The musings of a previously unemployed Jewish Freemason. I write about the job search, about Judaism, and about Freemasonry.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Noach: Horror or Cute Animals?

My synagogue celebrates the week that we read the part of the Torah, Parashat Noach, where the story of Noah and the Ark is told, by having a special Children's Sabbath. There are always adorable pictures of the elephant trunks and giraffe necks sticking out of the Ark. Kids are encouraged to name all the animals collected on the Ark. I find myself suffering a cognitive disconnect when I see the sense of celebration, because Noah was one of a handful of survivors of the worst genocide in the Bible.

Parashat Noach gives us the story of Noah, the righteous man who was blameless in his age, who walked with God. Contrasting Noah was the wickedness of the rest of humankind. The daughters of men bred with divine beings (literally, b'nei Ha-Elohim, or the Children of God) and created a race of Nephilim. Nephilim are fairly mysterious. The word is translated variously as giants, as heroes, and as fallen angels. Some rabbis interpret the Nephilim as the descendants of Cain.

God gives up on humankind, due to the wickedness of man, and regrets that He ever created them. Think about that. How awful must they have been for God to give up on them completely, and to blot them out from all existence, along with all beasts, creeping things, and birds of the sky? Almost as an afterthought, Noah finds favor with the Lord.

The rabbis of the Talmud are fairly critical of Noah. They worry that he did not do enough to save people from the Flood. He saved himself, his sons and their wives. The rabbis contrast this with Abraham, who begs for the lives of righteous men in Sodom and Gomorrah whom he does not even know, or Moses, who begs for the lives of the entire Children of Israel when God wants to destroy them. They seize upon the phrase "blameless in his age" and argues that in another, more contemporary age, Noah might not be considered particularly blameless, but compared to how evil the antediluvians were, he was comparatively blameless.

God destroys humanity, with the exception of Noah and his family. God destroys all the animals, with the exception of the samples saved on the Ark. I have a tendency to dwell upon the awfulness of this event, because it weirdly seems trivialized in most depictions of the story. God drowns almost all living things that breathe air. The ancient Hebrews believed that land masses sat on top of a primordial ocean that could sweep across all land and drown the world. An experimenter can pour bleach on a Petri dish and kill the bacteria growing on it. A laboratory can inject all the rhesus monkeys and chimpanzees and dogs and rabbits and rats and mice with poison and kill the entire population (thwarting an epidemic, for example). But God killed everyone and everything, with the exception of a tiny sample. How can this not be regarded with horror?

The Flood eventually recedes, and Noah came out of the Ark onto dry land, and sacrificed one of each kosher animal and bird in burnt offerings. God smelled the "pleasing odor" and it moved Him to resolve never again to doom the earth because of man. Why? "The devisings of man's mind are evil from his youth." He learns something about humanity: that as we become autonomous entities, we are going to do wrong as well as right. That with free will comes bad decisions. A baby is an unformed entity unshaped into a personality. But you can watch kindergarteners play in the playground and see that some of them are already mean people. Some have all the personality flaws that adults do. They are evil from their youth.

God gives Noah seven laws to live by, which are called the Noachide Laws. Jews believe they are the only laws in the Torah applicable to all people regardless of their association with the Jewish people.

  1. Remember Who God is, and do not worship something lesser that God Himself.
  2. Men are created in the image of God. Do not murder human beings. Masons use this in the ritual of the Third Degree.
  3. Do not steal the property of other people. Do not deprive others of subsistence.
  4. Be ethical and consensual in your sexual relationships. Some people interpret this to be a ban on homosexuality or sex outside of marriage, but I do not.
  5. Do not defile the sacred, or blaspheme the name of the Lord.
  6. Do not eat the flesh of another human being, nor eat the flesh of an animal taken while the animal is still alive. Some people interpret this to mean that the ingestion of blood is forbidden, but I do not.
  7. Courts of law should be established, and people should abide by the rule of law. I interpret this similarly to the theme of Aeschylus's Oresteia, where Athena demands that the Greek people mete out justice not by vendetta, but by impartial courts of law, unbiased on either side.
To enshrine these laws, God sets a rainbow in the clouds, as a sign of this covenant with humankind. The rainbow is not for us, but for God: "When I bring clouds over the earth, and the bow appears in the clouds, I will remember My covenant between Me and you and every living creature among all flesh." (Genesis 9: 14-15). I find that very interesting. Why does God need a reminder not to kill all of us? Without the reminder, how often does God want to slaughter us? Chris Rock joked that if you haven't thought about murdering your partner; if you haven't planned out the murder and planned where you would dispose the body and what you would say to the investigating detectives, then you haven't really been in love. To what extent is that the nature of God's love for us? We must frustrate God beyond imagining.

There are Jews and non-Jews who hold the seven Noachide Laws as being the basis of all ethical behavior. Chabad sponsors a group that seeks to encourage all non-Jews of their own free will to pledge to live by these laws.

The parashah also covers the Tower of Babel, which should be of interest to Freemasons, especially contrasted with the Temple at Jerusalem. I don't have much to say about the Tower of Babel right now. Maybe some other time. The parashah ends by introducing Terah of Ur (one of the largest cities of the ancient world), who with his son Abram and his grandson Lot (son of Haran), moved away from Ur on a journey to Canaan. Along the journey, they settled in Ḥaran (not to be confused with Terah's son).


  1. Brother:

    Is the Royal Ark Mariners degree available in the United States? If it is, you might want to take advantage of it, as it explores the questions raised in this post.

    Bro Chris Hansen

  2. The Royal Ark Mariners degree in the USA is given by a Chapter of Allied Masonic Degrees (AMD), a branch of the York Rite. AMD is an invitational body open to Royal Arch Masons. I have been voted into a Royal Arch Chapter, and hope to take the degrees in 2012. I have friends in an AMD chapter, and I would be delighted should they decide to invite me to join them.