Noah: A world destroyed. A world rebuilt.
There’s so much going on in this parasha that one could talk about it for a whole year, and only begin to scratch its surface.
Noah was a righteous man – the righteous man of his generation. While what we hear about him might not make him seem so great by today’s standards, the standards of his own days were lawless. There were no laws, no courts, the world had become corrupted to the point of complete tyranny — rule by the most ruthless and powerful. This could make Noah’s drunkenness, licentiousness, and abject paganism seem like nothing. And we can look at his extraordinary effort to save the world’s food sources as the epitome of humanity in his day. Are we so far from Noah? Maybe not – in our own day the conservation of world resources is a major topic –perhaps the major topic. Tyranny runs rampant, when the most bloodthirsty of tyrants send their representatives to sit as the head of the UN Security Counsel. So maybe we haven’t come so far.
To understand Parashat Noah we need to bounce between the cultural references of Noah’s era, and our own. So let’s go back to Mesapotamia of the 6th millennium, the end of the Neolithic period when a flood so massive destroyed the world as it was known to those early homo sapiens sapiens. These new men, with their enhanced technological abilities went forth from Eden, developing the early arts of animal husbandry. They may have been the first tillers of soil, still they were lacking basic societal skills, and left to their own devices – well – we all know the story, and it wasn’t pretty. A few righteous people would survive.
But aren’t we making an assumption here …was the flood limited just to water? After all, there are other types of floods, and not all of them have positive results. Could it not have been a deluge of scientific and technological growth, unaccompanied by the spiritual growth? The Zohar states that in the 6th millennium HaKadosh BoruchHu was ready to give Torah to mankind, but that they were not ready. Man had the mental ability to advance his technical mastery of the world, but not the moral understanding of what to do with it. והנה נשחתה כי-השחית כל-בשר את דרכו על-הארץ.
So what was happening in the 6th millennium? It’s the end of the Neolithic period, and the start of metallurgy – copper smelting has just been discovered. At the same time, throughout the Fertile Crescent there was an explosion of agricultural development. And oddly enough, also a massive geological upheaval – the sudden rise in the level of the Black Sea, at around 5600 BCE, when the waters of the Mediterranean Sea breached a sill in the Bosporus Strait. Oceanographers have described and dated this using core sediment samples from various points under the Black Sea. While there is debate about its relative suddenness, and its magnitude, some geologists have described this breach as an event which:
[water] flooded 155,000 km2 (60,000 sq mi) of land and significantly expanded the Black Sea shoreline to the north and west. According to the researchers, “40 km3 (10 cu mi) of water poured through each day, two hundred times what flows over the Niagra Falls.”
I think that qualifies as a deluge – one that falls within the realm of memory of a newly literate set of humans. And so we have not only the actual description of the deluge, but other written accounts as well, such as the Epic of Gilgamesh. Scientists have hypothesized that this geographical upheaval gave rise to a surge of agricultural advances, as the flood plain was extremely fertile and easily tilled.
But that alone would not explain such an advance. Man himself would need to change. If you create greater wealth with better farming, someone stronger is going to come along and take it away from you. Copper and early metals were not used for farming, and initially not for weaponry –metal weapons would only become the norm in the iron age. But the ability to develop smelting techniques, extract ore, and create ritual objects and jewelry – these were symbols of affluence.
Did the physical flood create better farming, more affluence and subsequently bring on the copper age? Did a deluge of technological information give rise to inhumane behavior that man was ill equipped to control? Any way one looks at it, man was not the same after the deluge.