It is probably the single most famous story in human history. Or at least in western civilization. We all know it. It has powerful visual images: rain, flood, animals, a giant boat, a white dove, a rainbow. A simple but compelling plot. The complete destruction of the world, and then a redemptive rebirth. The story of Noah and the Flood predates even Jewish tradition — a similar story was included as part of the Epic of Gilgamesh, a Sumerian poem dating to about 2100 BCE, long before the Bible.
I want to tell a different story about the Flood. It’s also partly a personal story. It’s a story focused on the end of the biblical account, after all the action of the flood and the ark and the two-by-two animals. And although it’s not really about the Jewish people, it is still a story that I think we all oughta know.
At the age of six hundred, after floating on the waters of the Flood for 150 days, Noah and his ark come to rest on dry land on the mountains of Ararat. Yes, I said 150 days, not 40 days and 40 nights. It did rain for 40 days and 40 nights, but the flood itself lasted 150 days, and even after settling on land, Noah stayed on the ark another several months to wait for the waters to completely recede. All in all, the whole adventure lasted about a year.
The story of Noah is another section of the Hebrew Bible were the same story is told twice — and in this case, intertwined. For instance, in one place it tells us that Noah took two of every animal into the ark. This is what we’re all familiar with. But in another place it tells us that actually Noah took seven pairs of clean animals, two pairs of unclean animals, and seven pairs of birds. The length of the Flood is also given different lengths of time.
THE ARMENIAN GENOCIDE
I wrote my Master’s Thesis on the Armenian Genocide of 1915, and the American Jewish community’s response. I took a trip to Armenia, and there I found myself at the bottom of Mt. Ararat, 17,000 feet high and located just over the tense border with Turkey, looking up at the largest mountain I have ever seen. You don’t look at it so much as experience looking at it.
The Jewish story and the Armenian narrative connect in multiple ways:
- Noah had three sons: Shem, Ham, and Japheth. The Bible traces the Jewish lineage back to Shem, as he is the direct ancestor of Abraham, the first Jew. The Armenian tradition traces their lineage to Japheth. So ultimately, the Jewish and Armenian peoples recognize a common ancestor in Noah.
- In the same way that Armenians see Mt. Ararat as their ancient homeland — and the mountain itself as its spiritual center and sacred symbol — we Jews also give ourselves a biblical origin around the land of Israel, with Jerusalem at the center. You can substitute “Ararat” with “the Promised Land.”
- Both Jewish and Armenian history are filled with rebellions against tyranny and the fight for human freedom and justice, such as the story of Moses and the Exodus, or the Maccabees and Hanukah. The rulers of Armenia during the 5th century compared themselves to the Maccabees in their own fight for religious freedom.
- Ancient Armenia, like ancient Israel, was strategically located at a political, military, and economic crossroad, and struggled to maintain its independence as warring empires crisscrossed Ararat. Both Judea (ancient Israel) and Armenia were crushed in the same Roman campaign in the first century BCE.
And yet. Although Mt. Ararat is the sacred symbol of the Armenian people, it’s not in Armenia but in Turkey. The reason why Mt. Ararat is no longer in Armenia speaks to another connection between Jews and Armenians: genocide.
Thirty years before the Holocaust, beginning in 1915, over one and half million Armenians were murdered under the auspices of the Ottoman Empire, which itself was collapsing in the death throes of World War One. Similar to the ways that Jews were a hated minority throughout Europe prior to World War Two, the Christian Armenians often found themselves blamed and attacked by the surrounding Ottoman Muslim majority, beginning in the late 1800s. At the time, the Armenians lived in the region surrounding Mt. Ararat, which today includes the nation of Armenia and also most of eastern Turkey. By the end of the genocide, the Armenians of Turkey had either been murdered, pushed into the much smaller nation of Armenia, or fled abroad, primarily to the United States, and especially to California. Around 1.5 million were killed between 1915-1923.
For nearly two thousand years we Jews developed a grand culture and tradition around our ancient homeland in Israel, and not until 1967 were we able to access and live freely in the sacred center of our Promised Land — Jerusalem. Today, Mt. Ararat, the Armenian people’s most sacred national symbol, the landing place of Noah’s Ark, the holy mountain from which the Armenians consider themselves to have descended as the grandsons and daughters of Noah, remains so close, but still just out of their reach.
THE SEVEN LAWS OF NOAH
We are still pretty close to the beginning of the Jewish story. We are a long ways off from receiving the Jewish law from God at Mt. Sinai, after Moses frees the slaves. So the question is then, what laws are governing humanity right now?
After the Flood and the rainbow (actually a “bow” in the clouds that God placed to remind God — not people — that there is a covenant with humanity), God hands Noah seven laws:
Law 1: do not deny God.
Law 2: do not blaspheme God.
Law 3: do not murder.
Law 4: do not engage in illicit sexual relations.
Law 5: do not steal.
Law 6: do not eat from a live animal.
Law 7: make sure to establish a legal system to ensure obedience to the law.
The rabbis have said that someone who isn’t Jewish isn’t bound by Jewish law. On the other hand, the rabbis argued that everyone has to obey at least the seven Noahide laws, since God gave them to the sons of Noah and his ancestors — which is all of humanity. This is where we get that famous phrase, “whoever sheds man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed”, since the punishment for violation is death. But don’t worry, we have no records of the rabbis using the Noahide laws to punish non-Jews, so this argument is really just academic.
Still, many consider the Noahide Laws to be significant. In 1987 President Ronald Reagan issued a proclamation that the Seven Laws of Noah are “the historical tradition of ethical values and principles, which have been the bedrock of society from the dawn of civilization.”
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© 2017 Jason Harris