Throughout the Torah, we meet many outstanding personalities. Certain events surrounding their lives famously display great obedience to God. The overwhelming majority, if not all, were the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The only person ever to be called a righteous man in the entire Torah was not a part of this family. His name was Noah. (Gen.6:9)
Yet it was not Noah, but Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob that were privileged to be the founders of God’s ancient people Israel. Even though the nations of the world as represented by Noah are very important in God’s redemptive plan, it was Israel that was chosen to be the holy nation of priests (Ex. 19:6). So why is it that while Noah was the only one who was called righteous, he was not part of God’s ancient chosen people Israel? I think the answer has to do with how Noah approached God when he heard of the coming judgment.
Let us compare Noah’s and Abraham’s obedience in the situations when they heard the news about God’s judgment.
Noah was told by God that judgment was coming to his sinful generation and he needed to build a large boat to save his family and animals. He obeyed without an argument (Gen.6:22).
The word Israel (Yisrael) itself comes from the Hebrew word לשרות (lesrot), which means to wrestle/exercise influence. Jacob’s new name commemorates the foundational event in Jewish history when Jacob wrestled with someone, whom he later identified as God himself (Gen. 32:28).
Abraham’s response to God when he was told that the blatantly sinful towns of Sodom and Gomorrah would be judged differed markedly from Noah’s. Abraham argued with God and interceded on behalf of the desert settlements, hoping until the very end that he will be able to convince God not to do as He intended. Abraham spoke to God in the most challenging way possible, risking divine displeasure for the possibility of the salvation of others (Gen.18:16-33). Abraham too accepted God’s will just as Noah did, but not without a fight and not before he acted as a priest on behalf of others.