You might remember learning about Noah and the ark as a child in a lighthearted way. Some might remember colorful images of Noah standing on the deck of his boat, birds flying overhead, a smiling giraffe sticking its neck through a small window, perhaps a rainbow in the background. For many, the story of Noah is remembered as colorful and wholesome.
Returning to the narrative later in life, one might be surprised to read what now seems like a much darker tale. The story begins with God’s disappointment in humanity and desire to wipe out all of creation (Gen. 6:6-7). Ultimately, God only sees Noah alone as worthy of saving, instructing him to build an ark and save all animal life (Gen. 6:18). Then, the rain begins.
On a particularly stormy day, one might exclaim, “the skies have opened up.” But in the story of The Flood, that is precisely what happened. The flood was not brought upon by rain clouds, but mass amounts of water from above and below, as the Torah notes that “all the fountains of the great deep burst apart, and the floodgates of the sky broke open. (Gen. 7:11)”
The Noah story must be read in the context of the Creation story, where it is important to note God did not create water; rather, God divided the world into upper waters and lower waters (Gen. 1:6-9). In the ancient world, it was believed that the sky was a vast sea, held up by the firmament. (The Hebrew word for sky, shamayim, literally translates as “there, water.”) In creating the world, God separated the waters, placing a barrier above (the ‘firmament’) and a stopper below, allowing the world and life to co-exist between. Again, creation holds back chaos.
Yet, chaos begets chaos. When God sees that the world has become corrupt and chaotic, destruction follows. God no longer holds back the cosmic waters above and below and the world plunges back into disrepair. The actions of humankind bring about the very reversal of creation.
The same can be said of our current moment. The world continues to be ravaged by raging fires, superstorms, noxious fumes, and piles of waste. What happens inside our dome, under the firmament, on our fragile planet, and in the ocean waters, is deeply impacted by how we conduct ourselves, how we behave here on earth. What we do matters and has an impact, and it relates to heaven. How can we expect God to hold the floodgates of chaos when we welcome destruction with our own deeds? We have a responsibility to join God in the creative process, preventing a crashing flood of our own doing.
In the parallel Flood story in the ancient Near Eastern Epic of Gilgamesh, the gods decide to flood the world due to humanity being too noisy for the gods’ comfort. The waters in the Gilgamesh story only recede when the gods get hungry and human beings haven’t offered sacrifices in some time.
In the Torah, however, the flood occurs because human beings have acted cruelly toward each other. It is God’s hope not to have quiet in the Heavens, but kindness on earth. At the end of the story, God presents a rainbow as a sign that the world would never be destroyed by the Divine Hand again. We must honor that covenant and not bring about our own destruction through neglect, nor from unkindness.
Let us continue to build back the world better and protect creation from the threat of chaos.