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Rav Jonathan Mishkin
21.09.2014

 

     I have my own theory to explain why God vows never again to bring full-scale destruction to the planet, but before presenting it we must go back to the end of chapter 8 and the beginning of chapter 9, and fill in some of the text we have not yet read.  Genesis 8:21 to 9:17 has three sections.  The first one comprises the last two verses of chapter 8 and are God's statement to Himself not to repeat the flood, and the regulation of the weather and time.  Next, chapter 9 verses 1 to 7 present a set of rules and commandments to Noach and his sons.  In the third section - verses  8 to 17, God verbalizes the promise not to repeat the disaster and points out that the rainbow is now a sign to mankind of God's commitment to this idea.  Why does the Torah pause between God's private decision and His expression of it to man?  The connection between the promise and the intervening material is in fact the  explanation for the promise itself.  Naturally, we have to explore what these intermediate verses say.

 

"God blessed Noach and his sons, and said to them, 'Be fertile and increase, and fill the earth.  The fear and the dread of you shall be upon all the beasts of the earth and upon all the birds of the sky - everything with which the earth is astir - and upon all the fish of the sea; they are given into your hand.  Every creature that lives shall be yours to eat; as with the green grasses, I give you all these.  You must not, however, eat flesh with its life-blood in it.  But for your own life-blood I will require a reckoning: I will require it of every beast; of man, too, will I require a reckoning for human life, of every man for that of his fellow man!  Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in His image did God make man.  Be fertile, then, and increase; abound on the earth and increase on it."

 

     From the Torah's perspective these few verses represent the first legal code in the history of mankind. The command to procreate has of course been given before (and the first couple is told quite clearly to avoid a certain tree), but rules governing man's interaction with nature and with other men appear here for the first time.  The laws include permission for man to eat meat, but also the prohibition of eating a limb torn from a live animal.  Man is warned against suicide (a rabbinic interpretation of "for your own life-blood I will require a reckoning") and most importantly against murder.  The emphasis here on the sanctity of human life, writes Nachum Sarna, shows that before the flood there was disregard for the ultimate importance of life.  What in fact were the sins of the flood generation?  All the Torah says is that "The earth became corrupt before God; the earth was filled with lawlessness" (Genesis 6:11).  What that means is unclear.  What is clear, however, is that God's first order of business upon restarting the world, is to put some order into civilization.  It is remarkable that until this point there are no rules for man to follow.  This code of law is considered by the rabbis to represent the Seven Noachide Laws.

 

     The Seven Noachide Laws are the universal religion.  Traditional Judaism teaches that while Jews must follow all the laws of the Torah, believed to be contained in 613 commandments, non-Jews too have their responsibilities.  They must set up courts in their communities, and must avoid these six other acts: blasphemy, idolatry, adultery, bloodshed, robbery and eating the flesh cut from a living animal.  The Talmud in Sanhedrin 56a-60a discusses these laws and finds the sources for them in our verses and by figurative interpretations of the command to Adam to stay away from the forbidden tree.  But it is only in the set of statements  quoted above that the Torah explicitly commands mankind to act in certain ways forever after.  The Jews are later singled out at Sinai to receive a much vaster system of law, but the Torah continues to impose a limited standard of behavior on all humanity.  It is my contention that it is exactly this introduction of a legal system which explains the shift in God's dynamics of punishment.

 

     Before the flood God took a broad attitude towards reward and punishment, with God dealing with mankind as a whole: if man was basically good - the people were left alone, or pampered with the goodness the world had to offer.  But if mankind was basically bad it faced a total reprisal.  There was no consideration of details or investigation into who was misbehaving and by how much.  On the whole the world was a place of evil - "The earth became corrupt before God; the earth was filled with lawlessness" and was wiped out.  Were there no individuals besides the eight of Noach's family who were free of sin?  Every other person, every child, deserved to die?  That doesn't seem to be God's concern - He's dealing with the world as a whole.  How else can we explain all the animals' deaths as well?

 

     But now, after the flood, God chooses to refine the system and institutes a universal religion, a code of law with instructions that every individual who transgresses these rules will be held accountable: "of man, too, will I require a reckoning for human life, of every man for that of his fellow man!  Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed."  From now on, individuals will be held responsible for their actions and will be punished.  Since everybody now knows what is expected of him, there will be no need to judge the world collectively.  This is the third factor in our equation: the change lies in God, or at least in the way God deals with His world.

 

     There is an apparent weak point to my interpretation and it is this: if the antediluvian world was judged as a whole, with no concern for the behavior of individuals - why was Noach saved?  The Torah goes to great lengths to show that Noach really was an exceptional person, using adjectival phrases not found in the descriptions of any other character in the book.  In contrast to everybody else, "Noach found favor with the Lord" (6:8).  Our parasha begins this way: "This is the line of Noach - Noach was a righteous man; he was blameless in his generation" (6:9).  The Hebrew word in the verse is TZADIK, a title not used with Abraham, nor Moses, nor Aaron.  And at the start of the flood God tells our hero "Go into the ark, with all your household, for you alone have I found righteous before Me in this generation" (7:1).  Quite clearly, God was aware of specific people, the affairs of man did not appear to Him as a dark haze of evil.  But in order for my theory to work God, should not have cared that Noach was different - he and his family should have drowned with all their neighbors. 

 

     Except.  There is an overriding concern in this entire story.  Although God wants to restart the world, He does not want to recreate the world.  The plan is to protect representatives from all species created at the beginning of the old world and carry them over to the new world.  Consider this: if mankind were really evil, and because of this God intended to destroy the entire planet, all of the animals included, why not just do exactly that? Why go to all the trouble to build an ark and collect all the animals by pairs - a big job for a 500-year-old man.  Why not build a small boat to house Noach and family (the good people), wipe out all living creatures and then make new ones?  Attempts have been made to explain why the animals had to die too, with some commentators suggesting that the animals were sinners as well (see Rashi to 6:12).  But putting aside the issue of whether animals are ever held accountable for their moral trespasses, Noach is not required to seek out the righteous animals and choose only them for salvation - "male and female" is God's only instruction.

 

     Maybe God wanted to protect the grandeur of the original creation, the results of His handiwork which were perfect.  Creation ex nihilo is the Bible's starting point, God's most fantastic feat, an enterprise man cannot match.  Perhaps repeating creation would diminish its greatness in the way that a second national revelation would lessen the significance of Sinai.  Instead, God plans to use his original creations to populate a new world.  Theoretically, Noach should have suffered the fate of his nasty friends and relatives in the storm which swept life from the sinful planet.  But God needed representative humans along with sample elephants and so on to restart earth.  Why choose Noach?  As a righteous man he was picked to be the exception to God's collective punishment.

 

     The idea of the late introduction of a justice system helps to explain the difference between two earlier sins and the accountability of their perpetrators.  Adam and Eve are warned not to eat the fruit of a certain tree, and when they do they must suffer the consequences - personal loss and eternal repercussions.  Their son Cain murders his brother - doesn't it seem odd that he is not given capital punishment for this crime?  Perhaps he is let off relatively easily because he was not warned that such behavior will not be tolerated.  Maybe God is loathe to punish him without first explaining the rules, in contrast to his parents who were given a direct commandment.  (Another important question here is, why doesn't God institute the prohibition of murder immediately after Cain's crime?  Seeing that humans were capable of such destruction, would that not have been the appropriate moment to discuss correct behavior?)  This, by the way, becomes a classic principle of the Talmud - a person cannot be punished for something if the prohibition is not known.  When speaking of forbidden behavior the Talmud often asks - AZHARA MINAYIN - how do we know the Torah warns against such an act?

 

     Why doesn't God impose a system of warnings and accountability to begin with and thereby avoid all the damage caused by the initial system of punishment?  We can only guess that the new attitude of personal culpability is a reaction to man's behavior before the flood.  God's response to that madness was two-fold: large-scale punishment and a revamping of His interaction with man.  It is uncomfortable for traditionalists to say that God was learning from His experiences, but clearly God is reacting to man by saying, "I will not destroy the world again, I have to do something different."  Indeed, we may as well ask, why doesn't God start off the world by imposing the eventual system of 613 commandments?  There are steps in the development of man and God's relationship with Him - starting from anarchy moving to the Seven Noachide Laws, and concluding with the full Torah.  Similarly, there are stages in the way that abuse of God's will is dealt with.

 

     The Torah contains several cases in which vestiges of the old system resurface.  I will mention one.  The most dramatic episode is the story of Sodom as related in Genesis chapters 18 and 19.  At the beginning of the tale God is prepared to wipe out the entire town regardless of whether there are any righteous people living there.  Abraham argues that the town's citizens should be judged individually.  The ensuing debate raises the possibility of a third form of judgment whereby the merits of righteous people protect the wicked.  But the problem for us is that God initially wants to invoke the system of collective punishment.  It might be explained that because Sodom was a self-contained town, its residents were somewhat responsible for each other's nastiness; however, before the flood the world's people may have been spread out with little association amongst themselves, making it harder to justify universal judgment.  As well, God's acquiescence to Abraham's requests shows that He was amenable to alternate ways of dealing with the situation.

 

     In conclusion, I would like to return to Genesis 8:22, the verse about the weather.  How does this declaration of uniformity fit into my theory?  The relationship between climate and reward and punishment appears often in the Torah.  For example, for good behavior Deuteronomy 11:14 promises "I will grant the rain for your land in season, the early rain and the late."  But 11:17 warns that conversely man may provoke "the Lord's anger to flare up against you, and He will shut up the skies so that there will be no rain and the ground will not yield its produce."  Can man always recognize that amounts of rain are directly related to his behavior?  Can he ever?  In Genesis 8 God states that, from this point on, nature will run smoothly and regularly.  This does not mean that God cannot or will not bend nature to suit His needs, but He's going to do it subtly.  There won't be dramatic 40-day deluges drowning everybody out.  In general, God's response to man will be more private, more subdued, based on the actions of individuals or perhaps nations.  There will be exceptions of course (the splitting of the sea comes to mind) but from now on God's attention while hidden, will be more direct and, from the human perspective, more fair.

 

 

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