What Happened in that Tent?!

Even millenia before Facebook and the ubiquitous puppy and kitten videos, people have always been suckers for stories about animals. What other possible reason could there be to explain why the story of Noah and the Ark has become one of the most identifiable and beloved narratives of all time?

And if it has animals, then you know kids will love it too. There’s nothing more cute and cuddly than pairs of furry creatures lining up to go for a boat ride. This presents a perfect opportunity to introduce young people to the words of the Bible.

Except…is it? Is it really?

The story of Noah and the Flood happens to be one of the most horrific and violent stories in the the entire Torah. It centers around a man so pathologically selfish that he utters not. one. syllable. when God informs him that the entire world–except for him and his family–will be destroyed. Unlike every modern movie that spells out in the credits, No Animals Were Harmed in the Filming of this Movie, countless animals along with every human being were in fact subjected to the most agonizing suffering by drowning. (Except maybe the fish? I figure they must have had some arrangement with God beforehand–but there was no one left who could testify about any squid pro quo.)

After the Flood, after the raven, after the dove, Noah finally emerges from the ark. Even in this, he displays no courage and no initiative whatsoever. He’s content to sit in that smelly ark forever, unconcerned with the fate of the outside world. God finally has to command Noah to leave the ark.

Then–in a detail that is never included in any of those plush pop-up children’s books–Noah offers a sacrifice to God. Think about that wickedly ironic detail: Only a tiny fraction of the world’s animals were saved from destruction, rode out months and months in what must have been a harrowing experience as the only living creatures anywhere on earth, emerged unharmed from the ark–only to be killed and burned as a sacrifice. God, who had already capriciously sentenced the entire world to a violent death, was apparently pleased by the smell of burning meat.

So now the Flood has ended, Noah and his family along with most of the animals have successfully disembarked from the world’s worst cruise–this should be where the action finally calms down. Not yet–the text tells us that Noah planted a vineyard–then it yada yadas the years that the grapes grew, ripened, and were turned into wine–and Noah went off on a looooooong anticipated bender. And here is where the story takes a dark and disturbing turn.

Noah, now very drunk, is sitting in his tent–naked. His son Ham discovers him in this embarrassing state and tells his brothers, Shem and Japeth. Those two take a sheet to cover their father and enter the tent backwards, presumably to be considerate of Noah’s feelings, but more likely to spare themselves the retina-burning site of their drunk and naked father. Noah, upon sobering up, becomes enraged at Ham, after “he learns what his youngest son had done to him,” and curses him and his descendants who go on to become the ill-fated Canaanites.

What happened in that tent? Did Noah, furious with embarrassment at his own shameful actions, lash out at the one person who saw him in that state? Was there some incident of sexual abuse that was later redacted from the Torah? Did Ham suffer an act of sexual impropriety and then was himself immediately blamed and vilified? While we will never know the answer, it’s interesting to note that after God curses Ham, he blesses Shem and Japeth, at which point the story immediately advances 350 years to the death of Noah. After this mysterious incident, there’s no meaningful interaction or dialogue among the whole family from that point forward.

This lesser known coda to the Flood story is often interpreted as a cautionary tale on the consequences of excessive drinking, and it is most certainly that. But I think it might be even more relevant as a modern statement on what often happens to those who are courageous enough to step forward and report on inappropriate, unwanted, or abusive conduct–often they themselves are made to suffer the worst punishment.

Perhaps there’s a better character than Noah to write cute children’s books about.

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Cantor Matt Axelrod has served Congregation Beth Israel of Scotch Plains, NJ since 1990. He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and a national officer of the Cantors Assembly. Cantor Axelrod is the author of Surviving Your Bar/Bat Mitzvah: The Ultimate Insider's Guide, and Your Guide to the Jewish Holidays: From Shofar to Seder.

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