Posted by: Emily | 7 October 2013

Noach: Seeking survival amidst destruction

I gave this d’var Torah at Havurat Shalom on Shabbat Parashat Noach last weekend, 5 October 2013. Please note that since this is a textual-level study of the words of the Torah, I refer to both God and mankind in the masculine, since that’s how the Hebrew text does.

At the end of the Noach story, God gives the sign of the rainbow to signify that never again will He destroy the entire world because of humanity.

I have always thought this odd, because it’s obvious that God isn’t telling the whole truth here. Sure, He won’t destroy the entire world. And He hasn’t. But He seems to have no problem destroying large sections of it. Storms, hurricanes. Go to the Gulf Coast and you can still see land destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. Torrents of rain. Windstorms. Floods. Look at Colorado right now. Wildfires caused by lightning strikes in southwestern Oregon. And I haven’t even left the United States. Last month tropical storms lashed both coasts of Mexico at once. Pretty much the entire city of Calgary was underwater this summer.

The media calls large, destructive flooding “biblical”. People in the insurance business call these things “acts of God”, as if God Himself, sitting on His heavenly throne, is solely responsible for the necessary rebuilding and, it goes without saying, for coughing up any insurance payouts or settlements.

We call these floods “biblical” because in Genesis, of course, God destroys what He has created, saving one man and his family. What motivates Him? The answer is actually to be found in the last few verses of the previous week’s Torah portion (Gen. 6:5–7):

Yahweh beheld that the wickedness of mankind was great upon the earth, and every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was continuously evil. Yahweh regretted that He had made mankind on earth, and it grieved Him to His heart. Yahweh said, “I will erase mankind, which I have created, from upon the face of the earth, both man and beast, creeping things, and even the birds of the sky, for I regret that I have made them.”

The wickedness of humanity is God’s motivation. And even after the flood, as God is giving Noach the rainbow sign of His new covenant and promising not to destroy like this again, He gives one parting shot at humanity, reminding us that we brought the flood on ourselves (Gen. 8:21):

And Yahweh said in His heart, “I will not again curse the earth because of mankind, for the intention of man is evil from his youth.”

It is well-known that there are two flood stories in Genesis, of course, and this is not the place to go through the minute differences. Suffice to say that in the E/P flood story, God espouses a hands-off kind of micromanagement, telling Noach all about the precise dimensions of the ark, what kinds of animals to bring on board, and all these details, but He doesn’t actually do any of the work Himself. In the J flood story, God’s concern for Noach is much more personal: He regrets the destruction He has caused, He gives Noach a personal sign in the rainbow to establish a covenant with him, He even personally shuts the door of the ark after Noach. The God of the J flood story is immanent; the God of the E/P flood story is transcendent.

But in both the J and E/P stories, God’s motivation is the same: He is angry at humanity because of their evilness. In J, that anger exists within a personal, anthropomorphic frame, and in E/P, it exists in a frame that is much more cosmic in scope. When God relents, in J He regrets His actions, and makes a covenant with humanity with the rainbow as a sign that destruction like this will not happen again, and in E/P He gives humanity a set of laws to live by for the same purpose.

Now that we’ve reviewed some of the themes behind the Noach story, let’s leave Noach aside for the moment and look at the most famous parallel story from the ancient Middle East. In the epic of Gilgamesh, Utnapishtim, the character parallel to Noach, is saved from the flood, and narrates his own story in the first person. The story is found in Tablet XI of Gilgamesh. Briefly, the gods in council decide to send a flood upon the earth, and the god Ea saves his favorite man, Utnapishtim, telling him to build a boat. He exhorts him thus:

O man of Shuruppak, son of Ubartutu,
Demolish your house and build an ark!
Abandon wealth to seek survival;
Spurn property to save life!

Utnapishtim asks Ea how he should respond to other human who ask him what he’s building the ark for, and Ea tells him to lie to them about his motivations, presumably so that they too will not try to survive the deluge. Utnapishtim loads aboard all his possessions, including silver and gold, onto the ark, and waits out the frightfully destructive storm for seven days. When the ark comes to rest, he makes a burnt-offering, and “the gods swarmed like flies around the man making sacrifice” (11.163). One of the chief gods, Enlil, gets upset because he realizes that someone survived the destruction, and Ea tells him off for trying to destroy all of humanity, and places the fate of Utnapishtim in Enlil’s hands. Enlil blesses Utnapishtim and his wife thus:

In the past, Utnapishtim was a mortal man,
But now he and his wife shall become like us gods!
Utnapishtim shall dwell far away, where the rivers flow forth!

It’s interesting to compare the Genesis flood story with the Gilgamesh flood story; this is not the place for a detailed comparison, but I want to note some interesting points of convergence and divergence. The stories’ motivations for flooding the earth and the destruction is completely different, of course: in Gilgamesh, it’s caused by squabbling amongst the pantheon of gods. In fact, the entire characterization of the gods is strikingly odd: where the God of J “smelled the sweet odor” of the sacrifice and has a change of heart (8;21), the gods of Gilgamesh “swarmed like flies around the man making sacrifice”.

The most telling thing to me, though, is each story’s explanation for why the hero was saved. In Gilgamesh, Utnapishtim is saved because he is Ea’s favorite. Ea goes against the decree of the council of gods—obviously a very painful decree for some of those gods—to save one man. Ea even tells Utnapishtim to flat-out lie to everyone else about why he’s building his boat and what’s going to happen to them. Ea does tell Utnapishtim to be noble and spurn wealth and property so that he can seek survival, but what does Utnapishtim do? He takes all his silver and gold with him into his boat. He even gives his condemned palace and all that remains to some guy who helped build his boat. “Here’s your reward, sucker! You’ve got about ten minutes to enjoy it.”

Utnapishtim alone gets saved because Ea likes him. Why was Noach alone worthy of being saved? Not because he was Yahweh’s favorite. Members of pantheons play favorites: Athena and Odysseus, Ea and Utnapishtim. Yahweh doesn’t really play favorites in this way, certainly not on an individual level. The reason the Torah gives that Noach was saved is that he “found favor in the eyes of Yahweh” (Gen: 6:8). How did he find favor? He is described as tamim be-dorotav, “perfect in his generation” (Gen. 6:9). He is described as an ish tzadik, “a righteous man” (ibid.). The classical Jewish commentators disagree as to whether this means that Noach just appeared righteous compared to all the other people of his generation, or whether he was actually righteous in that if you put him in a generation of people where the average level of righteousness was higher he wouldn’t stand out. But the point is he was doing something right to merit God’s favor.

However, the most interesting thing that the Torah has to say about Noach, to me, is that he “walked with God” (ibid.). In Hebrew, this is a quite enigmatic phrase: et ha-elohim hit’halech Noach. Let’s unpack that. Hit’halech is a reflexive verb, literally meaning something like “he walked himself”. Interestingly, there has already been one person who has been described the with this word by the Torah. That person is Noach’s great-grandfather Enoch, whom gets the following super-enigmatic verse (Gen. 5:24):

And Enoch walked with God [va-yit’halech ḥanoch et ha-elohim] and was not [ve-einenu], for God took him.

Later mystical tradition would make much out of Enoch because of these five words. The secrets of creation are revealed to him. He becomes an gigantic angel named Metatron with a heart of fire and dozens of wings and a body covered in eyes (really). The point I want to make with Enoch is that this action—walking with God—is clearly an exceptionally meritorious thing to do. I would also point out that it is odd that “with God”, which would normally be expressed by a prepositional phrase (im ha-elohim) is expressed both with Enoch and with Noach as a direct object of an intransitive verb (et ha-elohim), which technically is ungrammatical, thus drawing even further attention to the uniqueness and strangeness of this phrase.

So just what is this action, and why is it so important to God? Why is it enough to justify saving one person and his family from among all living things?

Walking with God is to emulate God. Utnapishtim and his wife become immortal at the end of the Gilgamesh flood story, and thus become “like us gods”. This is exactly what Yahweh was afraid of after Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil: that they would subsequently eat from the Tree of Life and become immortal (Gen. 3:22). But the way that Adam and Eve become “like the gods” (ke-elohim), in contrast to Utnapishtim, is by eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. What sets humanity apart from divinity, initially, is that sense of morality. Once humanity gains that, the only thing that sets them apart is mortality.

We are mortal beings; we are only tenants on this earth. We will all eventually pass away from the face of this planet. But we are moral beings in addition to being mortal, and we will be judged by our descendants and their descendants. I started off by saying that God still destroys, despite the promise and the covenant. But God isn’t the only one who destroys creation. Last week, I talked about how to be human is to create, and that creation is a noble, Godly activity. This week, remember that humanity also bears some responsibility for destruction. God reminded us of it: “I will not again curse the earth because of mankind, for the intention of man is evil from his youth.” Can we rise above that, even if only a little bit? Can we spurn wealth and property to seek survival? Can we save? Can we love each other and love our world? That’s the message of Noach.



  1. […] that grammatically this verb is reflexive, meaning something like “go yourself”, and last week we saw that this denotes a special kind of behavior in one’s life, living in ways that are honoring […]

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