The biblical story of the flood during the days of Noah raises many questions especially about divine punishments, and the answers help us to understand how to interpret biblical events.
Some of the questions are:
- Why did divine punishments vary in delivery? Some examples are as follows: Cain’s banishment in Genesis 4:12 for the murder of his brother Abel. The flood that killed the people in Noah’s generation in Genesis 6–8. The brimstone and fire in Genesis 19:24 that destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah. The builders of the Tower of Babel had their common language altered into many difficult to understand languages in Genesis 11:7. Egyptians died via ten plagues for enslaving the Israelites in Exodus 7.
- 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 during the later days of Moses reported that they saw nephilim in Canaan in Numbers 13:33. How was this possible after the extermination of this race in the flood?
- Why did innocent earth animals die in the flood while fish apparently escaped unharmed?
- 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, so why did they die?
- 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, the “something” was done by Noah’s son, not his grandson, but Noah 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. Therefore, 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 that occurred years before the drunkenness? Was this a punishment of Noah for not creating a perfect society after the flood? Why punish the grandson? Was God involved in the punishment?
There are two possible approaches:
- God punishes evildoers with a punishment that fits their crime, called in Hebrew midah keneged midah, measure for measure. Cain wanted to remove Abel from his family, so God banished him from his family. 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, bringing about their destruction 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 the disease spread. This view answers some of the questions, but not others, like why innocents died.
- Alternatively, we can view the “punishments” as natural consequences that do not involve God directly. Maimonides states in his Guide of the Perplexed 2:48 that when the Torah states that God did or said something, God did not do it. What occurred happened by the laws of nature. The Bible states that God did it because God developed the laws of nature. Under the laws of nature created by God, these consequences affect both the guilty themselves as well as the innocent people near them. 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, which resulted in the cursing of his innocent 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, as when the Torah in Exodus 12:29 states that God smote the first-born in the land of Egypt including that of Pharaoh, the captives and the livestock. The hyperbole is that while not everyone died, the effectiveness of the plague beginning with the pollution of the Nile spread so far that it 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 laws of nature are such that every act has consequences, and that the consequences of evil acts frequently hurt innocent people, even members of the actor’s family, and continues for generations.