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Parashat Noach - Noah in Jewish Tradition
Marc Chagall

Noah in Jewish Tradition

Further thoughts on Parashat Noach

by John J. Parsons

Despite the fact that Torah plainly describes Noach as אִישׁ צַדִּיק / ish tzaddik: "a righteous man," "blameless in his generation" (תָּמִים הָיָה בְּדרתָיו), and a man who "walked with God" (אֶת־הָאֱלהִים הִתְהַלֶּךְ־נחַ), Jewish tradition takes a somewhat ambiguous view of him, especially when he's compared to Abraham, the father of the Jewish people... In the Midrash Tanchuma (מדרש תנחומא), for example, it is said that Noach was righteous in his generation -- though he would not be so regarded in other generations: "To what might this be compared? If a man places a silver coin among copper coins, then the silver appears attractive. So Noach appeared attractive in the generation of the Flood." In other words, Noach was only relatively righteous compared to others....

According to the sages, unlike Abraham who asked, 'Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked?' (Gen. 18:23), Noach seemed relatively undisturbed by the cataclysmic judgment that was to befall humanity and acted only to save himself. Indeed, Chassidic commentators call Noach tzaddik im pelz - "a righteous man with a fur coat," that is, a man only concerned for his own welfare.  They ask what kind of tzaddik would respond to the cold by covering himself in fur -- rather than making a fire that would warm everyone around him? The ark (תֵּבָה, teivah) functioned as a sort of "City of Refuge," but Noach failed to constrain his neighbors to come within its shelter.  In contrast to Noach's sense of pious resignation, Abraham actively interceded regarding evil (evoking the quality of God's chesed). Abraham argued with God, protesting, remonstrating, etc., on behalf of the world, whereas Noach simply accepted the world as doomed and forthwith sought to look after his own interests....

But what about the statement that Noach that אֶת־הָאֱלהִים הִתְהַלֶּךְ־נחַ / et-ha'Elohim hit-halekh Noach: "with God Noach walked" (Gen. 6:9)? Doesn't this suggest that he was indeed a friend of God (אהֵב אֱלהִים)? Of this statement the Midrash (Genesis Rabbah) says "[it] 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, 'Walk before me.' Likewise to Abraham whose strength was great, he said, 'Because you are wholehearted, walk before Me' (Gen. 17:1), but to Noach, whose strength was small, the Torah says, 'Noach walked with God.'" In other words, Abraham was mature; Noach was like a child.

Jewish tradition might be too hard on Noach, however, since Enoch (חֲנוֹךְ) likewise was said to have "walked with God" -- so much so that he (like Noach) was "translated" from this world to a better world (Gen. 5:24). Rabbinical Judaism might have a different motivation here, not wishing to ascribe any special status to the idea of salvation coming from a non-Jewish patriarch. Indeed, the first occurrence of the word "grace" in the Torah concerns the patriach Noach: נחַ מָצָא חֵן בְּעֵינֵי יהוה / Noach matza chen b'einei Adonai: "Noah found favor (chen) in the eyes of the LORD" (Gen. 6:8).


It's worth mentioning that this exact phrase is used of Moses himself (Exod. 33:12), though the sages do not appear to make any correlation between the two. Moreover, the New Testament calls Noach a "herald of righteousness" (2 Pet. 2:5), impugning the traditional Jewish view that he was passive in the face of worldwide evil... And as I've shown elsewhere on this site, Noach is clearly a picture of the Mashiach Yeshua who "rebirths" the world and gives lasting comfort and rest. Truly Noach's life is a picture of comfort given to those who are trusting in Adonai to save them from tribulation!

Still, in general it may be noted that the Jewish sages regard "grace" as a passive thing (i.e., being found favored) whereas chesed (love) is regarded an active thing (i.e., bringing about favor). It is one thing, after all, to be a recipient of God's love and favor, and it's another to advocate on behalf of those who are void of this favor for their welfare and good. And it's for this reason that Jewish tradition regards Abraham as greater than Noach, despite the fact that Noach is the righteous forebear of Abraham himself. We may begin with grace, but grace itself is a means of expressing God's love, after all.

At any rate, Noach represents the universal faithfulness of God as symbolized by the rainbow. In fact, there is a traditional blessing that is recited in this connection. Whenever we see a rainbow, it is recommended that we say:

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְהוָה אֱלהֵנוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם
זוֹכֵר הַבְּרִית וְנֶאֱמָן בִּבְרִיתוֹ וְקַיָּם בְּמַאֲמָרוֹ

ba·rukh · at·tah · Adonai · E·lo·hei·nu · me·lech · ha·o·lam
zo·kher · ha·brit · ve·ne·e·man · biv·ri·to · ve·kai·yam · be·ma·a·ma·ro

Blessed are You, Lord our God, master of the universe,
who remembers the covenant, is faithful to his promise, and who keeps His word.


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