For years I was extremely critical of Noah. I didn’t like his silent character, his failure to open his mouth, to utter even a single word of protest as God stormed across the world in his murderous, watery rage. Unlike Abraham at Sodom, unlike Moses facing the sin of the Golden Calf. I had always thought that the essence of scripture was in its words; I never noticed that there is a scripture of words and a scripture of deeds, and that they are not necessarily the same thing.
I interpreted Noah’s silence as impotence, and when the commentaries and the Midrash derided him and mocked his name, I happily joined in. “These are the generations of Noah. Noah was in his generations a man righteous and wholehearted” (Gen. 6:9). Here’s what Rashi has to say: “Some among our rabbis interpret ‘righteous in his generations’ as praise, and conclude that if he had lived in an age of righteous men, he would have been even more righteous. Others interpret it as criticism, saying that by his own generation’s standards he was righteous, but if he had lived during the generation of Abraham he would not have been considered at all.” The compliment is not really a compliment, and the criticism is harsh and piercing.
Today I think of Noah altogether differently.
These critical positions place Noah on an artificial human plane. This is not where he belongs. They compare him – unflatteringly – to Abraham, Moses, and Samuel. Those figures spoke with God, spoke for God, fought with him, complemented him. They are the heroes of the verbal Bible, partners in conversation with the One who “spoke and the world came into being.” Compared to them, Noah would indeed “not have been considered at all.”
But that is not his place. In the biblical story, Noah is neither a lawgiver nor a prophetic voice. Noah belongs among the people who build and do, not those who think and speak. Noah is a pioneer, not an intellectual, a manual laborer rather than a noted philosopher. When they needed a little ark, a mere shoebox that could float a bit on the Nile, Moses’s mother was handy enough to do the job – and what a tale they made of it. But when they needed to save the human race and every species of animal and vegetation, and required practical skills and manual dexterity, they brought Noah into the story and did not begrudge him. He was good at big arks, rescue missions, and practical details, not at creating theories and revealing truths. Compared to this side of Noah, “they” wouldn’t be considered at all. Whom did they save? Not even a single righteous person in Sodom.What, then, was Noah’s mission? Did he bear up successfully, at least partially? Or was his failure as resounding as those sneering commentators say? Noah was a direct descendant of Adam, his children, and their adventures. Adam was given specific tasks in the Garden of Eden. His tasks were all connected to nature, to creation, to the whole of creation, to the land and its labors. “God said, ‘Behold, I have given you every herb yielding seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed – to you it shall be for food’” (Gen. 1:29).
Or: The Lord God took the man, and put him into the Garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat.” (Gen. 2:15–16)
Or: And unto Adam he said: “Because thou hast hearkened unto the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree, of which I commanded thee, saying: thou shalt not eat of it; cursed is the ground for thy sake; in toil shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life. Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field. In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it was thou taken; for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” (Gen. 3:17–19)
Cain was the paradigmatic heir and successor of Adam, the earth’s first farmer. And that is how he is defined: “Cain was a tiller of the ground” (Gen. 4:2). That is how he expressed his devotion and faith: “And in process of time it came to pass, that Cain brought the fruit of the ground an offering unto the Lord” (Gen. 4:3). That is how God relates to him; the context and associations of the conversation about Cain’s action play on the etymological connection between the Hebrew words for man (adam), blood (dam), and ground (adamah):
The voice of thy brother’s blood crieth unto me from the ground. And now cursed are thou from the ground, which hath opened her mouth to receive thy brother’s blood from thy hand. When thou tillest the ground, it shall not henceforth yield unto thee its strength; a fugitive and a wanderer shalt thou be in the earth. (Gen. 4:10–12)
And the penitent wails: Behold, thou has driven me out this day from the face of the land; and from thy face shall I be hid; and I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer in the earth; and it will come to pass, that whosoever findeth me will slay me.’” (Gen. 4:14) So much soil and earth that it is impossible to understand the Bible’s description of Noah except as a continuation of that same conversation among farmers who love their earth. After he left the ark and was saved, Noah did an interesting thing: “Noah the husbandman began, and planted a vineyard.” (Gen. 9:20): This was not Noah the seaman, not the savior of mankind nor the righteous man of earlier in the tale. This was a man of the soil, a husband to the soil as if wedded to the soil. He husbanded the earth and the earth was his bride. Their relationship was intimate to the point of fertilization and pregnancy. Noah the successor to Jubal and Tubal, Noah the inventor of modern agriculture – until then, man had been a gatherer of fruits and vegetables. But Noah was not satisfied with merely gathering ripe fruit from the tree. Noah was an agronomist. He planted, grew, harvested and preserved. Noah was the first vintner and epicure, the creator of wine from the fruit of the vine.
God cursed Adam, “Cursed is the ground for thy sake” (Gen. 3:17). And hence the expectations of Noah: “This same shall comfort us in our work and in the toil of our hands” (Gen. 5:29). After years of the curse of inefficient and unproductive tilling of the earth, Noah came and was expected to be a man of the soil. And this is what he did. He wedded himself to the soil and from it he birthed the foods that saved the human race. Thus the midrashic tale attests: “The tiller of the soil became husband of the soil” (Buber, Midrash Agada, on Gen. 9:20). Nor was Noah merely a good husband to the earth; he was also a good father to her produce. Noah saved the first creation that came before the Flood by means of the ark, and he developed the new creation that followed the flood. Therefore it is said of him that he “was in his generations a righteous man and whole-hearted” (Gen. 6:9). He was of two generations – one before the flood and one afterward – and in both he fulfilled a great task. He redeemed the human race from the earth-curse of Adam, and comforted us in the sorrow and grief caused by the actions of those who came before him.
The rabbis of the Mishnah used to say that if there is no flour, there can be no Torah – that is, learning and culture cannot survive without the basic essentials of life. By this measure, Noah was the flour; only in his wake could Abraham come with his Torah, his message of revealed truth.