Noah is the biblical figure who survived a worldwide flood. His story is found within what scholars call the primeval history (Gen 1–11), which as a whole describes how the world came into being. The flood in Gen 6–9 represents a turning point for the relationships between God, humans, and the natural world. Old regulations are washed away, and new boundaries are established. The character of Noah is central to this narrative, and his growing agency embodies the complexity of the human experience.
Who is Noah?
Before the flood, human action is pervasively violent and has corrupted the earth. Humans do whatever they want, and their thoughts are “only evil continually” (6:5). Noah is the exception. He is a righteous human whose actions are only in direct response to the deity’s commands. Because of his obedience, the deity selects Noah (along with his family) to survive the flood and father a new humanity. However, Noah slowly gains his own agency and takes three of his own actions that are not at the command of the deity and that progressively grow in their ethical complexity. These actions change the relationship between God, humanity, and nature.
What does Noah do?
First, without any word from the deity, Noah releases birds once the flood has stopped (8:6–12). Here, we get a hint that Noah is willing to take action outside of God’s direct command. Like humanity before the flood, humanity after the flood can choose to act of their own accord.
Second, Noah offers a sacrifice (8:20–22). This action prompts God to establish a new set of boundaries for both himself and humans. Because God loves the smell of the sacrifice, he decides that he will put boundaries on natural disaster and forgo another mass annihilation, no matter how evil humanity becomes. In addition, God permits humans to now eat meat. However, he bans the consumption of blood as well as the shedding of human blood (9:3–5). The issues here speak to the chaos and brutality of humans, nature, and God. God limits everyone’s destructive capacity and responds positively to Noah’s efforts to keep chaos at bay.
Third, Noah invents wine and gets drunk (Gen 9:18–27). The phrasing of this narrative harkens back to the negative assessment of human nature before the flood. As Noah plants his grape vine, he becomes “a man of the earth” (9:20)—the same earth that was cursed in creation (Gen 3:17) and that a cursed humanity returns to in death (Gen 3:19); the same earth that was corrupted by human violence before the flood (6:11). The complicated implications of Noah’s agency are mirrored and exceeded by his son Ham, who likely sexually violates him (9:23; to euphemistically “see someone’s nakedness” refers to sexual indecency/violation: Lev 20:17, Deut 23:14, Ezek 16:37). Ham’s son, Canaan, bears Noah’s resultant curse. The nature of this curse is complicated, and its use in the history of interpretation has often been heinous (see the Bible Odyssey article on “The Curse of Ham”). But it is clear that Noah is “brought down to earth,” and the narrative presents him as the progenitor of a still-deeply flawed humanity. His last actions, and those of his son Ham, show the tragic side of human agency.
In claiming his own agency, Noah has joined the rest of humanity—a humanity that then fans out and populates the whole world. He shifts from an exceptional human being to a common one—from one who survived due to his exemplary behavior to one who could function as the father of a deeply flawed humanity. The story allows Noah to be blameless in order to survive the flood but transforms his behavior after the flood into that which participates in and therefore perpetuates the evil that characterizes human hearts.
Noah is something of a tragic figure. He is a bridge between a pre- and post-flood humanity. His own growing agency actually prompts God to change the laws of nature and to limit the behavior of both humans and God. But in an ironic twist, the figure of Noah refuses to let the reader escape from the moral complexities that continue to haunt human hearts and actions.
Image Credit: Benjamin West, Noah Sacrificing after the Deluge, ca. 1800, oil on canvas, 72 x 138 in (cropped). Courtesy the San Antonio Museum of Art.