This week’s Torah reading is Parsha Noach, colloquially the Flood Tale.
Briefly, a mere ten generations following Creation, God appeared to despair of the human enterprise and resolved to dissolve them and the flora and fauna, and reshape the face of the earth with extreme flood waters. To eradicate both man and beast, God caused a rainfall of “forty days and forty nights”. The flood that ensued destroyed all physical life “that moved upon the earth”. Only Noah, his family, and a male and female of each species survived the raging deluge, safely cloistered in an ark. They would be the root for a new generation, hopefully not tainted by the same toxicity that doomed their ancestors to a watery grave.
The story is told in very human terms with mythological proportions.
Man’s behaviour caused God great agitation, so much so that He felt misgivings for having created them: “And God reconsidered having made Man on earth, and He was pained in his heart.” Much like a spurned lover, God determined to disconnect from the source of angst: “My spirit shall not contend anymore concerning man”. However, it would appear that withdrawal would not suffice. The Torah records the declaration that God would: “dissolve Man from the face of the earth.”
What had Man, and the beast and animals, plants and trees, done to warrant such a draconian measure? The Torah suggests three reasons. Two are recorded in Parsha Bereshit, one in Parsha Noach, though all are part of the same perek, chapter 6. All are very challenging and are open to broad interpretation.
The Torah reports that the sons of “Elohim”, literally the sons of God who are often associated with angels, had taken up with human females of the earth. Their illicit and unnatural union led to the birth of Nephilim, literally the fallen, an apparently violent race of giant proportions. Man too had failed; they had become wicked and thought only of evil. In the continuation of the narrative subsumed in Parsha Noah, the Torah records that “the earth had become corrupt before God; and the earth had become filled with robbery”.
Three possible reasons: the mating between “sons of God” and “daughters of man”; the offspring of this unnatural mating, a race of giants, the Nephilim, which was full of violence; and, Man, who had demonstrated himself to be a hopeless failure, devoid of ethic and morality. Or, perhaps, a series of unfortunate events that tainted God’s hopes and brought ruin to the harmonious society He had intended to inhabit the Earth.
Very early interpreters of the Torah were comfortable with the notion that it was the disruption of the natural order that first fed God’s wrath; heavenly angels had mated with earthly females, an act of fornication; their offspring succeeded in making violence an ordinary state. Later commentators minimized the supernatural thread of the narrative and focussed on man’s behaviour; and the nature of the corruption and their anti-social conduct.
Rashi opined that sexual immorality, promiscuity and idolatry were the specific behaviors that had provoked God’s anger. The Ramban thought the somewhat symbiotic deviations of sexual immorality, robbery and fraud, were the reasons for the flood God would cause and which would obliterate mankind. Sforno, who lived after Rashi and Ramban, gave a somewhat more sophisticated analysis and described the underlying conduct as a breakdown of society, where each person robbed the other – the landowners robbed the sharecropper through force, whilst the sharecropper robbed the landowner through deceit. A somewhat similar approach was taken by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch a 19th Century leader of modern German-Jewish Orthodoxy. Rabbi Hirsch built on Ramban’s theme of a wholly corrupt society. He suggested that while the amounts stolen were petty, their ubiquity spoke to a civilization disdainful of the rule of law. He painted the society described in the Torah as weak in conscience, whose entire fabric was iniquitous.
God’s confrontation with Man’s misadventure would repeat itself in the Torah. First man was punished with dispersion following the unsuccessful attempt to reach to the heavens by building a tower in Babel, and then the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed for the grave indifference of their people. Even His Chosen People were not free of this tremendous anger. When Israel had built and worshipped the Golden Calf, God’s wrath exploded and he told Moses: “Let my anger flare up against them and I shall annihilate them”. Fortunately, Moses was able to soothe God’s anger and in a curious turn of words, the Torah recounts that God “reconsidered the evil that He declared that He would do to His people”. A similar episode is repeated in the narrative of the twelve spies described in Parsha BeShalach.
Just as Man had to learn, and sometimes painfully, what God’s expectations were, God would have to understand what was different and unique about Man, notwithstanding that he was His ultimate creation. After the flood waters had receded and Noah found himself on dry land, he made a burnt offering after which God mused: “Never again will I bring doom upon the world on account of what people do, though the human mind inclines to evil from youth onward”. God had learned much from the Flood; Man apparently, not so much.