I walked with Noah



Noah lived ten generations after the time of Creation. By that time, God had become disenchanted with the mankind that He had brought forth onto the earth; Man was increasingly – and then completely – immersed in wickedness. Noah, then 600 years old, was the sole exception. He “found favor in God’s eyes” and they walked together.

The consequence of God’s disgust led Him to blot mankind out from the face of the earth. He decided to destroy all living things, all flesh under the sky and all things with the breath of life, for God had “reconsidered having put man on earth.”

Given Noah’s righteousness, God excepted Noah from His decree. He commanded Noah to erect an ark in which to lead Noah’s family along with seven pair of all pure living things and two pair of the unpure. He told Noah that He would create a torrent storm for forty days and nights, and the only way they and, thus civilization, could survive would be to remain in the ark.

The rains poured down. All of the flesh of the earth perished. After forty days, the waters began to subside and when the land was sufficiently dry, the ark came to land on Mount Ararat. God commanded Noah and the others to leave the ark.

In celebration (or appreciation), Noah built an altar to God and offered burnt offerings upon it. Satisfied by the sacrifices, God promised that He would not again doom the earth or smite all living beings, recognizing that “the imagery of man’s heart is evil from his youth.” To commemorate His promise, God sent forth a rainbow — an everlasting covenant between God and every living thing.

Life continued for Noah. And even though he was the savior of civilization – all the world branched out from him – Noah was only a man. He debased himself when, after planting a vineyard, he drank of the wine until he became inebriated, “uncovering” himself. His son, Ham, the father of Canaan, “saw his father’s nakedness, ” or perhaps, as tradition has it, raped his father. Ham told his brothers Shem and Japheth.

Shem and Japheth, however, took a garment and placed it upon their shoulders. So as not to see their father’s embarrassed state, they walked backwards toward him and placed the garment on Noah, covering his nakedness. When Noah awoke, he realized what Ham had done. In his hatred, Noah beseeched God to put a curse on Canaan so that Canaan would be a servant to the offspring of Shem and Japheth.

At age 950, Noah died.


The very first sentence of the Bible says, “In the beginning God created the heavens and earth.” Not “the Lord created   .   .     .” Why the use of one Divine name, but not the other? Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki), the Eleventh Century French rabbi and perhaps foremost commentator on the Hebrew Bible, wasted little time in his miracle journey of interpreting the Five Books of Moses to sometimes explore God’s thinking – indeed His Mind.

For Rashi, “In the beginning,” God intended to create the world with a Divine Standard of Justice. Soon, though, He realized that the world could not abide that demanding standard. So He designed the Divine Standard of Mercy, to stand with the Divine Standard of Justice.

Rashi did not purport to speak or explain God’s Mind in first person (as I have below) – but he unquestionably sought to explain God’s Mind through the prism of Rashi’s own mind. With the easy stroke of a quill, as if he himself had interviewed God to learn His intimate thinking, Rashi tells us “God’s thoughts.”

The essay that follows imagines God’s thinking about the Generation of the Flood. Not intending to compare the author’s very human insights and limitations here to the greatness of Rashi’s, but rather using the latter’s unique genius as precedent for the process, the essay asks its readers to neither accept nor reject the author’s explanations (as occurred when commentators critiqued Rashi). Instead, he encourages believers, through introspection, to seek to better contemplate, understand and appreciate God’s Magnificent – albeit sometimes difficult-to-fathom – Design.


The world that I decided to create, populated by man that I placed in it, quickly became nothing like I had intended. I had hoped that man would evolve into something better than the sinner into which Adam had so easily lapsed when faced with the dictates of just One Law; just one injunction! Man’s willingness or (was it?) capacity to find favor in My eyes degenerated further in each generation. From “merely” eating from the Tree of Life, then to adultery, corruption, mayhem, robbery, murder and on.

Ten generations of that man, as I had created him, left Me forlorn. As wickedness consumed the earth, I found the need to violently end what had been existent on earth since Creation. I would relent because I loved man; I gave him 120 years to change his course – perhaps to change his nature.  But, I was committed to blotting out every living thing if the day arrived that repentance had not reversed man’s disposition, and I could find not one man worthy of obtaining clemency for humanity. I would leave to another day to decide whether to begin the world completely anew with mankind in it, or choose instead a world limited to the inanimate.

I wondered in solitude if the fault in man lay with Me. Maybe it was that, despite my disappointment, I loved mankind but never told him so. Still, I didn’t give up. I hoped that, just maybe, I would encounter one man – just one serene figure – in an abyss of malevolence, who had the rectitude to find favor in My eyes. Perhaps that sainted being might stir in Me a fresh breath of air to nullify My harsh decree to dispense with man until the end of Eternity. It would be like the breath I blew into Adam’s nostrils to form him, so many years before.

The painfulness of My (apparent) failure, largely brought on by my having accorded free will to man, weighed too heavily upon Me to decide, just yet, the fate of my Creation. Mankind had simply turned out as woeful. But why, after all, had I created man in the first place? Didn’t I know what man, without restraint upon his moral being, might become?

Although surely I understood the possibilities given man’s limitations, man himself wouldn’t understand why I countenanced man’s potential for bad. Perhaps, for man, I acted in loneliness. Or boredom. Or mischief. Man can only see how I created the world through the nearsightedness of his own limited imagination – how he himself would have created it, or would have done better, if the world were his to create.

For man, a world without humanity would seem senseless. For him, darkness and light, dry land and sea, animals and vegetation mean nothing except as defined by him.  For man, lesser creatures – beasts and plants – are ancillary and subordinate. Men, even the best of them, see themselves as gods that all else is there to serve – for beauty, for sustenance. I, though, see only equals. Are beasts lesser beings; is the ocean less powerful than man; the forest less enduring? Perhaps to man; but not to Me.

Through My own eyes, then, had I ceased Creation before I gathered the earth’s dust to create man, the world would still have been magnificent and complete. True, the possibility of obeisant praise and cherub-like thanksgiving to Me would not exist. But, also, the world would lack critique and complaint – traits unique to man. The beasts of the field, fish, fowl and plants never complain if the sun is hot, the seas are raucous, or the winds are overwhelming.

So if man did not exist, I could have watched the waters imbued with “free will” halt at the edge of dry land or overflow it in torrent, all without man’s commentary. If the waters overflowed whilst man remained un-gathered dust on the ground, nature’s ebb and flow would have been nothing more than that. As if, before man evolved into the “commentator on the Ways of God,” an antediluvian isthmus that no man had ever known had been submerged by a recklessly, destructive tide. But with man’s arrival, My solitary existence that I had so cherished would no longer be – my intercourse with man would too overwhelm Me.

Yes, I could have ignored man’s complaints or failures. I could have returned to the timeless darkness that preceded the Creation without imagining man or forming him in My image and been content. And if I had wanted a sinless world once I saw how easily Adam had fallen, I could still have recast mankind and created subservience. Or I could have modified man to be My plaything, as are the angels that administer to me in robotic supplication.

But, then, man would have been imperfect (as are My angels), by virtue of his perfection. Why bother with a world of total obedience to Me, that would leave Me unable to assess whom to reward? This would be another argument that the Devil would hurl at Me. For he did so when I later told the Devil that Job would suffer but remain steadfast to Me, despite the freedom I gave him to curse at Me when the Devil taunted Job, with all awry going for him.

Nonetheless, by the time Noah would begin to slouch into old age, mankind would choose only evil. Good seemed beyond man’s ken. Why did I never truly understand man’s decision to choose evil? Did I set too much temptation before him? Did man fear that the end of his temporal life would mean the end of his existence; that the finite nature of life left no reason for good? Or was man simply a “devil on earth” who saw no fork in the road allowing him the choice of good? Why else would the Generation of the Flood be so incapable of the better choice?

But how did Noah’s and My “eyes meet” so that Noah would find favor in Mine? Did he pray to Me, before prayer was known? Did he worship Me? Did he honor the Sabbath before “the Sabbath” had even become a means to worship? Did he abstain from animals that were impure under My Law?

No. Noah stood tall and alone, as would later the Tower of Babel to a different end because, before they were codified into My Law, Noah honored God’s Laws. All that they required was a life of civility, humanity and common decency. The reason Noah stood so tall (for Me) over every human creature in his generation was because Noah, alone, intuited what was truly required of man.

And, so, I later told Noah that the world, as it then existed, would have forced itself to reach an end. I instructed him with detail to build an Ark for the future of animate life which would survive through Noah’s loins. While he built it, the rest of humanity simply scoffed, branding Noah a foolish old man given to alarm – they having already ignored 120 years of his remonstrations that they set aside their self-destructiveness. Their resistance to Noah’s discourse further persuaded Me to discard My canvass and begin to paint anew. And so I did.

Before I made that fated decision, however, how did Noah compare to all else human that then existed? Time for Me is timeless, not chronological – I see yesterday with no greater recall than I see the day I created the sun and moon. But yet there is context. Today mankind appears more civilized than when Noah lived – but is that appearance reality? Man may be less barbaric now than then, but his willingness to seem civilized may not be real. He now has laws, although he didn’t then. When a man wished to take another man’s wife, no code constrained him. Now there is law but yet, man does as he will. The only real difference – my promise to never again to destroy life.

To explore that promise I made while the waters of the Flood slowly evaporated would surely be worthwhile. Years later, I reminisced to Moses atop Sinai about those world-changing moments at Ararat. My promise to never again destroy life due to man’s conduct was curious –as I would later tell Moses, “the imagery of man’s heart is evil from his youth.” As if I didn’t already know that reality from the very moment that Adam sinned at the Tree of Knowledge!

And even though Noah had so pleased me, I deliberately chose not to confide in him My promise – as I would later tell Moses, my bond was only “in My heart.” Was I concerned that I wouldn’t be true to My Word – that My temper over mankind’s behavior would get the best of Me? Did I not wish to impart the future history of the world to Noah, a man not steeped in the Torah? Or was My “promise” only retrospective – a promise made at Sinai and poetically backdated by Me to Ararat?      

What about Noah so appealed to Me to differentiate him from the rest of mankind? It couldn’t have been his sweet, savory sacrifice – for that didn’t reach Me until after his selection as “My favorite son.” It couldn’t have been his soft spoken matter – evil men too can speak softly. Was it his gracious manner – when graciousness, too, can be improvised by the disreputable? Indeed, I did not explain – not even in the Bible – what I found so compelling to make him mankind’s “savior”.

Unlike Abraham ten years later, Noah never articulated a belief in Me or lived his life in accord with that belief. It is interesting whom I choose – and whom I chose – for special roles in the history of man. I might say that they simply appeal to Me: David, after all, was “a man after my own heart.”

But Noah – did he leap to My commands? Did he assist aging widows with alms? Did he heroically save the wounded? Did he visit the sick? Did he show fealty to My Name? What did his mind see when he observed the constancy of evil? Did he warn his sons about the wages of sin – when the term “sin” did not yet define a category of human behavior? I can’t say – perhaps I choose not to – that Noah didn’t recognize the wrongdoing about him. Or was he simply indifferent to it? It is hard to fathom his seeing those around him and doing nothing to rebuke his fellow man.

No, man will (correctly) conjure nothing to explain My being drawn to Noah – beyond the simple reality that Noah “found favor in [My] eyes.” I see greatness in some that mortals often don’t. My thoughts are infrequently in sync with those of man.

But, perhaps more imposing, how did Noah envision Me? Did he recognize that I intended him to be mankind’s lifeboat? Or did he wonder – as I have – whether I could have found a worthier man as the link to mankind’s future?   Did Noah see Me as All Powerful, or All Beneficent? Did he commune with Me at night in a vision? Or did he hear My voice in the clear light of day? Did he fear Me for what I threatened? Was his sense of Me such that he didn’t seek forgiveness from Me for others who would not board his Ark? Or was he simply grateful that I allowed him to save only his own family? Was Noah “Righteous In His Own Generation” but not beyond it, because no inner voice urged him to Repair the World?

As I have fathomed Noah’s thoughts, consistent with My promise to never destroy the world again, I have wondered whether the tableau of Noah’s existence should cause Me to evolve in how I preside over the world. Whether people have considered it or not, the very essence of Noah impacted My relationship with man. He alone, without a word attributed to him, gave promise to the very future of existence. Noah, not I, motivated my having painted the rainbow.

While some choose to diminish Noah in comparison with Abraham, the comparison is frivolous. I see them equally in what they gained for the world. Indeed, Abraham advocated strenuously to save the lives of innocents. Nevertheless he, like Noah before the Flood, seemed to do little to deter the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah from sin. Should I ask more of the common man than I do of these two favorite sons? Perhaps only the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah and their ilk – long after the Torah was given – could have been counted on by Me to perform the unpopular task of remonstrating man for his evil ways.

But what does it say that Noah, who effectively became the Adam of his time – who supplied the lifeblood of humanity – had given life to sons unworthy of praise? Or that Ham pleasured in the debasement of Noah, his own father, who desperately resorted to the fruit of the vine, presumably to ease the pain of life? With a man as great as Noah, how could he have been moved not merely to curse Ham who had raped him, but rather his grandson Canaan – urging Me to make Canaan’s offspring forever slaves, thereby punishing an entire line of his offspring?

How could this iconic figure have taken such startling action to punish his own flesh and blood not even born when Noah’s son had degraded him? Perhaps Noah was a child of intemperance – a willingness to visit the sins of the father upon the son – learned at the feet of Myself, with whom he so classically walked? Was his overreaction any different from that which had led Me to virtually destroy what, ten generations earlier, I had so happily created?

Or, was this something altogether different? Was Noah’s curse of Canaan (by name), a curse invented many generations later to rationalize My decision to defeat the people of Canaan when the Hebrews would invade the Land of Israel? Would a Canaan cursed for all time by the saintly (patriarch of the world) Noah, ably justify the Israelites’ indifference to those who inhabited the Land that they desired?

Whatever it was, the story of Noah’s sin in planting a vineyard – becoming inebriated and uncovering himself – is remembered for the wrong reason. Yes, in that moment of his infirmity, Noah did fail Me. He created the capacity for his son Ham to abuse and disrespect him, thus violating what would become the Fifth of My most critical tenets. But the story is not about how Noah failed Me. It is rather about how I judge man, versus how man judges man. When Noah failed Me in that moment of personal descent, I could have left him and his legacy at the foothills of Ararat. I could have seen him as an enabler of his son’s misconduct, and even an enabler of the wicked of the earth.

Maybe the story of Noah’s fall is about the reality of man’s makeup that I Alone created – man’s nature, perhaps his beauty, lies in his imperfection. I could so easily have changed that nature the day that Noah left the Ark, and could do so now if I wished.

I did walk with Noah, and I walk with him still. The greatest of my sons and daughters, and Noah lies among them, have sinned against Me. It is, however, because of the likes of Noah, that I came to realize that I cannot expect perfection when I created man in My Image, but did not create him to be Me.

There is pain and suffering in the world, partly because I created man with the capacity to sin; men who lack a mercy component in their being. When Noah seemed unmerciful – when he cursed his innocent grandson, or when he didn’t do all that he could to deter mankind of their evil ways – perhaps he simply replicated Me in some way.

Given Noah’s being drawn toward the banal nature of man who sinned around him, why was he My choice to save the world? The answer is simple. Despite his occasional stumbling, I will indeed always walk with Noah, and those who aspire to be like him. Noah, after all, lovingly served Me by serving mankind. And while he is man and I am God, I will always recognize that we are in some ways more alike than mankind might come to realize.

About the Author
Joel Cohen is a white-collar criminal defense lawyer at Stroock in New York and previously a prosecutor. He speaks and writes on law, ethics and policy (NY Law Journal, The Hill and Law & Crime). He teaches a course on "How Judges Decide" at Fordham Law School and Cardozo Law School. He has published “Truth Be Veiled,” “Blindfolds Off: Judges on How They Decide” and his latest book, "I Swear: The Meaning of an Oath," as well as works of Biblical fiction including “Moses: A Memoir.” The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Stroock firm or its lawyers.