbed on account of the child….
In 1 Enoch, Lemach is also afraid of Noah, and runs to his father Methusaleh with his concern. Methusaleh then contacts his own father, Enoch, who lives in heaven with God. Enoch responds by calming their fears, revealing to them Noah’s role future as the savior of humanity in the upcoming Flood, and giving Noah his name.
By having Enoch name his great-grandson, the narrative intensifies a connection that is already found in the Hebrew Bible: their typological location in the primeval genealogy, seventh and tenth from Adam, signifies Enoch and Noah as the next prominent figures in the narrative.
Although little is told of Enoch in Genesis, the brief account of his life closely associates him with Noah, as the same phrase is applied to both of them (and to them alone): they walked with God (contrast with Abraham in Gen 17:1).
Noah (Gen 6:9)
נֹחַ אִישׁ צַדִּיק תָּמִים הָיָה בְּדֹרֹתָיו אֶת הָאֱלֹהִים הִתְהַלֶּךְ נֹחַ.
Noah was a righteous man; he was blameless in his age; Noah walked with God.
Enoch (Gen 5:24)
וַיִּתְהַלֵּךְ חֲנוֹךְ אֶת הָאֱלֹהִים וְאֵינֶנּוּ כִּי לָקַח אֹתוֹ אֱלֹהִים.
Enoch walked with God; then he was no more, for God took him.
Further links between them are offered in postbiblical literature. Pirqey deRabbi Eliezer (late first millennium C.E.), for example, claims that Enoch transmitted calendric knowledge to Noah, specifically concerning the secrets of intercalation.
Utnapishtim = Enoch (Immortal) + Noah (Flood Survivor)
The Flood hero in the Gilgamesh Epic, Utnapishtim, both survives the flood and gains eternal life from the gods. The Bible, however, seems uncomfortable with the idea of such a figure, and thus, divides these two roles between the “immortal hero” Enoch, and the Flood hero, Noah, who dies (Gen 9:29).
The splitting of the Flood survivor and an immortal into two separate figures in the Torah naturally led some later interpreters to draw them closer to each other or to make them more similar to each other. Thus, the obscure biblical figure of Enoch is developed into an eschatological, almost messianic figure in the apocalyptic writings of the Second Temple, making him into a savior like Noah. At the same time, Noah was adorned with semi-divine attributes himself, as appropriate of a savior, making him more like Enoch.
A More Human Savior
And yet, the Second Temple period treatments of Noah did not win out in Jewish tradition. The rabbis preferred the biblical, all too human, Noah. One reason for this preference can be seen in the central role Noah plays in the blessing of zichronot (“remembrances”) in the Rosh Hashanah liturgy.
וְגַם אֶת נֹֽחַ בְּאַהֲבָה זָכַֽרְתָּ. וַתִּפְקְדֵֽהוּ בִּדְבַר יְשׁוּעָה וְרַחֲמִים בַּהֲבִיאֲךָ אֶת מֵי הַמַּבּוּל לְשַׁחֵת כָּל בָּשָׂר מִפְּנֵי רֹֽעַ מַעַלְלֵיהֶם. עַל כֵּן זִכְרוֹנוֹ בָּא לְפָנֶֽיךָ יְ-הֹוָה אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ לְהַרְבּוֹת זַרְעוֹ כְּעַפְרוֹת תֵּבֵל. וְצֶאֱצָאָיו כְּחוֹל הַיָּם.
And Noah too, You remembered with love, and [therefore] decreed for him a promise of deliverance and compassion, when You brought the flood-waters to destroy all flesh because of the wickedness of their deeds. Therefore, his remembrance came before You, YHWH, our God, to multiply his seed like the dust of the earth, and his descendants as the sand of the sea.
The mention of Noah here is meant to communicate that God should remember his beloved Jewish people the way God once remembered his beloved Noah. If the flawed ancestor of humanity can inspire God to save him, his family, and the human race, the perhaps his flawed descendants can hope for the same.
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Dr. Aryeh Amihay is a lecturer in the Dept of Religious Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he teaches courses on Judaism and Law. He holds a PhD in Religion from Princeton University. He co-edited the volume Noah and His Book(s) (SBL Press, 2010), and authored Theory and Practice in Essene Law (Oxford University Press, 2016).
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