all in the same boat
In this era of globalization, when the climate, the economy, and the worlds of telecommunications and the media all combine to make the fates of nations ever more entwined, could there be a more striking image of the precarious and common destiny of humanity than Noah’s ark? The entire future of mankind – and of the animal world as well – faces the elements in a frail vessel in which all share a common fate.
But the story of Noah carries a deeper message about globalization – about the universal and the particular, about the things we share as nations, and the distinctive elements that tell us apart.
The story of Noah is not unique to the Bible. Indeed accounts of a great flood are found in the traditions of many peoples. Mesopotamian traditions, in particular, have flood legends which are strikingly similar to the story of Noah, most famously in the ‘Epic of Gilgamesh’.
In all of these stories, a great flood destroys all of humanity, but one man is warned by God (or the gods), and given instructions for the building of a boat and the collecting of animals, which leads to his survival and the continuation of mankind. Other common features include the fact that the boat comes to rest on a mountain, that the hero sends out birds to see if the waters have subsided, and that upon leaving the boat the hero gratefully offers thanksgiving sacrifices.
The remarkable similarities between the story of Noah and these other early accounts convey a powerful message of a common cultural heritage – different peoples of the world sharing a common reservoir of traditions and legends.
But just as important as the similarities are the differences. With all its parallels to the Mesopotamian legends, the Biblical account has a very different focus – and message.
Perhaps most significant of all is the reason for the flood. In Mesopotamian accounts the flood is arbitrary, or else the angry response of the gods to the disturbing noise made by mankind. In the biblical story the reason for the flood is a moral one, the corruption of mankind – and the reason that Noah in particular is saved is because of his personal moral righteousness.
The difference is profound. Indeed, the message of the Mesopotamian versions of the legend is ultimately one of helplessness, the powerlessness of man in the face of arbitrary and capricious gods. The biblical account, on the other hand, is empowering, stressing that the survival of the human race is dependent on us, and that by our actions we can become the authors of our own destiny.
The long history of the people of Israel, and the brief history of the State of Israel, have again and again seen the courage and vision of individuals secure the survival and wellbeing of the nation. This history serves as powerful testimony to the uniquely Biblical idea that our fate is not arbitrary, and that we can and must act to ensure our survival and prosperity.
The story of Noah, then, carries a double message: First, it emphasizes the common heritage that we share with the nations of the world, many of whom have within their traditions similar stories of a great flood which threatened to destroy the entire world. But at the same time, it reminds us of the unique message of our own tradition, and our own history, that our destiny is not arbitrary, but lies within our own hands.
In others’ words
“The State of Israel is like Noah’s Ark; all sections of the people must find a way to live in peace inside one boat.”
Former Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau at a memorial service for Yitzhak Rabin, October 2004
On a lighter note
Noah’s Ark – the contemporary version
The Lord spoke to Noah and said, “Noah, in six months I am going to make it rain until the whole world is covered with water and all the evil things are destroyed. But, I want to save a few good people and two of every living thing on the planet. I am ordering you to build an ark.” Six months passed, the sky began to cloud up, and the rain began to fall. The Lord looked down and saw Noah sitting in his yard, weeping, and there was no ark. “Noah!” shouted the Lord, “Where is My ark?” “Lord, please forgive me!” begged Noah. “I did my best, but there were some big problems. First, I had to get a building permit for the ark’s construction, but your plans did not meet the building code. Then my neighbors objected, claiming that I was violating zoning ordinances so I had to get planning permission. Next, I had a big problem getting enough wood for the ark, because there was a ban on cutting trees. And now, when I finally started gathering up the animals I’ve been sued by an animal rights group that objects to me taking along only two of each kind. Really, I don’t think I can finish the ark in less than five years.” With that, the sky cleared, the sun began to shine, and a rainbow arched across the sky. Noah looked up and smiled. “You mean you are not going to destroy the world?” he asked hopefully. “No,” said the Lord, “the government already has.”