This week we read the second Torah portion in Genesis, Noah. It of course tells the familiar story of Noah and the flood.
“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…’” (Genesis 6:11-14)
I have often wondered about this story. What could be so terrible that God would destroy everything and everyone, except of course Noah and his family and the animals, two by two? There is much discussion in the tradition about this very question. Some suggest that the people were guilty of gross immorality, in particular sexual aberrations. Others, ruthless violence, in particular the strong taking advantage of the weak. Still others, material prosperity and affluence caused people to lose faith in God, judging God incapable of hearing prayer and enforcing moral standards.
Still I wonder: everyone? Every person on the entire earth stood guilty of these sins? There were not even ten people in Noah’s age, like in Abraham’s when he approached Sodom and Gomorrah.
The Jerusalem Talmud writes that lawlessness means that people cheated each other for such small sums that the courts could not even prosecute them. This caused people to lose faith in the ability of the government to create a fair and just society. The world then slipped into anarchy.
This explanation goes further than the others in creating a reason why the entire earth and all its inhabitants would need to be destroyed. If the world had descended into anarchy then the only choice might be to start over. A new system must be created to bring order to the world. The opening chapters of Genesis are about God bringing order to a chaotic and disordered world. The Noah story then fits with this theme. God creates and then re-creates.
But what about repentance. Why are the people not allowed to change their ways, like the inhabitants of Nineveh? Why is God so quick to destroy the earth and its inhabitants? Surely the innocent were swept away with the guilty!
In the end, my attempt to search for a human sin so great as to merit the world’s destruction might be the wrong approach. Perhaps this story is not about the people’s failures but about God’s. One way to interpret the Bible is to read it as a story of how God learns to approach human beings. As in any relationship there is a learning curve. In the beginning God is quick to become angry. Slowly God learns to quell this angry impulse.
With the covenant of the rainbow at the end of these chapters and the promise that God will never again destroy the earth, the age of such divine do-overs ends and God shifts the responsibility to humanity’s shoulders. It is now in our hands to right the wrongs.
God will never again destroy the world in order to create a better one. This means that God will also not fix our problems for us. The fixing is in our hands. And I believe that God rejoices when we succeed to better our world, and cries when we fail.