a Torah monologue by Maggidah Melissa Carpenter
It all started with sheep. When I was a girl, people kept sheep to shear for wool and to milk for making cheese. My mother used to say, “On the sixth day, God gave the humans and animals plants for food. Nothing but plants!”1
I used to argue, “Then why did God make mothers that give milk?” And I ate cheese on my lentils. I still do.
Those were the good days. Then some man named Lemech went crazy, and there was a fight, and two men died. Lemech was the second murderer in the world. He boasted about what he’d done, so I could understand why God didn’t give him a mark of protection, like Cain. What I could not understand was why God didn’t speak.
After that fight, it seemed like young men had shorter tempers and bigger appetites. One year they came back from the sheep-shearing missing two sheep. There was blood on the fleeces. Blood in their beards. Soon they were bringing back whole sheepskins, and legs to cook. The first time I saw a man bite into a roasted leg, I had nightmares for a week.
Nobody stopped them. My mother tried, but she was a small woman, and they knocked her down. After that she walked with a limp. My father kept going out with the other shepherds. And when they brought back lambs, some of the women ate the tender meat. In a few years almost everybody was eating lamb. Even the lions.
The young men came home sometimes with cuts and gouges from the shearing knives. They were fighting.
“Chamas,2” my mother whispered. Violence. Cruelty.
Lots of men came after me once my figure filled out. I carried my own knife to keep them away, since we had no laws.
Some years later I made friends with Lemech’s youngest son, Noach. His mother had died by then, and his father had gone for good. Noach traded barley and grapes in the marketplace, along with the little wooden boxes he made. He stayed away from the other end of the market. Said he didn’t like the taste of meat, and sheep gave him a rash.
One day he invited me up the hill to see the house he’d built. It was a big empty wooden house with four bedrooms. Noach said we could put a bed in the room I liked best.
“What about the other rooms?”
He looked down. “Maybe we’ll have children.”
“Yes,” I said.
We had three sons, and I raised them to be vegetarians. Once Cham, our youngest, came home with a nasty knife wound, but at least none of my sons ever brought home meat. All three married good women. Our house was full.
One day when Noach came home from the fields he was shivering. He said: “God spoke to me.”
“I was just hoeing, out in the field, and God spoke to me. Inside my body.”
“Are you sure it was God?”
“Yes. God said I have to build a box. A giant box. Waterproof. Divided up into compartments. And then I have to collect animals. Two of every kind of animal in the world. And put them in the box. And four pairs of humans: you and me, and our sons and their wives.”
“Because God is disappointed in the human race. Because of all our violence, our chamas. God wants to start all over again. So he’s going to send a flood that will wipe out the whole earth. Except for the survivors in the floating box. The ark.”
“But Noach, what about children? And the more peaceful animals? Isn’t God more—selective?”
“I guess not. And I can’t argue with God. I’ve got to start building a box.”
He did. It dwarfed our house. Sometimes folks wandered by and jeered at him, but my husband only told them one thing, over and over again. “God said to build an ark, because the earth is filled with chamas, so he’s going to send a flood to wipe out all flesh. That’s what God said.”3
Nobody listened to Noach.
He finished the ark, and packed several compartments with seeds and farming tools, and grain to feed everybody. Even the lions. He sent off our sons and their wives to collect pairs of animals from around the world. Then he asked me to get the sheep. He told me that now God wanted seven rams and seven ewes, so he could make slaughter-sacrifices for God after the flood.4
“What? I thought God didn’t like chamas! Why would God want us to save animals only to kill them?”
“I dunno. I can’t argue with God.”
“Then go get the sheep yourself, Noach.”
“I can’t. Sheep give me a rash.”
“I thought—I thought that was just an excuse. I thought you were a good man, different from all the others.”
Noach looked miserable. He backed up and stood in the shadow of the ark. “God wants seven cattle, too, and seven goats, and some extra birds. I’ll take care of those.”
And I knew I had to get the sheep. My only other choice was to drown.
God gave us seven days to load all the animals. When the rain started our son Cham balked and argued, but in the end he followed his wife inside the ark, and we sealed the door. I remember when the ark shifted and began to float. We all cheered. Then we heard people hammering on the outside of the door, and I felt bad.
We spent all our waking time feeding the animals. The rain stopped after 40 days, but the flood went on for months. Then the ark grated against something. We climbed the ladder and peered out the window in the roof. The sky was blue. So was the water, rippling in the wind. Tiny islands of bare rock stuck out of the water. I realized they were mountaintops.
When the water finally dried up, we saw lots of mud where we could plant seeds. We wait for Noach to lead us out of the ark, but he just kept shoveling grain into the animals’ stalls. Until one morning he finally called us together and said: “God said to go out, and let out the animals, to be fruitful and multiply.”
We started to cheer, but Noach looked so glum that the cheer failed. I wondered if my husband had delayed leaving the ark because he was not looking forward to the animal sacrifice.
Noach held back the sheep and cattle and goats and birds that he said God wanted sacrificed. I stood with my hands on my hips and watched him build a platform out of stones. I think it was an altar, though I’d never seen one before.
He got our sons to hold the animals while he slit their throats. Then he burned them. A new, clean world, and my husband goes and sends up a column of greasy black smoke. Behind it a rainbow appeared. Noach’s face and hands broke out in a rash.
We ploughed a big field of mud farther down the mountain, and we discovered that some debris from the flood had settled into the mud. Pottery, blankets, dead animals. Human bodies. When I ploughed up a dead child, I lay down on the dirt and cried the rest of the day.
I don’t get it. If all our chamas made God regret creating the world, why did God do so much chamas to destroy it?
I liked God’s first creation better.
- And God said: “Hey, I give to you all seed-bearing green plants that are on the face of all the earth, and all the trees that have seed-bearing fruit; they shall be food for you. And to all animals of the land and to all birds of the heavens and to all crawlers on the earth that have the soul of life: all greens, green plants, for food.” And it was so. And God saw all that “he” had made, and hey! Very good. And it was evening and it was morning, the sixth day. (Genesis 1:29-31)
- chamas (חָמָס) = violence, lawlessness, cruelty. The first occurrence of this word is in the Torah portion Noach: The earth was corrupt in front of the Elohim, and it was chamas. (Genesis 6:11)
- Genesis 6:13, 6:17.
- Genesis 7:2.