Genesis 5

This is one of those chapters in the Bible that children find boring, literalists import all sorts of imagined meanings into, and scholars use to locate particular narrative thematic schemes and cultural cross-references with other parts of the Ancient Near East. That last does interest me personally, but perhaps is not especially pertinent to the purposes of our blog here. (For curious readers: the Sumerian King List similarly has pre-flood monarchs with exceedingly long reigns.) Rather we will focus in the below on one verse from near the end, given now with its preceding verse for context:

5.28-29: “When Lamech had lived 182 years, he begot a son. And he named him Noah, saying, ‘This one will provide us relief [a footnote states: Connecting Noah with Heb. niḼam “to comfort”; cf. 9.20 ff.] from our work and from the toil of our hands, out of the very soil which the LORD placed under a curse.’”

The connection here is of course to 3.17b (God’s/“God’s” reported speech to Adam after he and Eve broke the commandment and ate the fruit of the prohibited tree: “Cursed be the ground because of you; /By toil shall you eat of it /All the days of your life:”), but what is interesting is that in the Noah storyline he does not in fact ever do this; instead he performs a kind of interlude role, the metaphorical vehicle for what is presented as God’s/“God’s” “reset” of the inhabited Earth via the actual vehicle (“actual” within the confines of the myth, that is) of his gigantic ship in the following flood account. “Our work”, the “toil of our hands” and humanity’s necessary connection with the “very soil” never ceases; what “relief” has Noah given?

Any number of answers might be possible to that query, but in meditating on it perhaps we need to keep the symbolic importance of Noah central. In the arc (and not only “ark”!) of the Genesis tales Noah functions as a kind of “new man”, a superior progenitor of what could be (but does not become) a refined human race, a sort of Nietzschean Zarathustra type in purpose if not personality. As only he and his family are related to have survived the flood, the reader is made to think that here was a chance for a fresh start and to do things properly this time around: Adam #2, as it were. Humanity had an opportunity to be moral animals, to create just communities and to sustain them, to flourish in goodness and grace. Yet such, we know, was not to be, and thus the rest of Genesis deals with God’s/“God’s” searching out for persons and a method by which to make things right (or anyway “improved”), eventuating in the establishment of a holy peoplehood whose story unfolds throughout the Torah, Prophets, and Writings. We may take what we wish from this; here is what I think:

Regardless of whether we do or do not believe in a divinity, divine nature, or even merely an inner urging towards greater degrees of righteousness and ethical conduct (towards one another certainly; possibly towards a numinous Other), figures like Noah are helpful not so much as role models – in which case we tend to think of historicity, and the lack of such can put us off and spoil things – but as tokens for a whole list of associated qualities and concepts. When we recall Noah we do not bring to mind some business about mass extermination nor the supposed cessation of labor, rather what his name means (as per the footnote quoted above): “comfort”. Maybe this makes us picture rainbows as an emblem of that, maybe not. In either case we have Noah as the paragon of a good and upright person, to this we then affix “comfort”, and from that combination we are made to consider that life really is better when we are better to each other; and to ourselves. In the heat of a negative emotional moment – in the “flood” of it – I hope I can remember that.

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