God Learns to Cope with Failure

The flood over and man and animal back on dry land, God reconciles Himself with the reality that parts of human nature are beyond His ability to control or repair. ("Landscape with Sacrifice of Noah" by Josef Anton Koch, 1803.)
The flood over and man and animal back on dry land, God reconciles Himself with the reality that parts of human nature are beyond His ability to control or repair. ("Landscape with Sacrifice of Noah" by Josef Anton Koch, 1803.)

We are very familiar with the two renditions of the story of creation: the rendition of first chapter of Genesis, where God creates the world in seven days; and rendition of the second chapter, featuring the story of the Garden of Eden, discussed here last week.

But little attention is given to a third, final rendition of the story of creation which begins (Genesis 5:1): “This is a book of the genealogy of man…” and then goes on with a very long chronology of the ten generations from Adam to Noah. It concludes, curiously, with the following: “And as men became more multitudinous over the earth, and daughters were born onto them. And the sons of God saw the daughters of man that they were good, and they took them as wives of all which they chose…”

Not surprisingly, the commentators are quick to explain that “sons of God” doesn’t mean (God forbid) the sons of God, but rather it is a euphemism for the nobles among man. (That’s too bad because this passage gives the whole world of Greek mythology – where gods were constantly impregnating/marrying earthly maidens – a certain accessibility to the Bible story.)

But leaving unresolved the whole curiosity of the Divine or noble and human cohabitation and the producing of offspring together (and the question of what’s missing in these Divine/noble men that they are so attracted to human women), the bottom line is that the mix creates a bad situation on earth. (I will translate רע simply as bad, and not the more loaded “Christian” term, evil).

First God gets upset: “I will not have my spirit strive with man forever.” But then another feeling sinks in: “God saw that man’s badness was great upon the land and all the inclination of the thoughts of his heart were only bad all the day. And God regretted making man in the land and He felt sad in His heart.”

God felt sad in His heart. That is as up-close-and-personal as the Bible will ever get in describing God’s feelings.

From a human perspective this is understandable: God undertakes this major project of creation only to find that, as things proceed, his creations turn out to be bad. For the first time, God has to confront failure. He is upset and He is sad. (Also note the close association God makes in the passage between man and the land – He conflates everything and it’s all one big mess.)

So what does God, inexperienced in dealing with man’s nature, propose to do? Destruction is the opposite of creation and the simplest remedy when creation turns unsatisfactory; repairing the world is a lot more complicated, and success is uncertain. God’s reaction is reminiscent of a child’s who has worked hard on something and realizes it is not good, gets upset and sad, and then decides: it’s bad, I’ll get rid of it. “And God said ‘I will erase man whom I have created from upon the land…'”

There is only one small thing that complicates this otherwise simple plan, which is pointed out in the concluding passage of last week’s Bible portion: God likes Noah.

In what will become a pattern in the Bible, a single individual will make a huge difference in God’s decision to take (destructive) action.

The efforts to which God will go to accommodate His partiality for one man is on full display in this week’s Bible portion of Noah. Ironically, Noah carries out all God’s instruction yet never speaks a word to Him.

When it’s all over, and the waters recede and Noah, his children and the animals set foot again on land, Noah makes a sacrifice to God “and God smelled the pleasant scent.”

The flood over, man and animal back on dry land, God feels reconciled. He also has learned a lesson. He learns that full destructiveness is not the answer, and He promises to be a lot more judicious in the future. He says that from now on He will distinguish between the land and living things and between man, whose nature is not always good, and promises never to repeat this sort flood again. (He won’t, so to speak, throw the baby out with the bathwater again, or – to be more metaphorically accurate – He won’t throw the bathwater out with the baby.)

More importantly, God reconciles Himself with the realities of human nature.  “And God said to His heart: ‘I will not again curse the land for the sake of man, for the inclination of the heart of man is bad from his youth. I will not again smite all the living as I have done.'” He realizes that certain parts of human nature are beyond His ability to control or repair. People are what they are. And it takes a flood for God to accept that.

Finally, this story has a happy ending because God liked Noah. Sometimes partiality for a single person can save the world.

The story of Noah is a story of character development – of God. But importantly for us, these lessons that God learns are intrinsically human lessons, so the learning is not just for God but for us as well.

About the Author
Jacob Dallal, who lives not far from where Jonah set sail in Jaffa to escape God, is writing on the Bible portion, focusing its characters, especially on the character of God.
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