Noach’s Flood. God decides He has made a mistake and mankind needs to be recast in a different mold. Isn’t it strange that things went so completely wrong so quickly with humanity? Didn’t God know in advance?
The fact is that right from the start, when Adam was told not to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge, humans disobeyed God. Of course we were given the freedom to do so, yet this does not mean that we have to make the wrong decision every time. What happened in the Garden of Eden was not usually taken by Jewish commentators to indicate “original sin”, that humanity is essentially bad. Yet we do seem to keep on getting things wrong. The narrative of the Torah is trying to teach us how to do a better job.
But it is also teaching us some other principles. One is that God is patient. That He tried to see if we could manage without a detailed constitution, but slowly it became clear we humans need something more than a few simple “dos and “don’ts”. Ultimately this will lead to the need for a full program for human behavior, as reflected in the Sinai revelation.
What has always intrigued me is that, for all the mistakes, God really only reacts against violence. He intervened directly with Kayin and established the principle that violence is unacceptable. Even if Kayin might have thought it nothing terrible to hit his brother, and even if he might not have realized what he had done (as he said in excusing himself later on), he and his descendants knew full well that violence was the ultimate sin. So when God decides to destroy the world, it is not because of idol worship. It is not because people aren’t eating kosher or keeping Shabbat. It is because of violence (Bereishit 6:13). Or perhaps in our modern mind we might think of the end of the Neanderthals and the beginning of another human race.
But then if God saves mankind through Noach, and he was a good man, why is he not the founder of the Jewish tradition? The fact is that, good as Noach was, he seems to have had little impact on anyone else. He did not persuade one person outside of his family to join him on his “cruise”. Now you might argue that God hadn’t asked Noach to try to influence anyone else. But Avraham didn’t need God to tell him to argue for the lives of the men of Sodom. Clearly Noach, before and after the flood, is wrapped up in himself.
This is the issue. To help deal with aggression and violence, we must go out to try to stop, to try to educate, to try to do something before it is too late. That is one of the morals of the Noach story!
But the impact of the flood and the ark does not end there. Noach built his ark with the dimensions given in seemingly precise detail. It had three levels, and was three hundred amas long (an ama is about a foot and a half, but there are plenty of arguments about the precise measurement in our terms), fifty amas wide, and thirty amas high. Proportionally speaking, the long flat boat actually is replicated in the dimensions of the Tabernacle that would be built in the desert. So the narrative intentionally links one era to another, later one, the general human condition to the later, specifically Jewish one.
The flood is described in precise time spans. Seven days warning to get inside; Noach was six hundred years old when the flood began; the rain started in the second month on the seventeenth day; the rain lasted for forty days and forty nights; the water remained at its height for one hundred and fifty days. The ark rested on Ararat in the seventh month on the seventeenth day again. The water sloshed around until, on the first day of the tenth month, the mountaintops appeared. Then another forty days and Noach opens the ark window.
Out goes the raven and does not return. Out goes the dove and comes back. Then another seven days and the dove goes out and comes back with an olive branch. Another seven days and out goes the dove and does not come back. So in the hundred and first year of Noach’s life, on the first day of the first month, Noach takes off the covers of the ark. And in the twenty-seventh day of the second month, the earth is dry. The flood is over. One year and ten days.
It seems no coincidence that the forty days and nights echoes Moshe up on the mountain receiving the Torah and then the forty years of wandering to correct the mentality of those who were not ready to accept it. One important thread of opinion amongst the Biblical commentaries sees the Tabernacle as a direct response to the Golden Calf. Like Noach’s boat, it too represents the benevolent presence of God.
So here too our scientific and religious minds get to work. Are these numbers meant to be literal, and as scientific as we like to think? Or do they contain other messages? Do we have to assume that when Noach thinks of the “whole world” it was in the same way as we think of the world today? Or should we be looking for the real, the hidden messages that numbers give us, the association of numbers with spirituality, not just science?