Probing the implications.
Midrashic authors scrutinized, weighed, considered and explored every implication of the Biblical text. We are of course familiar with this phenomenon from the painstaking dissection of individual verses in Halachic Midrash and the Talmud, where it is explicit and clearly expressed. This is because Halacha was studied by advanced scholars in the setting of a public discourse or a session in the academy. However, the same is also true of how non-halachic midrash approached its texts. Its setting and audience was general and not necessarily particularly learned and it was not well suited for painstaking and detailed analysis. For this reason, non-halachic midrash often does not explicitly spell out its thinking process and it remains for us to discover what issues inform this kind of a midrashic passage.
The description of Noach and why he was saved when everything else was destroyed must have puzzled many an expositor. Noach is presented as the last of long list of generations. When we first meet him, it is in the context of his father's hope (or prophecy) - "this one will comfort us from our frustration and the toil of our hands from the earth that G-d has cursed (Genesis 5,29)." This is, of course, not what ultimately happened - no comfort or lightening of the load for his father or family but a total destruction from which only Noach was saved.
The second mention of Noach is after we read of the sins of men and the corruption of the "giants". Here we are told that "... I will blot man whom I created from the face of the earth, but Noach found favor in the eyes of G-d (Gen. 6,7)." The phrasing implies that Noach was chosen at random because "he found favor" and not because of his good deeds. There may have been others no less righteous but Noach was saved because he "found favor." A midrash picks up on this implication:
R. Abin said: When Israel stood at Mount Sinai, G-d gave them the Torah. At that time it became so that one who sins he is punished for it. In the past when someone sinned, the generation paid for the sin. Of the generation of the Flood the Rabbis said: Many kosher individuals were there like Noach but they were blotted out along with the generation (Tanchuma R'ei 3).
On the other hand the Chumash does say that Noach was righteous in Genesis 6,9 (Noach was a man righteous and whole hearted in his generations...) but curiously we are not told that he was saved for this reason. It seems to be nothing more than an introductory description of an important character. Not until later do we find a lukewarm endorsement of Noach's merit; this description parallels the one in Gen. 6,9 but omits the word 'wholehearted - tamim': "for you I had seen righteous before me in this generation (Gen. 7,1)". Noach is not told that he is being saved for his merits when the plan for destruction is first unveiled before him and he is commanded to build the ark. It is not until Noach is told to enter the ark that this is first mentioned. In fact, careful reading of the immediate context suggests that Noach's righteousness is why he is found worthy to bring up the requisite sacrifices after he comes out of the ark. On the other hand, Noach is said to be righteous and that must count for something.
The midrash struggles with these implications.
It states: 'The not pure will escape and escape by purity of Your hand (Job 22)'. R. Chanina said: A tiny bit of merit was in Noach's hands. If so how did he escape - solely by the purity of Your hand. This follows the statement of R. Abba: " for I regret that I created them and Noach...(6,8)". Even Noach who remained from them wasn't worthy except that he found favor in G-d's eyes (Genesis Rabba 29,1).
We have previously discussed the Rabbinic principle of exegesis that requires that everything about the wicked be interpreted to their detriment while everything about the righteous be interpreted to their credit. Noach is an interesting exception to this rule for we find an abundance of both laudatory and critical comments about him in Midrashic literature. There may have been a difference of opinion about how to approach this enigmatic figure; it may also be that this exegetical rule does not apply to antediluvian persons or events. As is well known R. Yehudah and R. Nechamia in Sanhedrin 108a disagreed as to whether Noach was righteous relative only to his wicked contemporaries or righteous in absolute terms (See Rashi to 9:1).
In conclusion: We find an interesting exception to the Rabbinic tendency to view Biblical personalities in "black-and -white terms" in regards to Noach. At the same time, one cannot fail to be impressed by the sensitivity to nuance and implication that Rabbis display in their reading of the Scripture, at times arriving to opposite but grounded conclusions than apparent from a superficial reading alone.
1 Putting a comma before the words "found favor in the eyes of Hashem".
2 Midrash Schelach and Midrash Pinchas
3 Shocher Tov 1:12, 9:7 and 34:1, T'anna D'Bei Eliahu 16, Zohar 1:254b
4 It is curious that the name Noach appears to be the only name before Abraham in wide use among Jews in our time. This may reflect the positive Midrashic opinions discussed above. Regarding various responsae that deal with the permissibility of naming children by pre-Abrahamitic names, and specifically the name Noach, see Ziv Hasheimos by Z. Y. Wilhelm, Moraiah, Brooklyn, 1988, p. 85