Noach (Genesis 6:9-11:32 )
Perhaps with the birth of every child new hope fills the hearts of the parents. However, when we look at the list of births representing the line of descendants from Adam through his son Shet (Seth), one son stands out in terms of the hope that he represents:
And Lemech lived one hundred and eighty-two years and he fathered a son. He called his name Noah saying: this one will bring us comfort from our actions and from the sadness of our hands from the earth which has been cursed by God. (Bereishit 5:28,29)
Why did this son, more than all others, ignite this wave of optimism, this prospect of deliverance? Why now? Was the name given to this son an expression of hope, a prayer, or was it perhaps a prophecy? And if the latter, did this prophecy, in fact, come to fruition? God’s response to Lemech’s words is instructive: When He describes mankind’s failure, He uses the same language to describe the dashed hopes for the elevation of humanity and to foreshadow the coming destruction:
(6) God regretted that He had made man on the land, and He was saddened in His heart. (7) God said, “I will eradicate man whom I have created from the face of the earth; from man to animals to creeping things and to birds of the sky; for I have regretted that I made them.” (8) But Noah found favor in God’s eyes.
The name given to Noah was extrapolated from yenachamenu, denoting comfort, condolence or consolation – yet God uses a word constructed from the same core letters to describe regret or frustration. Much ink has been spilled explaining the theological difficulty of ascribing regret to the all-knowing, omnipotent God; most commentaries write this difficult phrase off as an anthropomorphism. But all of the philosophical wrangling and squirming is unnecessary when we read the verse in context, and note that “regret” is a poor translation of the play on words with which God rejects Lemech’s dream/prayer for his son: This child brings neither comfort nor redemption; he will be a part of the destruction. Lemech employed similar wordplay when explaining the significance of his son’s name: Lemech intended for this child to mark a new beginning, to repeal or rescind the curse under which they were living, and the language Lemech uses echoes the language of that curse: Both Adam and Eve are sentenced to different types of etzev -“sadness” or “anguish” – and this etzev is precisely what Lemech hopes will be banished by the birth of his son Noach.
(16) To the woman He said, “I will greatly multiply your anguish in pregnancy. In pain you will bear children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” (17) To Adam He said, “Because you have listened to your wife’s voice, and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, saying, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground on your behalf. Through anguish you will eat of it all the days of your life. (18) And it will yield thorns and thistles to you; and you will eat the herbage of the field. (19) By the sweat of your brow you will eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken. For you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
Following the linguistic thread, we realize that Lemech thought that this child would bring a change, and the curse1 meted on Adam2 would be expunged:3 “He called his name Noah saying: this one will bring us comfort from our actions and from the sadness of our hands from the earth which has been cursed by God.” God thought otherwise. In fact, He seems to “double down” on the curse, bringing mankind even more etzev, more pain, more regret, and not comfort.4
What was the catalyst for God’s harsh response? The verses between Noah’s birth and naming and the response of God, provide the answer:
He called his name Noah saying: this one will bring us comfort from our actions and from the sadness of our hands from the earth which has been cursed by God. After the birth of Noah, Lamech lived 595 years and begot sons and daughters. All the days of Lamech came to 777 years; then he died. When Noah had lived 500 years, Noah begot Shem, Ham, and Yaphet. Chapter 6 It happened, when men began to multiply upon the surface of the ground, and daughters were born to them, that the sons of the powerful saw that the daughters of man were beautiful, and they took for themselves wives of all that they chose. God said, “My spirit will not strive with man forever, because he also is flesh; and his days will be one hundred twenty years.” The Nefilim were in the earth in those days, and also after that, when the sons of the powerful took with the daughters of man, and they bore them children. They were the mighty men of the ages, men of renown. God saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all day long. And God regretted that He had made man on earth, and His heart was saddened. (Chapter 5,6)
The breakdown is identified with sexual violence and corruption, a society without a moral compass. While Noah will not be a part of the solution, he will be used to facilitate the appropriate punishment.
Why did Lemech have such high hopes with the birth of this child? Was he delusional, out of touch with the reality around him? In fact, he seems to have read the situation more accurately than we might have guessed; the text seems to bear out his optimism. Despite the chaos and corruption around him, Lemech’s son is different:
Noah found favor in the eyes of God. These are the generations of Noah. Noah was an innocent5 man, perfect in his generation Noah walked with God.
While the rest of the generation displeased God, Noah pleased God. While the others were guilty, Noah was innocent. While the others ignored the word of God and were not God-fearing, Noah walked with God – but he was not the first to have done so. There was another individual who had walked with God generations before; his name was Hanoch (Enoch), and he was Noah’s great-grandfather.
(18) Yared (Jared) lived one hundred sixty-two years and fathered Hanoch. (19) Yared lived after he fathered Hanoch eight hundred years, and he fathered sons and daughters. (20) All the days of Yared were nine hundred sixty-two years, and he died. (21) Hanoch lived sixty-five years and fathered Metushelah (Methuselah). (22) Hanoch walked with God after he fathered Metushelah three hundred years, and he fathered sons and daughters. (23) All the days of Hanoch were three hundred sixty-five years. (24) Hanoch walked with God, and he was no more, for God took him.
Hanoch also walked with God, and the result was his disappearance. The nature of his disappearance may help us understand his “walking with God”. Hanoch lives fewer years than the others in his family line, he dies at three hundred and sixty-five, all of his ancestors average a life span of over nine hundred years. Some see him as being so good, or walking with God in such a profound way, that he was too good to be of this world and was returned to Eden – and never died. The word death is not mentioned in his disappearance, rather “he ceased to be, for God took him”. While the Targum Neophiti leaves his disappearance as a mystery,6 the Pseudo-Yonatan says that Hanonch ascended to heaven:
And Hanoch served God in truth and he no longer lived among those who inhabit the earth. For he was taken and went up to heaven by the word before God, who named him Metatron the great scribe. (Pseudo-Yonatan (5:24)
Other commentaries are even more specific: Hanoch was taken away – untouched by death, back to the Garden of Eden.7 The curse of death is visited on others, on those who deserve to die; Hanoch does not merit this same fate. He is of a higher order, and is worthy of returning to the Garden, where he lives as Adam before the sin – beyond the reach of death.
The Netziv attributes Hanoch’s fate to the results of religious ecstasy.8 Hanoch’s desire to be near God caused his disappearance from this world.9 According to this approach, Hanoch achieved spiritual perfection that enabled him to shed the physical constraints of this world and achieve unique proximity to God in the non-physical sphere.
On the other hand, there are those who see Hanoch as far less perfect in his spirituality. Rashi following the Midrashic approach, describes Hanoch as tainted. Although righteous, Hanoch was inconsistent, his spiritual landscape was made up of peaks and valleys. In an act of kindness, God took him before he slipped from the apex of his spiritual peak, before his fall into bad behavior, hence his relatively short life.
AND Hanoch walked [with God] – He was a righteous man, but his mind was easily induced to turn from his righteous ways and to become wicked. The Holy One, blessed be He, therefore took him away quickly and made him die before his full time. This is why Scripture uses a different expression when referring to his death by writing "and he was not", meaning, he was not in the world to complete the number of his years.
For God took him – before his time; a similar meaning of "to take" we find in (Yehezkel 24:16), "I take away from you what your eyes desire [by a plague]". (Rashi Bereishit 5:24)10
Others see the removal of Hanoch as an act to save him from the wickedness of his generation.11
The Seforno offers what may be the most intriguing insight, describing Hanoch and Noah in the same manner:
Both Hanoch and Noah are described as “walking with Elokim” – the name of God that denotes judgment. This very particular phrasing indicates, for many commentaries, that both Noach and Hanoch were innocent of transgression; they broke no laws, committed none of the crimes that were so rampant in their surroundings. However, this statement says nothing about their proactive, positive behavior. We know what they did not do, but we are given no information about what they did do. Nonetheless, the Seforno eschews this interpretation and prefers to understand the idiom of “walking with Elokim” as imitatio dei, following the attributes of God.12
He walked in the paths pleasing to God in order to rebuke and call to order the people of his time. (Seforno Bereishit 5:22)
He walked in God’s way trying to be helpful to others, and to instruct and if necessary to rebuke them, as our sages pointed out. … (Seforno 6:9-10)
According to the Seforno, Hanoch and Noach were spiritual twins, both proactively tried to help others by teaching and admonishing, and rebuking when necessary, in an attempt to change the tide of history.
Seforno’s approach fails to address one problem: As we noted, both men “walked with Elokim,” the Almighty God of Judgment, rather than with the Eternal, the God of Compassion. We must also ask why the ultimate fates of Hanoch and Noah were so different from one another if they were so similar in their spirituality, their goals, their interaction with others.
The Rashbam’s comments13 invite us to take a step back and consider Noah in the context of his birth. Rashbam explains the hope expressed when Noah was born by drawing our attention to a simple fact that emerges from the text, specifically from the list of births, deaths and the lifespans of Noah’s ancestors: Noah was the first person born after the death of Adam. 14 Adam had lived to see eight generations of descendants.
When Noah is born, in the year 1056, his father and grandfather are still alive.15 His great-grandfather Hanoch was gone – for he alone died (or was taken) young. However, another four generations of ancestors beyond Hanoch are still alive. In other words, Noah was born surrounded by nine generations of people who averaged 900 years of life; most of his ancestors were still alive when Noah was born. For these people, death must have seemed to be extremely rare. Until Adam’s death in the year 930, no one had died of “natural causes”; Hevel’s murder was of a different order altogether. Death, until that point was not perceived as “natural.”
Adam’s descendants had heard a rumor about death, but nearly a millennium had gone by and no one had died. We cannot but wonder what sort of impact this might have had on their behavior, and on their lives. One could procrastinate for a hundred years and not feel that an opportunity had slipped away. Multiple generations had arrived on the stage of history; none had exited. And then, perhaps surprisingly, Adam died. His descendants may have seen his death as a personal punishment, fulfillment of God’s promise, and assumed that death had run its course; the curse would begin and end with Adam. A new life came into the world; the child called Noah would bring comfort, and a new world order, free of the stain of sin and the curse of sorrow and death, could begin.16
There was counter-evidence, warning signs that this was no more than wishful thinking: Adam’s son Shet had also died before Noah was born. The rest of Adam’s descendants should have understood that Adam’s fate was their own, and the curse would be carried by all humanity. They should have understood that, as God had warned, eating from the forbidden tree had brought death into the world and irreversibly altered the human experience. Just as Eve was cursed with the pain of childbirth and that curse was now part and parcel of human procreation, so, too, death was here to stay. Instead, they chose to explain Shet’s death on an individual level: Perhaps they preferred to explain Shet’s death as the extension of Havah’s private punishment. Perhaps seeing her son die was Havah’s personal sorrow, a punishment that would begin and end with her. We can imagine them ascribing Shet’s death to the curse with which Havah was punished: if she was doomed to bear children in pain, this was surely pain.
Perhaps they all hoped that Noah would cause the pain to be forgotten, and that the punishment of death had already been exacted upon humankind. This was a new world, a world of life – and by extension, a world devoid of responsibility, a world with no need for morality, a world in which everyone would live forever.
What of the one man who had died young, Hanoch? He was a righteous man who died after Adam and before Shet; they could not explain his death.17 Could it be that they preferred to say that he simply “disappeared?” Perhaps some took this as evidence that “only the good die young” – and concluded that a life of righteousness was not desirable.
The birth of Noah presented a new possibility for engagement with God, and they assumed that this engagement would be on different terms. The curse of the earth would be lifted – and in their minds the curse that hung over Adam’s head had run its course. They were to be freed of the sorrow, left to sip the waters of the fountain of youth.
But something else happened instead. One after another, Noah’s ancestors perished. By the time the flood arrived in the six hundredth year of his life, Noah was alone, an orphan; in short order, Noah lost seven generations of ancestors. But that was not the worst of it: Rather than a fountain of youth, a flood covered the earth. Instead of being surrounded by teeming life, Noah was surrounded by death. Life as they had known it – long and self-absorbed – would come to end, and people would begin to live with the end in sight. The flood brought with it the realization that everyone dies – which was a far cry from the reality they had perceived not too long before the rain began to fall.
Instead of being a harbinger of life, Noah experienced the death of his ancestors; with death already in evidence all around him – and only then – he entered the ark. The flood completed what had already begun. The decadent generations who believed they were impervious to God’s judgment, including the poisonous progeny of Cain, were washed away.18 They thought they were beyond Elokim’s judgment, Noah knew he wasn’t. He “walked with Elokim” – he always kept the aspect of God’s judgment in his consciousness as he went through life.
Noah’s birth had brought hope for change, but those who were washed away had failed to appreciate the nature of the change.19 After the flood a new world did, indeed emerge, a world in which people would live shorter lives, but hopefully honest, productive, decent lives. After the flood, everyone finally understood that everyone dies.
- See Hizkuni Bereishit 5:29.
- There are some who say that it is the curse of Kayin which disappear – as would the entire line of Kayin – with the flood, see Bkhor Shur, and Aderet Eliyahu on Bereishit 5:29.
- Rashi explains that the blessing of Noah – or the manner he would counter the curse, was by creating a plow, which would make the dreary work of the land more manageable.
THIS WILL COMFORT US – He will ease from off us (ינחמנו) the toil of our hands. For until Noah came people had no agricultural instruments and he prepared such for them. The earth had brought forth thorns and thistles when they sowed wheat in consequence of the curse imposed upon Adam Harishon: in the days of Noah, however, this ceased (Tanchuma 1:1:11). This is what is meant by the word ינחמנו (viz., ינח מנו). If, however, you do not explain it in this manner, but from the root נחם "to comfort", then the meaning you give to this expression (connecting it with the idea of "comfort") will have no application to the name נח, and you would have to call him מנחם "Comforter".
- The Rosh cites a teaching from Rav Yehudah HaChasid that prior to Naoh people’s hands were different and the joints did not provide the same dexterity. With fingers that could not bend, the opposable thumb was of little service. Also see Hadar Zkainim.
- As per the translation of the Targum Unkolus.
- See Targum Yerushalmi Neophiti 5:24.
- See Derech Eretz 1:18, also see Ralbag Bereishit 5:23; Radak Bereishit 5:24; Hizkuni Bereishit 5:24.
- See Haamek Davar Berishit 5:24
- Rashi, in his comments regarding the death of Ben Azzai, uses a similar description, which seems the source for the thoughts of the Netziv. Ironically (or not) Hanoch – who according to some opinions morphs into Metataron, also has a role in the Pardes story. For more on this see “Crowns on the Letters” page 222 note 8.
- Rashi is based upon Bereishit Rabbah 25:1.
- See Bchor Shor, Bereishit 5:24.
- See Dvarim 13:5 (also see Dvarim 28:9); Talmud Bavli 14a (and Shabbat 133b).
- There is some intrigue in reconstructing the commentary of the Rashbam to these chapters of Bereishit – which is beyond the scope of this essay. For these comments of the Rashbam see the version in the Bar Ilan Responsa project, which seem based on R’ Haim Paltiel 5:29. However see the version in AlHatorah.org, and the explanatory note at the end of the citation https://mg.alhatorah.org/Full/Bereshit/5.29#e0n6 .
- Also see the Riva, and Hadar Zikanim.
- See Seder Olam Chapter 1.
- See the comments of the Rosh, he says (in the name of the Pesikta) that Noah was seen as a replacement for Adam.
- He died of natural causes, with no explanation; see Ibn Ezra Bereishit 5:24.
- See Bchor Shor Bereishit 5:29.
- Rabbi Meir taught that death was good; see Bereishit Rabbah 9:5. In (the margin of) the Torah of Rabbi Meir they found it written ‘and behold everything was very good and behold death is good.’