Student Teaching in the New Millenium

5771 Noach

In Genesis on October 18, 2010 at 5:08 am

This parsha raises some interesting questions. Why spare Noah? What makes Noah so special? Was anyone else worthy of saving? Why save anybody? Why destroy the world in the first place if the end is the same? Why reboot the same problems?

The parsha says God decided to destroy all life on earth by Flood, on account of the corruption of the earth, “for all flesh had corrupted its ways on earth.” (Gen. 6:12) “The earth was filled with lawlessness.” (Gen. 6:9) Earlier, Genesis 6:1-2 refers to men beginning to increase on earth and “divine beings” taking wives from the daughters of men. Whether divine beings refers to other men or something “other” than man is unclear. The Plaut Torah offers a number of interpretations (e.g. fallen angels, the sons of Seth, “the sons of God”). Regardless, the offspring of these unions “were the heroes of old, the men of renown.” (Gen. 6:4) Is it significant that man is immediately condemned following these passages? (Gen. 6:4-5) Is it significant that Noah’s lineage is delineated separately? Is it significant that Noah, apparently, was neither a hero of old or a man of great renown? Did these heroes – and their ancestors, the so-called “divine beings” – enjoy divine favors that Noah (and his line of ancestors) did not have? The haftorah states “The children of the wife forlorn Shall outnumber those of the espoused.” (Isa. 54:1). Could these people have been the children of “the wife espoused,” that is, where wife can mean “nation” or “nations” in the biblical sense, nations God favored before Noah and the Flood? By choosing lawlessness, did they fail their divine obligations?

Is it also significant that the line leading up to Noah is always traced through the first named child? From the Torah’s perspective, we know these are the first named children, but were they the first children themselves? We don’t know. You can support either conclusion. On the one hand, Adam and Eve bore Cain and Abel before Seth. Seth was the third child and ancestor of Noah. Isaac and Jacob are both second sons, themselves. On the other hand, Shem, ancestor of Terah and Abram, was likely the eldest of Noah’s sons. “Noah…was blameless in his age; Noah walked with God. Noah begot three sons: Shem, Ham, and Japheth.” (Gen. 6:9-10). Abram and Terah are themselves introduced as the first of the named children. (Gen. 11:24-26). To this day, lineages are recounted on paper from the eldest to the youngest. Yet, the Torah again is unclear. “The sons of Noah who came out of the ark were Shem, Ham, and Japheth.” (Gen. 9:18) “Sons were also born to Shem, ancestor of all the descendants of Eber and older brother of Japheth.” (Gen. 10:21). Were there sons of Noah who didn’t come out of the ark? Was Shem the only older brother of Japheth? Or just an older brother of Japheth? If Terah worshipped other gods (Josh. 24:2), can we assume he engaged in sex worship? Could Terah have had other children from these unions? We know Terah had other wives after Abraham’s mother (Gen. 20:12); were there any before?

The Torah singles Noah out in a very special way, with little preamble. Certainly, little introduction to Noah besides being righteous and walking with God (Gen. 6:9). How did Noah become the man he became? Were his forebears distinct from the rest of the world in some way? Were they among the “heroes” and/or the lawless? Were they in some “righteous” minority? Or were they not, but had God-worship, or at least God-respect, in their family (Enoch, Gen. 5:22)? Were they “children of the wife forlorn”? Could this seemingly disjointed tradition have been carried on by Noah?

How fascinating the implications on the environment today! Mankind, in the ongoing work to “master” the earth, causes a lot of violence. Natural disasters increase as this continues. Can we cast mankind as the “wife espoused” and nature as the “wife forlorn”? Can we expect nature’s upset to escalate as our activities continually escalate? Are we headed towards cataclysm, possibly a life ending one? This causes a problem with God’s promise to never again destroy all life (Gen. 8:21). If we are destroyed on account of our own actions, such as destroying the world (our basis for life) or causing nature to adjust itself in ways hostile to us, is God to violating his promise? Or is this simple causality? Is God even involved? Regardless of God’s promise, can we destroy ourselves? If we fail to uphold our end of the Covenant, can the consequences be free of God’s influence? Or, can a distinction be made between different people? Can we call those causing the damage, those with the power and popular support to do so, that is the power majority, the children of the “wife espoused”? And those trying to heal the world (and ourselves) from destruction, that is the power minority, the children of the “wife forlorn”? If we take this another step, does this passage imply an eventual triumph of peace over violence?

Was anyone else worth saving? Torah is mum on this subject. The Plaut Torah points out that Noah’s flaw was a lack of compassion. In modern times, we (or at least I) think of righteousness and compassion as going hand in hand with each other, so I’m not sure I can accept this. On the other hand, Plaut has a point: Noah does not argue with God, as Abraham does, over the fate of Sodom and Gomorra. So, is this argument valid? Or is there another way to look at this. Perhaps, could Noah have lived in isolation with his family? Judged through the lens of rabbinic Judaism this might not have been a good thing, being that Judaism can be seen as equally about personal piety and communal salvation through acts of lovingkindness. Maybe in his effort to be a right and good man, Noah cut himself off from the peoples around him, rather than lead by example. In this way, preserving his practice at the expense of those around him? This does not require a lack of compassion, but maybe selfishness? Or simply a different idea? Perhaps the “community” engaged in practices he found objectionable, so Noah isolated himself and his family? I think the Torah gives evidence of isolation. Noah builds the ark and gathers the animals and supplies seemingly on demand. Noah just did as asked with no drama on seven day’s notice (Gen. 6:22). This implies a certain degree of self-sufficiency; was Noah able enough to handle this all on his own, or only with his family’s help? Was Noah already accustomed to this lifestyle? Was Noah’s experience on the ark, living on his own, not so foreign to his life experience? What is Noah’s failure here? Did Noah not plead with God out of a lack of compassion, or did Noah not plead with God because he felt he was doing the right thing? Perhaps Noah didn’t lack compassion, but simply didn’t get it right? Here’s another possibility: is it possible Noah felt the rest of the world was better off destroyed? All of the violence and suffering around him would be alleviated. Does this qualify as “compassion”? Another point: Abraham pleads for the lives of the righteous, not everyone. He does not plead with God about the suffering of the wicked. If compassion is concern for and a hope of an alleviation of suffering, does Abraham’s act qualify? Is Noah’s failing a lack of compassion, or a lack of interest or insight in pointing out a “flaw” in a proposed course of action? That being, the righteous suffering with the unjust?

Do the righteous stand with the righteous? Did Noah fail to stand with the righteous by not asking God for their lives on the eve of the Flood? If someone righteous does not stand with the righteous, meaning, that person doesn’t recognize righteousness, is that person righteous himself? Was Noah not really righteous? Or were there really no other righteous people on earth? Was anyone else worth saving?

Why save anybody? Why reboot the same problems? If man is predisposed to violence, or at least making the same mistakes, why set the stage for the same things to happen? “The imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth.” (Gen. 8:21) Why get angry with a loved one who will repeat his or her mistakes? Is this a universal acceptance of people being flawed? Is this a message of forgiveness? Like a husband and wife forgiving each other after a fight? Or an injunction of loyalty? We’ve erred before, and will err again, but our loved ones stand by us, and so should we stick by them. Or, loyalty that comes from marriage vows? (Isa. 54:6-8)

Here’s another question: we’ve erred before, and will err again, but our loved ones stand by us, and so should we stick by them. We know what this means for us. What does this mean for God?

  1. You have mastered the art of questioning, Bravo.
    I think the rabbis wondered about the rainbow covenant.
    Is a flood of fire precluded?

    • From God, perhaps. What about nature? Global warming? Things of our own doing?

      • We are still here!
        This year i saw a double rainbow this parsha week.
        Sounds like good news to me.

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