Noah raises more questions than answers

Said Ahmed-Zaid, Idaho Statesman religion columnist
Said Ahmed-Zaid, Idaho Statesman religion columnist

During my preparation for an upcoming interfaith panel discussion on the prophet Noah in the Abrahamic scriptures, I have discovered a complex character raising more questions than answers. In today’s column, I will briefly delve into the story of Noah, the Ark and the flood, and then discuss the modern ramifications of this story, which has been around for over 2,000 years.

In a previous column, I mentioned that prophet Noah or Nuh in Arabic is one of 25 prophets identified by name in the Quran. He is mentioned 43 times in the Quran, and he is revered as one of five strong-willed prophets in Islam.

There are 114 chapters in the Quran and Chapter 71, composed of 28 verses, has been named after him. Chapter 11 in the Quran, named after prophet Hud in Islam, contains additional verses which describe in some detail the story of Noah (Quran, 11:25-48). There are other snippets about Noah scattered throughout various chapters of the Quran.

There are similarities as well as differences between the Biblical and Quranic versions of the story of Noah. In Genesis, for example, the flood covers the whole earth. By contrast, the Quran seems to suggest that the flood was regional and more localized, drowning only Noah’s people.

Genesis relates that Noah had three sons, Seth, Ham and Japheth, who were saved with him in the ark. Hence, according to Genesis, we know the names of four out of the eight people who survived the flood. The Quran tells of a fourth son who refused to come aboard the ark and drowned after climbing a mountain (Quran, 11:42-43). Another fact is that the name of Noah’s wife is neither mentioned in Genesis nor in the Quran, which raises an interesting question about her fate. Both Noah’s wife and Lot’s wife are mentioned together in Verse 66:10 of the Quran which seems to imply that Noah’s wife was a disbeliever who also drowned during the flood.

Genesis claims that the flood was worldwide and hence the world was repopulated from the group of people saved in the ark. After the ark settles on dry land and life resumes, Ham enters his father’s tent and finds him laying uncovered and passed out from drunkenness. He goes outside and tells his two brothers, Shem and Japheth, who take a garment and cover their father by walking backward toward him in order not to see his nakedness. When Noah wakes up from his drunken stupor, he learns of Ham’s indecency and curses Canaan, Ham’s son, and, through him, his progeny (Genesis, 9:18-29).

I am looking forward to the interfaith panel discussion at the Cathedral of the Rockies, where I am hoping to get some answers about the inevitable questions that arise in Genesis such as: Why did God curse Canaan for the sin of Ham? Why did God curse the Canaanites, a whole nation, for the sin of one man?

One ramification of Noah’s story has to do with the modern understanding of the word Semitism and its opposite, anti-Semitism. Generally speaking, this word comes from Shem, the oldest son of Noah. In the Greek and Latin versions of the Bible, Shem is spelled Sem and, hence, the origin of words such as Semite, Semitic and Semitism, and their opposites anti-Semite, anti-Semitic, and anti-Semitism.

In the last several hundreds years, a theory evolved, mainly in Europe, that the three sons of Noah represented the lines of descent of three major racial or linguistic groups. According to this erroneous and debunked interpretation, Ham was the ancestor of the dark-skinned people of Africa. This racialized version of the curse on Canaan has been used to justify the inhumane practice of slavery as well as the apartheid system in South Africa not very long ago.

Recent genetic studies are providing answers regarding the ancestry of various Semitic-speaking peoples. For example, a DNA study of Jews and Palestinian Arabs found that they were more closely related to each other than to other people from the Arabian Peninsula or Arabic speakers of North Africa including my Berber ancestors. In the future, I am optimistic that science will help diffuse the antagonistic view of the separation of races through genetic analysis, and it will continue to confirm that human beings are more likely issued from a blend of disparate genetic materials rather than from a pure homogeneous kind.

If you are interested in attending the upcoming interfaith panel discussion about Noah at the Cathedral of the Rockies on Nov. 15, please make your reservation by contacting Jenny Willison at by Friday, Nov. 11.

Dr. Said Ahmed-Zaid is a Boise State University engineering professor and the 2004 recipient of the annual HP Award for Distinguished Leadership in Human Rights.

The Idaho Statesman’s weekly faith column features a rotation of writers from many different faiths and perspectives.