“Those who forget their history are condemned to repeat it.” George Santayana
Why did God decide to destroy the world in Noah’s generation?
There were ten generations between Adam and Noah. Pirkei Avot notes that this timing was intentional, to show the degree of God’s patience, “for all those generations angered Him increasingly, until He brought upon them the waters of the Flood” (Avot 5:2).
Yet God could have destroyed the world after nine generations. Or He could have waited until the eleventh. Would the difference of one generation, either way, really matter?
The Torah describes Noah as a “righteous man, perfect in his generations” who found “grace in the eyes of God” (Gen. 6:8-9), which makes God’s devastating decision more puzzling. Noah was worth saving. But there was something exceedingly wrong about his generation.
The chilling words preceding the Torah’s description of Noah give the reason for the coming onslaught:
“God saw that the wickedness of Man was great upon the earth, and that every product of the thoughts of his heart was but evil always. And God reconsidered having made Man on earth, and He was pained in His heart. And God said, ‘I will dissolve Man whom I created, from upon the face of the earth — from man to animal, to creeping things, and to birds of the sky; for I have reconsidered My having made them.’” (Gen. 6:5-7)
Confirming Pirkei Avot’s teaching, the Torah informs us that while the moral rot in humanity began setting in many years before Noah’s birth, a tipping point was reached with Noah’s generation, despite Noah’s existence. So again, why did this happen specifically in his generation?
The genealogy that appears in the fifth chapter of Genesis may offer a clue. One way Noah’s generation differed distinctly from previous ones is that it was the first in which neither Adam, the first man, nor Seth his son was alive. Adam and Seth died in 930 and 1042, respectively. Noah’s father Lamech was born in 874, so he was contemporaneous with both Adam and Seth. But Noah was born in the year 1056, after their deaths.
Noah was 600 years old at the time of the flood. Between that year and the deaths of Adam and Seth, 726 and 614 years had passed, respectively. To anyone still alive who might have personally known Adam or Seth, both were a distant and fading memory.
To understand why these dates are significant, consider the expulsion from the Garden of Eden. It was a defining event for both Adam and Eve. The Garden of Eden had provided for all their needs. Once expelled, however, Adam would have to toil for his bread by the sweat of his brow, and Eve would bring forth children through suffering and pain. Thus, Adam and Eve each had a unique and profound understanding of both God’s bountiful benevolence as well as God’s intractable judgment. Those fraught moments when first Eve and then Adam succumbed to temptation transformed their lives entirely, from one of pastoral comfort to one that was nasty and brutish. The trauma of these events would have been etched forever in the memory of Adam and Eve, filling them with painful regret.
More than any of their other descendants, Seth, their son, would have internalized this trauma. Seth was alone at home and especially dear to his parents. Abel had been murdered by their brother Cain, and God had banished Cain to wander through the world. Eve saw Seth as Abel’s replacement, and the Torah describes Seth as having been born in Adam’s “likeness and image” (Gen 5:3). No other person in the Torah is identified as having been created in an “image” except Adam, who was created in the “image of God” (Gen. 1:27). Seth would have been the sole focus of his parents’ attention, of their hopes and dreams, anxieties and fears, with no sibling to divert their attention or commiserate with. And the expulsion from Eden would have cast a pall over all aspects of the family’s daily life.
As long as Adam was alive, he would have been a living witness to the tragic story of Eden, and the terrible consequences of defying God’s will. We can imagine that Adam would have told this story to his descendants — to all inhabitants of the world — and that his story would have been echoed by Seth. Their message, however, was largely ignored. We know this since following Eden, mankind’s morality disintegrated rather than improved. Even still, their message must still have resonated with others. As the first man of creation who lived in and could talk about the Garden of Eden, Adam had an authenticity and authority that no one else had. Even as the inhabitants of the world went about their own business and pursued their own gratifications in ways that were selfish and wicked, Adam and Seth would have raised questions for which there would have been no good answers.
Adam’s role as a witness to and symbol of the expulsion from Eden is significant. The Torah puts great emphasis on the importance of witnesses, of someone or something that testifies to the validity of contracts, and of symbols that are reminders of major milestone events. Key words that relate to these ideas include “eid” and “ot.”
Examples abound in the Torah, and not only in the sections about court procedures. To name just a few: The rainbow represents God’s covenant to never again destroy the world by a flood, and circumcision represents the everlasting covenant between God and the Jews, described as “l’ot habrit” (Gen. 9:12, 17:11). The mound and monument that Laban placed between Jacob and himself as a marker to their covenant of separation are respectively described as “eid” and “eidah” (Gen. 31:53). The tablets on which the Ten Commandments are inscribed, which represent God’s covenant with the Jews at Sinai, are called the “luchot ha’eidut” (Ex. 31:18). The Sabbath day is described as an “ot,” or reminder, that it is God who sanctifies the Jewish people (Ex 30:13). The heavens and earth are called on to be eternal witnesses to blessings or curses that the Jewish people will experience when they follow or ignore God’s commandments (Deut. 4:26, 30:19). All of Israel were witnesses at the revelation of Sinai and when Moses, in his final oration, renewed the covenant between God and Israel before his death (Deut. 29:9-12). Underscoring the significance of all these examples is the prohibition against giving false testimony (Ex. 20:13), so fundamental a precept of human society that it is one of the Ten Commandments.
In Noah’s generation, however, with the passing of Adam, Eve, and Seth, there were no living people to be witnesses to or symbols of the expulsion from Eden. As the first family turned into dust, so did their message. No one of stature was left in the world to warn of the consequences to society’s moral descent. So, the generations continued to degrade, until God decided to annihilate man.
In this way, Noah’s generation was special.
The stories of Noah and Adam help us to understand the importance of a living witness. The resurgence of antisemitism in our days may provide a kind of analogy. As the generation of survivors — living witnesses to the Holocaust’s indescribable horrors — dwindles, there is a corresponding rise in antisemitism around the world. We can reasonably assume that the two phenomena are connected. A living Holocaust survivor may embarrass antisemites to silence. But with the passing of more survivors, antisemites become increasingly emboldened. We need to remember and retell stories of the Holocaust — and other tragedies against the Jewish people — in order to keep these memories alive and ensure that the horrors of the past never repeat in the future.
One final observation: After God banished Adam from Eden, he stationed outside the garden “cherubs and the flame of the ever-turning sword, to guard the way to the Tree of Life” (Gen. 3:24). The next time the Torah mentions cherubs, they appear in the context of the Ark of the Covenant, which held the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments — described as “ha’eidut,” the testimony-tablets which bear witness to the eternal covenant between God and Jewish people (Ex. 25:16)— and beside which was placed the Book of Law written by Moses, described as “l’eid,” also a witness (Deut. 31:26). Cherubs were woven into the curtain in the Tabernacle that separated the holy section of the Tabernacle from the Holy of Holies in which the Ark of the Covenant was located; they were also engraved on the lid of the Ark with their outstretched wings covering the Ark. In this context, too, the cherubs guard the Torah — the Tree of Life for the people of Israel — as well as symbolize Adam’s expulsion from Eden.
The cherubs are connected with the malaise, but they also point to the cure. By choosing to follow the Torah that the cherubs guard, to live lives guided by the Torah’s grand vision of ethical monotheism and to inspire others to do the same, we can help repair the breach created by Adam’s sin and hasten the redemption, bringing the world to a state that much closer to the Garden of Eden.