Saturday, November 1, 2008

Noakh: Here Comes the Flood



This past week, as autumn has been deepening in the Sandias, I have been living with Noakh, and the primeval mythos of origins from the Akkadian and ancient Hebrew.

It is an odd juxtoposition.
Such stories might be understood better in the burgeoning life of springtime.
But the Torah has a logic of its own. So we study the Hebrew myths of chaos, creation, the bursting of boundaries, and re-creation all in the weeks following Sukkot, as the earth travels towards the cold sleep of winter in the northern hemisphere.

Last Saturday evening, the Women's Torah Study Group had a late afternoon study session, followed by Havdalah. And since we begin the next week's parashah on Shabbat afternoon, we began the new year of study with Parashat Noakh. And then this week, along with work, news of the election, and neuroscience, I was preparing to leyn (chant) Noach for the Parallel Minyan today. And so I set the gathering stormclouds of political change and national crisis to the tune of the ancient Deluge that beset the Two-Rivers sometime in the long ago.

Parashat Noakh is interesting, following as it does on Parashat B'reshit, which contains two different creation stories and some geneologies. In B'reshit, the first creation myth tells us that creation was essentially about bringing order from chaos through establishing boundaries:

"Once when G-d was about to create the heavens and the earth, the earth was a chaos, unformed, and over the face of the tehom (the great deep) there was darkness . . ." (B'reshit 1:2)

(Note the translation: B'reshit does not mean "in the beginning," a phrase that uses the definite article; rather, the Hebrew word is indefinite, signalling that this is a myth--a story told for the purpose of making meaning, not a factual report).

The first creation story in B'reshit is the younger of the two stories; it is written in classical Hebrew and it is carefully crafted to convey a precise meaning. The use of certain Akkadian words such as tehom, the root of the name of Tiamat, the primeval goddess of the Enumah Elish (the Mesopotamian creation myth) is intended to draw the hearer's attention to the similarities and differences between the two stories. For in B'reshit, the primary act of creation is done by the separation of the forces of nature, bringing order out of chaos. And in B'reshit, the capstone of each act of creation is the acknowledgement that it is good. Human beings are not the accidental product of a war between the gods as in the Enumah Elish, doomed to suffer purposeless and chaotic existence; for in B'reshit, when the human beings are made, they are the capstone of creation, and are pronounced very good. And when human beings, endowed with free-will, choose to leave the garden/womb and become moral beings, they become productive partners with the Eternal, making their living by the creative work of their hands.

From this story we learn two things:
One, that material existence is not only good, but very good. Thus, Judaism rejects Platonism.
And secondly, that bringing order out of chaos by separation and boundaries is very good.
The root of the Hebrew word for holy--kadosh-- means separate, set aside.


Judaism does not interpret the eating of the pommegranite as a fall into sin; the story is interpreted as the human first choice to know the difference between good and evil, with the attendant consequence of the recognition of human mortality. The serpent--nakhash--is the ancient Mesopotamian symbol of wisdom. This interprative difference between B'reshit and the more well-known Christian understanding of Genesis, means that Judaism has no concept of original sin. Rather, in Jewish understanding, humans are moral creatures, and in the exercise of free-will must make choices. And in Torah and in the Midrash, we see that G-d (who is not portrayed as omniscient and omnipotent) is consistently surprised by the consequences of creating human beings--who are set apart from all other animals--by this need to choose, to reach, to strive.

And this is the point of the Hebrew version of the story of the Deluge. The ancient mythos of the middle east has many flood stories, probably due to some dim memory of a great deluge--perhaps at the end of the last ice age. In the Gilgamesh Epic, the flood story is about the fruitless search for immortality, in which the hero learns that he is missing his life by making the search. But in the Hebrew myth, the story seems to be about chaos breaking out due to the transgression of boundaries by humans and by G-d. The story is confused because of the redactor's weaving of numerous older versions of the story so that multiple meanings can be discerned. However, the thread is there.

At the beginning of the story, it is said that the Eternal (Elohim) sees that human choices have made the earth full of corruption and Khamas. Khamas, often translated as 'violence,' can also mean the full range of human evil. No boundaries--no law--has been set on human choices, and so chaos breaks forth due to human choices. But further, the Eternal has not set boundaries on the Eternal. Thus the chaos that breaks forth is deadly to all life. It cannot be punishment for sin, since no law has been set forth, and since such punishment would be confined to human beings. It is rather, the transgression of the primordial boundaries set forth to bring order out of chaos:

". . . on that day all the springs of the tehom--the great deep--broke out, and the firmament opened. Rain fell upon the earth . . ." (B'reshit 7:11)

Note the use of the word tehom here; chaos, in the form of the primeval waters of the great deep, breaks forth ferociously, just as in the Enumah Elish, in the war between the gods.
And at the end of the flood, when the boundaries on chaos are remade, and when Noach makes an altar in some inchoate thankfulness for his return to life, the Eternal understands the divine mistake. Boundaries are set upon human behavior and law is made:

"Be fruitful and multiply and spread out upon the earth. And let the awe and dread of you be upon the land animals . . . moreover, for your own bloodguilt I will require your lives: The one who sheds human blood/ that one's blood shall be shed by another/ for human beings were made in the image of G-d (e.g. willfull and creative, and with an understanding of their own mortality)." (B'reshit 9:1-6)

And boundaries are also set on the Eternal:

". . .never again will I destroy all the living beings as I have just done.
As long as the world exists/ planting and harvesting/ cold and heat/ summer and winter/ day and night/ will never end." (B'reshit 8: 21-22)

The covenant is sealed with the sign of the rainbow, meant to remind both human and G-d about the boundaries set:

"Here is the sign of the covenant that I am establishing between me and you all that breath upon the earth . . . I have hung up my bow in the clouds . . . and when I see it, I will remember the everlasting covenant between G-d and all that breathes upon the earth." (B'reshit 8:13, 16).

We humans are concerned with chaos and with order. Creativity is the process of setting and breaking boundaries, only to remake them; it is the process of bringing holiness--separations--into the world for the purpose of making life good. Human beings have an understanding of chaos and the ticking of time towards our own mortality. In order to live by the work of our hands, we create the Rule of Law, that even the Eternal may not transgress. All of our science, all of our technology, and our very lives rest upon this fragile bridge: the understanding that the universe is a lawful place, that choices have consequences, and that we cannot wish away their reality.

And that when we refuse to see the difference between good and evil, when we try to wish away the reality of consequences, we loose chaos--the Deluge--again upon our worlds.

I have been thinking of all these things this week, as the politicians in this time of election, beguile us with promises that they have the power to set aside reality and its consequences.

"When the night shows, the signals grow on radios,

All the strange things, they come and go as early warnings,

Stranded starfish have no place to hide, still waiting for the swollen Easter Tide,

There's no point in direction, you cannot even choose a side.
Lord, here comes the flood . . . " (Peter Gabriel).

And human hope? It comes not from a politician who has begun to believe his own press.

Hope comes from the memory of past struggles and the establishment of boundaries. We remember that the price of our liberty is that we be mindful of what is true and real.

And that we understand that our task in life is to bring order out of chaos by our mindful choices.

And then, may we remember the rainbow . . .

Blessed are You, Eternal . . . who remembers/is bound by the covenant with all that lives . . .




1 comment:

christinemm said...

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I was going to return it today.

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Email me

christinemm @ snet dot net