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The Universal Flood

Rav Michael Hattin




The early narratives of Sefer Bereishit unfold with numbing speed.  Scarcely have we had an opportunity to ponder the world's creation and the fashioning of humanity when we must suddenly consider a post-paradisiacal reality, as the denizens of Garden of Eden are abruptly and unceremoniously exiled from its midst for their indiscretions.  How quickly do the descendents of Adam and Chava master the skills of bloodshed and brutality, corrupting the once pristine state of the earth and inviting Divine retribution in the form of the Flood.  All terrestrial life is violently swept away by the cleansing rains, save for a righteous man and his family, chosen to survive along with representative species in the cramped capsule known as the ark. 


For a full year, the craft rises and falls with the swelling and then receding floodwaters, until finally grounding upon the slopes of Mount Ararat.  A moment of expectant silence fills the cavernous boat, as Noach, at Divine behest, flings open the portal and a rush of fresh air enters.  Surveying a denuded and empty world, the people and creatures stream off of the ramp into the sunshine.  Noach erects an altar in gratitude and offers sacrifice, as he and his family prepare to receive God's renewed blessing and charge:


…God said to Himself: I will not again curse the earth on account of humanity, for the inclination of his heart is evil from his youth.  I will not again strike down all life as I did.  As long as the earth endures, planting and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will not cease.  God blessed Noach and his children and He said to them: be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth…(8:21-9:1).





The didactic import of the Flood narrative is only too painfully clear, for the story indicates in no uncertain terms the centrality of moral conduct to the survival of humanity.  Because of violence and corruption mankind is swept away; only if prepared to live by God's newly proclaimed principles will they abide upon the earth:


He who spills the blood of man, by man his blood shall be spilled, for humanity was fashioned in the image of God! (9:6)


Six out of the so-called Seven Noachide Laws may have been revealed, according to tradition, to the first human beings while they yet dwelt in Eden, but these laws are given heightened emphasis now as Noach and his children prepare to rebuild and repopulate the planet.  What are these laws if not the most concise and fundamental formulation of a moral code, one that must be predicated upon the bedrock of recognizing God's transcendent authority if it is to be taken seriously?


Rabbi Levi remarked: God commanded Adam concerning six things: the prohibition of idolatry…the prohibition of blasphemy…the necessity for a judicial system…the prohibition of murder…the prohibition of sexual immorality…and the prohibition of theft (Midrash Bereishit Rabbah 16:6 and elsewhere).


The seventh and final item, the prohibition against consuming a limb torn from a living animal, is stated to Noach in the context of the new Divine dispensation allowing them to consume other creatures: "All things that move shall be for your food, for I allow you to consume all of them, just like the green grass.  But you shall not consume flesh while its life force is still within it" (9:3-4).


So, the instructive value of the Flood account, in accordance with the most basic literary parameters of the narrative, is obvious.  There are, of course, many other lessons that are secondary and tertiary to the section, things such as the importance of engagement with rather then estrangement from humanity – Noach's tragic flaw; or else, the necessity of taking initiative while simultaneously entrusting our destiny to God's concerned guidance.  Was that not the lesson that emerged from Noach's careful and methodical construction of a craft that, in the end (and in accordance with the Divinely communicated blueprints of 6:14-16), lacked any means of steering through the deep? Then again, the section also introduced us to the ideal of a united humanity.  At the same time, it spelled out the danger to diversity and to the human spirit that is presented by the extreme form of that ideal – totalitarianism.  For Ibn Ezra (12th century, Spain), this constituted the central teaching advanced by the account of the Tower of Bavel. 





In other words, there is much to be learned from Parashat Noach, many instructive teachings to be extracted from the fertile furrows of its passages.  For the believer, however, there remains a nagging question.  This query, while it certainly does not overshadow all else nor diminish its noble import, nevertheless has the effect of darkening the horizons of faith somewhat and, more significantly, may in fact open a proverbial Pandora's box of more destructive enquiries.  Stated starkly and succinctly, the question is as follows: did the Flood account, as the Torah presents it to us, actually take place?  Are we truly to believe, in the absence of any credible scientific evidence, that the entire world was covered by floodwaters to a depth of thousands of meters?  Even more astounding, is it conceivable that representatives of every terrestrial species that, according to the most conservative estimates, number in the millions, were somehow contained within a craft that was no longer than several football fields?  Could Noach and his family have successfully provided and cared for all of those creatures for a period of an entire year?


The Ramban (13th century, Spain) was well aware of these challenges when he advanced his novel and thought-provoking interpretation:


It is known that there are innumerable creatures, some of them of gigantic proportions such as the elephant, the wild ox and the like.  As for the creeping creatures upon the earth, they are very numerous; there are innumerable species of birds and winged creatures…as well as untold pure birds.  Now Noach was bidden to include representatives from all of them so that they might perpetuate their species.  But when sufficient food for all of them, food for an entire year, is gathered, then this ark, and not even ten more like it, could contain them all!  Rather, what transpired was a miracle, for a limited amount of space was enough for all of them. 


Now one might say: that being the case, let Noach fashion an even smaller craft and rely upon a miracle!  God, however, saw fit that the ark should be made very large so that the people of Noach's generation would see it and be astonished by its size.  They might then converse about it and come to discuss the impending Flood, and thus perhaps be moved to teshuva.  Also, Noach fashioned it large in order to minimize the reliance upon a miracle, for that is the way of all of the miracles that are recounted in the Torah or in the Prophets: let man do what he is capable of, and the rest will be accomplished by the hand of heaven.  Do not be misled to believe that the three hundred cubits of its length were measured in accordance with Noach's body and he may have been giant, for if so, then all of the other people would have been correspondingly large, and so too the beasts and birds, for such was the case until the earth was stricken by the Flood.  Also, the cubits mentioned are the standard cubits of the Torah… (commentary to 6:19).





Here, the Ramban addresses the implied underlying problems and provides a comprehensive solution.  According to the accepted laws of physics, the ark was simply too small to hold everything.  The only possible explanation, therefore, is that God intervened to bend those laws so that all of the creatures and their provisions could be accommodated.  In the process, Ramban introduces a fundamental concept that colors his commentary in many other places: miracles may be executed by transcendent and omnipotent God when He sees fit to suspend nature's laws, but only as a response to a Herculean effort by man.  We must act and take the initiative, even in seemingly impossible situations, and not be paralyzed by a false reliance upon miracles, for God only intervenes after we have made our optimal attempt. It is true that once miraculous intervention is introduced to explain the account of the Flood, then even a tiny ark could well have held everyone and everything with plenty of room to spare.  But human enterprise, the exercise of human will and effort, would have been compromised in the process.


Additionally, the Ramban posits, the construction of a huge craft had the pedagogic advantage of spurring conversation among Noach's wayward cohorts. Perhaps, it might impress upon them the seriousness of God's threats and impel them to mend their corrupt ways before the massive craft would be completed and the deluge would then be unleashed upon them.


While the Ramban's explanation is conceptually unassailable, it does force us to suspend our reason and to adopt an extraordinary interpretation, one that is nowhere spelled out in the text.  While the Torah certainly highlights Noach's efforts and hard work, it does not suggest, overtly or otherwise, that God performed miracles in order to preserve him.  Miraculous intervention in the Torah is never passed over in silence, but if we are to adopt the view of the Ramban, then we must admit that the account of the ark constitutes a glaring exception to the rule.  In fact, to admit a miraculous element to the passage might arguably take away from its more salient themes, diluting the core and rational message of morality's necessity with otherworldly notions of God's wondrous ways.  Might there perhaps be another approach to the problem?





Let us begin by introducing a series of two Midrashim that, on the surface, have the effect of recasting Ramban's explanation to seem eminently reasonable by comparison! 


(1)  The Torah states that "the dove returned to Noach towards evening, and behold a torn olive branch was in her mouth.  Then Noach knew that the floodwaters had receded from upon the face of the earth" (8:11).  From where did she secure it?  Rabbi Abba bar Kahana said: from the branches of the land of Israel.  Said Rabbi Levi: she brought it from the Mount of Olives, for the land of Israel was not flooded by the deluge.  That is what the Holy One blessed be He said to Yechezkel (22:24): "Say to it that you are a land that was not purified, and not rained upon on the stormy day of wrath…" (Bereishit Rabbah 33:6).


The above passage purports to explain how the dove that Noach sent forth as he waited patiently for the floodwaters to subside, could have secured an olive branch, since the entire surface of the planet had been thoroughly scoured by the rains.  The Rabbis suggest that there was, however, a location that escaped the effects of the deluge, for the land of Israel was spared from the downpour.  Thus, the dove entered its holy airspace and there spied out a living olive tree on the Mount of Olives to the east of Jerusalem.  While this Midrash is no doubt offered as a statement about the special character of the land of Israel, for our purposes let us note its underlying assumption: the Rabbis were willing to entertain the possibility that the flood MAY NOT HAVE BEEN UNIVERSAL.  Somehow, the land of Israel was spared its effects, though, as the Ramban wryly remarks, "there is no wall surrounding the land of Israel to prevent the waters from entering!" (commentary to 8:11).


(2)  The Torah states that "the survivor arrived and told Avram the Hebrew (that his nephew Lot had been taken captive)" (Bereishit 14:13).  Said Rabbi Yochanan: this refers to Og the King of Bashan who survived the flood… (Talmud Bavli Tractate Niddah 61a).


The context of this Midrash is the battle waged by Avram against the coalition of eastern kings who had overrun the towns of the Jordan Plain and, in the process, taken Lot hostage (see Bereishit 14).  Avram was subsequently informed of the news by a survivor from the battlefield, who, although unnamed in the text of the Torah, was nevertheless introduced by the definite article ("the").  This prompted some of the Rabbis to assume that the Torah was in fact alluding to a known and seasoned survivor, one who had successfully weathered "greater storms".  Og King of the Bashan, gigantic ruler of the Golan Plateau who centuries later was presented as the implacable foe of the people of Israel as they prepared to enter the land of Canaan from the east (see BeMidbar 21:33-22:1), was considered by Rabbi Yochanan to have been a survivor of the Flood! 


In the lengthier version of this passage preserved in Talmud Bavli Tractate Zevachim 113a-b Resh Lakish argues forcefully with Rabbi Yochanan and maintains that the land of Israel was in fact flooded.  But even he agrees that Og somehow persevered, as did the mythical "Re'em," a huge beast much too large to have been contained by the ark.  "Said Resh Lakish: it was tied by its horns to the ark's exterior, and as for Og he grasped the sides of the craft and survived!"





Once again, the above sources raise the distinct possibility that the Rabbis were not uncomfortable with the notion that some humans and creatures may not have been wiped out by the deluge.  Admittedly, the examples are unique and limited, but are nevertheless sufficient to force us to reconsider the thorny verses that seem to imply a universal flood that covered the entire globe and caused complete and utter destruction:


Behold, I plan to bring a flood of waters upon the earth to wipe out ALL FLESH THAT POSSESSES THE BREATH OF LIFE FROM UNDER THE HEAVENS, EVERYTHING UPON THE EARTH SHALL PERISH (6:17).


In seven days, I will cause rains to fall upon the earth for forty days and forty nights, and I will erase ALL OF CREATION THAT I HAVE FASHIONED from upon the face of the earth (7:4).




The above citations certainly seem to suggest a universal deluge that sweeps over the entire planet, unsparingly washing away everything that breathes from its surface.  And yet, at least for Rabbi Yochanan, the land of Israel was spared and Og was preserved!  Apparently then, expressions such as "EVERYTHING UPON DRY LAND THAT POSSESSED THE BREATH OF LIFE IN ITS NOSTRILS PERISHED " or "ALL OF CREATION UPON THE FACE OF THE EARTH…WAS WASHED AWAY FROM THE EARTH" were not understood by him in an absolutely literal sense but rather as emphatic and resounding expressions of widespread and thorough (but not necessarily universal and absolute) destruction. 





Perhaps the point can be reinforced by the above citation concerning the mountains: "The waters rose mightily very high upon the earth, COVERING ALL OF THE HIGH MOUNTAINS THAT WERE UNDER THE HEAVENS".  While this expression certainly implies that even Everest and the Himalayan range were buried under water, use of the term elsewhere may indicate otherwise.  In the Book of Devarim, Moshe recalls the battles that he and Israel waged against the mighty Amorite kings of the Transjordan, Sichon and Og.  So powerful were these rulers that Moshe feared engaging them in conflict.  But God reassured him: "This day, I will begin to cause your fear and dread to descend upon the nations THAT ARE UNDER ALL OF THE HEAVENS, for they will hear reports of you and tremble with fright from before you" (Devarim 2:25).  Now surely God was not indicating to Moshe that, for example, even the Inuit peoples of Greenland and the Canadian far north would tremble before reports of Moshe and Israel's victory.  What significance would such an assurance hold?  But if God is instead telling Moshe, in CERTAIN AND EMPHATIC TERMS, that Israel's foes – namely all of the people of Canaan and its environs whom the Israelites will next encounter – will melt before the reports of the miraculous victory over Sichon and Og, then such a statement constitutes meaningful reassurance.  Or as the Ramban himself explains somewhat differently:


The expression "I will begin to cause your fear and dread to descend upon the nations" refers to Israel, for all of the nations will fear them and the peoples of Canaan will sally froth to meet them with melted hearts…why would this expression be referring to Moshe who only will battle these two Amorite kings?  Rather, it is God's reassurance to Israel and to Yehoshua…


Perhaps, then, we are not to REJECT the literal reading of the Flood's universality, but rather to apply it to a more circumscribed area.  The Flood covered everything in its path, it destroyed all of creation in its wake, and every breathing thing upon the earth perished under its waters.  But its effects may not have been global in the literal sense!  Where the rains fell, they scoured the surface of the earth "down to a depth of the three handbreadths of the plow" (see commentary of Rashi to 6:13).  But where they did not fall, (i.e. the "land of Israel"), some life was preserved.  This author is not advocating a denial of the relevant verses' veracity, but rather a more expressive reading of their seemingly unequivocal language.  Is it not indeed striking that the Torah's subsequent list of the seventy nations that descended from Noach's three sons (Bereishit Chapter 10), whom the Torah presents as all of the peoples of the entire world, only encompass an area bounded by the Mediterranean basin to the west and the mighty Mesopotamian rivers to the east? 


Perhaps, then, we must approach these texts as we approach Moshe's own words, who when describing the fortified Canaanite cities that Israel would only conquer with God's assistance, had the following to say:


Hear, O Israel, today you pass over the Yarden to dispossess nations more mighty and numerous than you, powerful cities fortified UP UNTIL THE HEAVENS.  A NUMEROUS AND POWERFUL PEOPLE, THE OFFSPRING OF GIANTS, concerning whom you know and you have heard that none shall withstand the children of the giants.  But know this day that God your Lord will go before you as a consuming fire.  He will destroy them and subjugate them before you, so that you will dispossess them and destroy them quickly, just as God spoke to you (Devarim 9:1-3).


As Ramban himself there remarks: Moshe our Teacher used language that resembled the claims of the spies (see BeMidbar 13:28)!   But he exaggerated even more concerning the strength of the peoples, the fortifications of their cities, and the power of those giants – even to a greater degree than the spies had spoken of these things to the previous generation…(commentary to Devarim 13:2).  In other words, says the Ramban, Moshe is not to be taken literally when he speaks of cities fortified up until the heavens.  His intent is to impress upon Israel the invincibility of the nations of Canaan on the one hand, and God's saving power on the other, so that the people realize that only by reliance upon the latter shall they vanquish the former.  It is the didactic content of Moshe's message rather than any attempt on his part to describe literal truth that is decisive.





Perhaps the simplest solution to the conundrum of the Ramban, who rightfully could not imagine all of the world's creatures and their needs being crammed into an ark of utterly inadequate proportions, is to suggest that not all of the creatures boarded.  Not all of humanity was destroyed, and not all of the world was covered with 8000 meters of water!  But this author further maintains that such a reading, while according with Rabbinic opinions that imply as much as well as with human reason with which God graced us, would NOT DIMINISH ONE IOTA from the Parasha's most enduring lessons, for these teachings have nothing to do with physics and geography and everything to do with the moral and spiritual state of mankind.  Are these lessons of the Flood any less meaningful if the rains did not fall upon the Patagonian highlands or else the Australian outback?  One who would so maintain has failed to internalize the Parasha's most salient features and has instead grasped onto its minor features.


Judaism demands of its adherents that they accept certain fundamental doctrines, but the universality of the Flood is not one of them.  While no one has the right to emend the words of the Torah or to deny the received traditions concerning its commands, with respect to the Torah's narrative portions there is much room for interpretation and even for disagreement.  Let us conclude with another citation from the Ramban, this one from our own Parasha concerning the chronology of the Flood.  Concerning this chronology, Rashi had adopted the problematical interpretation of the Seder Olam Rabba and Ramban refuted his reading on purely textual grounds, offering a different chronology in place of Rashi's.  He introduces his novel interpretation with the following telling words: "In some places Rashi himself takes issue with Aggadic Midrashim and exerts himself in order to explain the straightforward meaning of the text.  His example thus gives us license to do likewise, for there are seventy facets of Torah interpretation, and many Midrashic sources preserve legitimate differences of interpretation between our Sages" (commentary to Bereishit 8:4).


Shabbat Shalom

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