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The following is a brief version of an excerpt from “Beyond the Bible Text” by Rabbi Dr. Stanley Wagner and me that was published in September 2013. We usually put three articles for each biblical portion, generally discussing thought-provoking subjects that people will not find elsewhere. This week’s essay is from Noach (Genesis 6:9 -11:32)
Biblical scholars found ancient Mesopotamian documents that predate the Bible which are similar to the biblical story of the flood in many details. However, contrary to the biblical version, the ancient sources record a deluge event without imparting any ethical or spiritual message. These finds and the biblical story itself raise many questions, which should cause us to think.
Does the existence of pre-biblical versions of the flood cast a doubt on the integrity of the Bible? Does this suggest that the flood never occurred and the Bible copied the story of ancient cultures? Is the flood story a parable designed to teach many important lessons? What values can be gleaned from the Noah story? What might the ark symbolize? What is the meaning of God’s “remembrance” in Genesis 8:1? Did He forget?
Why was Noah spared from the universal destruction? What does the Bible give as a reason? What is your opinion? Was Noah truly righteous or only righteous in comparison to the evildoers of his generation? How would you define “righteousness”? Who is more righteous: people who isolate themselves from society’s moral depravation or people who confront and try to rectify it? Is a righteous person one who studies and prays night and day?
Is it really possible for the entire world, with the exception of one family, to become so totally corrupt and evil that it is worthy of obliteration? Could the Bible be exaggerating to make a point? Is it possible that the entire world was not flooded, but just a single area?
The Torah states that it rained for forty days and forty nights. Abraham Ibn Ezra prefers to see the event as a natural occurrence and writes that it rained on and off for a long time. Does this interpretation, which ignores viewing the flood as miraculous, bother you? If so, why? Do you feel that it is necessary to believe that all or most of the biblical tales really occurred and are not parables? Does the possible fact that the story is a parable detract from its message?
The Torah states three times that Noah carried out God’s instructions “as he had been commanded” (Genesis 6:22, 7:5, 7:9). Does this imply Noah’s reluctance to build the ark?
The Talmud reports an opinion: “It is a greater achievement to perform a duty after being commanded to do so than to perform the same act spontaneously” (Babylonian Talmud, Kiddushin 31a). Why would it be a spiritually superior act to give charity, for example, because God commands us to do so, than to give to the same charity because we feel personally moved to do it? What is the meaning of “spiritual”? Is the Talmud suggesting that the act is superior because the individual not only does it, but also recognizes God by doing it? How do we reconcile our free will with the imperative to follow God’s commands?
It seems that the first humans are told to be vegetarians (Genesis 2:16). They are not given permission to eat meat, only the fruits in the Garden of Eden. Noah, on the other hand, is told, “Every moving creature that lives will be yours to eat” (Genesis 9:3), with the exception of flesh from a live animal (Genesis 9:4).
Do you agree with this interpretation? If so, why are Noah and future generations allowed to eat meat? Could it be that the Bible is saying that eating a vegetarian meal is preferred; however, recognizing human desires, people are allowed to be carnivorous? Why were the laws of kashrut (keeping kosher), concerning the eating of animals, instituted (see Leviticus 11)? Is there a connection between kashrut and the ideal not to eat living creatures? Is it a kind of compromise?
What motivates Noah, “the righteous and wholehearted man,” to become intoxicated? Can we sympathize with him since he witnessed such a great catastrophe? Is this a conscious or unconscious attempt to escape the responsibility of building a new society? What does such escapism accomplish? If wine can degrade people, why is it used as a symbol of joy in the Sabbath Kiddush, the opening blessing for the Sabbath meal, as a way to enhance the Sabbath meal?
The curse of servility that Noah pronounces on his son Ham (through his grandson Canaan) and his descendants for his misconduct (Genesis 9:25–26) has been used by some people, but fortunately only a minority, as proof of the racist idea of white superiority and supremacy. According to a tradition, Cush, the son of Ham (Genesis 10:6), is the father of the black race.
Since Judaism is a religion that advocates equality among all humans because all people were created in the image of God, how should we interpret this curse? Do curses work? If not, how should we understand this episode? If yes, why should children suffer for their parents’ misdeeds (see Exodus 20:5)? Is a child required to respect a parent whose behavior lacks respectability? Should children ever judge their parents?
We did not answer these questions in this short essay, but readers can find answers in my other essays that I post from time to time on www.booksnthoughts.com.
Readers of this essay will find a discussion of the pagan versions of the flood in my other three additions today.