Parshah for Shabbat, Saturday, Oct. 16, 2004:
Parshah Noach [Bereishit, Ch. 6, verse 9 - Ch. 11, verse 32]
This is the famous story of Noah and his ark, and the rain that lasted 40 days and 40 nights, and the flood, and 2 of each kind of animal, and the dove and the olive branch and the rainbow.
What I find interesting about this is, it's only 10 generations from Adam and Eve, and already the people of the Earth have descended into wickedness so vile and irredeemable that God has basically decided to delete the file and reboot. He talks to Noah - the one righteous man left - and tells him to build a big ship and collect a menagerie and set sail with his family (wife, sons, sons' wives). That way, he's got something to start over with when it comes time to repopulate the planet; although God could surely create a new Adam and Eve.
One of the comments in Eitz Chayim quotes Rashi: "Rashi cites the tradition that Noah did not enter the ark until the water reached his ankles. Did he not really believe God's threat? Or was he hoping to the very end that the people would see the rain and repent, making the punishment unnecessary?" (This is a bit reminiscent, although in reverse, of the tradition that the when the people of Israel entered the Sea of Reeds, God did not split the waters until they Israelites were up to their chins or maybe even their noses, thus testing their faith.)
My question is, how could the people have repented? How could they have known what God was planning for them? Did God send messengers warning them to shape up or drown? Did prophets walk among them foretelling doom if they didn't change their wicked ways? The Bible doesn't mention anything of the kind.
How could they have known that they were wicked? Ten generations had passed since Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit and were banished from Eden. God had not instructed them in all that time how to live, how to behave. That they did badly I have no doubt, but it's not as if they truly knew what God wanted.
The Torah is the story of the Jewish People accepting God (and, sometimes - many times - straying) and His laws and finally inheriting the Land of Israel. But it is also, especially in Bereishit, the story of God realizing that He cannot simply assume that people, any people, will know what God wants for them and how God wants them to behave. God cannot simply leave us on our own and expect that we will figure it out.
Theologically, Jews believe that God is always good. Always. In every possible way. God wants only the best for us, His People, but also for all people. When we misbehave, it is because we have failed to follow in God's ways.
And yet, early on, people did not know God's ways, and yet, God blamed them and destroyed them. It's almost as if a young, inexperienced God did not know how to deal with unruly, lawless humanity. They screwed up, so he destroyed them. How God could have thought they would do otherwise is the question.
It is noteworth, and of course has been noted, that God never did anything like this again. The famous rainbow is God's promise never again to send such a flood (although James Baldwin famously wrote in his book, quoting a Negro spiritual, "God gave Noah the rainbow sign, / No more water, the fire next time!")
But what is interesting is what God does next: God figures it out. You can't hold people to a law they don't know. You can't assume they will know Your intentions. People are thick and stubborn. (Moses will find it almost impossible to get them to obey a law they do know!) You've got to beat them over the head with it, again and again and again, and even then they may not get it. But You have to give them a chance, You have to teach them, and You can't do it all at once. You have to find the right person and start slowly.
It takes God another ten generations to find Abraham. But this time, God gets it right. People will never be left entirely on their own again. After Abraham, people will know what God wants of them.
But still, for all the people who perished in the Flood, that's scant comfort. "Noah was a righteous man; he was blameless in his age." Was he really the only such worthy figure? There was not one other, outside of Noah's family? Even among the children of all the other wicked ones? How did Noah come to be so virtuous? Could not God have urged Noah to be a prophet, to at least try to persuade others to repent? Or did God not figure that out until later? (And Noah could have done what Abraham does later when it comes to trying to save Sodom and Gomorrah, but Noah doesn't even think of trying to find other righteous people, nor does Noah plead with God to spare the rest of humanity; so exactly how righteous is Noah, really?)
God does not come out looking too great in this parshah. God comes off a bit like a bully. I don't care how wicked the rest of the people were, God is impatient and reckless and just mean. And God learned His lesson, clearly. But that does not mean we should let God completely off the hook. We call tornados and fires and floods "acts of God," although they are really acts of nature that we can explain rationally but not emotionally. But the flood was truly an act of God, so God must be held accountable for it and for all its consequences, good and bad. Punishing the wicked is fine, as long as you punish only the wicked, and as long as they have had a chance to understand that they are wicked and have been given an opportunity to repent. Which did not happen here.
So, did God feel guilty after the Flood? Because God should have.