After the Flood Was Over – Parashat Noah

Last week in Torah study we discussed God being an all-knowing and a perfect being. Certainly, this is clearly the preeminent conception of God in the Christian Gospels. (1 John 3:20); Matthew 10:30) One member of the group asserted that God is omniscient and knows everything. Does not Psalm 139 assert, “Lord you know it all?” (4)” Does not Psalm 147 say, “His understanding is infinite? (5) Psalm 139 is even more detailed:

O Lord, You have searched me and known me.

You know when I sit down and when I rise up;

You understand my thought from afar.

You scrutinize my path and my lying down,

And are intimately acquainted with all my ways. (1-4)

Another member of the group cited the passage, “I shall be who I shall be.” When Moses queried God’s identity, Hashem answered, “I shall be as I shall be.” I am the God of revelation. I am Becoming, not Being. The Noah story of the flood would seem to support the latter interpretation, for God says that he believes he made a mistake in creating humanity. Further, after He wipes out much of the world in the flood, he learns that there is no restart button. And he promises never to do that again, for expecting perfection in humans was a mistake.

Let us go along with the latter line of interpretation and the notion that God’s knowledge is not unlimited as a result but, as Psalm 44 states it, “He knows the secrets of the heart.” (21) He is the most empathetic one around. Is that what it means to say that God knows the hearts of men? God’s knowing does not mean that God knows everything that is, that was and that will ever be, but that God is capable of knowing what you are feeling.

In the Babylonian Atrahasis Epic from which the story of the flood was drawn, the god Enki organized humans into a new order because in the old order humans were noisy, whining complainers. And there were too many of them. In Genesis, the flood is a punishment for human sin rather than a result of the gods’ annoyance at the overpopulation and noise humans make. Most significantly, in the Babylonian epic, limits were set on human reproduction, but in Genesis, humans were instructed to be fruitful and multiply. Why the difference? In turn, in Genesis God promised that there would be no flood and mass extinction in the future.

What was wrong with the first arrangement a few generations earlier that was set on the sixth day of creation? The flood takes place following a seven-day warning (7:4 and 7:10) just as the god Enki told Atrahasis that the flood will come on the seventh night. Why seven days or nights? Further, why was Noah allowed to take his children aboard the ark, but the animals came in two by two (6:18), seven pairs of clean animals and only one pair of each of the unclean ones as in the Babylonian epic?

No sooner is the world totally reordered when God recognizes that the reforms did not work. Evil emerged again. God now proclaimed that he would work with what he had and never again extinguish almost everything to start all over again. God had learned a lesson. Had humans? Had man?

Let’s go back to the first arrangement. Adam is a nerd. God says and there is. Adam is made in the image of God. He imitates. He gives things names and they come into being as distinct objects. Adam may have a bountiful mind, but he has a shriveled heart. He does not even recognize that he is lonely. And when he is offered a companion, he objectifies her. Further, he treats Eve as if she were just a physical extension of himself and he sees himself as just a mind. He has no heart. He has no desires. He even objectifies his own body as Other. It is an erect smooth talking snake who seduces Eve. Adam does not do it. He as Other does it.

Adam knows how to serve God with his whole mind but not his whole heart. In fact, he does not even recognize he has a heart, that he is an emotional being. And he sees God only as middat ha-din, a God who metes out justice, and not a God of mercy, middat ha-rahamim. God is Elohim and not YHWH, the inscrutable God of mercy. If God is too soft, if God is too merciful, everything will get out of hand. The world must be ruled with tough love.

YHWH, not Elohim, saw “how great was the evil of humans on the earth, for every design of their hearts was only evil all day long. YHWH regretted that he had made humans on the earth, and his heart was pained.  YHWH said, “I will wipe out humans, whom I created, from the face of the earth … for I regret that I made them.” (6.6-6.8) How come the source of evil was in their hearts and not in their minds if the original problem was the result of the mind not recognizing that Adam had a heart and had feelings?

The answer is not too hard to find. Feelings without the counterpoint of thought, feelings without critical reflection, lead to evil all day long. Thought without feelings leads to the mindblindness of Adam. The lesson is that man is made in the image of both Elohim and YHWH; his life will be a struggle to reconcile two such opposite attributes.

Regret comes from the heart. So does the will to destroy what you regret creating. However, reason and judgement intervene. God finds Noah who for some reason is worthy of salvation. But the text reads: “But Noah found favour in YHWH’s eyes.” (6:8) Not in Elohim’s eyes. Elohim limited the infinitude of emotional destruction. But it was left to the heart to find Noah, to find a male that was full of caring and empathy. Elohim could not perform that task. YHWH’s heart was pained. His heart has been broken. That is why He wanted to destroy humans. But it is that same heart that recognized Noah as a man with a great heart. God is full of delight. He is willing to try again.

I shall be who I shall be. God’s mind recommends that he changes his heart from regret and resentment to delight in heartfulness. God has a change of heart. God grows. God develops a greater understanding that perfection is a false standard. God promises never to repeat that act of widespread extermination ever again. God savours the smell of the pure animal and we see why a seventh pair of clean animals had to be brought aboard the ark.

Noah built an altar for YHWH. He took one of every clean animal and every clean bird and offered burnt offerings on the altar.  YHWH smelled the soothing aroma, and YHWH said in his heart, ‘I will never again curse the earth because of humans, for the designs of the human heart are evil from their youth. Never again will I destroy all life as I have done.’” (8:20-21)

In the Gilgamesh story drawn from the same Babylonian Atrahasis Epic, Enlil destroys and Enki saves. Enlil is angry, not Enki. What angers him is not the evil humans do but that there are too many of them and they are too noisy. Enlil is a narcissist who decides on what he should do by what affects him. Enki is the superego that berates Enlil for his self-centeredness, for sending the flood, for destroying the wicked. In the Torah, rather than two unchanging divine beings with specific characteristics, the divine has opposing forces operating within and through each wrestling with the other, God learns and can be a better witness for man.

Such an interpretation fits with textual criticism that sees the story as a melding of a J text featuring YHWH and a P text featuring Elohim. In J, in one’s emotional life, there is an ongoing internal dialogue. In P, what happens is a consequence of external forces. In P, creation is undone as the waters from the heavens merge with the waters from the deep. P plans and calculates. Every plan devised by the mind without considering the emotions is “evil all the time.” In J, the flood is a result of a surfeit of water, a plethora of tears that are the basis for all life. Emotion is key and brings about both creation and preservation as well as remorse and destruction.

Then why does the story end with Noah planting a vineyard and getting drunk? Why does he end up naked so that his two sons, Shem and Japhet, have to cover him up? Why is Ham not involved in the cover-up? Why, when Noah wakes up, does he bless Shem and Japhet but curse his grandson, Canaan, the son of Ham, to serving as a slave to his brothers?

If God at the beginning of the story thought that it was the earth that was corrupt and filled with lawlessness and, therefore, decided to end all flesh, how, in the end, does the heart end up on top, as the source of mercy? By God recognizing that he was wrong about the source of evil. The very idea of eliminating evil is a conceit. And Noah, a righteous and good man, is the proof. After the ordeal, Noah understandably cut loose and went on a bender. He appreciated the concern of two of his sons for his embarrassment (great!), but then punished his other son by cursing his grandson. Noah clearly still had a great deal to learn. He had not learned how justice had to be tempered with mercy.

God also had a great deal more to learn and teach in the balance of the Torah.

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