In the previous installment in this series on the Great Flood in the literary tradition, we saw that the Biblical flood story, unlike its analogs in pagan literature, puts the emphasis on the God who saves, rather than on the man who is saved. The survival of Moses and his family is part of a pattern that marks the relations of God and Man. We’ll come back to that later, because it’s very important, but today I want to take a closer look at the man who gets saved from the divine destruction that wipes out the rest of humankind.
Let us recall that all three ancient writers were interpreting the same events, trying to probe the same mystery to answer the question: Why? Why would God (the gods) cause or allow such a cataclysmic event as a worldwide flood? And why would He (they) save one particular man while allowing everyone and everything else to perish?
The answer to the first question in all three cases is similar: God (the gods) was displeased with the way mankind had turned out, and thought it better to wipe the slate clean rather than to allow things to go on as they had. Thus the deluge.
WHY THIS MAN?
In the answer to the second question, however, we see more clearly how the perspectives and the intentions of the three writers differ. The Mesopotamian poet who composed the Epic of Gilgamesh lived in an age when the power of kings made them seem different from ordinary men, almost like gods, imagined that the man who was saved must have been a powerful king, like Gilgamesh himself. Why else would any god even have noticed him, much less cared enough about him to save him? So Utnapishtim, a godlike king, is given the means to save himself and those of his household, thanks to a divine tip-off. Yet the council of the gods as a whole are displeased with his survival and he is “rewarded” by being forced into a godlike, unending exile far from the new human race that re-peoples the earth. It is almost as if the gods have said to him, “Ha! Think you’re special? Think you can fool us, as if you were one of us? Let’s seem how you like living in godlike isolation from mere mortals.” And, as we know, he did not like it much at all. The blessing seemed more like a curse, and this was what he tried to convey to Gilgamesh in his own pursuit of godlike immortality.
Ovid wrote in a very different age, for a very different audience. He and his readers were jaded sophisticates who probably had little literal belief in the Graeco-Roman pantheon of gods. Ovid himself had been the victim of imperial displeasure and showed little respect for a human ruler who grasped at divinity (as Caesar Augustus was suspected of doing). In his poem, the gods are capricious, often monstrous, in their dealings with mere mortals, particularly in the decision of Jupiter to erase mankind and all living things from the face of the earth. Still, he knew that someone survived, two individuals whom his own mythic tradition identified as Deukalion and Pyrrha. The fund of myth upon which Ovid drew his story material made it clear that these two were no “mere” mortals, they were demigods, each the offspring of a divine father (the Titans Prometheus and Epimetheus). This, however, did not make them un-killable. They barely survived in their little, unprovisioned boat, and only fate preserved them long enough to be stranded on a mountaintop as the flood waters finally recede. In Ovid’s account, no divine hand saves them, but only dumb luck. They survived because they were tough old birds. How fitting, then, that they restored the human race from stones, so that their posterity would be tough like them to survive the vicissitudes of gods and kings.
What about Noah, then? An ordinary man, neither king nor hero, distinguished only by virtue of being a “righteous” man, who didn’t engage in the excesses and depravities of other men. A family man, with three married sons whom he must have raised also to be righteous men. Certainly they were obedient and respectful of their father and cooperated fully with his project to build the huge vessel that we know as the Ark. What does it mean to say that Noah was “righteous”? If we confine our interpretation to the immediate context of the flood story in Genesis, we can see the meaning of this term most clearly if we notice what a righteous man is not, what he does not do. He is not licentious; he is not a murderer; he does not engage in what the Revised Standard Version of Genesis calls “the wickedness of mankind.” In other words, Noah is a moral man, a decent chap who behaves as the Lord God intends mankind to behave. He is a good apple, whom God plucks out of a barrel full of rotten apples.
Noah was not outstanding as the world measures such things — not a king nor a demigod — but this story is not being told from a human perspective. As we saw last time, even Joe Blow, our naive reader, could see that Genesis is all about how God views mankind, how He works patiently to remold the human race into some pleasing to Him. As often as human beings deviate from His plan for them (and they’ve done that from the get-go), he provides a course correction for those who are willing to follow his instructions. Noah, clearly, is one of these. When God says, “Build a gigantic ship and fill it with samples of every living thing,” Noah doesn’t say, “How can I possibly?” Or “What’s in it for me?” Instead, he simply does “all that the Lord commanded Him” (without “improving” on the divine instructions, as Utnapishtim did). Noah alone, of all his generation, obeys the commands of the Lord, and this is what saves him. Not fame, not worldly power or wealth, not divine parentage, but simple obedience to the Lord who made him. He is not godlike, but he is godly.
These simple acts of obedience bear an enormous benefit, not only for the man Noah, but for all living things. Through the obedience of this one man, all of human posterity and every living thing upon the earth is given a fresh, new chance. The slate, truly, has been wiped clean. When the flood waters subside and God instructs Noah to venture out onto dry land, He says to him, as he had said to Adam and Eve, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth.” But He goes farther this time, telling Noah:
“Behold, I establish my covenant with you and your descendants after you, 10 and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the cattle, and every beast of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” (Genesis 9:9-11, RSV-CE)
And he leaves the sign of the rainbow as a reminder of this unbreakable promise.
NO ONE IS PERFECT BUT GOD ALONE
Immediately after this, Genesis shows us that human nature may have been given a fresh chance, but it has not been changed. Man can still go astray. Noah, the righteous man, is far from perfect. Now lording it over the earth as the patriarch of the renewed human race and, as the first “tiller of the soil,” celebrating the ability to grow his own food rather than living off of what God provides, Noah literally becomes intoxicated with power, overindulging in the fruit of the vine his hand has planted and falling down drunk — and naked.
Really? This man was the best of all mankind, the only one worth saving? How quickly he has fallen from the heights of virtue. Even worse, he seems to think himself now godlike rather than godly, for when his sons cover his nakedness to shield him from shame, Noah rouses from his drunkenness long enough to curse one and bless the other, a godlike prerogative hitherto unclaimed by the humbler, antediluvian Noah.
Not so godlike, perhaps, because the true God remembers his covenant and does not punish Noah or his posterity. Noah lives on for three hundred and fifty years after the flood, long enough to see the prosperity of his sons and his sons’ sons, until the earth is filled with his offspring.
If Noah had been the hero of this story, the author might well have pruned out the unflattering account of Noah’s drunkenness. Why leave it in? First, I believe, to show precisely this: that Noah is not a hero, but an ordinary man. When he trusts in the power of God, he is saved; when he grows drunk with his own power, he falls into disgrace. Second, to remind us that Noah is just one man among many in the long history of mankind — he dies, and life goes on. After him there will be good men and bad and, often enough, there will be good men who go bad and wicked men who repent. What does not change is God and his determination to give Mankind another chance, and another, and another. The rest of Genesis, the “prehistory” of mankind, shows this pattern of God repeatedly rewarding those who trust in Him and allowing those who do not to fall through their own wickedness.
WHAT IS A HERO?
Here, then is the great difference between the book of Genesis and the poems of the Gilgamesh poet and Roman Ovid: the hero of the story is God himself. He it is who must patiently endure the vicissitudes of Man, rather than the other way around. He has the upper hand, yet He uses it only to correct, not to torment.He alone remains true to His promises. The man who would be godlike must be like God in this: His steadfast love for humankind.
Next time, this perspective will become clearer as we situate the story of Noah and the flood in the larger context of the Bible and, particularly, the role that typology plays in understanding the Bible as a whole and this story in particular.