Noach: Spoiled

Noah’s ark is a favorite theme for children’s illustrators. Who can resist the animals climbing into, or out of, the ark in pairs? But the larger story is unnerving for adults: God decides to wipe out all life on earth because humans have “spoiled” it, and the most righteous man around makes no protest. His name, and the name of this week’s Torah portion, is Noach in Hebrew.

God saw the land and hey! it had been spoiled, because all flesh had spoiled its way upon the land. And God said to Noah: The end of all flesh is coming before Me, because the land is filled with violence on account of them, so hey! –I am spoiling them along with the land. Make for yourself an ark … (Genesis/Bereishit 6:12-6:14)

shicheit = spoiled, ruined, corrupted

This sounds like a small child wailing, “They spoiled my toys!  Now everything is ruined! I’m going to kill them all, and wipe out the whole world! But me and my friends, we’ll build a boat and escape …”

Is God actually being childish in this passage? Is the Flood an overreaction? Or is humanity in this story irredeemable? And is there any reason for wiping out all the other living things on the land?

One clue about the people of Noah’s generation is that the Torah calls them neither “humanity” (adam) nor “men” (anashim), but “all flesh” (kol basar). In my blog post last year, “Bereishit & Noach: All Flesh”, I suggested that the relationship between flesh and spirit in those early humans is spoiled; people’s spirits are unable to master their physical cravings. In the previous Torah portion, God creates the human out of two materials: dirt and the divine breath. Body and soul. Flesh and spirit. By Noah’s time, according to traditional commentary, the desires of human “flesh” have taken over. People think only of gratifying their physical appetites, and the desires of their spirits disappear.

According to some commentary, the people of Noah’s generation avoid having children, so they can devote more time to their own animal pleasures. Modern commentator Avivah Gottleib Zornberg argues that the real problem is the narcissism of these pleasure-seekers. If someone has no curiosity, no interest in other people, then love and kindness are impossible. I would add that if you do not care about other people, then you will speak and act with violence (chamas) whenever you feel like it (and believe you can get away with it).

According to the Torah, before the Flood all humans are wallowing in selfish sensuality, their souls beyond recovery, except for Noah (and possibly the other seven people God allowed on the ark: Noah’s wife, sons, and daughters-in-law). Noah is not a paragon; the Torah portion opens with this description:

These are the histories of Noah: Noah was a righteous man–he was unblemished in his generations–Noah walked with God. (Genesis 6:9)

In other words, compared to everyone else at the time, Noah is good. Presumably he retains the proper balance between his spirit and flesh, paying enough attention to his divine side to “walk with God”. But he never questions God’s plan to wipe out all life on earth. He is deficient in compassion, yet there is hope for him or his descendants.

So God decides not to give up on the human experiment altogether, but instead to destroy the failures, and start over again with Noah and his family. Then why does God choose to flood the earth, and wipe out millions of land animals and birds along with the irredeemable humans?

Traditional commentary claims that God made all the other animals, and everything else on earth, only for the sake of the human. Non-human life on earth has no value in itself. When humans use other living things for corrupt purposes, they have to be destroyed, too.

To me, this opinion demonstrates a lack of interest in, or curiosity about, the rest of the world. When a  commentator views other animals as merely tools for humans to use in carrying out God’s laws, he is committing the same error as the antediluvian man who views other animals as merely tools to use in the pursuit of selfish pleasure.

This is the kind of selfish attitude that leads people today to “spoil” nature: to pollute the air and water, to cut down forests, to disregard extinctions of species, and to do nothing about global climate change. They focus only on their own immediate desires, and take no interest in the earth and its life.

Clearly, human beings are still spoiled, and still spoiling the earth. In the Torah, after the Flood is over and Noah makes an animal sacrifice, God says to God’s heart:

Never again will I draw back to curse the earth (adamah) for the sake of the human (adam), because the shapings of the human heart are evil from its adolescence; and never again will I strike down every living being, as I have done. (Genesis 8:21)

God reseeds the earth with human beings who are still mixtures of dirt and divine breath, body and soul. God continues to grant humans free will, and accepts that sometimes adolescents and adults, people who are old enough to know better, will nevertheless choose evil. God’s experiment with humanity continues.

Today, we do not need an anthropomorphic God to create a flood. We humans have the ability to strike down every living being, all on our own. We are the ones melting the glaciers and ice caps, threatening to flood the earth. I just hope we have not completely spoiled it.

2 thoughts on “Noach: Spoiled

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