NOAH THE PREACHER?:
A HOLE IN THE FLOOD STORY
~ Ron Veenker ~
Hey, there's a gaping hole in Noah’s story about the Flood! Here's how later Jews and Christians dealt with it.
There is a flaw in the biblical story of Noah and the flood. I learned of it only after moving to a part of the nation where there is a rich tradition of biblical preaching and homiletical legend (aggadah). Occasionally, in the context of an academic discussion, one of my students finds it necessary to recite a synopsis of the flood story.
Not infrequently I hear references to Noah’s preaching and his attempts to lead his wicked generation to repentance before the waters of judgment overwhelmed them. The sermons I heard as a youth did not contain much of this Christian aggadah, so these reports caught my ear. My students reverence these stories as biblical, but I was quite sure they were not to be found in the Jewish or Christian scriptures. Once, in a playful mood, I challenged a student to find his story in the Bible. He searched through Genesis in vain. But undaunted by his elusive text proclaimed, “I’ll find it! I know it’s in there somewhere!” I hardly gave it a second thought, but when he came back to class with 2 Peter 2:5 I began to take the whole enterprise more seriously. It occurred to me that St. Peter’s phrase “Noah, a herald of righteousness” could have an antecedent in the writings of earlier biblical interpreters.
Of course, the tradition of Noah’s preaching is etiological in nature, i.e., it supplies an answer to the simple question prompted by the gap in Genesis: “What did Noah do after God had warned him of the impending disaster and before the first drops began to fall?” That’s right. At the end of Gen 6, God has told Noah to build an ark and how to load it. The chapter finishes with, “Noah did this; he did all that God commanded him.” In the next verse the LORD says to Noah, “Go into the ark, you and all your household…” with no tales of ark building, harassment by neighbors, or Noah’s pleading with the folk to repent — only the announcement that Noah had one week to load the ship.
I had always casually assumed that seven days (Gen 7:4) were scarcely sufficient for building the ark not to mention a serious evangelistic engagement, but I soon learned that there were 120 years between the warning and the appearance of storm clouds. Gen 6:3 (“My spirit shall not abide in man for ever, for he is flesh, but his days shall be a hundred and twenty years”) has been interpreted in two ways. Some take the one hundred twenty years to refer to the life span of individuals after the flood. On the other hand, the targumim and early midrashim indicate that it was a period of grace before the flood.
For monotheists, the major difficulty of the deluge is, of course, the problem of evil. That is, how could a just, loving and righteous Yahweh destroy the creatures he himself had made? The pious imagination, remaining true to monotheistic morality, demanded that the antediluvian generations be warned. Thus, given the problem of evil, the time span provided a convenient solution and Noah’s preaching mission was born.
So Jews, Christians and Moslems had a genuine theological need for the one hundred twenty year grace period, and the evil generation had need of a preacher. In order to learn more about Noah’s mission, I searched the post-OT commentators. In an intertestamental pseudepigrapha, the Jewish Sybil provides us with a lengthy sermon by Noah in which he reproves the people for their unbelief and for the sin of murder. Noah told them that God sees everything and deserves their devotion and worship. When he warned them of the flood, they snubbed him and called him a madman. Noah then enumerated more of their sins and described the horrors that await the unrepentant who will experience the inundation. In The Books of Adam and Eve, we read that curious observers questioned Noah about the vessel he was constructing. When he told them that God had commanded him to build the ark, they laughed and ridiculed him, insisting that waters could not rise above the mountaintops. Even so, Noah preached repeatedly: “The flood will come and destroy you, if you do not repent.” Philo and Josephus both preserve the tradition that God attempted to save the evil generation through Noah’s homilies.
Of course, rabbinic commentators of the early centuries CE knew of Noah’s preaching. Rabbi Abba said, “One herald arose for me in the generation of the Flood, viz., Noah.” They quoted from his sermons: “The Lord of the universe has informed me that He will bring a Flood in the world.”; “Repent; for if not, the Holy One, blessed be He, will bring a deluge upon you, and cause your bodies to float upon the water like gourds…”; “Woe, ye foolish ones! Tomorrow a flood will come, so repent”; “Ye good-for-nothings! Ye forsake Him whose voice breaks cedars and worship a dry log!” But the exhortations were to no avail; the tenth generation was hard-hearted and unrepentant.
Christian exegetes carried the story further. St. Augustine makes the claim that Noah preached for a hundred years. When the apostle Paul came to Paradise, Noah told him that his message had been “Repent for a Flood of waters comes upon you.” Though he promised rest and happiness to those who gave heed to his preaching, none would take him seriously. There is no shortage of ancient commentary exonerating God and Noah of any moral blame in the flood event and, as well, filling the gap in the biblical narrative. That the Genesis story does not portray Noah showing moral concern for the well-being of his contemporaries is at the very least troublesome and, at worst, behavior unbecoming one whose righteousness would redeem not only himself but his family as well. By the time the biblical text could no longer be altered, storytellers were creating new traditions about Noah and his generation in order to cover their uneasiness. And since there were Mesopotamian flood heroes who behaved in a more exemplary manner, later commentators had no need to expand the Genesis narratives out of sheer imagination.
Thus Jewish, Christian and Moslem exegetes sought to distract themselves and us from the uncomfortable silence in the biblical narrative with information most likely based on Mesopotamian oral tradition revised to fit their monotheistic view of the world. Indeed, their protesting directs our attention to the Noah story in the Bible leading us to consider why such an important topos was not included in the original version. “Why” indeed!
Emeritus Professor - Religion
Western Kentucky University
"Noah's Preaching Scorned" depicting a scene not found in the Genesis account
A portrait of Reverend John
There is no shortage of ancient commentary exonerating God and Noah of any moral blame in the flood event and, as well, filling the gap in the biblical narrative
For monotheists, the major difficulty of the deluge is, of course, the problem of evil. That is, how could a just, loving and righteous Yahweh destroy the creatures he himself had made?