Why Was Noah Silent at the End of the World?
NOAH'S ARK IS a strange children’s story. We decorate nurseries and bedrooms with animals marching two-by-two. The images festoon baby items and fill the pages of countless children’s books. I’ve sat on the floors of many church nurseries playing with babies and Noah’s ark toys and questioned its appropriateness. I’ve thought about Noah and his family closing the door and being sealed inside. I’ve thought about them hearing the sound of rain and the people banging desperately on those closed doors. I’ve thought about the cries and the banging becoming quieter and quieter, about the gut-wrenching silence as the voices were swallowed by the sound of rain.
In a recent essay on her blog, Life is a Sacred Text, Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg notes that while the Bible calls Noah a “righteous man, blameless in his generation” (Genesis 6:9), the Zohar, a Kabbalistic text that first appeared in 13th century Spain, doesn’t see him so favorably. The author ties him not to the survival of the animals but to the deaths of everyone else. “Noah did not plea for mercy on behalf of the world, and they all perished, because the Holy One ... had told him that he and his children would be saved by the ark” (Zohar 1:67b). Noah’s complicity in the people’s deaths is so bad that, in Isaiah, the floodwaters are named after him: “For this is as the waters of Noah to me; as I have sworn that the waters of Noah should no more go over the earth” (Isaiah 54:9, emphasis mine).
I’ve wondered if this story that celebrates obedience immunizes us to the suffering of others—if it teaches us to see suffering as proof of God’s judgment. Just following orders is no excuse. Neither is thinking you are chosen. Was Noah just following orders? Why was there no haggling to look for a few righteous inhabitants of the Earth? Why was Noah silent before God at the end of the world?
Trusting God enough to argue
WHEN FACED WITH the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham argued with God. Will you kill the righteous with the wicked? Will you really kill them even if there are only 50 righteous people? 45? 40? 30? 20? 10? And God agreed: If there were 10 righteous people, God would not destroy the city (Genesis 18:22-33). Unfortunately for Sodom, there were not even 10. God destroyed the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, but not for Abraham’s lack of trying to stop it.
When faced with the destruction of the Israelites, Moses, too, argued with God. When he lingered too long on Mount Sinai (Exodus 32:4), the people got impatient. They formed for themselves a golden calf, sacrificing burnt offerings to it. God threatened to destroy them in anger, but Moses pushed back. He didn’t argue that the people were innocent—their betrayal of God was clear. Instead, Moses pointed to God’s promise to the people to be inheritors of the land. He appealed to God’s trustworthiness.
But when presented with the people’s coming destruction, Noah was silent. He built his ark and put up with the nonsense of those around him who thought he was being foolish. Then he packed up his family, inventoried the animals, and let God seal him in. Did he do all that he could?
My people, the Anishinaabe, have a similar story. The people have not been behaving well. They are greedy and selfish and hurting each other. Their lives are badly out of balance and this imbalance is getting close to causing irreparable harm to the Earth itself. So Creator, the Great Mystery, decides to start over. Eagle asks for time, time to find someone, anyone, who is living in a good way. Creator agrees to wait, and day after day Eagle flies, until finally she finds a family: One family who is praying. She carries word of this family back to Creator, her feathers falling to the earth because she has worn herself out so badly. Creator relents and the world is spared—all because Eagle risked arguing with Creator.
The Israelites were spared because Moses risked arguing with God. But most of us church people don’t argue with God. We don’t argue with our theology. We don’t argue with our teachers. Not for the sake of others, at least. We’ll argue because the pews are too hard or too soft or because we didn’t like the worship songs. We’ll argue over any number of things that inconvenience us, but we don’t argue about the things that convenience us. The Western church is too convinced of its status—of its chosenness—and so, like Noah, it preaches to the lost but does not argue about the pending judgment. In fact, I dare say that there is a certain frisson of excitement about that judgment, about being on the inside of that door when it finally slams shut, knowing that if people are outside, it’s their own fault.