Noah

Surah 7 (Al-Araf/The Heights): 59 & 64

59. Of old, sent We Noah to his people, and he said ‘O my people! worship God. Ye have no God but Him. Indeed. I fear for you the chastisement of the Great Day’…

64. Marvel ye that a Warning should come to you from your Lord through one of yourselves, that he may warn you, and that ye may fear for yourselves, and that haply ye may find mercy?

[‘The Koran translated from the Arabic’, John Meadows Rodwell, 1861 (British clergyman)]

 

In the Book of Genesis, Noah is the great-grandson of Enoch 〈14.〉, and the ninth generation after Adam. In chapters 6-9, God saw man’s wickedness and that the earth had become corrupt and full of lawlessness and He ‘regretted that he had made man on the earth .He decided to wipe mankind and all living things from the earth, save for Noah and his family who alone found favour with him. So He warned Noah to build an ark of gopherwood, large enough to carry his family and two of each living creatures, a male and a female. When the ark was complete, God ordered Noah to enter the ark with his family and the animals, two by two, after which ‘all the fountains of the great abyss burst forth and the floodgates of the sky were opened .The flood waters covered the earth for forty days, after which they receded, the existence of land having been made known to Noah when a dove that he had released returned to the ark with an olive leaf in its beak. The ark finally came to rest on Mount Ararat and Noah’s family re-established humanity, making a covenant with God in which God promised that He would not destroy humanity again.

 

A Mesopotamian clay tablet first deciphered in 1873 revealed that the biblical account of the flood is in fact, like the story of Adam and Eve, a variation on an episode forming part of the Epic of Gilgamesh, see 〈16.〉 It is now thought that even this ancient tale was not the origin of the flood story which was, it seems, adopted by the Assyrians from the even more ancient Akkadian epic of Atra-Hasis. Like Noah, Atra-Hasis received a divine warning of an imminent great flood, and as with biblical Noah, Atra-Hensis receives precise instructions how to build a boat, and to bring upon it only his family and animals. The Gilgamesh version added the element of the release of birds as a test for the presence of land.

In the Qur’an, the story of Noah is summarised seven times, at {7.59-64}, {10.71-74}, {11.25-49}, {23.23-31}, {26.105-122}, {54.9-17} and {71.1-28}. In its retelling of the story, the flood seems to be localised with no suggestion that the waters covered all the world. On the contrary, each one of the flood passages focuses the story firmly upon the destruction having been earned by Noah’s people for their clinging to the ways of paganism, in particular their veneration of six named pagan gods: Wadd, Suwa’, Yaguth, Ya’uq and Nasr, {71.23}; and for having ignored their prophet’s warnings and mocked him. The recklessness of the latter sin is emphasised by the introduction of an element into the story that does not appear in any of the previous versions: an unnamed son of Noah who attempts to save himself by his own efforts, and begins to climb a mountain only to be swept away by the waters {11.42-43}. The ark’s famous animal passengers are mentioned – and then only very briefly – in just two of the seven accounts, {11.40} and {23.29}.

 

Punishment narratives

Many of the Qur’an’s references to prophets from the Bible and Arabian folklore focus upon God’s punishment of those who reject their instructions. This punishment narrative, or ‘straflegende’, motif appears repeated frequently throughout the Qur’an, often with little more than the names of the prophets and the nature of the punishment changing:

 

{29.39} Each We seized for his sin. Among them are some whom We sent a torrent of stones, and among them are some whom the Cry seized,
and among them are some whom We caused the earth to engulf, and among them are some whom We drowned.

God wronged them not, but they did themselves wrong.

On several occasions the Qur’an refers to these stories through the recital of lists of the peoples He had destroyed for ignoring His prophets: {9.70}, {11.89}, {14.9}, {17.17}, {22.42-47}, {38.12-14}, {40.31}, {50.12-13} and {66.10}. No doubt these stories were presented by the Qur’an’s announcer, to literally put the fear of God into his audience, impressing upon them the dire consequences that may befall them should they be so unwise as to risk ignoring his words. They seem to occupy a middle period of the Qur’an’s announcement history. There would be no purpose in threatening such localised punishment if, as the earlier surahs warn, the Last Day is about to dawn for the whole of mankind. And in the later surahs, the Quranic community has taken it upon itself to be God’s instrument of punishment for those who do not believe in His prophet. In some instances the accounts the mockery and accusations of madness endured by past prophets are presented in exactly the same terms as accounts of the ridicule faced by the announcer of the Qur’an. However, of all the Quranic accounts of God’s wrath towards those who spurn His prophets’ warnings, the application of the motif to Noah’s story stands out, for in the biblical version of the story, Noah makes no attempt to warn anyone of the impending flood at all.