What the Words "Noah" and "Ark" Tell us About God
"WTF? (Why the Flood)" Part Five: Genesis 6 differs from other Ancient Flood myths by dramatically changing the name of the Hero and the Sea Vessel. Why the changes?
LOOKING FOR MAJOR DIFFERENCES
Last week we explored the first of three major retcons found in the Hebrew version of the Great Deluge Myth.
To refresh, a retcon is a way to name the process for when a storyteller alters previously established details of a narrative so as to make a particular point. The retcon we looked at last week was how the Israelites changed the story from being about a “plurality of gods indifferently destroying humanity,” to a “singular God who embodies compassion and care.”
In other words, God—according to the ancient Israelites—is one who sees, one who loves, and one who cares.
Today let’s look at another major difference between Genesis 6-9 and other ancient Flood stories: the differences in the names of the Hero and the Boat.
THE POWER OF A NAME
It’s a bit hard for us modern folk (especially in the West) to fully comprehend, but names in the ancient world mattered. A lot. You could discern loads about a person or place based on their name. It meant something.
Surveying three of the ancient flood myths, here are the hero’s names and what they meant:
Sumerian Flood Myth Hero: Ziusudra, “life of long days”
Assyrian Flood Myth Hero: Atra-hasis, “exceedingly wise”
Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh Flood Hero: Utnapishtim, “he who found life” (for if you recall, he was granted immortality by the Gods.)
So then what of our old buddy Noah. What did his name mean?
Well, the best answer to that is…
we’re not exactly sure.
According to scholars the Hebrew characters for the word Noah break the usual rules governing the naming of things. That being said, Jewish Rabbi’s have debated various ways to understand the “Noah,” and I want to highlight two of them.
NOAH THE NO-BODY
Remember Arya’s story arc in Game of Thrones when she travels to Braavos to train with the Faceless Man to become an assassin? Part of her training involved detachment from her name.
A girl has no name.
Stripped of meaningful identity.
Story-less. Meaning-less. Empty.
In a similar kind of way, one possible meaning for “Noah” is that it doesn’t really have a meaning. In other words, it is merely a generic placeholder. As though the writer was saying, “Then there was this dude who found favor in God’s eyes.”
A man has no name. No meaning. No story.
According to this interpretation the motivation for naming the hero Noah is actually to point away from Noah. For the story isn’t about the Hero. The story is about God.
Again, we’re looking for contrasts between Genesis and older Flood Stories. In the other Myths the heroes were brave and courageous. You had “life of long days,” and “exceedingly wise.” You had a hero rewarded with “he who found life” because he and his crew were so mighty.
Just an uninspiring, run-of-the-mill human.
Which, for what it’s worth, feels kinda good, doesn’t it? If God is in the business of only rewarding or protecting or caring for the heroic, then what would that say about the Divine? You follow?
Now, full transparency here: I like heroes. I like winners. With mild apologies, I root for dynasties in sports teams and rarely (if ever) the underdog.
Needless to say, I’m a perfect product of meritocracy and capitalism.
I’m not saying I’m proud of this, I’m just naming it. And as a person with loads of privilege, I have historically been a kind of “hero” in various settings. Rewarded for hard work, for good work, or just because people like me.
So while my lesser-angels gravitate toward the Flood Myths of old where the Hero is, to quote the classic show from the 60’s,
“the Mate was a mighty sailor man, the Skipper brave and sure”
I can appreciate the superior version of a story highlighting how God does not show favoritism to the most talented or the most physically striking (I’m reminded of how the Israelites, when choosing their first King, gravitated toward Saul because he fit the bill for what most humans think of as a Winner. I’m sure I would’ve voted for Saul, too. But the Bible insists, over and over again, that is not how God rolls.)
As far as the second way that scholars interpret the name Noah? I’ll get to that next week when we explore the third retcon.
Wrapping up today’s post, though, take a look at how Genesis changes the name of the vessel used to keep the characters in the story safe.
IT’S AN ARK, NOT A SHIP
Understandably, the other flood stories refer to the Hero’s vessels as a “boat” or a “ship.”
By contrast, the Genesis story uses the Hebrew word tebah when describing what God told Noah to build. This word got translated in to the Greek as kibotos, and then translated in to Latin as arca, meaning “large box or chest.”
Hence our English word ark.
Now tebah was only used twice in the entire Hebrew Bible. Once here, with Noah, and then again later in Exodus 2 during the story of the birth of Moses. You may recall that Exodus starts out with Pharaoh decreeing that all Hebrew born males should be cast into the Nile, yet when Moses’ mother gave birth to him she hid him for three months and, when she could hide him no longer, “she took a basket made of reeds, sealed it with tar and pitch, and placed her baby boy in it.” -Exodus 2:2-3
That “basket made of reeds?” You guessed it: a tebah. Oh, and did you notice the whole “sealed it with tar and pitch?” If that sounds familiar it’s because God told Noah to “make yourself an ark of cypress wood (tebah); make rooms in it and coat it with pitch inside and out.” -Genesis 6:14
The parallels are not a mistake. You might say, then, that for the ancient Israelites a tebah is their way of saying “a life-saving vessel.”
A ship, or a boat? Those are things you control. You navigate. You steer. Should the weather start to get rough, and your tiny ship get tossed, you can have “the courage of a fearless crew” so that the Minnow doesn’t get lost.
But in a tebah? You just,
Nothing to steer. No levers to pull. No oars to row. No sail to raise.
If you survive it won’t be because you’re a great sailor or shipman.
Baby Moses didn’t do a darn thing but just be in his tebah. And yet the tebah granted him safety and rescue from death.
Likewise, Noah didn’t anything inside his tebah. But again, it was the vessel through which his life was saved from the rising waters.
GOD SAVES BECAUSE GOD SAVES
So what might the Hebrew storytellers of Genesis 6-9 wanted readers to understand about their conception of God?
Not only is their God a compassionate and caring God, but God enacts rescue and salvation based not according to the merit of the human but as a direct result of the heart of the Divine.
What’s is our part to play? What role do we execute?
Just get inside the ark.
You do not have to hustle or earn or prove your worthiness.
You are worthy of God’s care and protection and nurture simply because you are loved by God.
Is it any wonder that, centuries down the road, Jesus would spend most of his time with the nobodies and the no-names? Those whom society viewed as not good enough? Not worthy? The littlest, the lost, and the least?
Humans love heroes because they are brave and strong and mighty.
God loves humans because, well, they are human.
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CATCH UP ON THE SERIES
PART 1: The Myth of the Great Flood