The end of Genesis 5 introduces us to Noah and his three sons. This is the last paragraph of Adam’s family tree, so it is reasonable to assume that “when humanity began to multiply on earth” begins a new subject. That is how the Christian chapter division takes it, identifying those words as the beginning of Genesis 6.
In Jewish tradition, though, the first eight verses of chapter 6 are at the end of last week’s episode, Parashat Bereshit. They introduce the upcoming destruction of almost all life, and they end by re-introducing Noah, the hero of the Israelite version of the Flood story, as this week’s main character.
What signals that Parashat Noach should begin with Gen 6:9 rather than where the Christian chapter begins? It is the phrase אלה תולדות aleh toledot (“these are the generations” or “this is the story”), a phrase that occurs ten times in Genesis, providing the book with a certain structure. But the Christian chapter division ignored that structure here.
The answer given in the Jewish reading about why God has decided to bring this Flood is different than the answer you get if you include the beginning of Genesis 6 in the Flood story. Gen 6:5 says the Lord saw that humanity’s evil on earth had grown great and everything devised by his mind was just evil all day long. So the Lord regretted that he had made human beings. He literally says נחמתי niḥamti ‘I regret’ having made them – using the same Hebrew root with which Lamech, Noah’s father, had explained his name in Gen 5:29. At the beginning of Parashat Noach, however, a different Hebrew root comes to the fore. That root is שׁחת.
This root does not lend itself to a single obvious English translation, and the task is made more difficult by its being used here in three different Hebrew verb patterns, but one way to suggest its overall flavor is to say that it implies ruining things. Here, I’ll use the translations of שׁחת that you are likely to find in most English versions of the Bible, but with the Hebrew word showing so that you can see where it shows up:
11 The earth became corrupt [וַתִּשָּׁחֵ֥ת] before God and the earth filled up with violence. 12 And God saw the earth, and it was corrupted [נִשְׁחָ֑תָה], for all flesh had destroyed [הִשְׁחִ֧ית] its way on earth.
Pay attention to those words “God saw.” All through Genesis 1 “God saw” that creation was good – but now it is not. As a result, God will repay the human beings in kind:
13 God told Noah, “The end of all flesh has come before Me, for the earth has filled up with violence. And I am going to destroy them [מַשְׁחִיתָ֖ם] along with the earth … 17 I am going to bring the Flood, water over the earth, to destroy [לְשַׁחֵ֣ת] all flesh in which is the breath of life.”
That is, God is going to do to the inhabitants of earth exactly what they themselves are doing. The verbs in vv. 12 [הִשְׁחִ֧ית] and 13 [מַשְׁחִיתָ֖ם] are in exactly the same verbal pattern. God is planning to give humanity its own medicine, and more than just a taste of it.
When God promises, at the end of the Flood story, not to destroy “all flesh,” the language of v. 17 is repeated: “Never again will there be a Flood to destroy [לְשַׁחֵ֥ת] the earth” (Gen 9:11; see also v. 15). But this is a promise not to ruin the entire earth again with a Flood, not a promise that God wield never again wield the power of שׁחת. The same root is once again a theme verb in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. In that story, it isn’t the human beings who are doing this horrible verb of ruination, corruption, and destruction, as the people before the Flood did, but God and God’s messengers.
We find שׁחת again in a place far more critical to what the Torah is trying to say than the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. The Flood story is really the story of Creation 2.0, and the story of Creation 3.0 is the beginning of the book of Exodus, telling how the Israelites became a people. In Exodus 12:23, on the night of the exodus, when the Israelites put blood on their doorposts so that their firstborn will not be killed along with those of the Egyptians, the explanation given to Moses is this:
When YHWH comes through to smite the Egyptians, He will see the blood on the lintel and the two doorposts, and YHWH will pass by the entrance and not let the Destroyer [הַמַּשְׁחִ֔ית] enter your houses to smite you.
There is a curious dissociation between YHWH and “the Destroyer” here, but this is exactly the same verb used when the angels tell Lot that “YHWH is going to destroy [מַשְׁחִ֥ית] the city.”
That is quite a contrast from the God who wants to make sure that humans do not ascend to his level – in Genesis 2 and 3, by eating from the tree of knowledge and the tree of life; in Genesis 11, in this week’s parashah, by building “a tower with its top in the sky” (Gen 11:4). In the story of the Flood, the use of the Hebrew root שׁחת seems rather to show us a God who is sinking to their level.