Picturing Noah as a colonizer of an empty world rather than a survivor of a doomed world enables us to use Noah as a model for dealing not only with catastrophes, but also with the lesser setbacks of ordinary life. I will present a pair of puzzles about the Noah story, a pair of interpretive solutions and a pair of lessons for the modern world.
Puzzle I: Which Animals?
Noah takes a breeding pair of each sort of animal onto the ark to preserve them from the Flood which will destroy all other human and animal life (Gen 6:19, 7:2). Why does he take this assortment of animals? (If you think of Noah as merely following God’s orders, my question becomes, “Why does God tell Noah to take this assortment?”) This question has two prongs because Noah might have two different motives.
If Noah is taking animals for the sake of humanity, why does he take pests and predators rather than taking only the useful animals: domesticated animals plus game? Noah could have skipped the rats and coyotes.
If Noah is taking animals for the sake of the animals, themselves, why doesn’t he save the maxim number of animals by taking more of the smaller herbivores in place of large animals and carnivores? By ditching the two elephants, for example, Noah could save two hundred rabbits. And taking wolves seems downright counterproductive since the first thing they are going to do after the flood is to kill rabbits.
Puzzle II: Which People?
Noah is described as the only righteous person in his age (Gen 7:1), yet he takes his wife, sons and daughters-in-law onto the ark (Gen 6:18). Why does he take this assortment of people? In particular, why doesn’t he save more people? This question has two prongs because there are two sorts of non-righteous people: corrupt people and children so young that they have not yet had a chance to become righteous.
Since Noah takes his family onto the ark, it seems that ark boarding passes are not limited to righteous adults. Why doesn’t Noah take other corrupt people in addition to his family?
Secondly, why doesn’t Noah save lots of innocent young children? Babies don’t take up much room, after all. By ditching the two elephants, Noah could save two hundred babies.
A Shift in Perspective
We usually picture Noah as a survivor of an ancient apocalypse. This picture is correct, but misleading or limiting. I suggest that we think of Noah as a colonist. What is the difference? Survivors are backward-looking; they save what used to beimportant. Colonizers are forward-looking; they take what will be useful – what will work.
Pictured as a survivor, Noah is an animal-lover, and a progenitor of all humanity (a rerun of Adam). But colonists have to think about systems rather than individuals. Pictured as a colonist, Noah is a nature-lover, and a founder of a new society (a proto-Moses).
(1) Animal-lovers are concerned about the welfare of individual animals. Nature-lovers are animal-lovers plus more. They are concerned about the well-being of complex ecosystems. And ecosystems are collections of animals interrelated with each other and with the rest of their environment.
(2) Progenitors are concerned about the welfare of each of their descendants individually. Founders are progenitors plus more. They are concerned about the welfare of societies. And societies are collections of people interrelated with each other and with the rest of their environment.
If we think of Noah as a colonist planning to terraform and settle a fresh, empty world, rather than a survivor trying to preserve bits of an old, degenerate world, then we can see the reasons for Noah’s choices.
Solution to Puzzle I: Which Animals?
Animals don’t survive long outside of their natural environment. But a collection of useful animals and small herbivores won’t constitute a viable ecosystem. That is why Noah doesn’t take just these. It is not in the best interest of either the human colonists or the animals to bring a collection of animals which will soon die out. Noah must create an ecosystem. But Noah does not know which species are dispensable; even we in the 21st century don’t know that. Thus, Noah cannot pick and choose among species. He must bring them all.
Noah is not indifferent to animals. He opts to save fewer animals and more species because a thoughtful animal-lover must be a nature-lover. Noah realizes that kindness to animals does not mean preserving as many antediluvian animals as possible, but rather creating a functioning ecosystem in the postdiluvian world.
Solution to Puzzle II: Which People?
Thinking of Noah as a colonist also clarifies his choice of fellow colonists. A single adult or even a small group of adults couldn’t simultaneously build a society and raise a large group of young children. Imagine raising triplets in the modern world. Now imagine trying to raise 50 two-year-olds while building a farm from scratch without modern tools. Impossible! That is why Noah doesn’t take lots of children.
Similarly, one virtuous person plus a large number of vicious individuals would not be able to build a society from scratch unless they were already bound together by family ties. Even if they didn’t kill each other, they would fail to work together effectively. Virtue and/or kinship bonds are what enable cooperation and eventually civilization. So Noah may take corrupt people only if they are family.
Noah is no misanthrope. He realizes that preserving humanity requires the creation of a functioning society rather than just saving a collection of people. He takes fewer people than he might because (as Aristotle remarks) people are social/political animals as well as rational animals. Noah maximizes the chances for a new society rather than the number of saved people.
Lessons from Solution I
Animals are threatened across the globe not only by apocalyptic dangers such as climate change, but also by smaller-scale dangers such as pollution and destruction of habitats. Helping individual animals one-by-one is inefficient.
Building a dam in an ecologically sound way, preserving a habitat housing 10,000 animals, is easier, cheaper and more effective than building a dam which destroys the habitat, and then moving 10,000 animals elsewhere (even if, per impossible, some other habitat could absorb 10,000 new animals).
Sometimes we face hard choices between animal welfare and ecosystem welfare, but mostly they coincide. Noah’s choices remind us that what is good for an ecosystem is generally good for its animals. If you want to help animals (either for their own sake or because people depend on them), improve ecosystems.
Lessons from Solution II
People are threatened across the globe not only by apocalyptic dangers such as climate change, but also by smaller-scale dangers such as poverty and disease. Helping individual people one-by-one is inefficient.
“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” Noah might add, “Teach a man to fish and one man eats; improve society’s schools and a whole generation eats.” Improving an educational system is easier, cheaper and more effective than tutoring kid after kid after kid.
Sometimes we face hard choices between the welfare of individuals and the welfare of society, but mostly they coincide. Noah’s choices remind us that what is good for society is good for its people. If you want to help people, improve social structures.
To summarize, Noah makes the choices he does because he thinks in terms of ecological and social systems rather than individual animals or people. We should direct our efforts in the same way.