Wibble Wednesday: Glub glub (Genesis 6:9–11:32)

Another fine Wednesday, and time to wibble. Today’s the second section of the Torah, פָּרָשַׁת נח (“Noah” portion).

The quick snarky summary: We’re only a few chapters in, and God, who created the world back at the start of the book, has decided that it’s not quite what He expected and that he’ll take a mulligan. On reconsideration, he figures that he doesn’t really want to spend a whole ‘nother week putting it back together, so he decides to just kill almost everything and outsource the repopulation aspect. After performing this onerous task, his deputy goes on a bender and passes out in a gutter. Two of his kids take him home and put him to bed, but the third didn’t help, and that’s why there are black people and why it’s OK to enslave them*. Everyone lives in Babylon and has kids, and some of those kids try to build a tower, but they end up inventing linguistic speciation instead.

* No, really. The religious justification for chattel slavery in America was that black people were the descendants of Canaan, and that Genesis 9:25 justified keeping them as property.


In interpreting the flood myth, one can be assisted by its obvious analogues in other texts: if we buy into the actually pretty well established Mesopotamian origin of Judaism, then it has as an obvious possible precedent the tale of Utnapishtim, which is recounted briefly in the Epic of Gilgamesh (and probably at greater length in other, lost Babylonian texts). Utnapishtim’s story is almost certainly taken from the earlier Sumerian text of the Eridu Genesis, and either or both influenced the more detailed flood myth in the much later Assyrian epic of Atrahasis. Atrahasis is a far too late text to really have influenced the original Torah, but both geographically and temporally it’s a good fit for the era of the Deuteronomical revision, so it can’t be discounted as an influence. So, in trying to fuss out specific aspects of the flood myth, I might refer to these sources.

So I’m really going to skip back a few verses to Genesis 6:5, since that’s where this story really starts. The people of the earth were wicked, we’re told, but this is pretty vague; unlike in many tales of destruction, we don’t get a specific cautionary moral. The older texts aren’t much help either: in them, the gods bring the flood because people were noisy. So whatever this generic wickedness is, it deserves mass genocide.

Enter Noah, who is righteous in a way as nebulous as his generation is wicked, and who has three sons, about whom we’ll get a better individual view later. Genesis 6 is mostly devoted to the particulars of the ark Noah should build and what he should put in it. The ark, incidentally, is manifestly not even close to big enough for the task, unless we’re very wrong about what a cubit is. The task itself is a bit uncertain, since even though he’s told to take two of every animal (6:20), this is later elaborated into fourteen of the kosher animals and birds (7:2–3).

The flooding itself is a bit of an anticlimax: everyone dies, a hundred fifty days pass, Noah leaves the ark. There’s a pleasantly mythic quality to the end of the story, for what it’s worth: we’re told that the flood is the reason for rainbows, in one of those delightful ancient gropings for explanations of natural phenomena.

The last interesting story of Noah’s life is a very weird little tale of intoxication peppered with confusing euphemisms. After Noah gets drunk, his son Ham “sees his nakedness” (9:22), which, based on the horrified tone that follows this indiscretion, is a euphemism for some sexual crime more severe than walking in on your father when he’s passed out drunk, while his other sons cover him without looking at him. It’s all very strange and is followed by a strange and deeply troublesome set of curses and blessings: Noah doesn’t curse Ham, who might actually deserve it, but his son Canaan, who didn’t even appear in this incident. And he blesses Shem and Japheth, so we finally, very late in the game, get a feel for what kind of men his children are supposed to be: Shem is the righteous and pious one, and the ancestor of God’s chosen; Japheth is upstanding and decent, and the ancestor of successful nations; Ham is untrustworthy and sneaky, and the ancestor of the Africans. Yeah, I don’t much care for the racial overtones here either, but both their original intent and their frequent utilizations since are pretty hard to ignore.

We get a quick burst of genealogy at this time, expanding on the nations born from each of Noah’s sons; ethnic groups and cities are named which presumably would mean something specific to a contemporary reader. The only one to get a descriptor more notable than his name and area of influence is Ham’s descendent Nimrod, who is cited as a mighty hunter, presumably in reference to a lost myth. We’re also told he settled the valley of Babel, which is a good segue into the next story.

Next up, of course, is the story of the tower. Once again, it’s kind of hard to read God’s motivation in a way that isn’t petty. The motivations of the builders are clear enough: they want to build something grand and weld their community together, but God’s motivations for scuttling the plan seem a bit dodgy for an ostensibly omnipotent being: here we see again the fear of human potency (11:6) which we previously saw in the Garden (3:22). In later stories, God will get impatient, or vindictive, or jealous, but these early stories are the only ones in which he seems to be afraid of humanity.

Moving on, we get one last burst of genealogy. This list of descendants of Shem terminates with Abram, whom we’ll get to know in much more detail in the next parsha. An interesting fact about the genealogy of Shem: most of these people had children young and all of them lived a long time. When Abraham was fifty-seven years old, Noah was still alive, and so in fact was every generation in between except for Abraham’s grandfather Nahor, his great-great-grandfather Reu, and his great-great-great-grandfather Peleg.

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About Jake
I'm a mathematics professor at the University of Louisville, and a geek.

One Response to Wibble Wednesday: Glub glub (Genesis 6:9–11:32)

  1. Greg Sanders says:

    Huh, I was aware of some of the other sources in play but I hadn’t heard much before how they interrelated. Thanks for the elaboration.

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