With the upcoming release of the film NOAH (2014) starring Russell Crowe (see trailer here:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_OSaJE2rqxU) , I felt it necessary to discuss one of the main themes of the film through the lens of comparative linguistics and religion. This brief note focuses on the ark built by Noah, and what the Hebrew name of the ark ultimately informs us about the storyline that might get missed by those who do not understand Hebrew.
An ultra simplified recap (and over simplification) of the story of Noah in the Bible, as told in Genesis 6, informs us that the world was wicked, steeped in sin, save a man named Noah, his three sons, and their wives. God was angry with man and regretted ever creating them. His solution to the sin problem was to destroy all of mankind and the animals and to start over with a fresh batch of human-beings. However, He didn’t want to create more
people from scratch and he needed a more righteous blood-line by which to perpetuate the human species. Thus, Noah and his immediate family were selected to survive an extinction level event inaugurated by God Himself. God of the Bible chose to rid the earth of sin via a major flood. In order for Noah and his family to survive, they needed to create a boat that was not only big enough for him and his family, but for two of every animal on earth (because God didn’t want to recreate them as well).
Many people who read this myth believe this to be a true story, word-for-word, as told in the Bible. However, I am here to suggest that this story is not to be taken literally, but to be meditated on for its philosophic content and its life lessons as told through parables.
When trying to figure out whether a story is to be taken literally or metaphorically, it is best to first examine the names of the major characters in the story. The names in the story provide the framework for understanding the underlying theme of the narrative. The names of the characters are variables that provide a deeper layer to the storyline. Myths are stories that tell us how concepts (independent variables) interact with each other and what are the outcomes of their interactions (dependent variables). A tell tale sign of a myth is when the significance of each character’s name holds a symbolic meaning that can be strongly linked to the overall theme of the narrative. This is exactly what we find in the story of Noah.
Let’s begin with the name Noah itself. The name Noah (nwh) indicates “rest.” We can confirm this in Genesis 6:8-9 when Noah sends out a dove from the ark to find out whether the flood had subsided from the surface of the earth. We come to discover that the dove could not find a ma-noah “resting place.” The ma- prefix is a morpheme signifying a location or place; in other words, it is a locative prefix. We are reaffirmed in Genesis 8:4 for when the flood finally subsides, the ark was found rested on Mount Ararat: wat-ta-nah hat-tebah . . . ‘al har-ey ‘ararat.
The causative (hi-fe’iyl) form of the root (nwh > he-niyah) occurs in Genesis 2:15: way-yan-nih-e-huw be-gan ‘eden “and he made him to rest in the garden of delight.” The English translations often use the verb “to place” instead of “made him to rest.” The root means to “put in a place and let it rest there.” West African reflexes can be found in Jukun na “lie down”; Yoruba na, in the word na’ra “relax the body; PWS ta “to dwell”, Guang ta “to dwell”, Ga ta “to sit”, Edo ta “to place oneself, Avatime te “to stay”; PWN DÁD, (DÁL) “to lie down”; Ngombe da “to sit”; PWS la, (d.a) “to lie down”; PWS lè, (de) “to be in a place.” Here /n/ is a nasal-grade of /t/.
The word for “parable” in Hebrew is ma-shal. Here, Noah is a mashal for thrifty planning in an age of riotous living. This planning of Noah is symbolized in the building of the tebah“ark.” Noah was ridiculed for building a boat on dry land. However, it was this boat, according to the myth, that provided shelter during the upcoming calamity brought on by YHWH in Genesis.
“By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events yet unseen, took heed and constructed an ark for the saving of his household; by this he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness which comes by faith” (Hebrews 11: 7).
The word tebah simply means “box, chest” and a box or chest is what you use to store something valuable and to protect it from common calamities. The cognate for Hebrewtebah in ciKam (Egyptian) is db "chest, coffer," db.t "cage, box," DbAw "box, chest," tb"box." In CiLuba we have cìbya "(fund) box, cart, container"; Ijebu Yoruba atakpo “stool”; Aramaic yetab “sit” [we should note that a box was used as a seat]. Compare the <p> grapheme in Egyptian: a box used for a seat (Gardiner sign Q3)]. Compare to ciLubalusòmbèlà ≋ cisòmbedi "where it sits; shelter" (< -sòmba "sit, sitting, live, retiring, rest"). Atebah in modern times can be a fall-out shelter in the case of a nuclear disaster; a bank account in case someone robs your house (people used to leave money under their mattresses); an air-bag in case of a car accident. A modern question to ask is, “Where are you building an ark on dry ground that might become a shelter for your family in case you suddenly lost your well-paying job?” What is your tebah? Are you building one for the day of disaster: either natural or man-made?
The Greek-speaking translators of the Septuagint rendered the word tebah as kibot-os“box,” which was borrowed from Syriac qebut-a. Reflexes in West Africa are: Hausa a-kwati “box”; Yoruba à-kpótí “box,” kpósi “coffin”; Igala ẹ-kpẹtẹ “stool”; Igbo o-kposi “ancestral stool”; ciLuba nkwasa “seat, chair.” The Egyptian words pds "box, casket, chest" and jsb.t “throne, stool” ( ciLuba -sòmba "sit, sitting, live, retiring, rest") may be related.
A box (ark), again, is a place where one keeps things safe. The tebah is the symbolic vehicle that is to drive us to the target domain: i.e., ma-noah “resting place”; in other words “safety.” Noah is a mashal for the concept of“security” in times of tragedy. Noah is a Red-Cross, a disaster relief fund, an Obama health care plan, a well filled with water during a drought, etc. Noah represents the concept of well thought out planning and thinking ahead; learning how to anticipate danger. The myth of Noah teaches us how to be RESPONSIBLE human-beings; that is to say, ABLE to RESPOND appropriately to challenges that threaten our equilibrium.
While many may focus on the impossibility of Noah being able to house and feed two of every animal on earth in the ark, or the seeming impossibility of giving birth to three “races” after the flood, or the apparent incest that would have to occur in order to make that happen in the first place, all are distractions from the main point of the story, and that is to pay attention to spirit when it tells you danger is coming and to prepare for it accordingly. Anticipate danger in a world of constant flux and build your ark!
It should be noted that Noah was considered a just and righteous man. Compare the name with the Shona-Bantu word u-nhu “the correct way of living, good character” and mu-nhu“a person who has good character and morality.”
A modern Noah in the Hip Hop community would be (Blast-Master) KRS-1 and his video “Disaster Kit” reaffirms this association:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2g8cplYa_DE. I hope this was edifying. I would like to hear your feedback.
Asar Imhotep (Ifamuyiwa Fagbemi)
PWS = Proto-Western-Sudanic
PWN = Proto-Western-Negritic
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