Who was Noah’s wife? The Torah does not mention her name, while she is one of the silent heroes of the story, together with her sons’ wives.
When somebody is mentioned by name in the Torah, it means he or she has a substantial task either during this specific story, or elsewhere in the Torah. The others, who play no central role or there is nothing special to teach about them, remain anonymous. That happened to the many sons and daughters of the first generations: “and he begat sons and daughters” runs the typical verse summarizing the lists of generations in Genesis. Anonymous sons and daughters, being that their stories, albeit important, are not substantial to the message the Torah wants to teach.
It is also written that Yaakov had other daughters, besides Dinah; they remain anonymous: “All his sons and all his daughters sought to comfort him” (Gen. 37:35) – some say “daughters” refers to daughters-in-law, while others say they are his actual daughters.
In most cases the anonymous remain anonymous. There are certain instances, however, in which our Sages decide to fill what is missing. For example, Abraham’s servant who went to look for a wife for Yitzhak: the Torah simply calls him “Abraham’s servant”, but many midrashim say he is Eliezer the Damascene, Abraham’s house steward. Another example is Pharaoh’s daughter, whom many midrashim identify as “Bithiah, Pharaoh’s daughter”, Mered’s wife as appears in 1 Chronicles 4:18.
The rationale in these two examples is pretty understandable: the two characters played a central role in the history of the Jewish people, even though the Torah does not mention their names.
There is another identification case which is very astonishing: Noah’s wife. Neither has she a name in the Torah, nor has she played a substantial role (important, yes; but not necessarily substantial). Even though it was not crucial to identify her, our Sages decided to link between her and another character: Naamah, Tubal-Cain sister. “Rabbi Abba bar Kahana said: Naamah was Noah’s wife… but the Sages said: it was another Naamah” (Genesis Rabbah, 23:3).
Naamah was Lemekh’s daughter, a descendant of Cain. Why Rabbi Abba bar Kahana thinks that the seed of Cain must have survived the Flood? There is no hint in the Torah pointing to that: Noah’s wife is Naamah, the daughter of Lemekh, a descendant of Cain? That means that the humankind developed not only from Seth, Adam’s third son and Noah’s ancestor, but from Cain too! It would have been much simpler to follow the plain text, leaving Noah’s wife in her anonymity. Why to embroil things? Why to anchor humanity to the seed of Cain the wicked?
Perhaps this is the allusion here: Cain wasn’t wicked. He sinned, yes. He committed a very serious transgression, yes. But perhaps he changed his ways, he tried to repair what may have been repaired, he tried to build instead of perpetuating destruction? We mustn’t forget the rehabilitation Cain tried to go through: God expelled him to a place of wandering: “itinerant and wanderer you shall be on the earth… and he settled in the land of Nod [Wander]” (Gen. 4:12-16). And it is in the land of wandering that Cain builds a city, settles and builds in a place where it seems to be impossible to do that (id. verse 17). Not only does he build, but he calls the city by his son’s name: Hanokh, a name related to establishment, to foundation, to progress and to teaching forth.
Cain does not perpetuate extinction: he has done a terrible thing by killing his brother, but he seeks rehabilitation and restoration. Cain does not repeat the wrong; confronting destruction he and his descendants propose construction, restoration and continuity. His descendants Yaval, Yuval and Tubal-Cain were the developers of civilization: music, settlement, livestock, metalworking, agriculture. They find themselves repairing what their father Lemekh did: he killed and boasts about that, while his sons reply by building and progressing.
And Naamah? She is only mentioned as Tubal-Cain’s sister. And if she is called by name, it means her deeds are substantial… but they are not mentioned at all!
The link between her and Noah’s wife comes, perhaps, to teach us her crucial task in continuing the building despite the extinction. She makes all the efforts, together with Noah, to continue life despite the Flood and the human corruption. She is the one that silently preserves hope of construction despite the evil, cruel and corrupt ways of other humans. She is the one who does not surrender to the destruction urge and struggles against the inclination towards the bad, so as to shed light on darkness. She represents, as a descendent of Cain, the positive impulse the humans have to repent, correct the crooked, struggle against destructive tendencies and to rehabilitate.
Why is her name Naamah? The midrash goes on saying: “because her deeds were pleasant [na’im]”