Noah, Abraham and the Future of the World
The compilers of the Midrash were aware that the Jewish tradition was conflicted about Noah’s merits. The Torah seems to have no such qualms, describing him as righteous man, perfect among his generation, who walked with God. But some rabbis saw things differently, and they looked for hints in the Torah’s language which might suggest that Noah was not as great as he appeared.
In one Midrash we see a difference of opinion between Rabbis Nehemiah and Yehudah, two of the most frequent disputants in midrashic literature. R. Yehudah says, yes he was considered righteous in his generation, when the world was corrupt and violent. But if he had lived in the generations of Moses and Samuel he wouldn’t have been regarded so highly. “In the street of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.” (Bereshit Rabbah 30,9). R. Nehemiah disagreed. If he could remain righteous in such a wicked world, think how much more righteous he would have been.
Yehudah and Nehemiah also differed over what the Torah meant when saying Noah walked with God. Yehudah took this to mean that Noah was like a child who needed his parent’s support to get through the world. Nehemiah says it means that God regarded Noah as a friend struggling in a hostile environment, taking his hand to rescue him.
The reason why Yehudah and Nehemiah disagree about Noah’s character is because of Abraham. Noah may have been the father of humanity but Abraham was the ancestor of the Jews. The discussion is really about which of the two is a greater role model.
Yehudah argued that Abraham was greater. Noah listened to God and saved the world, but at the expense of the rest of humanity. But when God told Abraham that he was about to destroy to Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham challenged his justice.
Nehemiah didn’t compare the two, instead he saw Noah as a frail human doing his best, whereas Abraham had a unique, almost superhuman, quality that Noah could not be expected to emulate.
This is summed up in a parable in the Midrash. Whereas Noah walked with God, God is later quoted as telling Abraham to walk before him. This can be compared to a king who sees his friend sinking into the mud. The king comes out of his palace and grabs his hand. This is Noah walking with God. But he has another friend who looks out and sees his king walking through darkness. The friend shines a light out of the window. The king calls to his friend and tells him to come out and walk before him, illuminating the way. This was Abraham, who saw that God was unrecognised in the world, effectively walking in darkness. Abraham picks up a torch and shines it for God, allowing him to walk confidently through the world.
It is a challenging parable. Noah needs God but God needs Abraham. Noah saved the world physically. But by introducing God into the world, Abraham saved it spiritually.