Noach Drash: Mrs. Noah Fights God [October 4, 2013]
Noah’s Ark might be the most popular and definitely the cutest story in the Hebrew Bible. Two by two, Noah and his merry menagerie of animals have marched into our hearts and imagination. Children delight in the story with finger puppets, coloring books, puzzles, cartoons, mezuzahs, etc. Those images of giraffes poking their heads out of the ark window are irresistible.
Paradoxically, the genesis of Noah’s ark is one of the most horrific and problematic stories in the Hebrew Bible. According to the Rabbis, there were ten generations from Adam to Noah. In this relatively short period of time, God goes from declaring humans very good to beyond redemption. God sees earth as corrupted and full of violence and tells Noah, “I am going to bring the floodwaters upon the earth to destroy all that lives under the heavens, [all] that has breath of life in it. Everything on earth will expire.” (Gen. 6:17). In short, God wants to hit the re-set button on Creation and God has chosen Noah, the most righteous man of his generation, to make it happen.
Maybe God’s wrath was justified; but, how much worse can that generation be from today’s? We’re living in the gilded age of the Kardashian Empire. Parts of society cry out that it’s a basic human right to openly carry assault weapons. Meanwhile, children are gunned down in schools and civilians (as well as soldiers) at military bases. Wars seem to cover the globe, unfortunately many arising from religious disputes. But, even if that time was worse, and you lived then, and God came to you and said, “The earth is corrupt and full of violence. I’m going to bring flood waters which will destroy every living thing except you and your family. All you have to do is to build an ark and float away.” Could you see yourself being like Noah, a willing participant in this plan, even if it saved you and your immediate family? Could you live with yourself while your extended family and friends perish? Could you bear to watch the wholesale destruction of strangers, even enemies?
Over the centuries, Jews and Christians, clergy and laypeople, have been troubled by Noah’s passive response to God’s command. I mentioned to my graduate school professor and friend, Lori Anne Ferrell—while she was giving Davi and me a personal tour of a Huntington Library exhibit she’s co-curating—that I was going to give a drash on the Noah story.[i] She suggested a 15th century “mystery” play that stars a feisty Mrs. Noah. In her book, The Bible and the People, Professor Ferrell tells about this medieval “mystery” play named ‘Noah’s Ark’ by the City of Chester Waterleaders’ Guild, the city’s drinking water haulers.[ii] Prevalent in England from the early fourteenth century to the late sixteenth century, “mystery” plays, also known as “miracle” plays, entertained and educated ordinary Christians about the Bible. Amazingly, laypeople—trade guilds, organized craftsmen and merchants—most of whom were illiterate—produced, performed and sometimes even wrote these plays for their fellow townspeople. Mystery plays were Biblical stories for the people by the people.
Unlike in most Sunday sermons, the audience saw their own experiences and concerns in characters like Mrs. Noah in the Waterleaders’ play. In it, Noah thanks God profusely for saving his family and happily carries out God’s instructions. His three sons and their wives fall right into line cheerfully pitching in. Mrs. Noah, though, refuses to get on board. She sees the cost of God’s command. Yes, she and her family will be spared; but, not her dear friends who she says have loved her “full well.” And, she enjoys their shared affection for wine and merriment. Noah keeps urging her to join them on the ark. But, she refuses to go “one foot further” without the others. Poignantly, as the flood waters rise, one of her neighbors wails out, “for fear of drowning I am aghast…” For humanity, she fights Noah and by extension, fights God. In the end, against her loud and fierce objection, her three sons forcibly bring her into the ark; as she enters, she hits her husband upside the head as a final defiant act.
As Professor Ferrell points out, Mrs. Noah “questions the limits of obedience.” Mrs. Noah’s defiance reminds us there are boundaries which cannot be crossed even by God. As the carnage of their actions emerge, Noah and God seem profoundly remorseful. Maybe fueled by grief over his silence, we find Noah in a drunken stupor, naked in his tent. Regretful, God vows, “…[N]ever again will I destroy all living beings, as I have [just] done.” (Gen. 8:21) As a visible reminder of this promise, God creates rainbows: “When the bow is in the cloud, and I see it, I will remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living beings, all that live upon the earth.” (Gen. 9:16) The Rainbow Covenant reminds God and us the preciousness of all life.
As 21st century LGBT people, we share a lot in common with the Waterleaders’ guild, their Mrs. Noah and God’s Rainbow Covenant. We’re not the religious, political or social elite; and, our stories are often absent or obscure in the Bible. We’ve had to creatively and persistently express our experiences and concerns to ourselves and others. Although the fight remains, recent victories for marriage equality suggest our stories are being heard and honored.
Others in the Rainbow Covenant though have seen setbacks in their struggle for full equality. Let’s remember: at the same time the Supreme Court struck down DOMA and Prop 8, it gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and further eroded affirmative action. Let’s not be like Noah who remained mute, even compliant, while others suffered and died. May we instead be like Mrs. Noah who loudly and profusely stood up for all, even at her own peril. When we see a rainbow, may we be reminded of the everlasting covenant God made with all people regardless of race, creed, color or socio-economic status.
[i] Illuminated Palaces: Extra-Illustrated Books from the Huntington Library Exhibit, July 27-October 28, 2013; co-curated by Steven Tabor and Lori Anne Ferrell.
[ii] Lori Anne Ferrell, The Bible and the People (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2008), 46-55.