In Essays

Parsha Noach | The Oopsie Poopsie Flood and the Tower of Babbel

Photo by Chris Gallagher on Unsplash

Explore Jewish heritage with an amateur Jew’s commentary on Parsha Noach, Genesis 6:9 – 11:32. Click here to read last week’s Parsha Bereshit.

We pick up this week’s Parsha right where we left off––with Noah. This is the Noah you know from the flood story with the animals and the rain and the blotting out of life from the face of the earth. But Noah and his line were saved because “Noah was a righteous man; he was blameless in age; Noah walked with God.”

If I’m Noah, that’s my LinkedIn bio.

This Parsha, in my amateur Jew-ness, seems to be one of the most relevant in the Torah for modern times. I know I kid about the ridiculousness of some of the literal text, but it doesn’t take much of a leap to see the parallels between this Parsha and what’s going on with climate change today. I mean, the planet is literally flooding. Not as fast as God can flood the earth, mind you, but it’s still happening.

Even the most amateur of Jews know the basics of this story. God has grown displeased with the wickedness of mankind and wants to start over. To be fair, God’s not way off base here. The end of last week’s Parsha Bereshit describes men raping women, so I can’t necessarily fault God’s kneejerk reaction. But with a little more level-headedness, God may have realized he’d also be destroying innocent lives. This is why you should sleep on it before sending out that angry email.

Noah, for his part, does not argue with God’s decision. Instead, he gets right to work on building an ark with very specific God-instructions. For example, God insists that the ark be made with gopher wood––a term not seen anywhere else in the Torah. A scholarly best guess is that it’s referring to cedar, which makes more sense than imagining that the furry animal we know today was actually made of and harvested for its wood in Biblical times.

So Noah builds the ark and he hops aboard with his family and the animals he was commanded to save just as God brings forth the biblical flood. And just as God promised, the flood covers all dry land, destroying all non-ark based life.

Figurative Age

The Torah says that “Noah was six hundred years old when the Flood came.” We read of the ridiculous longevity of biblical figures in last week’s Parsha. Many biblical scholars and religious experts have suggested that the ages are meant to be figurative, suggesting that nobody actually believes that people lived into their nine hundredth year back then.

What throws me through a loop is the specificity in which the Torah describes Noah’s age. It says that the flood started not just on Noah’s six hundredth year, but “in the second month, on the seventeenth day of the month, on that day.” That’s a lot of specifics for being figurative.

But let’s put the ages aside for now because it really doesn’t seem to be the point of Parsha Noach. This seems to be about what happens to mankind when we mistreat the planet and one another.

Biblical Climate Change

Some might scoff at the notion that how we interact with each other as humans would have an impact on climate change, but it’s not ridiculous when you consider the impact on humans as an indirect result of our collective carelessness in responding to climate change. The earth isn’t flooding because we mistreat one another, but we are mistreating one another as a result of a flooding earth. We’re mistreating one another by not making immediate, difficult choices to stem the rise of climate change. We’re mistreating one another by not having any feasible plan to react to the inevitable influx of climate refugees. One could even argue that God is doing everything God can to prepare us. We’ve had the knowledge that climate change is happening for decades, we’ve had the ability to react to it, but we just haven’t.

The main difference is that the wickedness of mankind in contemporary times is likely to suffer the least as a result of climate change. They’ll just turn up their air conditioning units during the hotter than usual summers and spend more money to maintain their level of comfort. If we were living Torah, they’d be the first to go.

Forty Days of Flooding

In the Torah, the flood goes on for forty days and it turns out the ark is built perfectly to withstand the flood. God doesn’t even need to say, “Told ya so!” Eventually, God allows wind to blow across the earth, the waters subside, and “the ark came to rest on the mountains of Ararat.” That’s eastern Turkey near the Armenian border, in modern terms.

Purely in storytelling terms, the imagery here is actually quite compelling. Not only do you have the ark, the animals, the flood, but you have the raven and dove Noah sends out to find dry land and the olive leaf the dove brings back. It’s no wonder Darren Aronofsky saw fit to turn this story into a biblical feature film.

The flood story more or less ends with Noah bringing his family and the animals to dry land where he proceeds to build an altar and present burnt offerings to God. “The Lord smelled the pleasing odor, and the Lord said to Himself: ‘Never again will I doom the earth because of man, since the devisings of man’s mind are evil from his youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living being, as I have done.”

Um, excuse me? Did God just say that the flood was a mistake? An “oopsie poopsie,” if you will? And he realized this because he smelled something on the grill?

It seems you could argue that or at least argue that God is saying that once was enough and that mankind is going to do what mankind is going to do. God also seems to recall in this Parsha that he made humankind in his image. That interpretation does leave me wondering how the hell he forgot so quickly. We’re only on the second Parsha here! We just covered creating life in God’s image last week.

The lesson I like more than anything is the fallacy of blindly doing as you’re told. Remember, God straight up tells Noah that he’s going to wipe out life from the face of the earth and Noah doesn’t make a peep. If you accept that God laters regrets killing everyone, then it stands to reason that Noah could’ve talked God down. And later in the Torah, we do see that God can be argued with. Abraham does it when trying to save the people of Soddom and Gomorrah before the holy smiter gets to smiting.

Moving On

Anywho, God is all-powerful and all-knowing but he’s not Christopher Reeves’s Superman, so we can’t turn back time. God instead moves forward with Earth Part Deux and starts legislating, much of which echoes what we’ll later find in the ten commandments. He then establishes his covenant with Noah and his offspring and all the living things of this rebooted planet, promising “never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.”

For me, this still fits into the climate change parallel because earth is going to be just fine. It’s humanity that’s screwed.

Back on land, there’s some brief scenery of Noah and his family getting to work on starting a new humanity. Interestingly, Noah plants a vineyard, makes wine, and gets drunk. And not just drunk, it seems. But blackout drunk. Naked. His sons see their father naked in a tent and “they covered their father’s nakedness; their faces were turned the other way, so that they did not see their father’s nakedness.”

I totally get it. I’d do the same. Nobody wants to see that.

With that, we drift away from the famous flood story––Noah passing away at the biblically acceptable age of 950––and into more biblical lines of who begot who. We then jump into another familiar tale––the tower of Babbel.

The Tower of Babbel

“The Lord came down to look at the city and tower that man had built, and the Lord said, ‘If, as one people with one language for all, this is how they have begun to act, then nothing that they may propose to do will be out of their reach. Let us, then, go down and confound their speech there, so that they shall not understand one another’s speed.’ Thus the Lord scattered them from there over the face of the whole earth; and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babbel, because there the Lord confounded the speech of the whole earth; and from there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.”

The Lord really comes off looking like a dick here. Didn’t he learn his lesson when he wiped out humanity with the flood and maybe, possibly regretted it? The first few lines of this text read like an evil dictator worried about losing their power.

This sets forth another era of biblical figures living, begot-ing, and dying. Interestingly, longevity seems to take a plunge. Aprpachshad lived 403 years, Eber 430, and then Peleg gets a measly 209. Nahor doesn’t even make it to his two hundredth birthday!

Speeding through centuries of procreation, we end Parsha Noach by catching up to Abram and Sarai, who alongside Haran and Lot, leave the land of Ur for the land of Canaan.

Onward with Parsha Lech-Lecha.

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