Memories of the Flood: Parshat Noach


“Forty days

and forty nights

I held

my head and cried….”

– Muddy Waters, Forty Days and Forty Nights


This week's parsha recounts the mabul, the flood. The world is destroyed due to “hamas”, violence, or thievery. The world is depopulated and cleansed, in a sense, and Noach, his family, and seed pairs of all the creatures of the earth are saved to repopulate the earth. Noah and the other survivors are aboard the ark for for forty days and forty nights. The Talmud points out that this echoes the time it takes to grow a human child in the womb (40 weeks) and the time Moshe was on Mt Sinai receiving the Torah. Hashem makes a covenant with Noach that He will not again destroy the earth- a fortunate thing for us, since the earth has been filled with hamas for much of the time between Noach and now.

I wrote last week contrasting the Creation narratives of ancient Near Eastern mythology and those of Tanakh. I thought I would write similarly about Flood narratives this week, but expand my scope a bit to include two literatures which did not influence ancient Israel but still form an interesting contrast- the flood narratives of India and those of Canada. What is truly incredible is the ubiquitous nature of flood myths in the ancient world- a search online finds flood stories from ancient Europe, Asia, Africa, the Near East, the Americas, the Pacific Islands, and Australia, ie, almost everywhere.

To begin with I'll briefly re-iterate what I wrote last week about the Atrahasis Cycle and Gilgamesh, narratives routed in Akkadian, Babylonian and Assyrian culture. These narratives, which were very likely known by the scribes of Israel and perhaps even known to Avraham and his family, feature the gods wrathfully destroying the human race with a flood. The given reason is that human beings, who have been created as a servant class to relieve the gods of work, have grown overly populous and their noise is disturbing one or more of the gods. One of the gods warns a human and he and his wife survive the flood in an ark. In Gilgamesh the couple are made immortal so that the gods, who vowed to kill all mortals, will not be shown to be liars. The physical details of the story are remarkably similar to Genesis, including the construction of the ark, the use of birds to find dry land, and coming aground on a mountain top.

The contrast with the flood in Genesis is significant, however: there the flood is brought by Hashem, not by certain members of an internally divided divine assembly; the flood is brought because the earth is corrupted by aggression and thievery, not because the humans are annoying some of the gods; the flood targets the “corrupted earth” and everything that lives, seeming to reflect an idea that human immorality corrupts the very ecology, whereas in Gilgamesh and Atrahasis the flood is aimed only at humans (animals are collateral damage); and finally Noach is saved because he is righteous (tzaddik) in his generation, whereas in Atrahasis and Gilgamesh no reason is given for the hero's survival. What is relevant is looking at the Near Eastern narratives, in my opinion, is that they show in what ways Israel transformed the flood narratives. This in turn helps us to understand what the values of the Genesis version are- what it is trying to teach us.

My reason for looking at the flood myths of India is more playful- doing so helps to illumine both the values of the Genesis account and the values of the Indian accounts. Some time, God willing, I may undertake a study of the global flood myths as contrasted with that of Genesis in a more comprehensive way.

India

Flood myths from India are fascinating. There are several different versions, but the more popular ones have both significant similarities to Genesis and significant differences. The hero of the flood myths is Manu. Manu is, in some versions, simply an ancient man, and in some versions is even un-named. In some versions Manu is more of a demi-god, a quasi-divine being borne of the gods or the primordial sages. Manu is asked by a small fish to protect him against the bigger fishes and he does, moving the fish to bigger and bigger bodies of water until the fish is very large. The fish then tells Manu that a flood is coming to destroy the earth. In what are apparently the oldest versions no reason is given for the flood- it is a natural occurence or it is connected to the end of the yuga, the era. In later versions, possibly dating from after exposure to Islam and its Koranic version of the Genesis story, it is said that the earth has become corrupted because a demon has stolen the holy books which guide humankind, or because humans are behaving badly. Manu either builds a boat or ties himself to the fish and survives the flood with its protection until he can be deposited on a mountain (as in Genesis, Gilgamesh and Atrahasis). Later stories identify the fish with Brahma (understood as the Creator God) or Vishnu (later, understood as the One Supreme God). Manu offers a sacrifice (as does the hero in Genesis, Gilgamesh, and Atrahasis). In one version a woman arises magically from the fire and her and Manu repopulate the Earth. In another Manu had taken a woman and all the animals onto a boat (this is probably post-Islamic) and in another Manu and his sister were on the boat, and God (here Rama) allows them to marry and repopulate the Earth. Interestingly, in this version Rama is angry at the fish for having told Manu of the flood and cuts out its tongue, thus explaining why fishes have been tongueless since then.

The general shape of this narrative contains interesting and unique details. In all versions Manu is saved by his compassion for the fish, by his wish to save it from the violent cycle of nature in which the strong prey on the weak. This element prefigures the later pre-occupation in Indian culture with the virtue of ahimsa, or non-violence (one of the greatest contributions of Mother India to world civilisation). Another detail is the fact that in older versions the flood is a natural occurrence, not brought on by God or a god- this is a detail shared with many other flood narratives all over the world. In most versions Manu is saved by divine intervention, although in some versions it seems to be a natural result of his compassionate piety alone (ie., his good karma). It is also interesting to note that in at least one version the flood is brought by God (Rama) who resents Manu's survival at the tongue of the fish, which was not part of his plan. The idea here seems to e that it is the way of things that humans perish at the end of the yuga. Manu's survival overcomes the natural (which is also the will of God), as does his saving of the fish.

British Columbia, Canada

Secondly I would like to move close to home, to the flood narratives in my 'hood, British Columbia. It turns out that there is a plethora of flood narratives from this region.

In the haunting version of the Haida, a strange woman in an unusual fur cape one day comes to their Island. The children notice that along her spine she has strange protuberances like growing plants and jeer at her, despite their Elders censure. She sits by the water and it comes up to her feet, and she gradually moves back further and further. Each time the water follows her until the Island is inundated. The people build canoes and the survivors are scattered all over, which gives rise to the different tribes. In this story the sin of the people seems to be to jeer at a stranger, who is perhaps an embodiment of Earth herself (?). The people survive purely by their own efforts.

In another version the only survivor of the flood is the Raven, who here is a magical being who can appear either as a bird or a man. The Raven, alone after the flood, longs for a companion until he hears the cry of a female infant, who grows into a woman he marries. The tribes descend from their union. This version seems more about establishing the divine Raven-being as the father of the tribes than anything else.

The Tsimshian story says the flood was born by a God (Laxha) who was annoyed by the noise of boys at play. The people again survive by their own efforts, and again are scattered into various tribes. An echo here of the Haida story is that again the flood is caused by children. This may suggest a theme: that of the importance of disciplining children and teaching them virtues (like honouring strangers) whose absence brings chaos (the flood) to the world.

The Kwakiutl myth simply states that a flood came and submerged all but three mountains. A man, woman and dog were the only survivors, and the Bella-bella (presumably another tribe they didn't like much?) are descended from the woman and the dog.

The Kootenay version is notably different. In this myth a woman is seized and raped by a monster. The woman's husband shoots the monster with an arrow and either the monster's blood causes the flood or the monster swallows the waters in revenge, but the woman pulls out the arrow and unleashes a flood. Here it seems like crimes of passion bring on the flood- it is the disrespect of the woman's sexuality, the husband, and the marital bond which causes the eruption of chaos.

In the Squamish tale the elders of the tribe discern that a flood is coming and decide to build a giant canoe, which they do. They then put in all of the babies and their mothers, along with the bravest young men of the tribe. The surviviors are stoic and “do not cry as everyone else drowns”. Eventually they come aground on Mt Baker in Washington State. This tale seems remarkable for its celebration of discernment, ingenuity, ,practical skill, and stoic detachment.

The Bella Coola myth is interesting for its unique positing of a god as playing a purely salvific role. In their story a god who is the creator of human beings sees the flood coming and ties the earth to the sun so it will not drown, thus saving some human beings (those able to survive the ensuing storm in boats). The survivors are scattered and this scattering gives rise to the diversity of languages. The flood here is again a result of natural causes.


Overview


Surveying the Indian and Canadian narratives shows the protean nature of the flood story. Is there a hero or just a general struggle for survival? Is the hero human or a demi-god? Are the survivors warned by God, by a god, or by a magical or semi-divine creature? Do they survive by climbing a high place or by building a boat? Is there one survivor, one family who survives, or scattered members of a community? If the flood is brought by God or a god, does the Divine agent both bring the flood and cause it to cease, or only be involved with saving humanity? Does the flood come because of natural causes or divine caprice? Does it come because of divine hostility? Or because of humanity's bad behaviour?

Yoram Hazony, in his excellent The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture, argues that Tanakh has to be understood as a form of reasoning through narrative. The Tanakh is not less philosophical then The Republic or The Nicomachean Ethics. Unlike those seminal texts of the Graeco-roman world, however, the Tanakh presents its arguments and reasonings by way of narratives. I think we can extend Yoram Hazony's argument to many of the mythologies of the ancient world. By examining different constructions of the primordial flood, for instance, we can perceive arguments about what is important in life, about the structure of the cosmos, and about what we should value, how we should act, and the results that tend to come, or not to come, from our actions. Aside from the suggestion that human mythology seems to remember some kind of primordial flood, reading these stories as history seems to entirely miss the point.

That having been said, what does the story of the Mabul come to teach? This is an extensive subject, but I would propose a few lessons to begin with: 1) the desire for kindness and justice is an essential part of Hashem's desire for creation, and when human beings stray from their path we are dangerously alienated both from God and the meaning and purpose of Creation; 2) righteousness saves (also illustrated by the the story of Sodom); and 3) there are results to our actions, and we will suffer for our unethical behaviour. A lesser point seems to be that our immorality somehow pollutes the ecology of Earth itself- our lives and the life and health of the Earth itself are intimately and mysteriously bound together in the view of Genesis.

 

Author: Matthew Zachary Gindin

Freelance journalist and teacher. I write regularly for the Forward, All That In Interesting, and the Jewish Independent, and have been published in Religion Dispatches, Situate Magazine, Elephant Journal, and elsewhere.

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