“The Noah Within”
By Cantor Jonathan L. Friedmann ‘10, Professor of Jewish Music History
Legends of a great flood are found among widely dispersed populations. Virtually every flood-prone region has tales of a deluge submerging all or much of the world, from the Aborigines of Australia, to the islanders of the South and Central Pacific, to the indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere, to the inhabitants of southern Asia, to the ancients on the alluvial plain of southern Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq and Kuwait). There is no historical basis to assume these legends are related or speak of the same catastrophe. They stem from memories of destructive regional events and the need to make sense of those events. As distant recollections passed through oral traditions and merged with contemporary concerns, both the extent of the devastation and its meanings were expanded.
Much has been made of comparisons between the story of Noah (Gen. 6:5-9:17) and earlier myths from Mesopotamia. Insights emerge from similarities and differences, particularly regarding moral implications (or the lack thereof). In the Epic of Gilgamesh (c. 2000 B.C.E.), for instance, the god Ea warns Utnapishtim of the chief god Enlil’s plan to bring a great flood to wipe out humanity. Utnapishtim tears down his house, builds a boat, and populates the vessel with craftsmen, a boatman, his family, and representatives of all living creatures. Curiously, no reason is given for the deluge. In a later version, known as the Epic of Atrahasis (c. 1700 B.C.E.), Enlil sends the flood because he cannot bear the clamor of the multiplying human race.
The biblical account adds a moral dimension. In contrast to Mesopotamian myths, where human beings were created to work the land for the benefit of the gods, the Israelites conceived of humanity as imbued with free will. In this framework, the cause of mass annihilation is not a grumpy god fed up with human noisiness, but a covenantal deity disappointed by human corruption. The key verses appear in the prelude to the flood: “The Lord saw how great was man’s wickedness on earth, and how every plan devised by his mind was nothing but evil all the time. And the Lord regretted that He had made man on earth, and His heart was saddened. The Lord said, ‘I will blot out from the earth the men whom I created—men together with beasts, creeping things, and birds of the sky; for I regret that I made them’” (Gen. 6:5-7).
This hyperbolic passage sets the exaggerated tone of the text: All of humanity is evil, save for Noah; all living things will be wiped out, save for Noah’s family and the animal pairings; rain falls for forty days and nights; the flood engulfs the entire planet. There is no sense trying to prove the literalness of these details. An un-nuanced appraisal of humankind in any period—regardless of how debased the zeitgeist—is no more realistic than a 300-cubit long ark (400 feet) surviving the storm. A wooden boat of that size would have broken into pieces. However, the depiction makes for a powerful allegory.
The notion of human misbehavior adversely impacting the environment is by no means far-fetched. The cause and effect described in Genesis takes on new meaning in this age of climate change and global warming. This is especially so if, like Spinoza, we interpret God acting not out of impulse, but through the laws of nature. Carbon pollution, deforestation, and other modern forms of human wickedness and corruption have brought on nature’s devastating judgement. Irresponsibility and greed have exacerbated storms, prolonged droughts, raised sea levels, and ushered in the sixth mass extinction. According to some estimates, as many as 30 to 50 percent of all species could disappear by mid-century due to human activities.
Our planet cannot be saved by a single Noah—a lone righteous person. We are beyond rainbow apologies and restart buttons. We each need to find the Noah within, and do the hard and necessary work of stemming the tide of climate catastrophe. As Spinoza might put it, we need to act in accordance with nature to shift the relentless chain of cause and effect toward the good.