Noah and the Flood

Parashat Noah


Howard Adelman

Serendipity – sometimes called revelation – is wonderful. Last night, a very old dear friend who nevertheless reads my blog – or at least receives it – emailed me an article by Daniel Burston called, “It Can’t Happen Here: Trump, Authoritarianism & American Politics,” presumably to reinforce my interpretations and critique of Donald Trump. If you read both, you will understand how the psychoanalytic interpretations of personality have influenced my thought. As you read through this commentary, it will become clear how appropriate that article was. In addition, last evening my wife chose a documentary to watch, Leonardo DiCaprio’s Before the Flood. I had planned to write this morning about Noah and the flood, so the timing seemed perfect as will become apparent. As DiCaprio’s documentary makes clear, many people as in Noah’s time seem to adopt a mindblindness about global warming, the most dangerous threat faced by the world. Perhaps there was a purpose in my falling behind in writing my commentaries.

The Reform movement in Judaism sends out an email each week with a “drash” or commentary on the coming week’s portion of Torah. Most of the time I do not find that it speaks to me, my concerns or my reading of text. This past week I expected a comment on whether Noah was really “a just man” or on the flood and Noah’s or humanity’s responsibility for the catastrophe. Or on the rainbow or the raven and the dove, the very stuff of fables.

However, this past week, the commentary of Dr. Ellen Umansky, Professor of Judaic Studies at Fairfield University in Connecticut, was spot on. “In many ways, Parashat Noach is filled with as many theological problems as answers. Chief among them is why, after creating the world and all living things, God destroys ‘all that lives under the heavens’ (Genesis 6:17). The reason that God gives is the ‘violence’ or ‘lawlessness’ (chamas) of humankind. Yet what about such godly virtues as patience, love, and forgiveness? Does saving Noah, his family, and a male and female of all living species in order to ensure continued reproduction make up for God’s actions?”

The reflection went on. “Is saving them a sign of mercy or of pragmatism? The fact that after the flood, God promises to never again ‘destroy all living beings, as I have [just] done’ (8:21), suggests that, despite having saved the righteous Noah and his family and enabling future life on the earth, God shows signs of regret (for discussions on the degree to which Noah was righteous, see B’reishit Rabbah 30). God acknowledges that humans will continue to do bad things, presumably including engaging in acts of violence. Yet despite this, God blesses Noah and his sons (why God doesn’t bless Noah’s wife and daughters-in-law is another theological problem) and makes an eternal covenant with them, their descendants (that is, future generations), and the earth’s animals, promising to never again send a flood to destroy all living creatures (Genesis 9:11).”

That is exactly the most crucial question. However, violent or lawless humans were, why destroy mankind? Why indeed go much further and destroy all of nature? Was God having a hissy fit because his creation did not work out perfectly as planned? The punishment is so disproportionate to the crime that the action is unspeakable. Does God earn redemption by saying He regretted what he did? Does God earn brownie points by implying that, in retrospect and hindsight, His action might have been rash and even wrong? Especially since He acknowledges that the action achieved nothing! Humans would continue to do dirty deeds. They would lie and not revere the truth – as my rabbi said in her Friday night commentary, they would many times not be faithful to one another never mind to God because they failed to revere the truth – emet (אמת).

Emet is a word made up of the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet followed by the middle letter of that alphabet and concluding with the final letter. This is generally interpreted to mean that truth is not simply based on a correspondence theory of truth, though that is a prerequisite, but on a coherence theory encompassing everything from the beginning to the end in one coherent development. The flood is totally incongruent with a God dedicated to mercy and love and is the second major clue that God is inadequate to the task. (God’s lack of understanding of sexuality was the first clue.)

Truth is a way. Truth is a path. (Genesis 24:27 & 48) One acts truly, not just by telling the truth. The truth lies within you not just in what you say. (Genesis 42:16) When Jacob was ready to die, he asked Joseph to put his hand under his thigh “and deal kindly and truly” with him by not burying him in Egypt. (Genesis 47:29) It is why Jews at funerals say, “Baruch dayan emet,” “Blessed is the True Judge.” For the truth of a judge will be seen in how he treats and buries the dead – hence the theme in the movie, Son of Saul.

The ultimate truth is how we treat our dead. A man of truth is not just a man that does not engage in lies, though at a minimum, he must not lie. Yesterday on the news, I listened to Donald Trump describe Barack Obama as screaming at a protestor at his rally that day and then watched a video of Barack Obama coolly telling the crowd they must not boo a man shouting out and holding aloft a “Vote for Trump” sign. They must respect the man’s freedom of speech, must respect him as a veteran, must respect him as an elder. It was the very opposite of screaming. Barack’s speech was a call for civility and decency and was an exemplification of the very characteristics Donald Trump does not demonstrate when he calls for the people at his rallies to “throw out” protesters, promising to pay their legal bills if they are charged with assault. Then Donald Trump tops it off by lying and projecting onto the president the very villainy he expresses.

In the final words of the story of creation Genesis 2.3 – the final letters of those three words also spell emet. Bara Elohim la’asot, God created the world for action, “to do” and not just to understand, not just for Adam to walk around in innocence providing an accurate and useful taxonomy of the things of the world. As I wrote in my commentary on the first portion of Genesis, the emphasis is on Becoming, not Being, on change and development, especially of critical self-consciousness, and not simply on whether what is said precisely conforms to what we find in the world, though it certainly includes the latter since lying is absolutely forbidden. God only created a framework. Man must live and act in truth.

The Noah story not only demonstrated that much more was required of creativity, but that God was not up to the task of completing the job. God was deeply flawed. There was just no excuse for such drastic action as the flood. God needed a partner in creation because God did not understand how the admixture of spirit and flesh, of earth and air, of light and water, actually interacted. Since Heraclitus, the symbol of constant change has been water. God might have blown air and the divine spirit into human nostrils, God may Himself be the spirit of truth, but God is not its material manifestation in this world. It is humans who must assume responsibility for change and for the management of water, the symbol of change. God was too caught up in the world He had created to understand how it had to and would undergo change. Thus, His excess. Thus, the deluge.

But does not the Torah also say that Elohim is rav chesed v’emet, that God is both abundant in loving kindness and in truth. God is a righteous judge. But that is after the fact. After humans assume their responsibility for creation, for doing. Then God can pronounce whether it is good or not. But God as an agent is not perfect. God makes mistakes. Not necessarily in the assessment, but in the meting out of punishment. Sure, humans were violent; sure, humans lied and cheated; sure, humans even killed. But the deluge!!!

So God drowns everyone and everything but a saving remnant. But, unlike the story of Gilgamesh, God makes an eternal promise to humanity that He will not destroy the world again no matter how humans misbehave. The responsibility for the well-being of the world will now belong to humanity. Thus, the rainbow (Genesis 9.8-16). Thus the rainbow coalition and the conception of a world that is not a homogeneous unity but a singularity that must work with and through diversity. Thus, the conception that the righteous can arise from any nation. Thus, the covenant not just with humans, but with “all that live upon the earth.” Humans may assume the responsibility, but it is a responsibility not just for himself, not just for one’s people, not just for all humanity, but for all that live on this planet. Each of us, everyone of us, is responsible to every other human for the welfare of the world. That is the Noachide Covenant.

Why is it a universal covenant not to worship idols, not to worship anything man made as divine whether it be the internet or a champion baseball team? Why must one not blaspheme God? Is not calling God imperfect and suggesting that He has hissy fits offensive and sacrilegious? It certainly sounds impious. But such statements are not offensive acts. They are just descriptors. Only acts can be blasphemous. And whether any act is or is not blasphemous or contemptuous of the divine spirit must be determined by the rule of law, by courts of justice and not by rumour, innuendo and the court of public opinion. So whether any act expresses idolatry – taking a human product as divine – or blasphemous – making what is divine an expression of human propensity to lie and murder, must be determined by courts. And those courts of justice are restricted to three core actions – the prohibition of murder (taking another human life when not in self-defense), the prohibition of robbery (taking the property of another when not driven by absolute need), and the prohibition of adultery, the fundamental sign of faith between two intimate partners.

So the story boils down to the following propositions:
1. It is a tale of corruption, of human violence and lawlessness. The core of that corruption is most manifest in ignoring a catastrophe that is in process of unfolding. The core of that corruption is the denial of climate change – by Donald Trump, by Ted Cruz, by Marco Rubio – that the oceans will rise and that the coastal cities of the world will be flooded. The core of that corruption entails ignoring the truth on which 97% of environmental scientists agree and insisting that those who warn of climate change are liars, and insisting that these dogmatists of denial are the ones professing the truth. The corruption is that the very politicians who claim their opponent is beholden to the special interests of Wall Street, are beholden to the Koch brothers and all those powerful corporations with vested interests in a fossil fuel economy. The corruption is exemplified when people of power are wedded to spreading rampant misinformation and outright lies about the state of our planet. Human kind has fallen because humanity has failed to live and act in truth.
2. This second worldwide flood that threatens the planet because of the profusion of carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuel and eating the beef of cows that produce enormous amounts of methane, both of which are the main causes of the melting of the icecaps, is still denied as a human responsibility. There is no recognition that God, having witnessed what he wrought in response to human previous irresponsibility, has learned that the problem of corruption can only be addressed if humans take responsibility for what they do and act to correct the situation.
3. What follows from 1 and 2 is that the first responsibility of humans is to learn, know and recognize the truth, primarily the truth about the dynamics of change.
4. God, and Noah for that matter, prior to the flood evinced not a drop of compassion for all those and all of nature that would die as a result of the flood. There is no indication that Noah cared one whit that the graves of his parents would be beneath a league of water. So how we revere our dead will be the key clue to whether we revere life and our fellow humans.
5. God becomes merciful only as a result of atoning for what He wrought and, as a result of the flood and God’s regret, acquirers the attribute of rachamim, the capacity for empathy and tender love, the ability to show compassion and mercy – even eventually for those who deserve punishment. Elohim, the ruler of the universe, then becomes Adonai as well, a name first given to God in Genesis 15:2 by Abram after the flood and the story of the Tower of Babel when Abram begs God to allow him to have a son.

The story has another side not yet articulated. Prior to the flood, God had no sense of remorse. God is strictly a dominating and controlling persona prone to dramatic gestures and an absolute belief that if He says something, just because he says it, it will come into being. Law is not judicial law. Law is not a process. Laws are merely the commandments of a ruler. Further, simple disobedience to those commandments is worthy of death. God is dominating and controlling and insists that law means order. It is only after the flood that a core constitution for all humanity appears when God has experienced and expressed remorse. Prior to the flood, God was simply and unequivocally an authoritarian persona, a bully with no tolerance for dissenters and particularly prone to denigrate women – which explains why Noah and his sons only were blessed. Prior to the flood, God recognized only blind obedience to His orders as expressions of faith and otherwise had only derision and scorn for humans.

Noah, on the other hand, is typical of the passive obedient individual. Noah is praised for his obedience and never challenges God’s decision to destroy humanity and all of nature. He is typical of one who only focuses on self survival of himself and his family and never risks challenging God’s decision. Noah simply wants to escape God’s wrath. Noah is typical of the unquestioning individual who believes whatever he is told and never questions what God means when he says that the world has gone to hell and that He needs to sweep the slate clean and start all over to once again make the world great again. Noah is the exemplification of the silent individual who accepts whatever the prevailing norms are. So Noah can be said in this sense to have abetted God’s heinous crime by going along with the inversion of morality wherein evil is pronounced as good. Noah so idolized God that he fails to see and name the heinous act God commits.

But all is not lost. God experiences remorse. Out of the deluge emerges a new norm, namely to live truth and think trust, think loyalty, think faith. Further, humans will soon learn, though very gradually, that God cannot be an excuse for passivity and indifference in the face of the victimization of others. After the flood, and only after the flood will humans begin to develop a critical self-consciousness.

DiCaprio begins his film with his personal memory of a copy of a triptych painting by Hieronymus Bosch that hung at the foot of his bed and that he went to sleep watching each night. The painting is called, “The Garden of Earthly Delights.” I marvelled at the original myself when we visited the Museo del Prado in Madrid fifteen or so years ago. In the left panel, the viewer sees an idyllic portrait of humans in the Garden of Eden with God when God introduces Eve to Adam to be his help meet.

In the middle there is a large panel of nude humans and phantasmagoric flora and fauna. If I recall correctly, in the documentary DiCaprio saw this panel as representing an overcrowded world whereas I saw it as a different version of Eden in which humans are engaged in various amorous activities, as if the novelty of sex had just been discovered. There is no indication of disgust or shame. All the figures seem at one with nature and it is as if we are merely watching a different phase of the Garden of Eden if humans had not hidden in shame and lied to God, but instead displayed their delight in their nature. It was much more a picture of a delight in the erotic than a portrait of a world that had become corrupt.

The third panel to the right is dark and clearly portrays a bleak world of corruption, but I was never able to understand how Bosch understood how humanity moved from the second to the third panel. Except I did understand that this was not a painting of purgatory, but of contemporary life of corruption when modernity was first making itself presence in the cradle of the transformation of Europe, the Netherlands. Was Bosch prescient about the projection of that genesis into the contemporary world? DiCaprio clearly saw the painting as an allegory of what will happen to the world if we do not get rid of corruption. Although I totally agreed with him about the dangers of climate change, I suspect we differ radically on the metaphysical premises against which the failure to deal with climate change can be read.

But it is an excellent documentary to watch while studying Parashat Noah.

With the help of Alex Zisman


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