In many ways, Parashat Noach is filled with as many theological problems as answers. Chief among them is why after creating the world and all living things, God destroys "all that lives under the heavens" (Genesis 6:17). The reason that God gives is the "violence" or "lawlessness" (chamas) of humankind. Yet what about such godly virtues as patience, love, and forgiveness? Apparently, God possesses less of them than one might wish. Does saving Noah, his family, and a male and female of all living species in order to ensure continued reproduction make up for God's actions? Is saving them a sign of mercy or of pragmatism? The fact that after the flood, God promises to never again "destroy all living beings, as I have [just] done" (8:21), suggests that despite having saved the righteous Noah and his family, and enabling future life on the earth, God shows signs of regret (for discussions on the degree to which Noah was righteous, see B'reishit Rabbah 30). God acknowledges that humans will continue to do bad things, presumably including engaging in acts of violence, yet despite this, God blesses Noah and his sons (why God doesn't bless Noah's wife and daughters-in-law is another theological problem) and makes an eternal covenant with them, their descendants (that is, future generations), and the earth's animals, promising to never again send a flood to destroy all living creatures (Genesis 9:11).
Tales of great floods initiated by the gods were not uncommon in the ancient Near East. Indeed, the content of the biblical flood narrative bears a striking resemblance to an ancient Akkadian poem incorporated into the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh at the turn of the second millennium B.C.E. ("The Epic of Gilgamesh" in James Pritchard, ed., The Ancient Near East, vol. 1 [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973], pp. 66-74). Yet while both the biblical Noah and Urshanabi, the hero of the Babylonian flood account, receive a divine blessing, there is no divine covenant established with humanity in the Babylonian narrative. The gods of the Babylonian epic make no promises to Urshanabi, while God, as depicted in Parashat Noach, promises to limit divine power and never again send a flood to destroy the earth. As a reminder to God and humanity, and as a sign of the special relationship between them, God places a rainbow in the sky (see Genesis 9:8-16).
What is especially striking to me is that this covenantal relationship is established with all human beings and with "all that live upon the earth" (Genesis 6:16), animals as well as people. There is a universal ethic here that is absent from the covenant that God subsequently makes with Abraham, Sarah, and their descendants. Since, like the later covenant, it too is eternal, God's choosing the Jewish people does not diminish or negate the civic and moral responsibilities inherent within the Noachide Covenant in any way. Rabbinic Sages maintain that there are six laws, which they exegetically derive from divine commands addressed to Adam or Noah, the progenitors of humanity, in this covenant (for example, not worshipping idols or blaspheming God, establishing courts of justice, and not committing murder, robbery, or adultery) as well as a seventh, given after the flood, in Genesis 9:4 not to eat flesh cut from a living animal. The latter commandment is given to Noah's children and subsequently, since "the whole earth was populated" from them (Genesis 9:19), to all of humankind (The Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 56a cf. Tosefta, Avodah Zarah 8:4 and B'reishit Rabbah 34:8).
Despite what I see as the theologically problematic nature of much of this portion, Parashat Noach includes two of the Torah's most profound teachings, namely that a covenant exists between the divine and all living creatures, and that this covenantal relationship gives human beings responsibility toward animals, God, and each other. It is because of this moral ethic that Rabbinic tradition comes to include the belief that "the righteous of all nations have a share in the world to come" (Tosefta, Sanhedrin 13) while similarly maintaining that all humans are to treat animals with consideration and compassion, a view also expressed in the Hebrew Bible. (For example, see Leviticus 22:28: "No animal from the herd or from the flock shall be slaughtered on the same day as its young;" Proverbs 12:10: "A righteous person knows [and tends to] the needs of his beast;" Babylonian Talmud, B'rachot 40a: "A man is forbidden to eat before he gives food to his beast;" and Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 54b: "[Ewes] are sheared, a compress is saturated in oil and placed on its forehead that it should not catch cold.")
Finally, all of us are accountable for our actions toward other human beings because, as Parashat Noach makes clear, all of us are covenantal partners. Whether or not one believes that literally we are children of God, Judaism has long maintained that there is a creative force that drives all existence. As Rabbi Irving (Yitz) Greenberg has written, "Judaism proclaims the unity of existence and the interconnection of all life bound up with this universal sustaining presence" (Irving Greenberg, For the Sake of Heaven and Earth: The New Encounter between Judaism and Christianity [Philadelphia: JPS, 2004], pp. 50-51). It is this unity and interconnectedness, underscored by the Noachide Covenant, that ultimately makes us responsible not only for ourselves, but also for one another.
Dr. Ellen M. Umansky is the Carl and Dorothy Bennett Professor of Judaic Studies at Fairfield University in Fairfield, CT; Professor of Religious Studies; and director of the university's Bennett Center for Judaic Studies . She is a long-time member of Reform Congregation Kol Ami in White Plains, NY.