The Scary Side of Noah’s Ark

Midrash Tanhuma fills out details of the Noach (Noah) narrative that would never appear in a children’s book.

The word usually translated “ark” in the Biblical text is tevah, an Egyptian loan-word meaning “box.” This particular box kept the killer Flood out, but nonetheless it was a box of misery. The midrash tells us that Noach and his sons did not sleep for a year because all the animals needed feeding around the clock. 

Some of the animals were dangerous: a lion bit Noach so badly that he carried the scars for the rest of his life. Noach’s family was trapped for forty days and forty nights with ravenous, miserable animals. Quoting Psalm 142:8, Bring my soul out of prison, that I may give thanks, the rabbis tell us this refers to Noach’s prayer to be released from the prison the ark had become, because life inside his box had become nothing but agony.

The rabbis pitied Noach, but they also judged him very harshly: he accepted God’s orders without asking any questions. Abraham, by comparison, had advocated for his fellow human beings in Genesis 18:22-33, when he asked God to spare the evil city of Sodom if even ten righteous people lived there. 

The rabbis urge us to compare Noach, who only saved his own family, to Abraham, who cared for people he did not know. Had Noach had the courage to confront God on behalf of others, might he have saved himself and his family a nightmare?
What boxes do we construct in the name of comfort or safety that ultimately turn out to be prisons?

A version of this drash first appeared in the CCAR Newsletter.