Noah and the Pandemic: A Survivor's Transformation- Ed Tick
Whether by flood, fire or ice, a cataclysm that destroys life on earth and cleanses the planet for a new cycle of rebirth is a nearly universal motif found in world spiritual and mythological literature. It occurs in ancient Native American, Sumerian, Greek, Hindu, Islamic and other traditions. It is one “symptom” of Apocalypse that, numerous traditions tell, has revisited humanity regularly through the ages and is not an accident of nature. Rather, it is profoundly connected to how we humans behave toward our planet and each other.
The Flood, of course, is an early event in the Judeo-Christian sacred history of the world. In Genesis, long before Abraham perceived the One, lived Noah, who was “righteous,” “blameless” and “walked with God.” But even in that early time the people had forgotten the Creation and its care. “All flesh had corrupted their way upon the earth” and “the earth is filled with violence.” The Divine determined that all living things would be blotted out. Except Noah. Because he was righteous, Noah and his family would be saved along with pairs of animals to repopulate the planet after its devastation. Noah the Good, saved from the horrors that devastate the rest of humanity. The story traditionally gives us hope and faith that if we are good, we might be spared “all the ills that flesh is heir too,” that goodness might serve as a protection against harm and evil and that if it does visit us we can resume our lives afterwards. These beliefs are part of the innocence we carry in the face of a universe that can seem random and cruel.
The theme of divine or natural retribution in response to human wrongdoing is at the core of the message sent by Apocalypse. When “the earth is filled with violence” – human beings against each other, against the poor and weak, against nature itself – then Nature or the Divine pushes back in ways we experience as catastrophic. By our actions over long stretches of time we have rendered the cosmos out of balance. While nature itself can be violent towards its creatures, the floods, fires and other environmental disasters we experience globally today are largely inevitable results of the imbalances we human beings have caused. Though modern scientific thought teaches us that nature is inanimate and neutral, we experience its events as expressions of the Divine and our relationship to the cosmos. The natural order is an expression of the Divine. The Divine has been seen as working through nature throughout time.
The Flood in Noah’s time was God using Nature to strike back at the human violence that had upset the order and harmed the balance and harmony of life. Noah the righteous was chosen to survive the pandemic in order to repopulate the planet supposedly emptied of human violence.
Imagine the mass destruction caused by the flood. Every human and animal being drowned. Cities underwater. All flora beneath the waves. The entire earth covered. No refuge in sight for days and weeks. No knowledge of an end to the calamity. And then the olive branch, the waters receding, the rainbow of hope and promise.
Hearing this story, because we feel ourselves afloat in a torrent of dangers, we concentrate on the message of hope. We are Noah’s distant inheritors. We are great great grandchildren of the righteous. The rainbow promised “Never again.” Life is restored. We have the earth and its bounty for our home.
What happened to Noah and his family? Was he so good? Did he remain so? Did he restart humanity based in righteousness? What was the impact of being saved while watching the planet and its creatures destroyed? Genesis gives us that aftermath. Noah’s actions following the flood are recognizable symptoms of what today we label as Post-traumatic Stress Disorder.
We are told that when the waters receded Noah planted the first vineyard, made the first wine, got drunk, passed out, and cursed the son who found and helped him for looking on his shame and nudity. Noah declared this son, Ham, would be a slave to his brothers for all time, thus providing the Biblical rationale for practicing millennia of brutal slavery. Noah became a drunk and acted out blindly and aggressively against loved ones – a familiar traumatic response.
We are further told that after the flood the Divine gave Noah and humanity permission to eat flesh for the first time. Supposedly humanity was vegetarian and did not take animal life until the Divine became convinced that “the imagination of man’s heart is evil from the time of his youth.” Only if we tend toward evil are we given the right to take other life to support our own. Tending toward violence, taking life, losing compassion – familiar traumatic responses.
We are told that Noah sacrificed live animals to the Divine as thanksgiving for his salvation. What should we think of Noah killing a few of the few remaining creatures, believing that more bloodletting, more death, would please the Creator and that it was okay to kill rather than preserve those few remaining animals? Again – the tendency toward more violence – a familiar traumatic response.
Since Noah “walked with God” and was singled out for survival and restoration of the species, we may wonder why he was not, like Abraham, the friend of God and father of his people? Rabbinical scholars have observed that though righteous, Noah seemed only concerned about himself and lacked compassion for suffering humanity. Biblical text commonly does not tell the emotions of its figures and we project our interpretations on them. But if Noah indeed lacked feeling for all those lost in the flood, we may be viewing Noah’s inability to feel except for oneself and one’s survival. This is known as psychic numbness – another symptom of PTSD.
After the Flood the righteous man saved to repopulate the earth had become alcoholic, abusive, violent, acting out, angry, numb in his feelings for others, and distorted in his thinking by the massive destruction and death he witnessed and survived. No one comes out of such horrors unchanged, unscathed, still innocent and gentle. Would Noah be diagnosed with PTSD today?
And the rainbow promise? We suffer rising seas, melting glaciers, cities, islands, countries going underwater, people migrating in terror, natural habitat being destroyed. The Divine “Never Again” meant that humanity had to learn from the Flood, change its ways, stop perpetrating violence and abusing the Creation. Never Again does not mean that the Divine or Nature will not be skewed by our actions and strike back against us. It means that unless we align ourselves with the balance, it will.
So, what did Noah learn? What does humanity learn from this early apocalyptic ordeal? Can global trauma be a balancing and teaching force that brings us and nature back into a oneness that sustains life instead of the abuse that causes the imbalance and destroys? We are left with Noah’s challenge today.
Ed is an internationally recognized educator, author and expert on the military, veterans, PTSD, Vietnam, and the psychology, spirituality and history of global trauma, warrior traditions, and military-related issues. For four decades he has conducted trainings, retreats and workshops across the country and overseas at major Department of Defense and Veteran Administration facilities and at colleges, universities, hospitals, health care and community centers across the country, and overseas. Ed co-founded the nonprofit Soldier's Heart, Inc. with his partner Kate Dahlstedt and for 13 years served as its director. He now consults internationally on these issues. In addition to War and the Soul, Ed is the author of the books Sacred Mountain, The Practice of Dream Healing, Wild Beasts and Wandering Souls, and Warrior's Return, as well as the poetry collections The Bull Awakening and The Golden Tortoise.