One of the very first Bible stories that anyone is taught is the story of Noah and the Flood. In fact, it might very well be the first (either that or David and Goliath). Either way, it’s up there. Nurseries in churches have little arks with animals for kids to play with. It’s the theme for VBS (Vacation Bible School) and even great fodder for adult Bible classes when discussing the righteous followers of God in the Tanakh. So I found it strange that up until now I had never realized that even though the Bible uses four whole chapters to talk about Noah, the Bible never records him speaking a single word until the very end of his story (literally, the last 5 verses of 91 total) and even then it’s a curse to his stupid son (Ham) and a responsive blessing in reaction to the curse. So I think it’s worth pondering why God, in His infinite wisdom, gave us these as the only words of one of the most righteous men to have ever lived.
The Bible says that Noah was righteous but lived in a wicked and terrible generation:
“The LORD saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time…Noah was a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time, and he walked with God.”
He is called a hero of the faith, and listed in the “Hall of Faith” (as some have nicknamed it) in Hebrews chapter 11.
“By faith Noah, when warned about things not yet seen, in holy fear built an ark to save his family. By his faith he condemned the world and became heir of the righteousness that comes by faith.”
Obviously Noah was a very righteous man. Due to popular Christian fictionalizations of this story (songs like “It’s Gonna Rain”, story books, etc), even though I had read this story multiple times, I somehow had it in my head that Noah actively tried to get people to repent of their wickedness while he built the ark. Incidentally, I also had somehow managed to think that people heckled him while he built it. Neither of these are recorded in the Biblical narrative. So why didn’t Noah try to save people? Many other major characters lived in times of terrible wickedness and they interceded to God on behalf of the righteous. For Abraham, it was with Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 18), and for Moses it was on behalf of Israel when God wanted to destroy them after the golden calf incident (Exodus 32). Why doesn’t Noah plead for the people that God will soon destroy? He doesn’t even try! Furthermore, why doesn’t the Bible record that Noah tried to call the people to repentance? The Bible does not say directly, but it can be guessed that from the time God instructed Noah to build the ark to the time it was completed was 120 years (Gen. 6:3). However you look at it, it took Noah a very long time to build the boat that would carry representatives of all living creatures. During this very long period of time, surely he had the chance to speak to the people or to God on their behalf, but this is not recorded. Why?
The Jewish tradition about the wickedness of Noah’s generation is that it started with impure speech and degenerated into rampant sexual immorality and violence (Rashi is one among many to make this assertion). This theme is then carried forward in multiple ways throughout the text. Here are a few ways in which this theme manifests:
As already noted, Noah does not speak the entire time except to curse his son and then bless his other two sons (but notice the “blessing” is tied heavily to the Curse of Ham). Noah did not engage in the sin of his generation until the very end where he becomes drunk, naked in a place where people could find him, and then curses his son. For such a central character, him not speaking seems to hint at there being a reason for it.
The dimensions of the ark were 300 cubits by 50 cubits by 30 cubits (Gen. 6:15). Modern scholars have been very quick to point out that there is no way that these dimensions could have held all the animals we currently see in the world. Perhaps instead of trying to tell us a literal number, God was trying to tell us something else when He gave the dimensions of the ark. In Hebrew, each letter of the alphabet has a numerical value associated with it. The dimensions (300 x 50 x 30) represent the letters lamed, shin, and nun – the letters which spell the word lashon (L-SH-N being Hebrew for “tongue, speech, language”). So it could be said that the ark came to rectify the evil that began with impure speech.
Finally it’s worth noting that the very next story in the Bible after Noah is the Tower of Babel. This story is introduced by the words “Now the whole world had one language and a common speech.” (Gen 11:1). If Jewish tradition is correct, then it appears that Noah (though a righteous man) fell for the same sin as those who had been destroyed by the flood. And by the time of the Tower of Babel, mankind had still not learned its lesson. And so what does God do to correct the problem? He confused their languages.
So why does the text never record Noah speaking until the very end? Well perhaps it is a hint that he did not engage in the sins of his generation (impure speech being the root cause thereby denotes the rest of it). But is what we say really such a big deal to God that if everyone was using impure speech He would flood the entire world? I think so. “The tongue” and the damage it can do is a large theme in the Bible. In Proverbs 6:16-19, the writer lists seven things that are detestable to God and #2 on that list is “a lying tongue”.
“A lying tongue hates those it hurts, and a flattering mouth works ruin.”
There are many other proverbs about the power of the tongue and why it is so bad to use it for evil, impure speech. Chapter 3 of the Book of James is dedicated to this very thing.
“The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.”
Interestingly enough, check out what James compares the tongue to:
“Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. Likewise the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts.”
Sure James uses other comparisons, but I find it highly interesting that he chose that one. James compares the effects of the tongue and the sin it can cause to a large boat. Could it be that Jewish tradition at the time had already set in place that the reason for the flood and ark of Noah was rooted in impure speech? It’s certainly possible as we know that the writers of the New Testament used popular tradition in their writings (e.g. Jude 1:9-10, a story from apocryphal writings that Jude quotes to make his point).
I hope at the very least that after this you will approach this “children’s story” from a new angle, more specifically one of utmost relevance to your life today. If God was so grieved by impure speech in Noah’s day that He regretted making mankind and was willing to wipe them all out, just think of how He feels about your own impure speech and/or thoughts. Furthermore we read that the generation of Noah’s day had become so evil that “every inclination of the thoughts of [man’s] heart was only evil all the time”. If it did indeed start with just impure speech, look how far it went: total deprivation. Think about this the next time you turn on a favorite television show, go to the movies, go to a website, or tell a crude (sexual, racist, etc) joke. What are you filling your mind with? And what are you allowing to escape from your tongue?
Think about it. It’s certainly a big deal to God, why isn’t it such a big deal with us?
Peace to you,