In the last sentence of the famous story in Genesis, Noah’s “days” are given as nine hundred and fifty years, a life span that seems outrageously impossible and has occasioned many arguments among those who study the Bible.
Thanks to recent discoveries by archaeologists, however, we can now understand the references to long Biblical life spans in a manner satisfactory to scientist and sage alike. The keys lie in the hundreds of cuneiform tablets that have been excavated from ancient ruins. Four thousand years ago, these blocks of clay were the equivalent of paper. Scribes wrote on the wet clay with sharpened reeds, using a series of short, wedge-shaped strokes—called cuneiform—to create words. As soon as the clay was dry, the person who had commissioned it could take the tablet home. Or, in the case of a king who had asked for a historical record of an event, the heavy tablet could be stored on sturdy shelves in the royal library. In the process of translating and comparing some of the most recently excavated tablets, archaeologists have discovered that the reigns of many Mesopotamian kings are described in exactly the same way that the age of Noah is described: The kings are reported as having ruled for a far longer time than they actually did. We don’t know an exact ratio, but it looks as though the higher the number, the more beloved or influential the ruler.
Armed with this insight, we can see that when the Book of Genesis says “all the days that Noah lived were nine hundred and fifty years,” it simply uses the idiom of the time to condense several centuries of history into one easy phrase, while simultaneously indicating Noah’s long-lasting influence and the fact that his line continued through many generations of descendants.
Unraveling the rest of the episode of Noah’s drunkenness and clarifying its relationship to the lives of Nimrod and Abraham helps us acknowledge the deeply mystical nature of scripture. The Old Testament Book of Psalms demonstrates:
I will open my mouth in a parable: I will utter enigmas from ancient time. I will open my mouth in a parable: I will utter dark sayings of old. – Psalms 78:2.
Moving forward in time and shifting to the New Testament, one finds Jesus doing the same thing: imparting spiritual knowledge in parables because this is “as much as they could understand.” Six hundred years after Jesus, Muhammad reiterated the idea that God “speaketh to mankind in allegories.” Twelve hundred years later, in 1862, Baha’u’llah praised the Word of God as being “an ocean inexhaustible in riches.”
These three biblical verses can give us clear hints about what type of vineyard Noah actually planted, and what kind of wine he drank:
For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel . . . – Isiah 5:7.
I am the true vine, and my Father is the husbandman. – John 15:1.
Thou hast showed thy people hard things: thou hast made us to drink the wine of astonishment. –Psalms 60:3.
Applying the allegorical meanings of these verses to the story of Noah elevates His actions to a realm far removed from physical vines and alcoholic beverages. Instead of falling into a drunken stupor, the Baha’i writings say Noah is “intoxicated with the wine of the All-Merciful” and “carried away with the inebriating effect of the living waters of His loving providence.” Noah’s mission is not to harvest a few grapes but to be a very special kind of gardener—a husbandman who obeys the word of the Father by sowing seeds of divine knowledge that will mature into the house of Israel. Abraham will spring from that vineyard, and His descendants will produce several other Messengers of God, each one a “true vine.”
Reading further into the story of Noah, one finds Him “uncovered within his tent.” Somewhat surprisingly, the state of nakedness in order to receive new clothes happens often in scripture:
Naked am I, O my God! Clothe me with the robe of Thy tender mercies. – Baha’u’llah, Prayers and Meditations, p. 103.
If we look at the Biblical verses metaphorically, we learn that Noah is not physically nude, but has stripped Himself of earthly desires and stands spiritually naked before God, ready to be clothed with the gift of heavenly understanding. Two of Noah’s sons—Shem and Japheth—appreciate this. They approach their father with reverence and cover Him with a fresh garment—the garment of their respect. In return, Noah promises blessings to their descendants. One of these blessings will be Abraham, born from the line of Shem. Noah’s other son, Ham, is appalled by what his father is doing. He does not understand that Noah has drunk the wine of a new revelation from God, and rejects the notion that Noah has been commanded to strip off his old clothes—his old traditions—in order to embark on a spiritual mission requiring different attitudes and behavior. Ham wants everything to stay as it is. Ham’s rejection of his father’s astonishing wine and heavenly clothing is continued by two of Ham’s descendants: a son named Canaan and a grandson called (aha!) Nimrod.
Canaan settles near the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea and establishes a thriving tribe. His descendants become known as Canaanites, and the territory they inhabit becomes the Land of Canaan. Later on, in an act of beautifully-orchestrated mystical irony, this spiritually bereft land is precisely where God will send Abraham. Ham’s grandson Nimrod grows up to become a ruler so cruel and ungodly that his name quickly degenerates into an epithet for anyone who is cruel, calculating, and unholy. When, generations later, the king who dreams about the birth of Abraham is referred to as a Nimrod, everyone who hears the tale knows immediately that he is the embodiment of iniquity. And they realize he will reject Abraham in the same way Ham rejected Noah. The king’s real name doesn’t matter at all.