Noah’s Art of Aftermath

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An illustration of Noah's ark. PD-US.

Our usual version of Noah and the ark is palatable, even alluring: adorable pictures of a man and his wife, secure in a boat, endearing animals surrounding them, all in neat pairs.

Consider what is not in this lovely scene.

Life on earth is being destroyed. That is why Noah is in his ark with all those charming creatures. The brutality of God being able to change God's mind (Genesis 6:6) is the obverse of the mercy with which God created humans and endowed them with free will.  Quite a chilling thought for both adults and children, especially when one recalls these are the last verses in the first Torah portion of Bereishit—the “beginning.” Creation ends in destruction, according to the traditional division of the text.

How can the witnesses to this destruction live in the aftermath of annihilation? That’s the question of this second Torah portion.

Noah retreats as far as he can into a world before the flood. He plants a vineyard and drinks its wine. He goes into his tent and becomes naked (Genesis 9:20-21). Noah’s son sees him naked, and though it is unclear what transpired, this glance seems to be part of an incestuous act. In seeing the naked father, there is a threat of penetration by the son.

Noah’s withdrawal from the world seems to call on his sons to go inside themselves—by viewing their father’s sexual organs, the part of him that generated them.

A retreat into the past is one reaction to trauma. Instead of using one’s sexuality to generate new families and dynasties, incest is an attempt to have a repetition of the past.  The daughters of Lot, after witnessing what they believe to be the destruction of the entire world (in a misreading of God’s covenant with Noah), go with their father to a cave outside Zoar. There they get their father drunk and commit incest with him, resulting in the births of their sons Moab and Ammon (Genesis 19:30-38).

The elements of drunkenness, cave/tent, and incest are shared between the stories of Noah and Lot. The stories differ in the father’s response. Lot’s daughters are the ones who name their sons; Lot is not heard from, even to mention that he is silent. Initially silent in this tale, Noah does not remain that way. In Genesis 9: 25-27, he blesses and curses his sons in response to their behavior:

“‘Cursed be Canaan, the lowest of slaves shall he be to his brothers.’ And he said, ‘Blessed be the Lord, the God of Shem; let Canaan be a slave to them. May God enlarge Japhet, and let him dwell in the tents of Shem, and let Canaan be a slave to them.’”

Noah is using his verbal acuity to proclaim his pronouncements and understanding of the world. Rabbinic understanding of these verses says the “enlargement of Japhet” comes from the Greek translation of the Bible. It seems fitting that Noah’s enlargement into speech from silence enables a further expansion of the teachings of the Torah. Translation is the capacity to transfer ideas and values from one setting to another. In Noah’s translation of silence into words, he makes possible other transfers and transitions, from one culture and language into another. 

There is a measure of the redemptive in Noah’s artfulness and use of language to remake the world. He is the first parent to bless a child. He goes from an attempt to retreat naked into the womb, by drinking and crawling into his tent, to a person who can describe his vision of the world, and of his children’s futures. From the ruins of the traumatic destruction of the past, Noah uses language to create a future. Despite the permanence of the human inclination to evil (Genesis 8:21) after the flood, there remains a possibility for the artfulness that allows us to widen the world.

We are given Noah’s age at the beginning of the story of the flood (Genesis 7:6), and then we are told at the end of the portion, “Noah lived after the flood three hundred and fifty years. And all the days of Noah were nine hundred and fifty years, and he died.” (Genesis 9:28-29)

These verses tell us of the indelible nature of consciousness after a trauma. Nothing is the same. Life is divided into before and after, antediluvian and postdiluvian. Noah’s first impulse is a retreat into the self and into silence. It is only after his son views him at the tent door that Noah moves back into the world, using his experience to utter blessings and imprecate curses that powerfully and humanly articulate his vision of the world.

Perhaps in a world 10 years after 9/11, we can only have hope of being able to piece the fragmented world together with the techniques of art, whether it be poetic, visual or musical. For us and for Noah, nothing will ever be the same.

Beth Kissileff lives in Pittsburgh and has taught Hebrew Bible and Jewish studies at Carleton College, the University of Minnesota, Smith College and Mount Holyoke College and for the Florence Melton Adult Mini School in three states. She is the editor of a forthcoming anthology of academic writing on Genesis, and is at work on a novel and a scholarly book of essays on the Bible.   

Posted on October 24, 2011 and filed under Torah Commentary.