The earth became corrupt before God; the earth was filled with lawlessness. When God saw how corrupt the earth was, for all flesh had corrupted its ways on earth, God said to Noah, "I have decided to put an end to all flesh, for the earth is filled with lawlessness because of them: I am about to destroy them with the earth. Make yourself an ark of gopher wood; make it an ark with compartments, and cover it inside and out with pitch. (Genesis 6:11-14)
In days only recently past, we emerged from our y'mei t'shuvah—our season of repentance—having concentrated on forgiveness and self-improvement. We heard the call to strive for better selves and better relationships. The message is ultimately one of hope: that we can begin this year 5765 with a clean slate, having learned from our ways.
Along comes the story of Noah to challenge us. A God overcome with frustration, bitterness, regret, and wrath has "decided to put an end to all flesh." The sinful ways of the world will drown with the lives that stubbornly refuse to abandon them.
The God who materializes in the Revelation at Sinai, and later in the prophetic words of Ezekiel, defies Noah's picture of an unforgiving God. These words are found in our High Holy Day prayer book; we read them at the poignant N'ilah service: "You are a God of forgiveness: gracious and merciful, endlessly patient, loving and true. You ask evildoers to return to You, and do not seek their death; for it has been said: 'Declare to them: As I live, says Adonai, God, it is not the death of the wicked I seek, but that they turn from their ways and live. Turn back, turn back from your evil ways; for why should you choose to die, O House of Israel?'" ( Gates of Repentance [CCAR: New York, 1978, 1996], p. 516, paraphrasing Exodus 34:6-7 and quoting Ezekiel 33:11).
So which God is it? How do we reconcile these images of a God who desires our t'shuvah on the one hand and who would resort to annihilation on the other?
We can give two possible answers. One is to suggest that the crimes of Noah's era were so severe and so extensive—the likes of which we could not imagine today—as to necessitate an unprecedented—and never duplicated—punishment. The Rabbis identified the sins variously as violence (the Torah's own word, chamas, means "lawlessness" or "anarchic violence") and sexual impropriety (committed even among common animals and plants, who, they say, mated indiscriminately with incompatible species!).
But the world you and I know suggests that the sins of Noah's day, if unprecedented then, persist no less brutally in our day. As war, terrorism, kidnapping, repressive religious doctrines, and crimes like the sexual torture of inmates spread in Iraq, fanatical ideologies seize adherents across the globe, and unprincipled thoughts and deeds too often characterize our most public behavior. It becomes too easy to miss, for instance, the genocide of tens of thousands in Sudan. No, we are not strangers to the sins that were supposed to have drowned in the Flood.
The other possibility is that even with the miserable moral state of Noah's world, God nevertheless did in fact desire repentance, but the people did not. ". . . Why did the Holy One tell Noah to make an ark? So that others would see him working on it and would then repent. . . . In fact, the Holy One said: Because I say to him, 'Make an ark of gopher wood,' he will get busy with it, cutting down cedars, and people will gather around him and say to him: 'Noah! What are you making?' He'll reply: 'An ark! Because the Holy One plans to bring a flood upon the world!' As a result of this, they will pay heed and repent. So the Holy One thought. But they took no notice" (Midrash Tanchuma, Noach ).
According to this midrash, only after exhausting the possibility of t'shuvah did God unleash the waters of destruction.
There is, of course, one last important consideration. And that is Noah himself. Noah stands astride these divergent images of God—the unremitting Destroyer and the Motivator for t'shuvah—as the only man to avert the evil decree. Because of Noah, the corruption of humankind is not absolute. Because of Noah, its annihilation is not total. Because of Noah, there is hope.
And who is Noah? Only a humble man, whom the Torah calls blameless—even if it qualifies that praise with "in his generation," possibly meaning, "relative to everyone else at that time."
Who is Noah? He is every man or every woman who will swim against the tide when the waves crest high. He is the kid who won't bully the small boy at recess even when all his buddies are doing it. He is the shareholder who won't take the insider tip even when everyone's sharing. He is the prison guard in a faraway place who won't join in the humiliation of the captives (and might even hold accountable those who do). He is testimony that God desires not perfection, but the will to strive for excellence. He is the hope that even when it looks like everyone is becoming corrupted, some are not. Some will not.
He is you and I at our best, when we remember that the power to tarnish the soul, or to polish it, lies deep within every human being.
He is, most of all, proof that Hillel's advice is always timely: "In a place where there are no menschen , strive to be a mensch " (Pirkei Avot 2:5).
By the Way
[With regard to the sexual impropriety that, according to the Sages, characterized the days of Noah, we encounter this midrash:] Rabbi Azariah, in the name of Rabbi Y'hudah bar Shimon, said: In the generation of the Flood, all acted corruptly. The dog "went about its way" with the wolf, the rooster went about its way with the peacock, as it is written: "for all flesh had corrupted its ways on earth" (Genesis 6:12). It does not say, "all human beings," but rather, "all flesh." Rabbi Luliani bar Tavrin, in the name of Rabbi Yitzchak, said, "Even the earth itself acted lewdly. Wheat was sown but it yielded pseudo-wheat [i.e., darnel, tares, or rye-grass]. For the pseudo-wheat we now find came from the era of the Flood. ( B'reishit Rabbah 28:8)
[In keeping with rabbinic portrayals of a God who did not relish the destruction, one midrashic tradition depicts God as sitting shivah for all that would perish. This is one of many examples where the Rabbis imagined a God who weeps openly at the suffering of others, even though the Torah ascribes responsibility for the destruction to God in the first place.] Rabbi Y'hoshua ben Levi said: "The Holy One, blessed be He, mourned for His world for seven days before bringing the Flood, for it is said here, "It grieved Him. . . . " (B'reishit Rabbah 27:4)
Day after sunny day
Noah can hear what they say:
"That poor old siren. Progress,
Lost every rag of her dress:
Things are always a mess."
Caulking chinks in the hull,
Noah can feel the pull
Of a life less dull
Than professional carpentry;
The strains of tragedy
Stretch in his mind like the sea.
The easiest way out
Would be to drink and shout,
Join the complaining rout
And not burden his wife
With hammer and putty-knife,
With his prickly belief in life.
Red sunset runs away.
He laid five planks today;
"I must sharpen the plane and oil the stone,"
Is all he finds to say.
(Chris Wallace-Crabbe, quoted in Modern Poems on the Bible: An Anthology, ed. David Curzon [Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1994], p. 97)
The text about animals (and plants!) acting corruptly is the Rabbis' way of explaining what the Torah means when it says that "all flesh had corrupted its ways on earth," apparently extending the blame beyond human beings to include all living things. Even if you find the midrash amusing or implausible, can you find an application for its ideas? Is "corruption" a concept that can apply outside the sphere of human affairs?
The idea of the emotionally detached, dispassionate God favored by the philosophers is not the norm of the Hebrew Bible. The Noah story compellingly illustrates—as do many passages in the Bible—a God who acts on feelings: anger, regret, despair. Even the Creation story references God's feelings of satisfaction ("this was good" [Genesis 1:10, 12, 18, 21, 25]). The midrash about God sitting shivah extends the emotional resonance of the text: now God feels grief as well. Do you think these emotional characterizations assist the ways in which we can think about God? What about the way in which we think about our own difficulties or suffering and God's role in these trying moments? Why or why not?
Read through Chris Wallace-Crabbe's poem "Noah." How does the poet enhance your understanding of the biblical Noah? What qualities make Noah special or praiseworthy in this poem? In the Bible? What do you think of this depiction of Noah?
At the time of this writing in 2004, Jonathan E. Blake was serving as associate rabbi at Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, New York.