Stuart Fickler, Ph.D.

Chapter 10 - The Last Boat to Ararat

And the Lord saw that the evil of man was great in the earth, and every imagination of his heart was only evil all the time. (Genesis 6:5)


As we have seen, Adam and Eve became aware of the existence of evil in the world. Then, Cain rejected his responsibility for his acts, blamed his brother, Abel, and brought murder into the world. Through his inability to govern himself, Cain experienced evil. As a result of his narcissistic rage, Cain destroyed relationship.

The story of Noah begins in a world where the population is driven by self-indulgence. “Now the earth was corrupt before God, and the earth became full of robbery.”(Gen.6:11). Rashi relates the corruption to idolatry and sexual immorality. These are the forces that destroy social relationships. 

In the process of Creation, God brought order to a place of chaos (tohu, Gen. 1:2). God created a universe of connection and balance. God gave humanity choice so they might sustain that balance in the earthly realm.  Now humanity was creating a society of disorder. Humankind was failing to meet the Prime Directive – to govern God’s earthly domain with justice. 

This was not a society that had no government. Genesis 6:2 tells us there were nobles, which implies some form of government. However, it also states that the rulers were participants in this orgy of corruption. There was no authority on earth to turn this tide of evil. This demonstrates that where there is no self-governance, there is no just governance. It was time for a dramatic lesson. As we have already seen, as the Ultimate Teacher, God teaches by experience.

In Genesis 6:11 and 6:12 the word corrupt appears three times. The Rabbis have taught that, when a word is repeated in a text, the purpose is to intensify the meaning of the text. This was extreme corruption. Allegorically, the way to deal with corruption is thorough cleansing. Hence, we have the Flood.

It is true that, historically, there appears to be evidence that there was a major flood in the Middle East. So, at the least, we might have a mixing of allegory with history. Even understood in that way, this would be a powerful teaching tool, since it relates prior experience with the lesson to be taught.

In the midst of this chaos, Genesis 6:8-9 tells us that “Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord” and “Noah was a righteous man, he was perfect in his generations; Noah walked with God.” Despite this apparently glowing reference, Noah was a source of controversy among the Sages. With regard to these verses, Rashi says “in his generations: Some of our Sages interpret it [the word בְּדֹרֹתָיו] favorably: How much more as so if he had lived in a generation of righteous people, he would have been even more righteous. Others interpret it derogatorily: In comparison with his generation he was righteous, but if he had been in Abraham’s generation, he would not have been considered of any importance. — [Sanh. 108a, Gen. Rabbah 30:9, Tan. Noach 5].”

This controversy reveals a very profound aspect of Rabbinic thinking. Some say that he was righteous because he chose to walk with God in the midst of evil and do everything that God commanded. Others say that that was not enough. Because he was favored by God he should have interceded on behalf of humankind and entreated God to have mercy, as Abraham and Moses did (see, for example Zohar, Vol. I, 67b). The lesson here is that it is not enough to simply obey God. The righteous should never forget their responsibility to all of God’s Creation.

A third opinion sought to resolve the controversy. Noah was a true messenger of God, warning people of the looming disaster. For example, “R. Abba interpreted: The Holy One, blessed be He, said: One herald arose for me in the generation of the Flood, viz. Noah.”(Genesis Rabbah, XXX:7).  Considering that it took 120 years to build an ark that was one and a half football fields long and as high as a five story house, you’d think that someone would have noticed.  The Talmud (Sanhedrin 108b) says that Noah was derided by the people when he tried to warn them of their impending doom. From this perspective, Noah becomes the first prophet.

You might ask if there weren’t any other righteous people who could have been saved. A very thought-provoking answer is found in the Zohar: “R. Isaac said: When the wicked spread, it is the righteous man in their midst who first suffers for their sins” (Vol. I, p. 68a). 

The lesson is clear. If the righteous permit the wicked to spread, then they too will be drowned in wickedness. With regard to this, the Talmud (Berachot 7b) teaches that to contend not with evil-doers means to be like them. This might also be the beginning of an answer to the often asked question: why do bad things happen to good people?

After the flood, God establishes a covenant with Noah and his descendents (humanity), and God promises that there will never again be a flood to destroy the earth (Genesis 9:9-11). This covenant was the first covenant, and it was established with all of humankind.

From the text of the story of Noah, the Rabbis derived the specific content of the covenant. These are the seven Noahide Laws.  In summary, these laws forbid blasphemy, idolatry; adultery; bloodshed; robbery; and eating flesh cut from a living animal. [The last is a requirement to respect all life, even when it provides food.] Finally, there is a command to establish courts of justice.    [See, for example, Sanhedrin 56a.] According to Judaism, all people, Jews and non-Jews alike, who live their lives according to the Noahide Laws have equal access to the “World to Come”.

Sadly, one of Noah’s sons violates the covenant and the cycle of learning must start again.

With God’s help, to be continued. Next time: “Heaven Can Wait”

Emet v’chaim.