Saturday, October 28, 2006

My Noah Problem

I was asked to give a talk at shul this afternoon, but when I tried to put something together, I couldn't wrap my head around the Noah-flood story. My wife Debbie put it into words: it seems all so arbitrary.

The deeds, the punishment, the covenant, the tower, the tower's punishment - it's the acts of a capricious God. The Torah in Genesis end of ch. 6 says that "vayinachem", God reconsidered His creation of man, who were all behaving with incredible evil. His response? Wipe out all humans, and all animals, with the flood. Who is his messenger? Noah - the most righteous of his generation, but he never once in 120 years of construction goes out and tells anyone why he's building this ark. God tells Jonah to bring his message of doom and repentance, but He doesn't tell Noah anything.

So after God brings this flood, without really giving Mankind a chance to repent, he then says to himself, "I don't think I should do this again."

We have God saying "it was a mistake to create humanity, and I'm going to wipe them out and start again." Then after doing so, "it was a mistake to be so draconian, I'm not going to do that again," and when confronted with an anti-God threat, at Babel, comes up with a less-drastic punishment.

It's a classic repentance tale, except that God is the actor, not the receiver of the repentance. He does something wrong (the Flood), he regrets, decides not to do it again, and when again presented with a threat, goes through with his promise not to do so again. Is that it? Did all those people die so that God could make an example of repentance?

I guess part of it depends on how literally you take the story. If you're willing to take it all as an allegory, the repentance-tale explanation works. If you need the Bible to remain literal, taking Rashi's dictum of "the text does not depart from its literal meaning" as applying to the whole Torah, including the narratives, then you are faced with this arbitrary God. It's like we're expecting God the Great and Powerful, and we get God the charlatan from the Kansas state fair, who doesn't know how to turn the balloon around.

Maybe it's just that our usual medieval paradigms of God, whether of the Philosophers or of the Kabbalists, as omniscient and omnipotent, just don't fit a narrative that was written to be understood by the Israelite exiles from Egypt, 3300 years ago. Maybe there's some other message here. But if we are forced to take the narrative literally (even leaving aside the issues of geological evidence of a global flood), it still makes no sense in terms of contemporary God-ideas.

Men starbt nisht fun a kashye, one doesn't die from a question, but it seems a fairly obvious one, surely it has been addressed in our 3300 years of literary history.


Anonymous said...

Maybe, just maybe, the authors of the Torah didn't share your conception of what a god should be?

Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

I don't think the Tower needs to fit into your problem. If you read the story without the lenses of midrashim, the people aren't accused of doing anything illegal, and God doesn't punish them!

The problem was that God's original plan for humanity was "have babies, lots of babies, and fill the earth". and for whatever reason (fear of the unknown? posttraumatic stress disorder from the Dissolving?) people wanted instead to stay in one floodplain, in one city with one big tower that would unify the whole area visually.

But that wasn't according to God's plan, so God "nudged" them a bit, to get them to break up into diverse societies.

dilbert said...

Most of the literal readers of the Bible (Prof. Alter, Kugel et al) see an evolution in God's relationship to the world, and an evolution in his relationship to people. The question you asked regarding God and the world could in a slightly different way be asked regarding God and Avraham. If you read Bereshit closely and literally, and try to shut all the midrashim and rashi out of your brain, you will get an entirely different view of the stories.

I think the lesson is not one of repentance, but a model of the value of free will for man, and tolerance and determination on the part of God. God's plans vis a vis man don't seem to work out from the very start, when they eat from the tree. The pattern is set until the close of prophecy, when the people are exiled becuase of malfeasance. Tanach can be seen as the repetitive failure of man to live up to God's expectations, and God being ok with that(if you accept the promises for the future that are included, otherwise the story ends on a tremendous down note). I think it is a powerful lesson, and an uplifting one.

Milhouse said...

The root of your problem is in the word N-Ch-M (vayinachem, ki nichamti), which you translate in the conventional manner as regret, which implies that He realised He had made a mistake. That's precisely why Rashi (6:6-7) takes care to translate the word differently. He first cites Onkelos's translation, as "to take comfort", and then gives his own, "to consider a future course of action". In other words, He did not regret his past actions, but took note of them and their result when considering what to do next.

Think of someone planning out a chess match. "I'll do this, and then he'll do this so I'll do that, and then when he does this I'll do the other". All this is planned out before the first move is made, and the early moves are not mistakes, even though the later moves are caused by what the opponent does.

One may object that if this is so, then why does the decision to bring the flood come after the world turns corrupt, and why does the decision not to bring any more floods come after the effects of the first one become apparent. But the premise of this objection is the fallacy that He acts in time. We're biologically incapable of comprehending a lack of time; in our minds everything has to happen after one thing and before another. But when He is described as making a decision "after" something happens, it can only mean that the event played a part in the decision, so that the decision comes logically after the event, not temporally.

The fact that humanity would become corrupt played no part in the decision to make humanity in the first place, but it did play a part in the decision to bring the flood; therefore the logical place to tell us that fact comes between the two decisions. Similarly, He decided to bring only one global flood, but no more than one, because the destruction of such a flood would be too much to inflict twice; i.e. the fact of the destruction was not a reason to keep the number of such floods down to zero, but it was a reason to keep it down to one. Therefore the logical place to describe the destruction comes between the decision to bring one flood and the decision not to bring more than one.

Kach nir'eh li.

thanbo said...

Milhouse: I did take Rashi's reading of "consider", if you reread my second paragraph. It also uses the phrase "al libbo" both at the beginning and the end of the story. At the beginning, it's "vayitatzeiv al libbo" - he had grief in his heart (not clear to me whether this was over the corruption, or over the decision He took to push the reset button), and at the end "vayomer el libbo" upon experiencing the korbanot. The linkage to two ends of such a drastic act seem to me to express regrets over doing it, esp. since saying things "al libbo" or "belibbo" tends to occur in places where someone is thinking something different from what they're saying. So at the beginning, He commands the Deluge, but regrets it. At the end, He says to himself "I won't do this again" He does seem to regret having done so, or having had to do so.

[and Steg:] And then, when presented with the Tower, and the implicit threat that it represented (11:6) - whatever the midrashim say the threat was, the text implies a threat. So God resolves to do something, but rather than call down destruction again, He does something subtler.

Anonymous: well, if you're positing "authors" for the Torah, if my God-concept is shaped by the Rishonim, the Torah was written 2000 years earlier, so of course they might have had a different god-concept.

But I prefer not to adopt that faith position (that humans wrote the Bible).

Dilbert: non-midrashic reading. I've been reading David Plotz' "Blogging the Bible" series at Slate for just such a perspective.

"The pattern is set until the close of prophecy": yes, that fits my Tower/repentance theme, since God learned from His "failure" at the Flood, that pressing the reset button isn't the answer.

If, as Cassuto argues, it was a local flood, then the existential aspect of God as Destroyer of His Creation because of His Mistake in creating Man, falls away.