What are we to understand about the biblical story of Noah? How are we to relate to a God who allows such terrible destruction? How are we to relate to Nature, and the world in which we live?
Coming so soon after the story of the Creation of the world – there are just ten generations between Adam and Noah – the story bears witness to the much more complex relationship between human beings and the earth than we sometimes read from the earliest chapters in the Book of Genesis.
As we read in the first chapter, the earth and all its accoutrements – plants fish, birds and beasts – are created before human beings, and God sees them as being good. They are not created for the human being but exist in their own right. While the vegetation is available as food for the human, the animals are not so designated. As Maimonides commented “The right view, in my opinion is that it should not be believed that all creation exists for the sake of the existence of humanity. On the contrary, all the other beings too have been intended for their own sakes, and not for the sake of something else.” (Moreh Nevuchim 3:13). The Tosefta (late 2nd century text) asks “Why were human beings created last in the order of creation?” and answers itself “So that they should not grow proud, and we can say to them ‘even the gnat can claim it came before you in Creation’” (Tosefta on Sanhedrin 8:3)
We are created within and alongside nature. Nature, in this biblical viewpoint, is not created as a tool for us to treat as we choose, but exists both symbiotically with us and independently of us.
When God blesses humanity with the benediction to be fruitful and multiply, to populate the world and to steward it, this is not something that changes the power in the relationship, but instead formalises the responsibility we have to sustain both ourselves and our world. The natural world is not given to us unconditionally, but exists in relationship with us. It is not subservient to us, but is the place where we may thrive together, or may fail together.
Many readers of Bible are tempted to read the first chapters of Genesis and find a divinely created supremacy of humanity. After all, we are the only ones created in the divine image, whatever that may mean. While all the vegetation and animals are created to be able to sustain themselves and produce offspring, only humans are told to multiply and to range over the expanse of the earth.
So one might want to read into the text the sovereign authority of the human being in the natural world, but the bible would like to warn us that this is a misreading of great proportion. While the earlier story has words which are potentially problematic, particularly in how they are understood (“subdue the earth/ have dominion over”) (Genesis 1:28), the story of the Garden of Eden clarifies the relationship – the human is placed into the garden to serve it and to guard it”. And while we read in the Midrash that “God showed Adam all of the beauty of the Garden of Eden, and God said, “See my works, how lovely they are, how fine they are. All I have created, I created for you” – we must note that the Midrash continues with the warning “Take care not to destroy My world, for if you ruin it, there is no one to come after you to put it right” (Kohelet Rabbah 7:13).
Once the first human beings are expelled from the Garden of Eden, nature will become even less benign a partner, and more of a problem as we scratch our living from the earth through the sweat of our brow; the relationship of serving the land changed to one of working it.
But even more clear a warning to us not to read ourselves as somehow permitted to use the natural world as we see fit and for our own purposes, without thought of the effects of our actions, is the story of the great flood in the time of Noah.
The bible makes a clear connection between the behaviour of the people at that time – corrupt and violent – and the bringing of the flood. As we will find later, in times of famine for example, or the plagues visited upon Egypt, Nature is a tool in the hands of God, used as a necessary corrective when humanity chooses arrogance and enormous self-centredness over the obligation to serve and to guard…. As we find in Midrash Bereishit Rabbah 8:12 (c200CE) commenting on verse 28 of the first chapter of Genesis:
God said, “I will make humankind in My image, after My likeness. They shall rule [ve-yir·du]…the whole earth”.… God blessed them and God said to them, “Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it; and rule [u-re·du]…all living things…” Rabbi Hanina said: “If humankind merits it, God says u-re·du [rule!]; while if humankind does not merit it, God says yé·ra·du [let them (the animals) rule].” (or Let them [human beings] descend [from their position of mastery]
The flood is a cataclysmic event. The bible records: “Fifteen cubits upward did the waters prevail; and the mountains were covered. And all flesh perished that moved upon the earth, both fowl, and cattle, and beast, and every swarming thing that swarmed upon the earth, and every human being; all in whose nostrils was the breath of the spirit of life, whatsoever was in the dry land, died. And God blotted out every living substance which was upon the face of the ground, both human, and cattle, and creeping thing, and fowl of the heaven; and they were blotted out from the earth; and Noah only was left, and they that were with him in the ark. And the waters prevailed upon the earth a hundred and fifty days. ” (Genesis 7:20ff)
The destruction is incalculable, bringing death to every living thing outside of the sanctuary of the Ark. Plants and animals and birds – all gone in the space of a few months, along with the majority of human beings. Bible sees this as a consequence of the will of God, who having seen the corruption and wickedness endemic in the world, regrets ever having made it and chooses to wipe most of it out and begin again. The story is a retelling of much older flood stories, where there had been no moral conclusion drawn, simply the random destruction of the earth and her inhabitants by water, at the whim of indiscriminate and uncaring powers.
It is clear from biblical texts that Nature is, by its very existence, to be respected and held in some careful awe. Again and again we are reminded that God is the creator of not just us, but of the rest of the world; Again and again we are reminded that our time here is short and we have but a fragile hold on life. As Kohelet writes “one generation goes and another comes, but the earth abides forever” (1:4)
The mystical tradition teaches that the universe is the garment of God (Zohar 3:273a), a position also taught by the Hasidic tradition: “All that we see, the heaven, the earth and all that fills it – all these are the external garments of God” (Shneur Zalman of Liady)
There is a persistent thread within all streams of Judaism to remind us that reading the beginning of Genesis must be done most carefully – that should we derive the idea that humanity is somehow so exceptional that we are beyond the rules of nature, and beyond the obligations and morality expected of us by God, then we will indeed pay the price for that arrogance, and the price will be extracted by natural environmental events. As the unetaneh tokef prayer recited so recently in the Yamim Noraim reminds us, we will surely die, and the list of ways of us dying is instructive:
“On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed – how many shall pass away and how many shall be born, who shall live and who shall die, who in good time, and who by an untimely death, who by water and who by fire, who by sword and who by wild beast, who by famine and who by thirst, who by earthquake and who by plague……. But repentance, prayer and righteousness avert the severity of the decree.”
Repentance, prayer and righteousness may avert the severity of the decree. One might put it into more modern terms – we abuse the bounty of the natural world, are careless of its resources, wilfully blind to the effect of our actions but the actions of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle – this may avert the severity of the climate change already with us.
There is more – to Repair, to allow animals and land to rest; Regenerate; Give animals freedom to range and to live a good and healthy life… Plant trees and grassland rather than paving over our environment, allow grasses to flower and insects to roam and feed, avoid pesticides and ensure our garden birds can eat safely….. these are the ways we can begin to avert the severity of the changes in our environment.
God saves Noah but repents the destruction after the event. The terror and trauma of the survivors is clear in the stories that follow, the rainbow a necessary but insufficient marker of security – the world may never again be totally destroyed by flood – but there are other ways we can destroy our world. The postdiluvian world is more complex, more violent and more painful than before. It is another kind of expulsion from Eden. Now every other animal – all living beings – will fear human beings (Genesis 9:2)– after all, it was human behaviour that had caused the destruction. Humanity is now permitted to eat anything that moves that has life – not just the vegetarian diet of before. Interestingly this permission is given only AFTER Noah has built an altar and sacrificed some of the animals on it in order for the smoke to reach God. Only the blood is forbidden to be eaten, says God. And anyone who takes the life of another – their life shall be required by God. There is a violent abrupt awareness of the flawed nature of humanity; the language is stark, unblinkingly focussed – it is ferocious.
After the flood, Noah leaves his ark, plants a vineyard and gets drunk. It is part of the story we don’t often tell. The trauma of the survivors is plain to see, the desperate fumbled attempts to rebuild the world which leads to the tragedy of the tower of Babel.
Humanity may indeed survive climate catastrophe, may go on to rebuild a new world. But would it not be better for us all to avert the evil in the decree, to help each other to rebuild this world to be a better example of what we would really want to create.