The Drunken Tzaddik
Humanity, according to the Torah, got off to a bad start. First, Adam and Eve violated the one commandment that God gave them and were subsequently kicked out of the Garden of Eden. Then their son, Cain, murdered his brother Abel—another mark against mankind. In fact, the Torah recounts, things got worse and worse, until at last God resolved to bring about a great flood and purge the earth of human evil. The only humans to be saved were Noah and family, since Noah was “a righteous man, unblemished in his generation.”
This was high praise, or so it seemed; but “in his generation” sounded to some like a qualifier, as if to say that in a better generation—Abraham’s, for example—Noah would have hardly been considered ‘unblemished”: it’s just that his contemporaries were far worse than him. But what exactly did they do wrong?
The Torah hints at a possible cause: it mentions a group of angels who came down from heaven to take wives for themselves among the daughters of men (Gen 6:1-2). Divine angels mating with human females? This certainly sounded like a serious infraction, crossing heavenly lines for immoral purposes—here, apparently, was the proximate cause of the great flood. But if these angels sinned, what were the humans guilty of? Ancient midrashists surmised that the angels must have gone on to reveal secrets of heaven not intended for human ears, ultimately causing both men and women to share in their guilt.
As for Noah, his particular virtue is stated only obliquely. At the beginning of the flood narrative, the text reports that God said, “My spirit shall not abide in humans forever, since they are flesh, but their days shall be one hundred and twenty years” (Gen 6:3). On the face of things, this pronouncement could not mean that the human lifetime in general would henceforth be limited to 120 years. Look at all the people who lived much longer even after the flood: Noah himself lived on to the age of 950, his son Shem lived to be 600, his grandson Arpachshad to 438, and so forth. For this reason, interpreters concluded that the 120 years were decreed for Noah’s generation alone: they were to be given 120 years to repent of their evil ways, and if not, then the deluge would begin.
But if, according to the Torah, God said the above, He must have said it to someone—and who might that have been if not Noah? No one else is mentioned. And if Noah was told, it must have been for some purpose. So it was that Jewish tradition understood Noah’s particular virtue to have been that of warning the people to repent. Having been told of what was in store, Noah tried for 120 years to convince the rest of humanity to repent—but no one listened to him. It is in this sense that he truly was “a righteous man, unblemished in his generation.”
Still, interpreters were left with one particularly troubling incident in Noah’s life after the flood was over:
And Noah became a man of the soil and he planted a vineyard. When he drank some of the wine he became drunk, and he lay uncovered in his tent. (Gen 9:20)
Drunk and naked in his tent—certainly not the behavior of a righteous man. Interpreters, however, proposed a way of saving his reputation, at least partially. Everyone knew that according to the Torah’s laws, the fruits of a tree’s first three years are forbidden for human consumption (Lev 19:23-25). Hence, it would have been quite a while before Noah could take his first drink of alcohol after the flood. At that point, after such a long wait, even the smallest sip of wine might have left him unwittingly inebriated. So perhaps he wasn’t entirely to blame.
One final question troubled interpreters, however: if Noah’s son Ham subsequently saw his father’s nakedness and mocked him (or perhaps worse!), why was it that Noah subsequently cursed Ham’s son Canaan (Gen 9:25)? He ought to have cursed Ham himself—after all, he was the guilty party! A commentary found among the Dead Sea Scrolls explains that Noah couldn’t curse Ham because God had already “blessed Noah and his sons” (Gen 9:1). So Noah did the next best thing, cursing his un-blessed grandson.