Beginnings: Noah (2)

A Preacher of Righteousness….

I would like to continue my train of thought from the previous post, where we noted that some Jewish sages compared Noah with Abraham, saying that, while Abraham interceded for the sinners of Sodom, Noah didn’t intercede for his generation. However, this is not what we find in the New Testament. The New Testament writers believed that during the years of preparation, Noah was preaching righteousness to his contemporaries, warning of judgment to come, and all the while still continuing to build the ark in complete obedience to God.  Maybe that is why he found grace in the eyes of the Lord and God who “did not spare the ancient world, but saved Noah, one of eight people, a preacher of righteousness….”[1]

After I wrote that, I became very curious: could it be that the New Testament writers just came up with this thought, not leaning upon the perception of Noah that already existed in Jewish tradition? We find continuity between the New and Old Testaments in so many aspects, so could it be that this thought of Noah as a preacher of righteousness, came from nowhere?

I have mentioned here on several occasions that, even though most Jewish commentaries were written much later than the New Testament, some of them still reflect the interpretative tradition of Second Temple Judaism. That is why, when I found this comment in one of the midrashim, I saw it as a proof of the fact that “Noah, preacher of righteousness”  made its way into NT from Second Temple Judaism. We read: “Many ways to bring relief and rescue are available to Him; why, then, did He burden him with this construction? In order that the people of the Generation of Flood should see him occupying himself with it for one hundred twenty years and ask him: ‘For what do you need this?’ And he would say to them, ‘The Holy One, blessed be He, is destined to bring a flood upon the world.’ Perhaps they would repent.”

So we see that the Jewish commentators also believed that during the years of building the ark, Noah had been preaching righteousness to his contemporaries, warning of judgment to come and hoping for their repentance.

The Flood and the Tower

From both Old and New Testament perspectives, God set His plan of redemption in motion by the call of Abraham.  When God called Abraham, He personally and actively intervened in mercy – and the redemptive story started there. In the previous 11 chapters, however, we see God’s intervention in judgment: both in the story of Flood and in the story of the Tower of Babel, God punished man for his sin and rebellion. How are these two stories connected?

There are some very interesting connections between these two biblical events that can be seen only in Hebrew. First of all, the Hebrew word for flood, Mabul, sounds very close to the root bilbel which, according to many commentators, the name Babel comes from. A famous medieval Jewish commentator, Rashi, even connects the word Mabul with this very root; he writes:המבול (Mabul) is something “that mixed up (בלבל) everything”. And even though modern linguists don’t confirm it, we still have to be attentive to these similarities. You might remember what I wrote about the Hebrew words for man and woman. These words in Hebrew – Ish and Isha – sound so related, as if coming from the same root. However, almost all modern linguists say that the words “man” אִישׁ  (ish) and “woman”אִשָּׁה  (isha) aren’t in fact etymologically related.  Ish comes from the root אוש, connoting “strength”, while the word isha comes from the root אנש, meaning “weak” or “fragile”. This is an excellent example of what sometimes happens in Hebrew: sometimes etymologically false connections might actually express the biblical connection itself. I think that is what we discover in the words Mabul and Babel—in the similarities between the two major judgments that God brought upon the world.

Corruption or Destruction?

The story of Flood makes obvious the importance of reading the Bible in Hebrew –or at least, with some Hebrew. I wrote already that, when I first started reading it in Hebrew, I had to go there and back, between the Hebrew and the translation, to make sure I was reading the same chapters: it felt like a completely different story! There were many amazing discoveries I made then – and today I would like to share with you one of my first discoveries.

I remind you that we are still before the Flood. In Genesis 6:8, we are told that Noah “found grace in God’s eyes” (and we already know that it means, in fact, that God liked Noah); in Genesis 6:9, we are told that “Noah was righteous in his generations”; in Genesis 6:10, Noah’s three sons are listed. But then, starting from Genesis 6:11, the Torah goes back to describe the corruption and lawlessness on the earth.

11 And the earth was corrupt before God, and the earth was filled with violence.

12 And God saw the earth, and, behold, it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted their way upon the earth.

And here we find something extremely interesting.  The Hebrew word that is rendered as “corrupt” in most English translations is derived from the root, shahath, שָׁחַת. Please recall the story of Exodus: the Destroyer of the Pesach story in Hebrew is called Mashhit there ( הַמַּשְׁחִית) a name that comes from the same root. Why all of a sudden, in the story of the Flood that happened a long time before Passover, do we find a word that sounds as though it has just been taken from the Passover story? I had always been convinced that this root,  Shahath, שָׁחַת had to do only with death, killing and destruction – like “the destroyer” in English. So why would this word be here, at the very beginning of the story of Noach?

Thus, the verb in consideration – הִשְׁחִית – depending on its form, can have both of these meanings: to be corrupted – and to destroy.  Do you see what’s going on here? The language of Torah is different from any other human language: the meanings that are yet to come are shown here through the regular meanings of the words. In this sense, each word of Torah is pregnant with all the future meanings – with something that is yet to come, that is not seen by man, but is definitely seen by God. At this point of the story of Noah, the punishment and the destruction – the Flood – has not yet come; they are not even promised yet, Torah is just telling us about the sin and the corruption, and not about the punishment. However, already here, at the very beginning of this story, this frightening word, הִשְׁחִית, sounds as  a stern and sober warning about impending judgment, as a stern and sober warning (completely lost in translation, by the way) that punishment and destruction are inevitable consequences of sin and corruption.  This is an amazing example of how profound the Hebrew Scriptures are.  Some of you might know that Hebrew is primarily a root language – roots are three-consonant groups that comprise the “essence” of the word’s meaning. The verbs in Hebrew are derived from the roots, most often by changing vowels and adding different prefixes and suffixes, thus forming different stems. Depending on their stem (binyan), verbs from the same root can have very different meanings, as we see here in our text. Nevertheless, being derived from the very same root, they all have something in common, they all relate to the very same “essence”.



[1] 2 Pet.2:5

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About the author

Julia BlumJulia is a teacher and an author of several books on biblical topics. She teaches two biblical courses at the Israel Institute of Biblical Studies, “Discovering the Hebrew Bible” and “Jewish Background of the New Testament”, and writes Hebrew insights for these courses.

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  1. Bob Spies

    which midrashim is the quote on Noah found?

    1. Julia Blum

      Hi Bob, I quoted from Rashi, but there are also midrashim where this quote can be found: Aggadath Bereishith 1:2, Tan. Noach 5, Gen. Rabbah 30:7.

  2. Nick

    I’ve been taught that on a cold day, Noah would put on a fur coat, but that Abraham would build a fire so others could also get warm. But, without a doubt, Noah was no slouch!! I suppose the “pregnant” Hebrew language leaves it open to typology like no other?
    Thanks Julia!

    1. Julia Blum

      Of course, Nick, that’s why it’s so amazing to read all these rabbinic discussions: oftentimes, they express two completely opposite interpretations of the same verse. Here is just one example of such a discussion in Talmud: “Rabbi Jochanan says: Noah was blameless only in his age, but in other ages he would not be considered righteous. Resh Lahish says: he was righteous even in his age; how much more so would he have been righteous in other ages”. You can find something like this in connection with almost every verse of Torah, especially Genesis.