Archeological evidence speaks of at least one devastating flood in the Ancient Near East, a history reflected in creation stories from around the region. Akkadian, Sumerian and Mesopotamian narratives all include tales in which a god decides to destroy all life in a cataclysm of water. In each story, one man is tasked, usually by a competing—and merciful—divinity, to build a boat in order to save some remnant of life on earth.
Many of the details of these flood narratives overlap and are familiar to us from the story of Noah, which is one of the best-known, and most beloved, narratives from the Bible. Amazingly, for a story whose foundation is the destruction of almost all earthly life, we have preserved it as a tale for children, complete with game sets with tiny replicas of zebras, elephants, and wild-maned African lions.
The flood is no nursery tale, though. The Epic of Gilgamesh, from about 2100 B.C.E., makes this horrifying clear. Even the gods and goddesses wail and weep and retch in dismay when they see the whipping deluge. As soon as the flood recedes, they unleash their fury on the rogue god who caused that massive loss of life.
Today, we have stripped the story of its danger. In her new novel, Naamah (Riverhead Books, $26), Sarah Blake faces the existential peril of taking this biblical episode seriously: in order to do so, we must wrestle with the notion that God, who had created life just a few chapters earlier in Genesis and called it good, committed widespread and indiscriminate murder.
Naamah is not a familiar name. We know about Noah, who was “blameless in his age,” who obeyed God’s instructions to the cubit. But Noah did not work alone. He entered the ark with his wife and his sons, Ham, Shem and Japheth and their wives.
The women are never named, so the midrashic tradition stepped in and, in some tellings, Noah’s wife became Naamah.
In Sarah Blake’s hands, Naamah is the center of the family. She keeps the rest of them going in the most pressured situation imaginable, but this is a heavy burden. For the majority of the novel, she hides her anger at God over the deaths of everyone she knew and cherished—including her female lover. Using a lovely, spare rhythm and the techniques of ancient storytelling, Blake channels Naamah’s grief to create a fable, one located in and driven by female experiences of love, family, and sexuality.
Noah is a caring husband, but speaking with God has pulled him away from the realm of the living.
Not so Naamah. By the time she confronts God, she has seen and touched the realms of the living, the dead, and the divine. She has swum to the depths of the water and crossed the boundary between dreaming and waking.
So much of this book is about what we see and refuse to see. Naamah is blind to the animals in her care for much of the novel. She can see the people on the ark with her. She can see angels and converse with the dead. She can develop relationships with talking animals in her dreams.
Her selective sightlessness does not a affect her sense of responsibility. She has faith that the animals are there and continues to care for everyone and everything around her, even as those pressures and her innate restlessness lead her to act in selfish or careless ways.
Blake’s Naamah experiences the world through her body, through healing and midwifery, and through sex, primarily with other female figures. (Note: the sex depicted in the novel is detailed and explicit.) The Bible—patriarchal systems, in general—do not account for women’s desires. They certainly don’t account for same-sex attraction. Naamah returns to it time and again, a rebuke to the biblical insistence on generative physicality. It is, after all, Shem, Ham and Japheth, rather than their nameless wives, who are commanded to “be fertile and increase, and till the earth.”
Sex between the women cannot result in pregnancy, but it fills the earth nonetheless. Naamah’s desires propel the narrative. In Blake’s new fable, those desires—for the freedom of movement, sexual expression, and loving connection—are what ensure that those aboard the ark, and all humankind to follow, will survive and flourish. In this novel, Naamah defeats God’s destructive capability by embracing her own unpredictable, contradictory, and insistent humanity.
Michal Lemberger is the author of After Abel and Other Stories. She lives in Los Angeles.