I think that the story of the Mabul, the flood story of Noah, is a profound and challenging story about the extent of good and evil in the world. I say all the time that there is no part of the human experience, no matter how difficult or dark, that the Torah shies away from. We're not meant to feel comfortable when we read a story like Noah's.
But in order even to begin to interpret it, I can't start with belief in a God who would choose to destroy the world, all its humans of any age, all of its creatures. I can't read this literally as one of my God's actions. Even though at the end of the story, God pledges as a covenant never again to destroy the earth, I haven't found a way to talk about a God with this in the divine past.
So this is a post about theology, and "hermeneutics" -- a mode of interpretation. Maybe you'll find it too conceptual or convoluted. It's in blog form, not an artlcle or perfect essay.
But here goes. I approach the Noah story in a couple of different ways as a thought experiment.
One thought-experiment: Suppose the world were truly so full of evil that there was only a single human being left who had any good in him. What would have to happen? What would that person be like? Would there be any way forward other than a complete, violent, destructive collapse?
This approach to the Noah story is in the tradition of Maimonides. In the Exodus story, Maimonides interpreted the phrase "God hardened Pharaoh's heart" in a metaphoric way. He explains that sometimes, actions are attributed to God as a way of expressing an extreme situation, beyond human capacities. Pharaoh was so stubborn, beyond all human experience of stubbornness, that the only way to express it is to say Pharaoh's stubbornness was equivalent to a force of God. So too, I would say that "God destroyed the world" is a way of saying that the world was so corrupt that an act of extreme collapse was necessary, comparable only to a force of God. Comparable -- but not authored by God.
A second thought-experiment that intrigues me is: Suppose God created the world, decided to create human beings a certain way, and then has to work out over a period of time how to partner with these special beings who are like God but also very unlike God.
That's the overall story of the first part of Genesis. There's the Adam-Eve experiment, the first try in the perfect garden, which faltered over a command. There's the Cain-Abel problem, the first competition, and now the generation of Noah, when a large population of people descended into violence and chaos. Finally, God will settle on Avram and Sarai, and things take a big leap forward but only with a small family at first.
It's a given that people are learning and changing over these stories, at least some of them for the better. Is it possible that God too learns or adapts? Could that still be our teacher and guide, still be the source not only of life but of wisdom for the universe?
As difficult as those questions are, I prefer them to the questions that a traditional reading of Noah raises. If God really did destroy the earth then, why did God not intercede during the Shoah?
In the Kabbalah, there is a distinction between God as portrayed through all of our stories, and the true essence of God, the unknowable Ayn Sof or Undefined One. In that kind of reading, it's not that God is changing from before Noah to after. Instead, a kabbalistic interpretation takes the Noah story as a study of how the flows of divine justice and love struggle to be directed when the human community is off-center, corrupt, violent, far for a long time from our divine nature. "God" in the story is a name for these dimensions of divine energy working in our universe. The Torah personifies them, gives them form and voice, as a way of getting our attention. As a way of saying that these forces are alive and real, and we can address them, and they are in relationship with us.
So it's not that "God destroyed the world in a flood." Instead, the world was in a state where the force of divine love and generosity could no longer reach people to affect them. The reality of divine justice and an orderly universe was all that remained, and the end of human society was simply the result -- the consequence that flows. The failure was collectively human, at some point. God weeps, as we do, when we read of a world so far gone.
We know too well of parts of the world where this has been real. Not only the Shoah, but the other places of genocide and mass murder in our world. To a lesser extent, pockets of hopelessness and violence even in our American cities. We -- groups of people -- have to change and have to act, or the flood results again.
The world as a whole is not like this, but we know that parts of it are, and more of it has been not long ago. We also know that humans do rise up and put an end to "floods", as Noah did. So we have to keep the Noah story with us, as a description and a goad, so we know such a world when we see it. A world flooded and destroyed is still part of humanity's legacy, and we have to face it continually as we read the Noah story.
I could have written this just as a drash, a story with a moral without all the philosophical and kabbalistic to-do. But I find that people ask me about the theology often, and it's important for me to try and work it out too, so I know what God I am serving when the story of Noah calls.