Why Did God Flood the World?
The end of Parashat Bereishit finds God regretting the creation of humankind and resolving to wipe it out along with “beasts, creeping things, and birds of the sky” (Gen. 6:7). [i] A note of optimism creeps into the concluding verse (6:8), however, with the statement that Noah, whose birth and naming were noted in 5:29, “found favor” with God. The beginning of Parashat No-ah reintroduces Noah in complimentary terms (6:9), but reverts almost immediately to a description of the “corruption” besetting the world (6:11). The particulars are not spelled out, but their effect is to fill the earth with hamas, a term that admits various translations:
Jewish Publication Society, 1917: “the earth was filled with violence.” [ii]
Jewish Publication Society, 1985: “the earth was filled with lawlessness.”
Judaica Press: “the earth became full of robbery.”
The Judaica Press translation is based on Rashi’s commentary:
“Now the earth was corrupt” connotes illicit sex and idolatry, as in “lest you corrupt” (Deut. 4:16) and “for all flesh had corrupted” (Genesis 6:12). “The earth became full of hamas” refers to “robbery” (gezel). [iii]
Rashi’s commentary is based in turn on two talmudic sources:
Sanhedrin 57a: Wherever “corruption” is mentioned, it must refer to illicit sex and idolatry. Illicit sex, as it is written, “all flesh had corrupted its way” (Genesis 6:12). Idolatry, for it is written, “Lest you corrupt yourselves and make [for yourselves a sculptured image in any likeness whatever]” (Deut. 4:16).
Sanhedrin 108a: Come and see how great the power of hamas is. Although the generation of the flood transgressed all laws, their decree of punishment was sealed only because they stretched out their hands to rob, as it is written, “the earth became full of hamas” on account of them, and “I am about to destroy them with the earth” (Gen. 6:13).
While there is “violence” in the opening chapters of Genesis, especially Cain’s murder of Abel (Gen. 4:8) and Lamech’s vicious taunt song (Gen. 4:23–24), there is none in evidence in the immediate lead-up to the flood. The same might be said with respect to both idolatry and theft, although it has been suggested that “theft” is a metonymy for many types of wrongdoing. [iv] Illicit sex does fit the context, but the bare citation of Genesis 6:12 as a proof text in Sanhedrin 57a does not make the link explicit. In his commentary on the talmudic passage, Rashi clarifies:
“For all flesh had corrupted its way on earth” refers to illicit sex, as it is written, “How a man has his way with a maiden” (Prov. 30:19).
The two verses are linked by their common use of the word derekh (way), and the “way” of Proverbs 30:19 is taken to refer to sexual intercourse in Qiddushin 2b. Rashi continues:
“The flood generation was punished for illicit sex, as it is written, ‘the sons of God saw how beautiful the daughters of men were’” (Gen. 6:2).
In context, the cohabitation described in Genesis 6:1–4 provides a pretext for God’s decision to destroy the world, yet most traditional commentators eschew the connection. While Rashi remarks on it in his Talmud commentary, he does not mention it in his Torah commentary, and the omission seems intentional. One might suggest that by relegating Genesis 6:1–4 to the end of Parashat Bereishit, the Rabbis sought to disengage the story of the “sons of God” and the “daughters of men” [v] from the flood story. In so doing, they encouraged commentators to read the flood story as a morality play: the cause of the devastation was not an obscure incident of mythical character, but persistent human evil that retains its potential to wreak destruction (see Gen. 6:5 and 8:21).
The problem with that way of interpreting the flood story is that while it teaches a valuable lesson about morality and human responsibility, it also leaves the flood without any evident purpose aside from punishment. If the goal was to improve human behavior, it was a failure: violence and immorality reasserted themselves almost immediately and, regrettably, continue to flourish.
Some ancient interpreters, pondering the connection between Genesis 6:1–4 and the flood, sought a different explanation. A story in the noncanonical Book of Enoch with a parallel in one of the Dead Sea Scrolls is most remarkable in this respect. [vi] The baby Noah appears “strange, not like a human being, and resembling the sons of the God of heaven,” so his father Lamech fears that his putative child actually is the offspring of one of the illicit unions described in Genesis 6:1–4. In the Qumran version, Lamech confronts his wife, who is named Bitenosh. She tearfully denies any infidelity on her part, reminding Lamech of the passion that they shared in conceiving their son. Lamech is not assuaged, so he solicits information from his grandfather Enoch, who is privy to heavenly secrets. Enoch instructs Lamech’s father Methuselah, “Make known to your son Lamech that he who has been born is in truth his son,” who is destined to survive the impending destruction.
The implication of the story is that the purpose of the flood was not to repair human conduct, but to wipe out the demigods, the progeny of the union of the “sons of God” and the “daughters of men.” Noah was spared not because of generic righteousness, but specifically because—as the author of Enoch evidently understood Genesis 6:9—he was “innocent (tzadik) in that he was perfect in his generations (tamim . . . bedorotav).” In other words, he had a direct and unadulterated line of descent from Seth (Genesis 5:3), from whom “the world was built up.” [vii] That interpretation has considerable merit: plural forms of dor (generation) occur 51 times in the Bible, always referring to generations past or future and never to contemporaries, unless this verse is the unique exception.[viii]
Read in this manner, the flood story contributes to one of the great biblical themes, namely the setting of clear boundaries between the respective realms of God and humans. As the psalmist says, “The heavens belong to the Lord, but the earth He gave over to man” (Ps. 115:16). The world that the biblical authors are shaping is a world in which it is possible neither for gods to descend to earth in order to commingle with humans, nor for humans to attain divinity by building a “tower with its top in the sky” (Gen. 11:4). It is not the world of myth, in other words, but the real world in which we live.
The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.
[i] Rashi proffers two rabbinic explanations for the destruction of animals: (1) they had “corrupted their way” in their own right; and/or (2) since they were created for the benefit of humans, a world without people would have no need for animals.
[iii] Elsewhere the Rabbis distinguish gezelfrom hamas. See, for example, Bava Qamma 62a; Genesis Rabba 31.5 The halakhic distinctions are understood to be rabbinic, but not biblical. See Tosafot on Bava Qamma 62a: “in the language of Scripture there is no difference between them.”
[v] Space limitations preclude discussion of the identity of these two groups. The commentators are divided over whether the term “sons of God / the gods” denotes angels or lesser divine beings on the one hand, or some special class of humans on the other. Rashi on Genesis 6:2 offers both alternatives. For a critique of the angelic alternative (adopted by the author of Enoch among many others), and an excellent interpretation that fits the context, see the Torah commentary of Samuel David Luzzatto (Shadal), Italian (1800–1865), 38–39.