The biblical story of the flood during the days of Noah raises many questions, but the answers help us to understand how to interpret biblical events.
Some of the questions are:
- Why were different divine punishments done in very different ways. For example, Cain was banished in Genesis 4:12 for murdering his brother Abel; Noah’s generation was killed with flood in Genesis 6-8; Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed with brimstone and fire in Genesis 19:24, the builders of the Tower of Babel were punished by having their languages confused in Genesis 11: 7; Egyptians who enslaved Israelites died during ten plagues beginning in in Exodus 7.
- Why were the people of Noah’s generation killed by a flood and not some other catastrophe?
- Genesis 6:4 states that there were giants (Nephilim) during the days of Noah, and he only saved his family. Yet, the spies who reconnoitered Canaan reported that they saw Nephilim in Canaan in Numbers 13: 33. How was this possible since the race was exterminated in the flood?
- Why were innocent animals killed in the flood while fish apparently were not harmed?
- Human nature being what it is, we can assume that not every individual punished in the flood and during the plagues against the Egyptians were guilty of harming other people, why were they killed?
- After the Flood, Genesis 9:20-27, tells us that Noah planted a vineyard, made wine, drank it, became drunk, something bad happened to him, he blamed his grandson who was not alive during the Flood, and cursed him. We know that it takes years for a vineyard to grow and produce wine, and for a grandson to grow up and be responsible for his actions. So, the incident of Noah’s drunkenness must have happened long after the flood. What does this tell us? What connection does this event have, if any, with the Flood?
There are two possible approaches:
- God punishes evil-doers with a punishment that fits their crime, called in Hebrew midah keneged midah, measure for measure. Cain wanted to remove Abel for his family, so he was removed. God said in Genesis 6:13, “the earth is filled with violence through them [Noah’s generation], so, I will destroy them with the earth,” Genesis 1:2 states that before the first creation – light – there was water, so God returned the earth to this status – water. We do not know what misdeed the people of Sodom and Gomorrah committed but perhaps they did what they did with fiery enthusiasm, so they were destroyed with fire. The Egyptians killed male Israelite children by tossing them into the river (Exodus 1:22) so the plagues started with the pollution of the Egyptian river and spread. This view answers one of the questions but not the others, especially why innocents were killed.
- Alternatively, we can view the “punishments” as natural consequences that do not involve God directly. Under the law of nature created by God, these consequences affect both the guilty themselves as well as the innocent people near them. And these consequences also affect future generations, as stated in Exodus 20:5, “visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation.” Noah, for example, suffered greatly because of his experiences during the Flood, so much so, that one of the consequences was his need to drink himself into a stupor, bad behavior whose consequence was the bad behavior of his grandson.
Additionally, as I pointed out in past writings, the Torah generally uses hyperbole, stating what is important with exaggeration, to highlight the happening. This does not mean that the Torah is not telling the truth. For example, although the Torah states repeatedly that Moses spoke to all the people, Moses could not speak to all the people at once. The hyperbole is informing us that Moses made sure that every Israelite knew what he wanted to communicate. Similarly, when the Torah states in Exodus 12:29, that God smote all the first-born in the land of Egypt, even the first-born of Pharaoh, captives and cattle, we come to understand by the hyperbole, that while not everyone died, the plague, starting with the pollution of the Nile, spread so far, that it even killed animals and many of the most honored and protected among the Egyptians.
In summary, we can begin to learn by analyzing the story of the Flood, either that God directly punishes people according to their acts, or that the law of nature is that every act has consequences, and that the consequences of evil acts frequently hurt innocent people, even members of the actor’s family, even for generations.