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  • "By Faith Noah":Obedient Servant as Religious Hero
  • Kathy Piehl (bio)

When authors and illustrators of children's books decide to recount the tale of a Biblical hero, they do not usually turn to Moses despite the drama of his encounters with Pharaoh, the Israelites' daring escape across the Red Sea, and the adventures in the wilderness. They do not recount the battles of King David, including his remarkable victory over the giant Goliath. They ignore most of the Old Testament figures that the writer of Hebrews extols, "who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, received promises, stopped the mouth of lions, quenched raging fires, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight" (12:33-34).

Instead, they tell and retell the story of a hero whose chief virtue was unquestioning obedience. "By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, took heed and constructed an ark for the saving of his household," the author of Hebrews notes simply (11:7). By far the most widely used Biblical character in children's literature is a man who not only initiates almost no independent actions but who doesn't say a single word during the section of his story in Genesis that provides the foundation for most children's books (6:5-9:19). What kind of hero is Noah to attract so much attention?

Like the flood myths that have been documented by Sir James Frazer and others, the story of Noah has been told and retold for centuries. Muslim and Jewish legends cluster about him and his family. Indeed, existing literary evidence suggests that an entire Book of Noah once existed, whose remnants were later incorporated into the Book of Enoch (Charles 168). Early Christians, eager to reinterpret Old Testament characters in the light of the New Testament, embraced Noah as a "type" of Christ. Wall paintings in the catacombs show Noah emerging from the ark/sarcophagus that floated on a watery grave just as Jesus left the tomb. The death/rebirth theme of water persists in Christian baptismal rites, some of which cite Noah (Lutheran 122).

The highly visual nature of Noah's story translated easily to stained glass, illuminated manuscripts, altar carvings, cathedral mosaics (Miller). [End Page 41] Some works incorporated the oral tradition that had developed by the Middle Ages to embellish the story. For example, Noah's wife shakes a nagging finger at him in one of the panels of Chartres Cathedral's Noah window. Although many artistic representations concentrate on the flood's destruction, another popular theme that emerged through the centuries was the embarkation of the animals. Both traditions found their way into the many picture books produced in the twentieth century.

The legends about Noah bore literary as well as artistic fruit. Medieval miracle play cycles include at least one section about Noah. Although he retains his quality of obedience, most plays introduce dramatic tension by incorporating legends of Mrs. Noah, unwilling to board without her gossips. The cautionary aspects of Noah's tale made it appropriate for the didactic tradition in children's literature, as exemplified by a tract published in 1795 that features Noah's story "accompanied by a gruesome woodcut of the drowning multitudes" (Lundin 2). Not until the late nineteenth century did poets imply that Noah's unquestioning obedience resulted in inexcusable indifference to the fate of the rest of humankind. Lord Byron in "Heaven and Earth" shows Noah as unsympathetic to his own son Japhet, who argues that others deserve to be saved from the flood. Earlier literary and artistic works for adults sometimes included Noah's post-flood drunken behavior but left the exploration of his pre-flood character to the twentieth-century imagination. Such questions appear in some contemporary novels for young people as well as poems, plays, novels, and short stories for adults. In many artistic and literary guises, Noah as a hero has endured through centuries.

Although in certain ways Noah's adventures resemble those of his Middle Eastern counterparts who appeared in earlier flood stories, Noah differs from them in one important respect. Ziusudra and Atrahasis, the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6563
Print ISSN
0147-2593
Pages
pp. 41-52
Launched on MUSE
2009-01-01
Open Access
No
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