Parashat Noah: Babel & Eden

We are created in God’s image, but we are not God. And whenever we forget that important distinction, trouble ensues and there are consequences.

 ONE TREE gives us full knowledge, the other gives us immortality.  (photo credit: Jan Huber/Unsplash)
ONE TREE gives us full knowledge, the other gives us immortality.
(photo credit: Jan Huber/Unsplash)

Expelled last week from the tranquility and comfort of the Garden of Eden, humanity appears to find equanimity in this week’s parasha Noah, whose name means “comfort.” In addition, as author Ellen Frankel notes, quoting Rabbi Abba bar Kahana, Noah’s wife’s name Na’amah “refers to her pleasing – ne’imim – deeds” (Genesis Rabbah 23:3). Nothing could be farther from the truth in what transpires and the etymology of these two significant names to our parasha. 

God loses patience not once but twice (the Flood and the Tower of Babel) with humans whom God had created, and who are, as the psalmist reminds us, “a little lower than the angels” (Psalm 8:5). That lofty reference echoes the description, also in last week’s Torah reading, saying that were created “in God’s image” (Genesis 1:27).

And therein lies the connection between these two Torah readings – a lesson taught in the Garden of Eden will need to be repeated. And what was that lesson? We are created in God’s image, but we are not God. And whenever we forget that important distinction, trouble ensues and there are consequences.

We read last week: The Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden, and there God put the human whom God had formed. And out of the ground, Adonai Elohim made every tree grow that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. The tree of life was also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and bad.

 SCRIBES FINISH writing a Torah scroll. (credit: DAVID COHEN/FLASH 90) SCRIBES FINISH writing a Torah scroll. (credit: DAVID COHEN/FLASH 90)

Then Adonai Elohim put the humans in the Garden of Eden to tend and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the human, saying, “Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and bad you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Genesis 2:8-17).

“Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and bad you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die”

Genesis 2:8-17

Why are we allowed to eat from one tree but not from both? Because their combination makes us God-like. One tree gives us full knowledge, and the other gives us immortality. In other words, when eaten together we become like God, having complete knowledge and never dying. Once Eve and Adam ate from the tree of knowledge, they were expelled from the Garden so they would not have the opportunity to eat from the tree of life and become immortal like God.

The Tower of Babel

THAT BRINGS us to this week’s episode of the Tower of Babel, where the people said to one another, “Come, let us build us a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, that we make ourselves a name” (Genesis 11:4). On face value, this desire and goal does not appear problematic; but on closer examination, other ramifications surface. 

We read in Psalms, “The heavens belong to the Lord, but God has given the earth to all humanity” (Psalms 115:16). That is to say, building a tower to heaven violates that division and lessens the difference between us and God. At the end of the sentence, the citizens of Babel say building the tower will help them make a name for themselves. This might indicate creating a good reputation. 

But “a name” in the context of heaven means something else. Often God is referred to as Hashem, literally the “name.” There are many reasons for this, but on one level it is a word that can encompass all aspects of God, who is beyond all names and descriptions. When the people of Babel say they want to create a name for themselves, it can be inferred that they want to be God-like.

In a related view, Nechama Leibowitz teaches: “Man, who has the power to reach these technical heights, soon imagines that he is all-powerful. Gigantic buildings, pyramids, marble monuments, impressive squares have always served as the means by which a great dictator has wished to perpetuate and aggrandize his name, likening himself to a god.”

Why does God, the absolute power of the universe, need to remind us of that vast difference between image and agency? It was perhaps best said by Jacob Bronowski, while standing at Auschwitz during the filming of the BBC documentary based on his book, The Ascent of Man:

“There are two parts to the human dilemma. One is the belief that the end justifies the means. That push-button philosophy, that deliberate deafness to suffering, has become the monster in the war machine. The other is the betrayal of the human spirit. The assertion of dogma closes the mind and turns a nation, a civilization, into a regiment of ghosts – obedient ghosts, or tortured ghosts. It’s said that science will dehumanize people and turn them into numbers. That’s false – tragically false. Look for yourself.

“This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz. This is where people were turned into numbers. Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some four million people. And that was not done by gas – it was done by arrogance, it was done by dogma, it was done by ignorance. When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave. This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of gods… We have to cure ourselves of the itch for absolute knowledge and power.”

Nestled next to the directive not to eat from “the tree of the knowledge of good and bad,” in chapter two, we are also told, “to till and tend” (Genesis 2:15) the Garden. This stands in stark contrast to the first chapter, when we read that we are created “in the image of God” and are told in terminology that is absolute, to act with  “dominion” over the environment. 

Therein lies our challenge; we cannot escape the immense power we have over the environment and over people. Just as God needs to temper justice with mercy (Genesis Rabbah 12:15), so we must diminish the absolute with the equivocal.

Too often, when we have forgotten about the fine line between being created in God’s image and acting as though we are the absolute power or think we have absolute power, we act at our human worst. By being created in God’s image, humans have immense power, as Rabbi Joseph Polak reminds us, with the capacity not only to commit genocide but also biocide. This critical lesson, first taught in the Garden of Eden and so quickly forgotten by the time of the Tower of Babel, is an eternal cautionary tale that “the better angels of our nature” need to be continuously cultivated. ■

The writer, a Reconstructionist rabbi, is the rabbi emeritus of the Israel Congregation in Manchester Center, Vermont. He teaches at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies on Kibbutz Ketura and at Bennington College.