Noah’s Original Identity: The First Winemaker
Noah is best known as the man whom God saved from the flood by telling him to build an ark. Academics would point to the fact that in the ancient Near East, flood stories were common, and just as the Sumerians had Ziusudra and the Assyrians had Utnapishtim or Atrahasis, the Israelites had Noah.
Nevertheless, I would like to suggest that Noah existed as a character that was independent of his association with the flood. The original place of Noah in Israelite historiography still appears in the Torah, if only partially, but it is strongly deemphasized by his (later) position as the hero of the Israelite flood story.
How did Noah Comfort us from the Toil of the Land?
After Noah is born, Lamech, his father, names him and gives an etymological explanation:
ה:כח וַֽיְחִי לֶ֕מֶךְ שְׁתַּ֧יִם וּשְׁמֹנִ֛ים שָׁנָ֖ה וּמְאַ֣ת שָׁנָ֑ה וַיּ֖וֹלֶד בֵּֽן:
5:28 When Lamech had lived 182 years, he begot a son.
ה:כט וַיִּקְרָ֧א אֶת שְׁמ֛וֹ נֹ֖חַ לֵאמֹ֑ר זֶ֠֞ה יְנַחֲמֵ֤נוּ מִֽמַּעֲשֵׂ֙נוּ֙ וּמֵעִצְּב֣וֹן יָדֵ֔ינוּ מִן הָ֣אֲדָמָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר אֵֽרְרָ֖הּ יְ־הֹוָֽה:
5:29 And he called 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.”
Lamech believed or hoped that Noah’s birth would comfort them from the toil of working the land. But Noah doesn’t ever seem to deliver on this hope in the biblical narrative. Chazal note this and, to solve the problem, they give Noah credit for the invention of the plow (Gen. Rab.25:2).
Arnold Ehrlich (1848-1919) offers a different solution. Noah is the discoverer of wine:
ט:כ וַיָּ֥חֶל נֹ֖חַ אִ֣ישׁ הָֽאֲדָמָ֑ה וַיִּטַּ֖ע כָּֽרֶם:
9:20 Noah, a man of the soil, was the first to plant a vineyard.
ט:כא וַיֵּ֥שְׁתְּ מִן הַיַּ֖יִן וַיִּשְׁכָּ֑ר…
9:21 He drank of the wine and became drunk…
Noting this, Ehrlich writes the following:
…הנה העמלים אין מנוחתם מנוחה עד שישכחו עמלם. ואין שכחה לעמל כיין, כמו שנאמר, "ישתה וישכח רישו ועמלו לא יזכור עוד" (משלי לא:ז). והוא טעם קדוש על היין בשבת ויום טוב, לפי שהשותה יין שוכח עמלו ומנוחתו מנוחה… ונח הוא הראשון שנטע כרם, ולפיכך דרש הכתוב שמו על שם פרי הגפן מטע ידיו, לאמר: זה ינחמנו ממעשינו ויתן לנו מנוחה שאין עמה זכרון לעצבון ידינו.
… Now the rest workers have is not really rest unless they can forget their toils. And there is no way to forget one’s toils better than with wine, as it says (Prov 31:7), “Let them drink and forget their poverty, and put their troubles out of mind.” And this is the reason for making Kiddush on wine on Shabbat and Yom Tov, since when a person drinks wine he forgets his toils and his rest is rest… Noah was the first person to plant a vineyard. Therefore, scripture offers a midrash on his name based upon the fruit of the vine, which was (first) planted by his own hands, saying: This one will provide us relief from our work, and give us a rest that brings with it no memory of the toil of our hands.
In Ehrlich’s reading, Lamech’s hope that his son will bring him comfort from toil is fulfilled by Noah’s discovery of wine.
Samuel Löwenstamm, commenting on the naming of Noah in his אנציקלופדיה מקראית (Encyclopaedia Biblica) entry for נח (“Noah,” 5.799-800) makes the same observation:
אמירה זו מבשרת מיתון הקללה שבבר’ ג, יז-יט. כשם שקללה זו אין לה עניין אצל מעשה המבול, אף בשורת מיתונה כך… המלים: זה ינחמנו וגו’ רומזות למעשה של נח, ושמא נטיעת הכרם הוא. עד ימיו של נח לא נתנה האדמה לבני אדם אלא את עשב השדה שאכלוהו בעצבון, אבל נח עתיד היה לנטוע כרם ולהביא לעולם את היין המשמח לב אנוש ומנחם אותו על עוניו לאחר גירושו מגן עדן.
This statement announces a softening of the curse in Gen 3:17-19. Just as this curse has no connection to the flood, so too does its softening bear no connection [to the flood]… The words, “this one will comfort us…” allude to some action of Noah, perhaps the planting of the vineyard. Until the days of Noah, the land was not producing anything but grain for humanity, which they ate with toil. But Noah was fated to plant a vineyard and bring to the world wine, which gladdens people’s hearts, and comforts them for the suffering they experience after their banishment from the garden of Eden.
Reading the accounts of the naming of Noah and his discovery of wine together, we end up with a self-contained Noah story which has nothing to do with a flood. Instead, it connects to a very different theme in the Torah to which Löwenstamm points, the cursing of the land.
The Cursing of the Land: An Early Theme in Genesis
The theme of the land being cursed comes up two times in the Torah before the naming of Noah.
Cursing of Adam (Gen. 3:17)
אֲרוּרָ֤ה הָֽאֲדָמָה֙ בַּֽעֲבוּרֶ֔ךָ בְּעִצָּבוֹן֙ תֹּֽאכֲלֶ֔נָּה כֹּ֖ל יְמֵ֥י חַיֶּֽיךָ:
Cursed be the ground because of you; by toil shall you eat of it all the days of your life.
Cursing of Cain (Gen 4:11)
אָר֣וּר אָ֑תָּה מִן הָֽאֲדָמָה֙…
Cursed are you from [making use of] the ground…
Naming of Noah (Gen 5:29)
זֶ֠֞ה יְנַחֲמֵ֤נוּ מִֽמַּעֲשֵׂ֙נוּ֙ וּמֵעִצְּב֣וֹן יָדֵ֔ינוּ מִן הָ֣אֲדָמָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר אֵֽרְרָ֖הּ יְ־הֹוָֽה:
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.
Going back to the time of the first human, the ground has been cursed. Men are forced to toil to make their bread. Noah’s father is not expecting this to change, since it is the permanent condition of man after eating from the fruit of the forbidden tree, but he does hope that the birth of his son will comfort him from all his toil (עצבון). “He prophesied but did not know what he prophesied (ניבא ולא ידע מה ניבא).” His son ends up discovering wine, a substance with the power to comfort.
Noah’s Direct Connection to the Cain Story
Noah’s direct connection to the cursing of the ground would be self-evident if it weren’t for the intervening material, and by this I don’t only mean the flood story but also the account of the ten antediluvian generations in chapter 5.
Any careful reader of the stories of Adam and Eve (chs. 2-3), Cain’s murder of Abel, and the account of Cain’s descendants (ch. 4) will note the style of narrative differs significantly from the schematic structure of the ten antediluvian generations from Adam to Noah (ch. 5).
Why Chapters 4 and 5 are Different
Scholars further note how the stories in chapters 2:4-4 make use of Yhwh for God’s name and picture an anthropomorphic deity that interacts face to face with humanity. Thus, this section has been identified as the J text, which begins with its own creation story in chapter 2 and continues from there.
In contrast, chapter 5 begins its description of the ten antediluvian generations with a brief description of the creation of humanity that matches that of chapter 1:
Creation (ch. 1)
א:כז וַיִּבְרָ֨א אֱלֹהִ֤ים׀ אֶת הָֽאָדָם֙ בְּצַלְמ֔וֹ בְּצֶ֥לֶם אֱלֹהִ֖ים בָּרָ֣א אֹת֑וֹ זָכָ֥ר וּנְקֵבָ֖ה בָּרָ֥א אֹתָֽם:
1:27 And God created man in His image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.
א:כח וַיְבָ֣רֶךְ אֹתָם֘ אֱלֹהִים֒…
1:28 God blessed them…
Antediluvian Generations (ch. 5)
ה:א …בְּי֗וֹם בְּרֹ֤א אֱלֹהִים֙ אָדָ֔ם בִּדְמ֥וּת אֱלֹהִ֖ים עָשָׂ֥ה אֹתֽוֹ:
5:1 When God created man, He made him in the likeness of God;
ה:ב זָכָ֥ר וּנְקֵבָ֖ה בְּרָאָ֑ם וַיְבָ֣רֶךְ אֹתָ֗ם…
5:2 male and female He created them. And He blessed them…
The two passages share common language and style.
- Creating humans in God’s image (צלם אלהים/דמות אלהים)
- Male and Female (זכר ונקבה)
- God’s name as אלהים
- The root ב-ר-א
- God blesses them
For these reasons and the unique literary style that focuses on the exact years of life for each character, chapter 5 can be identified as a P text. The text has each father name his firstborn son, with no explanation of the name or embellishment, except when it comes to Noah.
The Verse of Noah’ Birth
The Noah verse (5:29) stands out as different from the rest of the chapter in a number of respects:
- This is the only name explained in this chapter. (In the J texts in chapter 4, a number of names are explained, including that of Seth.)
- No other name is introduced with “and he called him.” Instead, they all simply say “he begot XXX.” (In the J texts in chapter 4, both Seth and Enosh are introduced with a phrase with the root ק-ר-א, “called.”)
- The name of God here is Yhwh. (Compare to verses 1&24.)
- The theme of the cursed land (Adam and Cain) is from J.
- The term “toil (עצבון)” is used in the curse of Adam (and Eve).
For these reasons, many scholars believe that this verse comes from J and that the original ending of verse 28 was simply “and he begot Noah,” with no further explanation. When the two texts J (ch. 4) and P (ch. 5) were combined, the redactor cut the J genealogies in favor of P’s. (Note that the birth of Enosh and Seth appears in each source and that no extant J text connects Noah to any of the characters in chapter 4.) Nevertheless, having cut the J genealogy, the redactor decided to keep the J verse explaining Noah’s name and add it into the P text.
Introducing Noah: The Man of the Soil
We return now to the discovery of wine story. When read together with the flood story, the opening seems problematic:
ט:כ וַיָּ֥חֶל נֹ֖חַ אִ֣ישׁ הָֽאֲדָמָ֑ה וַיִּטַּ֖ע כָּֽרֶם:
9:20 Noah, a man of the soil, was the first to plant a vineyard.
Does the Torah need to introduce Noah at this point? And what kind of an introduction is this? Noah is not “the man of the soil” but the survivor of the flood and the progenitor of humanity. To be clear, the Torah is not saying that Noah, now that the flood is over, became a tiller of the soil. It says that Noah, who is (and always has been) a tiller of the soil, now began to plant a vineyard. The vineyard is the new element; the tiller of the soil is introduced as background.
Reading this as part of independent storyline, however, the story flows much better. Noah is first introduced upon his naming, with the hope that he will comfort his father (not necessarily Lemach, Noah’s father in P) from his toiling on the cursed ground. In the next episode, Noah the adult is introduced as “the tiller of the soil,” and the story unfolds.
This set up is very much like that of Cain and Abel, in which the protagonists are named, then they are introduced as adults with their occupations (shepherd and farmer), then the action begins.
ד:א וְהָ֣אָדָ֔ם יָדַ֖ע אֶת חַוָּ֣ה אִשְׁתּ֑וֹ וַתַּ֙הַר֙ וַתֵּ֣לֶד אֶת קַ֔יִן וַתֹּ֕אמֶר קָנִ֥יתִי אִ֖ישׁ אֶת יְ־הֹוָֽה:
4:1 Now the man knew his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain, and she said, “I have created a male child with the help of Yhwh.”
ד:ב וַתֹּ֣סֶף לָלֶ֔דֶת אֶת אָחִ֖יו אֶת הָ֑בֶל וַֽיְהִי הֶ֙בֶל֙ רֹ֣עֵה צֹ֔אן וְקַ֕יִן הָיָ֖ה עֹבֵ֥ד אֲדָמָֽה:
4:2 She then bore his brother Abel. Abel became a keeper of sheep, and Cain became a tiller of the soil.
ד:ג וַֽיְהִ֖י מִקֵּ֣ץ יָמִ֑ים…
4:3 In the course of time…
There are thematic parallels between the Adam, Cain, and Noah stories as well. Not only are all three protagonists tillers of the soil, but all three stories end with sin. Another thematic parallel between these early stories is between Noah and the descendants of Cain; they are stories about the invention of some now common human practice:
ד:כ וַתֵּ֥לֶד עָדָ֖ה אֶת יָבָ֑ל ה֣וּא הָיָ֔ה אֲבִ֕י יֹשֵׁ֥ב אֹ֖הֶל וּמִקְנֶֽה:
4:20 Adah bore Yabal; he was the ancestor of those who dwell in tents and amidst herds.
ד:כא וְשֵׁ֥ם אָחִ֖יו יוּבָ֑ל ה֣וּא הָיָ֔ה אֲבִ֕י כָּל תֹּפֵ֥שׂ כִּנּ֖וֹר וְעוּגָֽב:
4:21 And the name of his brother was Yubal; he was the ancestor of all who play the lyre and the pipe.
ד:כבוְצִלָּ֣ה גַם הִ֗וא יָֽלְדָה֙ אֶת תּ֣וּבַל קַ֔יִן לֹטֵ֕שׁ כָּל חֹרֵ֥שׁ נְחֹ֖שֶׁת וּבַרְזֶ֑ל…
4:22 As for Zillah, she bore Tubal-cain, who forged all implements of copper and iron.
I suggest that Noah, together with Yabal, Yubal, and Tubal-Cain, had his beginning in Israelite historiography as part of a list of ancient inventors similar to the much longer list preserved in the work of Philo of Byblos. In Noah’s case, he was known as the first planter of vineyards and the discoverer of wine. This is how Samuel Löwenstamm makes this connection:
משמע שהוא הראשון שהנהיג את שתיית היין. נח מצטרף אפוא לקבוצת המחדשים הקדמונים שהניחו את יסודותיה של התרבות האנושית, ושרמזים עליה נשתמרו בבראשית פרק ד…
This sounds as if he was the first person to bring about the practice of drinking wine. Noah, therefore, joins the group of ancient inventers, who were the first to lay the foundations for human culture, and whose stories are alluded to in chapter Genesis 4…
The Contours of the Older (Pre-Flood) Noah Story
Born to a descendant of Adam, who toils in the field like all men and hopes that having a son will bring him some amount of comfort, Noah is the first to plant a vine and to discover how to ferment the grapes on the vine and produce wine. This leads to his (predictable) downfall. Although wine does comfort the troubled soul, too much of it leads to drunkenness, as the Torah will emphasize again in the story of Lot (Gen 19, also J). Noah drinks until intoxicated and rolls around naked in a drunken stupor.
The story ends with one of his sons gazing upon him and telling his brother. Upon awakening, Noah curses this son to be a slave to his brothers for all time. If anything, this reads like a cautionary tale about alcohol, “The Fall of the First Winemaker – Don’t let this happen to you.” Noah drinks too much, becomes intoxicated, and squanders his opportunity for greatness. Thus, before Noah was the survivor of the flood, he was the discoverer of wine. This may be his original place in Israelite historiography.
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Dr. Rabbi Zev Farber is the Senior Editor of TheTorah.com, and a Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute's Kogod Center. He holds a Ph.D. from Emory University in Jewish Religious Cultures and Hebrew Bible, an M.A. from Hebrew University in Jewish History (biblical period), as well as ordination (yoreh yoreh) and advanced ordination (yadin yadin) from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) Rabbinical School. He is the author of Images of Joshua in the Bible and their Reception (De Gruyter 2016) and editor (with Jacob L. Wright) of Archaeology and History of Eighth Century Judah (SBL 2018).
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