On March 30 (Monday), BBC1 will show a 90-minute drama called The Ark written by Tony Jordan. According to the show’s description, a farmer called Noah is instructed by an angel to build an ark in the middle of the desert in order to save his family from a devastating flood. The script has plenty of modern-day allusions to the “rich getting richer and the poorer falling further and further into debt,” and to men “who defile children.” Although, the drama was filmed in Morocco, Noah’s family speak with Manchester accents. Here, Richard Mather (also from Manchester) looks at the biblical account of Noah and examines the covenant made by God following the Flood.
Noah means “peaceful”. It comes from the verb nuah meaning rest, settle down. According to Genesis 6:9, Noah “walked with God.” He was righteous and blameless, finding favour with the Lord. In fact, Genesis 7:1 states that Noah was the only person in his generation who God considered righteous.
The Flood was God’s act of purgation, a way of cleansing the earth of evil before re-establishing the covenant with Noah. In Genesis 6:11, the Torah clearly states that “the earth was corrupt in God’s sight and was full of violence.” Angered at the wickedness of mankind, God tells Noah that He will flood the earth. Noah is commanded to build an ark and provide sanctuary for his family and a remnant of the animal kingdom.
As it says in Genesis 7:20-23:
The waters rose and covered the mountains to a depth of more than fifteen cubits. Every living thing that moved on land perished—birds, livestock, wild animals, all the creatures that swarm over the earth, and all mankind. Everything on dry land that had the breath of life in its nostrils died. Every living thing on the face of the earth was wiped out; people and animals and the creatures that move along the ground and the birds were wiped from the earth. Only Noah was left and those with him in the ark.
According to the Talmud, the Flood was so terrible that the inhabitants of the ark were afraid their vessel would not withstand the might of the waters. From within the ark Noah prayed to the Lord:
“O Lord I beseech Thee, save us now! Without strength to save this great calamity, we come to Thee. The rivers of water terrify us, and death prays in waves about us. Lift up Thy countenance upon us, O Lord! Be gracious to us. Redeem us, our God; deliver us, and save us!”
Noah, his wife, his sons and their wives, as well as the animals on the ark and all sea creatures, are the only ones who survive the deluge. Because all people are the descendants of Noah’s sons and their wives, Noah is, in effect, a second Adam.
So God blesses Noah and his sons, and makes a pledge in which He promises to never again to “cut off” all flesh with the waters of a flood. In return, God commands Noah and his sons to be fruitful, to multiply and to replenish the earth. God also forbids the eating of animal blood (which can be interpreted as an injunction against animal cruelty), as well as the shedding of human blood. There is also an implicit commandment to set up courts of law to punish murder.
God gives the rainbow as a sign of the covenant. Some rabbis say the rainbow was one of the ten things created on the eve of the first Sabbath. Some say it is forbidden to stare at the rainbow because the Shekinah appears in it, adorned in garments white, red and yellow. In the Zohar, these colours are associated with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, respectively.
As well as being a sign of the covenant, the rainbow is also a sign of the divine presence. This can be seen in Ezekiel’s vision:
“Above the vault over their heads was what looked like a throne of lapis lazuli, and high above on the throne was a figure like that of a man. I saw that from what appeared to be his waist up he looked like glowing metal, as if full of fire, and that from there down he looked like fire; and brilliant light surrounded him. Like the appearance of a rainbow in the clouds on a rainy day, so was the radiance around him. This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord. When I saw it, I fell facedown, and I heard the voice of one speaking.” (Ezekiel 1:26-28)
The renewal of the covenant after the Flood is a promise of abundance. Hence the following promise in Leviticus:
“Your threshing will continue until grape harvest and the grape harvest will continue until planting, and you will eat all the food you want and live in safety in your land. […] I will look on you with favour and make you fruitful and increase your numbers, and I will keep my covenant with you. You will still be eating last year’s harvest when you will have to move it out to make room for the new. I will put my dwelling place[a] among you, and I will not abhor you. I will walk among you and be your God, and you will be my people. I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt so that you would no longer be slaves to the Egyptians; I broke the bars of your yoke and enabled you to walk with heads held high.” (Leviticus 26:5-6, 9-12).
But there is something about the post-Deluge covenant that somehow falls short. Man is allowed to eat animals, which was forbidden to Adam. And it soon becomes clear that discord is alive and well, hence the uncovering of Noah’s nakedness and the cursing of Canaan. Indeed, there is a litany of bloodshed, disaster and heartache even after the Flood. The prophets, only too aware of this, blame the continuing discord on unrighteousness.
But there is hope. The prophets repeatedly look forward to a better time, a day when God delivers creation and completely restores it. Indeed, the prophetic books are packed with visions of a future time when man and nature are no longer estranged from each other:
“I will make a covenant of peace with them and rid the land of savage beasts so that they may live in the wilderness and sleep in the forests in safety.” (Ezekiel 34:25).
“[…] I will make a covenant with them, with the animals of the wild, with the birds of the sky and what creeps on the ground. I will break bow, sword and war on earth, and I will let them rest in safety I will make thee mine own forever; I will make thee mine by right and justice, by loyalty and compassion, I will make thee mine by faithfulness, and thou shalt know [that I am] the Lord.” (Hosea 2:18-20).
May such things happen in our day.
The Ark will be shown on Monday March 30 on BBC1 at 20:30 and will be available on BBC iPlayer.