This week we have the story of Noah. Most are familiar with the story of the man who builds a very large boat, fills it with animals and his family at the orders of God, and thus survives a world encompassing flood, saving most species in the process. God tells Noah.
1. And the Lord said to Noah, Come you and all your house into the ark; for you have I seen righteous before me in this generation.
2. Of every clean beast you shall take to you seven pairs, the male and his female; and of beasts that are not clean one pair, the male and his female.
3. Of birds also of the air by seven pairs, the male and the female; to keep seed alive upon the face of all the earth.
4. For in another seven days I will cause it to rain upon the earth forty days and forty nights; and every living substance that I have made will I destroy from off the face of the earth.[Genesis 9]
Madikwe Game reserve in northwestern South Africa was one of the interesting places I've spent my two weeks of Safari. Like the other places I spent time in Africa, Sabi sands and Timbavarti, It reminded me a lot of Noah's ark, and the preservation of the species that God told Noah to do. Being there and experiencing this place I also had to think that poor Noah had his hands full, even with God bringing miracles.
The thing about animals I learned at Madikwe in particular was that things are not simple. Often humans get this idea that animals that do not eat meat are somehow more peaceful than the carnivores.Leopard and Lion, Hyena and Wild Dog are thought to be violent compared to the herbivores like hippopotamus, zebra, cape buffalo and elephant. I learned that is far from the truth. Indeed the number one animal to cause human death in all of Africa is the hippopotamus. I knew this going there. What I did not know was the aggressive nature of other animals, often for the right to mate, the right to be part of a group or for territory. At Maidkwe, while photographing a stately Kudu, nibbling on some grass I heard a noise not far away, unlike anything I had ever heard. Across the road, two zebra were fighting, kicking and biting each other, and far from jest. THe loser of this fight was no longer back or white, but was covered with red.
One night while being escorted back by the security detail to my room in the Sabi Sands reserve, I learned another important lesson. In other parts of the world, such security might be about humans attacking humans, here we were told it was about the animals attacking humans. While not believing that, one night after dinner, several of us were escorted back to our room. Suddenly, the guard stopped and ordered all of us to the doorway of one room, while he called for help. In the total darkness, his flashlight had found a bull elephant on property, munching away. With our ranger and another security guard they did chase away the elephant. Had the elephant been angered the Ranger would have had a charging elephant bearing down on him. Although we got to our rooms safely, there was the evidence of the elephant the next day. Every tree had been uprooted, stripped of its bark and leaves and the the broken wood left all over the camp. The elephant had come back in the night, and eaten his way through camp leaving his trashed trees behind. Elephants can attack people and other animals, but they can do immense violence to ecosystems by leaving nothing but waste behind.
We read of Noah's generation:
12. And God looked upon the earth, and, behold, it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted its way upon the earth.
13. And God said to Noah, The end of all flesh has come before me; for the earth is filled with violence through them; and, behold, I will destroy them with the earth.[Genesis 9]
What is meant by violence is debated by the Rabbis. Yet in the bush, I learned that all flesh whether is eats other flesh or plants or both are prone to violence, to each other, violence to other species and violence even to their ecosystem. Nothing has changed. Being in South Africa, I had reminders of the violence that humans can do in memorials to a past not as enlightened as its present. In Zambia, all I had to do was look across the Zambezi river to Zimbabwe on the other side to be reminded again. In the reserves, watching a leopard spring at its prey, wild dogs dismember and devour a impala, cape buffalo butting horns, a herd of elephants attacking the buffalo for a waterhole, and the hippos then charging those bathing elephants all points to violence in any species has not disappeared.
Noah, it was said righteous in his generation [Gen 9:9] The debate since rabbinic times has been if he was completely righteous, or righteous compared to those around him. Either way, Noah did something different than those around him. At the end of Last week's portion we are told of Noah's generation
5. And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.All Noah needed to do to be more righteous than his generation is to stop for one second and say to himself: "I'm not going to be evil right now" or "I'm not going to be violent right now." The animals are violent, as often we are violent not because we choose to be but because it is a biological part of who we are. What we choose is not to be violent or to transform something violent into something less violent, then maybe something less violent than that. In our distant past we were not that different than those Zebras, fighting and shedding each other's blood to determine who is superior among ourselves. In the not too distant past one sign of that dominance of one person over another was not which humans you killed, but which animals you killed. Even a hundred years ago, To go on safari, kill and stuff the "big five" game animals was a sign of status. Yet today, guns are not allowed in these game reserves, except for the protective equipment used by rangers. Today it is cameras that have replaced guns. In my several thousand exposures, I did bag the big five, as does many a visitor to these game reserves. In some sense, the photos of leopards and lion that will eventually end up on my wall will give me a bit of respect and status similar to actually killing the animals. My telephoto zoom lens, is far from violence.
We are told in midrash that things were different in the Ark. For some reason normal animal behavior did not exist. Upon exiting the ark, such things. change to normal. In one story,. the second the lions leave the ark they attack Noah. [Genesis R. 30:6] For some reason animal behavior changed on the ark. While it is said there were provisions for the animals and Noah's family, it mentions provisions for herbivores, not the carnivores, who must have either gone hungry or eaten plants on the ark. Midrash mentions there was no copulation on the ark, though I cannot find somewhere that mentions the animals stopped their mating and domination contests, though they must have. Many of these animals have multiple female and single males mating groups. Some have matriarchs instead of patriarchs. All this would have changed, but as the story of the lion attack, once they are free of the ark ,they revert to their normal behaviors.
I found my time in the wild wonderful, My love of wildlife photography got its fill for a while. But as I thought I Heathrow Airport, seeing the newspapers in the lounge I'm also saddened. Noah consciously made a decision not to be evil all the time, beyond that we have no idea how righteous he was. Be he did make that conscious choice. IT seems so rare these days to make that same choice in the world. THe same animal drive for sexual partners, territory, and status and dominance still abound in Human society, Like south African elephants, we lay waste to the world around us, Like the wholesale slaughter of elephants in Zimbabwe, genocide happens in many places around the world. we make pacts and treaties, but they are little more than arks: when their boundaries are crossed the violence shows up again. What my camera is to the gun does not seem to have many equivalents elsewhere. Noah's story in many ways is futile, as everything goes back to violence not long after the ark is emptied.
In reading Noah this year, I truly don't know what to think, or to hope.