The Tree of Life /6
Reflections on the Book of Genesis by Luigino Bruni

The evil cannot triumph if there is the ark of the righteous

There were two completely strange creatures among those that found refuge in the ark. Among those who sought asylum with Noah, there was Falsehood, which was rejected because it did not have a companion: in fact, the animals were only allowed to come into the ark in pairs. So he went in search of a mate and met Loss, who joined him on a condition of getting all the other would earn from then on. So the two were allowed in the ark. When they left the ark, Falsehood saw that everything he could scrape together disappeared at once, and went to ask for an explanation to his mate. But in response Loss said to him: “Didn’t we agree that all your earnings would be mine?” So Falsehood remained empty-handed (from the Midrash on the Psalms, in The Legends of the Jews).

Arche de Noé3

 The first major work, the first enterprise narrated by Genesis is not the Tower of Babel, but a great ark of salvation and covenant built by a “righteous man” (6:9 ). The roots of the dignity and value of every civil and ethical technique, every economy and every human endeavour are deeply rooted in the righteousness of Noah.

The story of Noah, whose name means “rest, comfort” and is the heir of Seth (the new Abel), is one of the most beautiful, popular and longest stories of the book of Genesis (extending through six chapters, from 5 to 10). His figure appears when humanity, already out of Eden, had departed from the original vocation of Adam, and the sons of Cain and Lamech had prevailed over those of Seth. God (YHWH) “saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time” (6:5). So “the Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled” (6:6).

Therefore God sends “floodwaters” (6,17). Along with the human beings animals and plants are also mysteriously destroyed – they share in the sad fate of mankind. As if the Creator, having seen human corruption, could no longer “see” his creation beautiful and good, as if the land could not be “beautiful and good” any more if that “very beautiful and very good” thing (Adam) gets corrupted, lost and loses his vocation. This way the entire creation dies, too, to be reborn in the hope and expectation of a new Adam that would be still worthy to cultivate it and look after it in terms of a law of reciprocity. As for the ark of the Covenant (it is worth noting that the word ark (teba) is what find meaning “basket“, the one in which Moses was saved from death: yet another instance of alliance and salvation from the “waters“), Noah receives the order to let in a couple of each species of animals, birds and reptiles, apart from himself, his wife, his three sons and their wives – the salvation of the ark is also for its builders. It is beautiful and important that it’s is a raven and a dove – the latter one sits tamely on Noah’s arm – to appear as the first allies of the human being in the new land, where the alliance is established with the family and descendants of Noah, but also “with every living creature that was with you—the birds, the livestock and all the wild animals” (9:10). In a context of perversion and corruption, the last word is not death: at the centre of the scene we find a righteous man, the only righteous man left on earth (7:1). And it is with this righteous man that God enters into a contract, a “Covenant” (6:18), a word that enters the world with Noah, never to leave it again.

In the story of Noah we find the first grammar of every authentic vocation: there is a person who receives a call; then there is an answer; therefore an ark; and finally there is a non-hero. This call is addressed to a “you“, with a name. This “you” is a righteous man, therefore he responds to the call. When the call comes, especially if it is the decisive call of life, the righteous give an answer, and they answer in any context, at any age: at 20, 50 and also at 80, what’s more, even at 600 (the “years” of Noah, cf.: Gen 7:6). Noah does not respond by words; he does not talk to God, but he “walked faithfully with Him” (6:9). Simply walking is what the righteous ones often do: they do not talk, but they do things, they love and give life, and their words become their work, they “talk” by building an ark of salvation. Vocation is not a psychological thing, not a feeling but a being, a saving edifice.

So the first sign of Noah’s righteousness is his answer to the call. But the second, really decisive sign is the building of an ark, which gives content and truth to that personal call. When the call to build an ark is not felt inside a call, you should always question the authenticity of that call: without a task of “building, construction” a vocation is reduced to mere experience of “consumption“, and therefore does not save anybody, not even the one that received the call. Many self-deceptions and not infrequently neurosis has also been hiding behind “calls without arks of salvation“. Human communities, businesses and the world are saved every day from situations of degradation, failure and from radical crises only because there are people who feel a call of salvation and answer to it. Because there is at least one such person. A single person can be enough for a story of salvation. Instances of salvation come because someone feels a call to save themselves and to save all and, above all, because this someone builds an ark. Someone creates a work of art, founds a cooperative, a company, a union, an association, a political movement. Someone forms and takes care of a family, a child, a job or manages to carry a fruit-bearing cross for very long.

In all the stories of individual and collective salvation there is a “righteous man” and there is “an ark”. One of the most amazing spiritual, moral and aesthetic phenomena on earth is the presence of people who have received a vocation and that of the works arising from these (sometimes completely “mute“) vocations. The earth is full of people who build “arks” to save their own generation. These works, these arks are clearly distinguishable from other works, large and small, that also populate the earth and the economy. The conclusion of the story of Noah reveals a distinctive sign of the arks of salvation for us. His task completed, Noah returns to being a common man. Unlike Gilgamesh and the many protagonists of the numerous Sumerian and Akkadian accounts of the flood, Noah is not a hero or demi-god: he is simply a man, an ordinary man, but a righteous man. After having accomplished his work, Genesis shows him as a farmer: he plants the first vineyard on earth, gets drunk with the wine (the ambivalence of wine and life), lies naked in the tent (9:20-21), and is mocked by Ham, one of his sons (9:22). Noah, then, serves also as the paradigm of all the bearers of authentic charisma, who build an ark and do not feel a hero but a simple “pencil” (Mother Teresa), and who know when their task ends.

There are many righteous people who, at one point in their lives feel the call to build an ark of salvation for themselves and for many. This call comes in various forms, but if life grows and matures in justice, one day the crucial event arrives, when the “righteous man” realizes that if he does not build an ark he won’t save his people, and neither will he save himself. In other, not less important cases, however, there is a person who becomes righteous because at a crucial moment of their life they recognize a call in a voice and they respond and build an ark, and the process of building itself becomes the salvation of the builder (and then of many). It is the ark that “builds” Noah. In other cases still, an ark is sought to save the seeker and many others, but no calling voice is heard (or it is not recognized). The building of something starts, almost always in response to the pain of the world, however without a clear idea of the purpose of the work. Still, work is done, and a voice is expected. Sometimes this sense-making voice arrives during the construction work, at other times the work is continued throughout life only waiting for it. In such cases the ark becomes the voice and the call, and this “voiceless” Noah is no less righteous. There may be, and there are some arks built with no call, but there must be no calls without an ark built.

The story of Noah closes in a cosmic horizon, in a celebration of the land: “I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth” (9:13). Every time a righteous man builds an ark that first covenant is renewed. We are still saving ourselves, and with us the world is being saved. Noah the righteous continues to live among us, the whole earth is in celebration and we are given a new rainbow.

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 23/03/2014