From Noah to Abraham

The transformation of God and humanity is a dynamic process, with each making the other possible.


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Jewish tradition is famously ambivalent about Noah. While Noah is praised in our parashah as “a righteous man; blameless in his age” who “walked with God,” midrash complicates our understanding. According to Rabbi Judah, Noah was precisely blameless “in his age,” but had he lived in future generations, he would not have been considered righteous. Similarly, while Noah “walked with God,” midrash suggests that this designation is lesser than that of Abraham, who “walked before God.” What then is Noah’s failing and wherein lies the distinction between his character and Abraham’s? 

american jewish world serviceImmediately after being introduced to Noah and told of his righteousness we are informed:

“The earth became corrupt before God; the earth was filled with lawlessness…God said to Noah, I have decided to put an end to all flesh, for the earth is filled with lawlessness because of them. I am about to destroy them with the earth. Make yourself an ark of gopher wood…Noah did so; just as God commanded him, so he did.” (Genesis 6:11-14, 22) 

God sees evil prevalent in the world and decides to purge it and start again from one righteous individual. He informs Noah of his plans and Noah faithfully accedes, immediately constructing the ark. Noah is obedient, but surprisingly unperturbed by the destruction of all life.

His behavior is, of course, in stark contrast to Abraham. When Abraham is informed by God of God’s intention to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, he asks “Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty?” bargaining for the opportunity to save the lives of the denizens of those towns. 

We see here the fundamental distinction between Noah and Abraham. Noah is obedient, he walks with God, but he makes no attempt to intervene; he simply saves himself from destruction. Abraham, on the other hand, acts to transform the situation. Though humble, Abraham is not content to merely be led. He confronts God, challenges the decree, and insists on involvement.

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Rabbi James Jacobson-Maisels teaches Jewish thought and mysticism at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.

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