Why Kids Love the Noah Story

By Harvey Shapiro

Published October 31, 2003, issue of October 31, 2003.

When God decides to destroy His creation — the inhabitants of this earth and all the flora and fauna except for Noah, his family and the very precise passenger list God gives Noah — it is very early on in Genesis. Of course, He is going to try again to make a better world. This is destruction with the promise of resurrection; it isn’t mindless destruction. However, there is something arbitrary about it; the exact reasons for God’s displeasure with man are not spelled out, certainly not as precisely as the instructions He gives to Noah for the construction of the ark. And why does His displeasure spread over all His creation: “and every living substance that I have made will I blot out from off the face of the earth.”

One can read into His decision a certain capriciousness: If you can create a world, why not uncreate it, as if there were equal pleasure in both activities? I think this is why children take to the Noah story: One can see them mimic it in playground sandboxes and on summer beaches, constructing and destroying. And then to have the whole adult world at sea, better than a school-stopping snowstorm. Add to that the wild beasts padding through the living room (Noah’s living room on the ark). I tried to put these thoughts into a poem some years ago.

The Destructive Will This, then, is the child’s wish: To see the earth a dancing flood And the new home floating free, And all irrational, outside, inside. The packed beasts padding through The comforts of the living room. And the old man, his hand forced By the impossible command, Compass lost and out of touch. And all the navigational aids Part of the swiftly moving flood. But mainly it’s the murderous beasts, Wonderfully close and now accepted As part of home and family: The dumb, the fierce, the tooth and claw. I read it in the earliest book Where all our childhoods signify Themselves in open imagery. And this is the image of the will: To see the globe a watery blot, History killed, pain stopped. And this must win us to the dark, And close our eyes, and rock our sleep, And pray the coffin be an ark.

The long scroll has hardly begun, and already we have two instances of God’s alienation: He turns from Adam, and He turns from the world. Our alienation only mimics His. Man at this point hasn’t the power or even the impulse to soften God’s anger. When he is told what is to happen to all of his neighbors, Noah is mute. He is not Abraham seeking mercy for the inhabitants of Sodom or Jonah for those of Nineveh.

The Torah portion that begins with Noah ends with the tower of Babel. What triggers God’s alienation this time? Surely the tower — the ostensible reason for His anger — could not have reached heaven. I fear in my deepest self as a writer that it has something to do with language. God is ambivalent about man’s ability to use language. He wants to protect His creation from the wide net of language, from the veiling, the distortions of language. He wants His creation to be always as pristine as it was in the beginning before Adam found the name for things. I think He always wants the novel to miss its mark, the poem to not quite get it right lest man feel that by naming things he has created them.

Harvey Shapiro is the editor of the anthology “Poets of World War II” (The Library of America, 2003) and the author of “How Charlie Shavers Died and Other Poems.”



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