In the painting Ham Mocking Noah (1510-1515) by Bernardino Luini, Ham points his finger at his father mocking, while Noah looks like he’s looking under the blanket. What has happened to Noah that requires this painful self-examination? Something has gone badly wrong. For their part, I think the rabbis know, and it’s not pretty. It’s something that perhaps Luini and perhaps the Bible only intuit. The Noah story is a rough story and the rabbis make it rougher. Whatever it is that happened there,the ark is presented as a place of violence, prohibitions, and anxiety around sex, procreation, and divine justice.
The pivot of these anxieties revolves around the need to “go forth,” to leave the ark. In Genesis Rabbah (the rabbinic commentary to the book of Genesis), the story inside the ark is imagined this way. As if chained to a bad place, Noah is reluctant to leave the ark, and will only do so when God tells him to leave. Just as God told him to enter the ark, God will have to tell him to leave the ark (Gen. R. 34:4). “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose.” The rabbis cite Ecclesiastes (Eccls. 3:1) to comment that Noah did not want to leave the ark. “Am I to go out and beget children for a curse?” (Gen. R. 34:6). Indeed, that is the question. To get him to go out, God has to promise not to flood the world again. That’s the problem.
According to the rabbis, as soon as and for as long as they remained in the ark, Noah, his children, and their wives were forbidden to cohabit. Animals are brought into the ark “that they may swarm in the earth” and “be fruitful and multiply upon the earth.” By this the rabbis mean in and upon the earth, but not in the ark (Gen.R. 34:7-8). As we will see throughout the commentary to Noah in Genesis Rabbah, for the rabbis procreation is theomorphic. Linking the prohibition against murder with the prescription to reproduce, Ben Azzai is quoted as comparing the person who refrains from procreation to one who, no less, both sheds blood and impairs the likeness of God. Here’s the prooftext. In the Bible, the phrase “In the image of God made He man” (sic) is followed by “And you, be ye fruitful and multiply.” Let’s not forget that the rabbis are steeped in a Byzantine world full of mosaic images. In this world of iconic imagination, to procreate is to reproduce a divine image (Gen r.34:14).
In all of this, there’s room for doubts here, actually two doubts. It’s not lost on the rabbis the irony that Ben Azzai himself refrains from this particular matter, because, well, he studies Torah. This particular point is not given a lot of thought here. Rather, the compilers of Genesis Rabbah have a more pressing set of doubts regarding God. Still commenting on “going forth” from the ark, R. Meir compares God to a judge who screens himself off from the world. God is compared to “a judge before whom a curtain is spread, so that he does not know what is happening without.” His colleagues warn R. Meir that he has said enough. The text then goes on to change the subject. The rabbis describe the fecundity of the generation consumed by the flood, when women birthed after only a three day, or a one day pregnancy, their little ones “sent forth like flock.” The reference here is to Job (21:11). But the theological question concerning the judgment of God is left unanswered. The rabbis want to know who was there to say to God, “You have not done well.” Why, they ask, did God hide God’s face from that generation?
This running commentary begins to look like a dyptich, with Noah on one side and Job on the other. For the rabbis, the answer, if that’s what it is, to the theological problem raised by R. Meir has to do with the capacity of a single person to regenerate the human race (Gen R 36:1). Again citing the book of Job, the rabbis turn to consider the “unfathomable” evil done by “mighty men.” God’s power remains God’s power. Who can say to God that God has not done rightly (Gen. R. 36:2)? It’s hard to say.
The rabbis claim that Noah entered the ark in peace and left the ark in peace (Gen. R. 36:2), but not for very long. The epilogue to the story as imagined by the rabbis returns us to the basic anxieties about procreation. In the Bible, after God establishes with him God’s rainbow covenant of peace and protection, Noah immediately plants a vineyard and gets drunk; according to the rabbis, all in one day. The righteousness of Moses is held up over against the righteousness of Noah, who ends up a castrate. (That’s the conjecture of the editors of the Soncino Press translation) (Gen R. 36:3). “Uncovered in his tent,” the rabbis take this to mean his wife’s tent.
What happened? In R. Eliezer’s name, R. Huna comments “When Noah was leaving the ark a lion struck him and mutilated. Now he went to cohabit, but his semen was scattered and he was humiliated (Gen. R. 36:4). But was it really a lion that did this to Noah? He woke up from his drunken stupor and “knew what his youngest had done to him.” The rabbis now blame Ham. It’s Ham who castrated his father. That’s what he “did to him.” Grieving in the ark for a young child to serve him, Noah had wanted to sire a fourth son. “But when Ham acted thus to him, he exclaimed “You have prevented me from begetting a young son to serve me.” And because Ham “prevented him from doing something in the dark,” i.e. sexual cohabitation, Noah cursed his seed. In the ark, we learn, Ham copulated with the dog, which the rabbis compare to a person who attempts to “mint his own coinage in the very palace of the king.”
In the painting by Luini, the colors are bright red and the outlines are clear. At first, I thought Noah was looking down at himself. Then I thought maybe he’s glaring at Ham. When I blew up the image, I saw that it’s not clear he’s even conscious. Perhaps it’s the two brothers who matter more. The one brother (Yaphet?) looks at his brother Ham in disbelief. The other brother (Shem?) looks away from the entire scene, disgusted but more knowing, as if he realizes that the scene and the situation it represents are complex. As the rabbis understand it, the story of Noah is not a story of righteousness, but of human degradation. Are these image true to life? I hope not. The human person does not come out whole out of these kinds of trauma.