“Failure of the Flood”

25 03 2015

On Monday evening I had the privilege of hearing Prof. David Clines speak at Mandelbaum House. His presentation concerned the “failure” of the flood narrative in Genesis, and can be found (more or less entirely) here. It centred upon a few interrelated issues, focusing chiefly upon the theological absurdity of a creator-god who nullifies his own creation (thus nullifying, in a sense, himself), the heretofore unremarked literary phenomenon whereby the deity changes his mind twice (although I contest this, and shall remark upon this point in more detail shortly), and the moral vacuity of an all-powerful being who punishes sinfulness with genocide.

To my mind, Prof. Clines spent decidedly too long on this third point, which was embellished with recourse to modern biblical commentaries and which vacillated between a condemnation of the ethics in Genesis and a critique of the surprisingly facile remarks of 20th-21st century scholars. “Too long”, I say, because we must seek to understand a text before rushing to judgment over it, and “too long” because who actually cares what 21st century commentators have to say anyway?

If you are a 21st century commentator, please know that I don’t mean you. I’m sure you’re very interesting. And while I do like to read what people have to say (and well I might, if I expect anybody to read what I have to say), I have very little patience for people who wish to speak to me about their own personal ethical systems or their religious faith.

By way of an example, I spend a great deal of my time studying mediaeval commentaries on rabbinic and biblical texts, and that is because those commentaries are interesting to me as subjects of study in their own right. When I read Ibn Ezra’s commentary on the Pentateuch, for example, I learn more about Ibn Ezra’s commentary than I do about the Pentateuch. When I study Rav Avraham of Bertinoro’s commentary on the Mishna, I learn more about his text than the one on which he is writing it. And that’s all well and good: I find both of those individuals, together with their texts, incredibly interesting.

I don’t find many biblical scholars of the last two centuries worthy of study in their own right, but only insofar as they shed light to me on the object of their study. So far as their actual commentaries are concerned (and this critique holds true particularly for commentaries on Genesis) I would that they spent a little more time on the text itself and a little less on how it makes them feel.

The most significant components of Clines’ address concerned the nullification of the creator god’s identity in the purposeful nullification of his creation, and the manner in which he is said to have changed his mind (twice, according to Clines; once only, in my opinion).

The rabbis were sensitive to the first of these two issues in their claim that almost a thousand generations had preceded the creation of the first man – a claim variously interpreted as referring to the creation and destruction of a number of other earths in quick succession (so, for example, Midrash Tehillim 90:5; Chagigah 13b-14a). Rather than nullifying his role as creator of the world, the manner in which God aborts each experiment, erases it and starts again is construed as being very much in line with the nature of this role in the first place.

I suspect that Clines would actually agree with this point; after all, he made reference to Jeremiah 18:4, in which the same verb (שחת) that is employed in Genesis to describe both the wickedness of humanity and God’s destruction of it is applied to the metaphorical potter, destroying his faulty handiwork. Is it Clines’ opinion that when the potter destroys a poorly-made product in order to start again he is somehow negating his role as artisan? And if not, why should God’s role be in any sense negated by a similar act?

When it comes to the second of these two issues, I must disagree more strongly. After all, the clue to understanding the theological import of this entire text lies in the very passage that Clines has interpreted to mean that God changed his mind a second time, and which is found in 8:21aβ-22. Here, the text has God declare the following:

לֹֽא־אֹ֠סִף לְקַלֵּ֨ל עֹ֤וד אֶת־הָֽאֲדָמָה֙ בַּעֲב֣וּר הָֽאָדָ֔ם כִּ֠י יֵ֣צֶר לֵ֧ב הָאָדָ֛ם רַ֖ע מִנְּעֻרָ֑יו וְלֹֽא־אֹסִ֥ף עֹ֛וד לְהַכֹּ֥ות אֶת־כָּל־חַ֖י כַּֽאֲשֶׁ֥ר עָשִֽׂיתִי׃
עֹ֖ד כָּל־יְמֵ֣י הָאָ֑רֶץ זֶ֡רַע וְ֠קָצִיר וְקֹ֨ר וָחֹ֜ם וְקַ֧יִץ וָחֹ֛רֶף וְיֹ֥ום וָלַ֖יְלָה לֹ֥א יִשְׁבֹּֽתוּ׃

I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done. As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.


As Clines observed, the language here is not fundamentally dissimilar to that which describes God’s reason for destroying all of humanity in the first place, recorded in 6:5-6 as follows:

וַיַּ֣רְא יְהוָ֔ה כִּ֥י רַבָּ֛ה רָעַ֥ת הָאָדָ֖ם בָּאָ֑רֶץ וְכָל־יֵ֨צֶר֙ מַחְשְׁבֹ֣ת לִבֹּ֔ו רַ֥ק רַ֖ע כָּל־הַיֹּֽום׃
וַיִּנָּ֣חֶם יְהוָ֔ה כִּֽי־עָשָׂ֥ה אֶת־הָֽאָדָ֖ם בָּאָ֑רֶץ וַיִּתְעַצֵּ֖ב אֶל־לִבֹּֽו׃

The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.


What is the difference, we might ask, between the inclination of human hearts being evil continually and the inclination of their hearts being evil from youth? None, I would suppose, and yet the similarity of these two verses to one another is only troublesome if you feel the need to posit that between the two of them God had changed his mind a second time and decided that humanity was worth preserving. He didn’t, and in the theology of Genesis 6-8 it is not.

From start to finish, the humans who feature in this narrative are described as being nothing but a disappointment. Within its narrative context, their purpose was to tend to the earth that God had created and yet they have filled it with violence (חמס). As a result (or, in a rabbinic mode, “once again”), God sees fit to eradicate everything and start all over. And yet, we are told that he likes one particular person and he chooses to give him the benefit of the doubt. This assumption pays off, although it does not change what the deity thinks of the human species.

Note that when God decides to eradicate all life on the planet, he singles out four categories of animal: humanity, beasts (בהמה), creeping things and birds (עוף). This list is found in 6:7, immediately after the passage that I quoted earlier, and comprises a convenient way of referring to all life on the planet. (We need not necessarily read anything into the omission of fish). Note as well that when God prepares an escape clause for Noah, he builds into it the possibility of the regeneration of each of these categories: Noah’s family gets to travel with him, as does a sample of every bird (עוף), beast (בהמה) and creeping thing – mentioned both in 6:20 and 7:2-3.

Here, the text differentiates between clean and unclean animals: the first instance within it in which any moral or qualitative difference is applied to the rest of the animal kingdom. Once again, the rabbis were sensitive to this information, supposing that Noah needed to take seven of every clean animal and only two of the unclean since the clean animals were to be offered as sacrifices. In our haste to unravel a stratified text, biblical scholars have tended to glide over these observations, seeing further evidence here for there being two flood stories instead of one and assuming gross stupidity on the part of the final editor, who either failed to notice the incongruity or to ascribe it any significance if he did.

On the contrary, since the passage ends with Noah’s offering a sacrifice of clean beasts (בהמה) and birds (עוף), and since this directly precedes God’s declaration that concerns his no longer bringing destruction on the planet – in fact, since God’s declaration is related directly to his having enjoyed the sacrificial aroma – the differentiation between clean and unclean animals cannot possibly be more relevant to the overall story. God’s instructing Noah as regards which were clean and which were unclean can be seen as an extension of his choosing to save this one man from the annihilation that is meted out to the rest of the planet, and is the reason that this choice pays off when all is said and done.

God does not repent of having destroyed humans, since he persists in his description of them as being inclined perpetually towards evil. He does repent, however, of his decision to destroy the earth on account of humans, and it is the earth that he decides now to maintain in spite of their wickedness. Their saving grace, as a species, is an ability to utilise that earth in worshipping God – a notion that appears first in God’s acceptance of Abel’s animal sacrifice in 4:4.

Theologically, the passage as a whole is not so dissimilar to Leviticus (nor should we be at all surprised by that fact). There, as here, humanity is a fairly wretched bunch, but atonement can be made and the deity is pleased with our efforts. While later texts might specifically disavow the notion that God likes to eat the livestock that his earth has produced (and while even later theologians might try very hard to reconstrue the many texts that seem to suggest that he does), this passage is one more piece of evidence in favour of a god not so dissimilar to the ones revered by Israel’s neighbours:

A miserable fellow, rather angry with the people who are tramping all over his creation, but one content to forgive and forget in exchange for a good meal.



3 responses

25 03 2015

I feel that the context of this story within the lineage leading to Abraham suggests a more purposeful intention to the saving of humanity, and more nuances to the interaction. I think that is informed by the text of Genesis as much as by any familiar theology?

Likewise with the idea that the Creator’s identity could be erased by destroying creation; there is on the one hand pleasure in the aroma of offerings, but then also a sense of ‘giving without taking’ in the calm, uncontested power of Genesis’ opening. Does the chaos of humanity in this story really amount to a threat, challenging the vision of creation without any warring, or does it reinforce the idea that the truly good path is laid out and unthreatened? The Creator in Genesis doesn’t need anything, but does offer much. Though doing so in a form very tangible to the human characters, it gives the impression of an identity independent from the story, except for the choice to utter and create.

25 03 2015
Simon Holloway

So far as the theology of Genesis as a whole is concerned, I agree with you. Notwithstanding the manner in which the text gets going, once it does it seems to be all about the virtues (frequently hidden and in some cases contestable) of a particular clan, in whose characters and ethics God derives satisfaction. But this is not the case in chapters 6-8, in which the merits of individual characters (Adam, Abel, Enoch, Noah) are ambiguous at best.

As for the rest, I have to disagree. The creator in Genesis strikes me as demanding a great deal from people, and to characterise him as one who offers much is to gloss over all of the suffering that he also offers, during any one of his several fits of rage. As for his being independent of the story, I see him as being intimately involved in it – as much as any other character is. But then, I also reject all attempts at seeing the god of Genesis as non-physical or all-knowing (two more ideas that you won’t find in this particular text), so I’ve no doubt this discussion could continue for some time.

25 03 2015

By ‘not taking’ I didn’t mean ‘not demanding’ but ‘not needing’.

I would have to carefully read the whole book from your angle before I could really think about it. I see parts of what you mean but I guess I don’t see it as being so simple as that.

Also I think it makes sense to largely see every story in light of the others, rather than seeing each story in the book as containing different views. That’s because when stories are taken/retold, it would be done within the group’s assumptions, and perhaps even specifically to bring the old stories into conformity with (and to bear witness to) their own ideas.

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