Drash on Parashat Noach
Rabbi Stan Zamek
United Jewish Congregation of Hong Kong
I am not sure that our UPJ mishpacha is aware that Noah’s Ark is docked in Hong Kong. We have everything here, including a gigantic representation of Noah's Ark, artfully and artificially beached on Ma Wan Island. Despite the high production values of its displays and the pleasing wackiness of the Flintstone-like architecture of the grounds, I cannot recommend a visit. I am not a fan of the Hong Kong Ark attraction. Abraham Joshua Heschel warns us that we diminish the Bible through literalness. At Ma Wan Island he is proven correct. A deep, engaging, and instructive story is reduced to a great big (fake) boat.
Our Ark is a creation of the Fundamentalist Christian organisation, Noah's Ark Ministries International (NAMI). NAMI’s other major project is the search for the "real" Noah's Ark. NAMI has spent big money on expeditions to Turkey in pursuit of this goal. In fact, they claim to have found a piece of it. Oy.
What flood story is NAMI seeking to document? The one attested to in Sumerian texts? Babylonian? Akkadian? Should they be looking for Noah's Ark or would they be better off looking for Utnapishtim's ark or Atrahasis' boat? The story of a world destroying flood decreed by the gods (or in our case by God) to destroy humankind, which is survived by a righteous hero who preserves animal life, is the common literary heritage of the Ancient Near East. The few fundamentalists who know the parallel accounts insist that the Genesis story is the real one, but that is a religious claim, not a historical argument.
So which story is a treasure map that will lead to the remains of a giant craft like the one at Ma Wan? The Biblical literalist's answer is clear: Follow Genesis Chapter six and X marks the spot. Our answer is much different. Genesis does not lead us to treasure, it is the treasure. The value of the Noah narrative is not diminished by the fact that there are other ancient stories of flood defying heroes. In fact, we learn a great deal of Torah if we understand how the Biblical authors shaped the apocalyptic flood trope they shared with their Near Eastern neighbors.
The Babylonians and the Israelites both told stories of the deluge, but the reason this devastation was inflicted on the world differ greatly in the two accounts. In the Babylonian Atrahasis Epic, the gods flood the world because human beings are pests:
The land became wide, the people became numerous
The land bellowed like oxen
The god (Enlil) was disturbed by their uproar
Enlil heard their clamor and said to the great gods.
'Oppressive has become the clamor of mankind
By their uproar they prevent sleep.
And so the gods try to kill off humanity, first by drought and then by means of the well known flood.
The God of Israel is disturbed by humanity as well, but not because of the decibel level:
The earth became corrupt before God; the earth was filled with lawlessness. When God saw how corrupt the earth was, for all flesh had corrupted its ways on earth, God said to Noah, “I have decided to put an end to all flesh, for the earth is filled with lawlessness because of them: I am about to destroy them with the earth.
The Israelites’ God is very different than the Babylonian Enlil. Yes, Adonai is capable of anger, but not caprice. The order of the universe is grounded on law and morality. This God does not get petulant and wipe out humanity like a spoiled child overturning a game board. God's relation to the world and to human beings is dependable, it is predictable. The Noah story gives us a first glimpse of the God of Justice.
In his commentary on Genesis, Nahum Sarna identifies the following narrative detail as the most significant difference between the Noah story and the other Ancient Near Eastern Flood stories:
[O]nly Noah, his wife, his three sons, and their wives enter the ark, whereas in the other accounts the builders of the vessel, the boatmen, relatives, friends are passengers with the hero and his family. This means that only in Genesis is the concept of a single family of man possible; indeed it is a major theme.
If we are looking to the Noah story to find treasure, this is it. Here is the truth of the Noah story. It comes to teach us a lesson we forget over and over again — that we are all truly in it together. Humanity is one mishpacha sailing through existence on the same rickety boat.
I suppose if building concrete and faux wood representations of mythic boats actually reinforced this message, I would be all for building as many as possible, but I fear that such dull literalism blunts the radical thrust of Scripture. The people who build these Biblical attractions don’t want my advice, but I will offer it anyway. Forget the boats and stick to The Book until we finally grasp its teaching of the fundamental unity of humankind. This truth, this treasure, has been right in front of our eyes for centuries.