Parshat Noah: The great catastrophe

The story of Noah and his ark is really a tale of darkness and tragedy beyond any other in human history. It is the worst ecological disaster to ever befall humanity.

Painting by Yoram Raanan (photo credit: YORAM RAANAN)
Painting by Yoram Raanan
(photo credit: YORAM RAANAN)
“Now the Flood was 40 days upon the earth, and the waters increased, and they lifted the ark, and it rose off the earth. And the waters became powerful, and they increased very much upon the earth, and the ark moved upon the waters. And the waters became exceedingly powerful upon the earth, and all the lofty mountains that were under the heavens were covered up.” -Genesis 7:17-19
(Painting by Yoram Raanan;;
Noah’s Ark is one of the most popular subjects for children’s art. Children’s rooms are often decorated with pictures of the ark and its friendly animals, accompanied by a smiling Noah and family as if this were a wonderful fantasy voyage that we would all love to enjoy.
The irony is that the story of Noah and his ark is really a tale of darkness and tragedy beyond any other in human history. It is the worst ecological disaster to ever befall humanity, the extinction of all human life with the exception of that one small family, and of all animal life with the exception of those few crowded into the ark and, of course, the fish. “The end of all flesh has come before Me, for the earth is filled with lawlessness because of them…” says the Lord to Noah (Genesis 6:13) – hardly words suitable for a child’s bedtime story. All other catastrophes in the history of this planet, whether natural or man-made, pale in comparison to the near-total annihilation of civilization, man and beast.
Humankind was tried and found wanting. God’s experiment in creating human beings had failed in the sight of the Creator. “The Lord saw how great was the wickedness of humans on earth, and how every plan devised by humans was nothing but evil all the time. And the Lord regretted that he had made humans on earth and His heart was saddened” (Gen. 6:5-6). There is nothing more poignant than that in the Torah – the Creator regretting that He had created Adam and therefore destroying all his descendants.
And yet God does not totally give up on humans.
God finds Noah – “For you alone have I found righteous before Me in this generation” (Gen. 7:1) – and decides to try again. Noah becomes the second Adam, not a totally new creation, but a continuation of the original. Chaos has not come again. The universe has not returned to primal tohu vavohu – a state of nothingness and void. That is the true mystery: why does God desire there to be life at all? Why give humankind a second chance? Fortunately for us, He does.
When the flood had receded and Noah emerged from the ark and presented an offering of thanksgiving to God, the Lord says that He will never again “doom the earth because of humans, since the devisings of the minds of humans are evil from their youth…” (Gen. 8:21). That seems like a very strange reason for keeping humans alive. As a matter of fact it is almost word for word what God said as the reason that He regretted creating Adam in the first place! It seems to be the Torah’s way of saying that God has reconciled Himself – as it were – to the fact that anything human is by definition less than perfect. Perfection, if it exists, exists only in the Divine. Flaw is inherent in human beings. Even Noah and his children are less than perfect, as we see almost immediately in the story of his drunkenness and their actions (Gen.9:20-28).
What then is the solution to this dilemma? Self-discipline, self-control, the rule of law. Therefore God immediately gives human beings laws, commandments, what the Sages later call “the seven Noahide commandments.” God is giving human beings the opportunity to learn how to control this evil urge, the yetzer hara, by learning that there are limits. One is able do many things that are evil and destructive – but one may not do them. The most primary rule of all is that one may take the life of animals – but only for food – and that one may not eat the flesh of a living animal; one may not take the life of a human being without forfeiting one’s own life (Gen. 9:3-6).
The other commands are not made explicit in the Torah but, according to rabbinic tradition, they are: the prohibition of idolatry, blasphemy, sexual sins and theft as well as the requirement to establish a just legal system (Sanhedrin 56a). This is what is expected from every civilized individual. With the exception of idolatry, which concerns ritual and belief as well, these are ethical norms without which humanity cannot exist in peace. When these are not respected, humans eat one another alive. Unfortunately it does not require much searching to find examples in our world today of places where life is intolerable because of the lack of law and respect for human life. Nor do we have to look back too far in history for examples of so-called civilized and cultured societies which ignored these rules and brought death and destruction upon millions of people.
The story of a great flood did not originate with Israel.
It was common to the entire ancient Middle East and found its way into the literature of many peoples in this region. When told in the Torah, however, it has an ethical message that it lacks in any other version.
Only here is the reason for the flood the immorality and violence of human beings. Only here is the hero – Noah – saved because of his righteousness. Only here is there a way offered to overcome the human impulse toward evil with its emphasis on new moral and ethical norms for all human beings. And only here does the rainbow – the bow in the sky that accompanies rain – become a symbol of peace and of God’s covenant with humanity never to bring another catastrophic flood like that one.
“When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures, all flesh that is on earth” (Gen.
9:16). A bow, most often and quite normally a sign of war and of killing and destruction, becomes a symbol of peace between God and all living things.
Thus the story, which is otherwise so dire, ends on a note of eternal hope. 
Shabbat shalom
The writer, a former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly and a longtime Jerusalem Post columnist, is a prominent lecturer and author who twice received the National Jewish Book Award. His most recent book is Akiva: Life, Legend, Legacy (Jewish Publication Society).