Was Noah Good?

Was Noah Good? August 13, 2014

Genesis 6:8 says that Noah “found favor in the eyes of Yahweh.” In the following verse, we’re told that Noah was a righteous man (tzadiyq), blameless in his generations,” and this assessment is reiterated in 7:1, which records Yahweh’s statement, “you alone I have seen to be righteous before Me in this time.”

How does all thing hang together? Does Noah find favor because He is righteous? Was Noah Good? is the question that Carol Kaminski explores in her recent monograph on the subject.

Much of her argument turns on the structure of the early chapters of Genesis. 6:1-8 is often read as the beginning of the flood narrative, but Kaminski argues instead that these verses form the conclusion to the “toledoth (generations) of Adam” that began with 5:1. Taking note of verbal links between the beginning of chapter 6 and chapter 5, she argues that the intermarriage of the sons of God isn’t a sin of the immediate pre-diluvian generation, but a summary of the sin of mankind throughout the ten generations from Adam. Yahweh’s response of grief anticipates the flood, as does the announcement that Noah found favor, but structurally these statements form the conclusion to the account of humanity prior to the flood.

Based both on the literary setting of 6:8 and a review of other uses of the phrase “find favor in My eyes,” Kaminski concludes that the Lord’s favor to Noah was unmerited. It’s not based on his goodness, but an election of grace. Noah is included in Yahweh’s condemnation of the “wickedness of man” (6:5); even after the flood, when only Noah and his family are alive, the Lord is still lamenting the wickedness of the human race (8:21). Kaminski (mistakenly, I believe) takes Noah’s “drunkenness” as a sign that sin remains even after Yahweh has baptized the earth.

The pronouncement that Noah is a tzadiyq is, she argues, a judicial act: Noah is innocent. After the initial pronouncement that Noah is righteous, he obediently builds the ark, doing “according to all that God had commanded him” (6:22). And then he is pronounced righteous a second time (7:1). This second divine verdict is still a judicial pronouncement, but one based on his obedience. 

Kaminski puts the two pronouncements together: “the characterization of Noah as a ‘righteous man,’ which is explained in the ensuing story, points to a ‘fresh start’ of sorts. This also means that Noah is characterized as a ‘righteous man’ before his obedience has been described” (187). Thus, “6:9 is giving advance notice of the divine verdict in 7:1,” as a “summary statement of Noah’s life as a whole” (191). Though Kaminski doesn’t develop the point, this structure – the first time “righteous” has appeared in the Bible – supports a notion of double justification – a preliminary verdict that anticipates a final verdict that is a judgment concerning a life of obedience.

In the conclusion, Kaminski points out the connections between “justification” in Genesis 6-7 and in chapter 15: “The concept of faith is implicit in the flood narrative, since Noah is required to build the ark before the flood waters come – but nowhere is it stated explicitly. Given the presence of the noun tzadiyq in 15:6, along with its emphasis on Abraham’s faith that is reckoned to him as righteousness, the relationship between the verdict in 7:1 and Abraham’s believing in 15:6 is intriguing and worthy of closer examination. . . . Precisely how Abraham’s righteousness is being reckoned by YHWH in 15:6 presents an interesting question in light of YHWH’s verdict in 7:1, which is based on Noah’s obedience. One may wonder what has transpired in the narrative (or in God’s way of approaching humanity) that accounts for this change in emphasis, if there is indeed a change” (199). One may well wonder.

At a few points, Kaminski seems to be squeezing Genesis into a systematic framework that doesn’t quite fit. I’m not sure, for instance, why she feels a need to distinguish between righteousness and “moral goodness” (191). Perhaps it’s to do justice to the declaration that the intent of every heart is evil continually, perhaps because of Noah’s “drunkenness” (on which, again, I disagree with Kaminski), but at times it appears to be driven by concerns outside the text. Similar qualms come up in her insistence that the designation of Noah as “righteous” is a judicial verdict as opposed to a statement of relation; why can’t it be both? After all, Yahweh’s declaration of Noah as righteous is immediately followed by a Yahweh-Noah partnership to save the planet.

In the main, this monograph is patiently, relentlessly attentive to the text, and because of that Kaminski is able to raise questions that a more casual reading would gloss by. Her open question about the righteousness of Noah and Abraham is certainly one of these questions, one that is indeed a question worthy of further study.

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