Rebuilding The World:
Analyzing the Two Stories of the Flood
By Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom
TWO STORIES - AGAIN???
As we encountered in last week's Parashah, the main story of our Sidra - the
flood and its aftermath - seems to be told twice, in conflicting versions.
The existence of these "rival versions" can best be demonstrated by using
each to answer basic questions about the flood and its aftermath: (We will
refer to "V1" and "V2" here; the thread which binds them will be suggested
A: THE NATURE OF EVIL
Q1: What caused God to decide to destroy the earth?
V1: "The earth became corrupt before God; the earth was filled with
lawlessness...for all flesh had corrupted its ways on earth" (6:11-12)
V2: "Hashem saw how great was man's wickedness on earth, and how every plan
devised by his mind was nothing but evil all the time" (6:5)
In the first "version", we are told about specific actions and behaviors
that warranted destruction. Our Rabbis explain that the "Hashchatah"
mentioned here was sexual impropriety of the most egregious sort; the
"Hamas" (lawlessness) refers to thievery - for which the Heavenly decree was
In the alternate "version", we are not given information about specific
behaviors - just general "Ra'ah" (evil). In addition, a factor not
mentioned in the first "version" is presented - man's "thoughts".
B: THE MERIT OF NOAH
Q2: What was Noah's merit?
V1: "Noah was a righteous and wholehearted man in his age, Noah walked with
V2: "Noah found favor with Hashem...'for you alone have I found righteous
before Me in this generation" (6:8, 7:1)
In v. 9, Noah is described as "righteous" (*Tzaddik*) and wholehearted
(*Tamim*), walking "with God". This description speaks of someone who is
committed to the principles of justice and honesty and who walks in God's
path (see later 18:19).
The verse immediately preceding it (the last verse of Parashat B'resheet)
addresses a different aspect of Noah - not his "objective" merit, rather,
how God "sees" him. *Noach Matza Hen b'Einei Hashem* - Noah found favor in
God's eyes - is a much more sympathetic and subjective statement. Even the
later statement (7:1), when God addresses Noah, speaks more about their
relationship - *Tzaddik l'Phanai* - righteous BEFORE ME - than does the
C: HOW MANY ANIMALS?
Q3: How many animals did Noah take onto the ark?
V1: "And of all that lives, of all flesh, you shall take two of each into
the ark to keep alive with you, they shall be male and female; from birds of
every kind, cattle of every kind, every kind of creeping thing on earth, two
of each shall come to you to stay alive" (6:19-20)
V2: "Of every clean (*Tahor*) animal you shall take seven pairs, males and
their mates, and of every animal that is not clean (*Asher Lo T'horah*),
two, a male and its mate." (7:2)
The differences here are clear - not only numerically, but also
teleologically. What is the purpose of "collecting" the animals? In the
first version, two animals of each kind are gathered in order to maintain
the species (hence, one male and one female).
In the second "version", the purpose of gathering these animals only becomes
clear after the flood - to offer a thanksgiving "Korban" with the pure animals.
Note that in the first version, the terms used for male and female are the
"clinical" *Zakhar* and *N'kevah*, terms which say nothing about the
relationship between them. On the other hand, the second "story", where
animals are classified by ritual definitions and seven pairs of the "pure"
animals are taken, also refers to the "couples" as *Ish v'Ish'to* - a "man
and his mate".
D: COVENANT - OR COMMITMENT?
Q4: What caused God to commit to never again bring a flood of total
destruction? (and to whom did He make this commitment)?
V1: "I now establish My covenant with you and your offspring to come and
with every living thing that is with you - birds, cattle and every wild
beast as well - all that have come out of the ark, every living thing on
earth. I will maintain My covenant with you; never again shall all flesh be
cut off by the waters of a flood and never again shall there be a flood to
destroy the earth...This is the sign that I set for the covenant between Me
and you, and every living creature with you, for all ages to come,. I have
set My bow in the clouds, and it shall serve as a sign of the covenant
between Me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth, and the bow
appears in the clouds, I will remember My covenant between Me and you and
every living creature among all flesh, so that the waters shall never again
become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will
see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living
creatures, all flesh that is on earth. That - God said to Noah - shall be
the sign of the covenant that I have established between Me and all flesh
that is on earth." (9:9-17)
V2: "Then Noah built an altar to Hashem, and, taking of every clean animal
and of every clean bird, he offered burnt offerings on the altar. Hashem
smelled the pleasing odor, and Hashem said to Himself: 'Never again will I
doom the earth because of Man, since the devisings of Man's mind are evil
from his youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living being, as I have
done. So long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat,
summer and winter, day and night shall not cease." (8:20-22)
Here we have a clear and obvious difference between the "versions". In the
first "story", God enters into a covenant with Noah - who is presented as a
representative of all living beings and of the earth itself. God makes a
covenant, complete with a visible sign (the rainbow), wherein He agrees to
never again destroy the earth (at least - not with a flood). The motivation
for this covenant isn't readily obvious - unless we include the commands
which immediately precede this section. These commands, which serve as a
"flashback" to the creation of Man, include the prohibition of murder and
the responsibility to judge such behavior. (8:4-6)
In the second "version", on the other hand, there is a clear "catalyst" for
God's commitment - the pleasing odor of the offerings brought by Noah. In
addition, the commitment which God makes is not stated to anyone, nor is
there any "covenant" form to it - there is nothing which Man is asked to do
in response, nor is there any sign of the covenant. God makes this
commitment "to Himself", as it were; the commitment is grounded in the
tragic reality of man's imperfection - "...since the devisings of Man's mind
are evil from his youth..."
A cursory reading of chapters 6 through 8 of B'resheet present two different
pictures of the flood: Why it happened (lawlessness or "evil intentions");
the merit of Noah (walking WITH God or righteous BEFORE God); the number and
purpose of the animals (2 - to save the species - or 7 pairs - for
offerings) and the Divine promise to never repeat the flood (covenant or
The careful reader will note - at least if he follows in the original - that
the Name for God used throughout "Version 1" is "Elohim", the generic name
for God. The Name used throughout "Version 2" is "Hashem" (YHVH).
How many stories are there here? Are there two different narratives - or one
multifaceted one? Bottom line - how many animals were there? What was Noah's
merit? Which "version" is "accurate"?
(It is both prudent and imperative to note that most of the Rishonim who
addressed the issue utilized the same approach here to the "two stories" of
Creation in last week's Parashah. They combine the two versions, seeing
each as completing what is "missing" from the other. We will try to present
another viable option here)
SCIENCE VS. TORAH
CONFLICT OR ILLUSION?
Before addressing the specific question of the "two stories" of the flood, a
larger question (to which we alluded last week) should be addressed.
Much has been made of the apparent conflict between Science and Torah. In
clearer terms, since the world has embraced the methods of scientific
reasoning and has been willing to challenge a fundamentalist reading of the
Bible, these two versions of reality have been constantly thrown against
each other. Is the world 6,000 years old - or several billion? Were there
six days of creation - or many trillions? Did Man evolve from "lower
species" or was he formed ex nihilo as the crown of creation?
[Before asking these questions, we could challenge the Torah's report from
its own information - was Man created before or after the animals? etc. - as
presented in last week's shiur]
Responses to this apparent problem have fallen into three groups:
GROUP A: THE REJECTIONISTS
There are those who maintain that the Bible must be understood as being a
literal account of creation, the flood etc. Besides the internal
contradictions, this clearly pits the Biblical account against science.
This leaves adherents to this perspective with two options - either accept
the Biblical account in toto - and reject the findings of the scientific
world - or else reject the Biblical account in toto. Each of these
"rejectionist" approaches is rarely confined to the issues in question -
someone who believes that the Bible is trying to promote a specific version
of creation - one which he rejects on account of science - will not be
likely to accept the Biblical mandate in other areas of wisdom, ethics or
personal obligations. Similarly, someone who rejects the scientific
approach to creation, evolution etc. out of hand is not likely to "buy into"
the scientific method in other areas.
The result of this first approach is the rejection of one or another of the
disciplines as the bearer of truth.
Although some of our fellow traditionalists have opted for such an approach
(to the extreme of maintaining that God placed fossils on the earth in order
to test our belief in the age of the world!), most contemporary Orthodox
thinkers are too committed to the scientific method as a valuable expression
of "Creative Man" (see the introduction to last week's shiur) to reject it
GROUP B: THE INTEGRATIONISTS
Of late, there has been a good deal of study and literature devoted to an
attempted harmonization between the disciplines of Torah and science.
Usually building on Ramban's commentary on B'resheet, works such as "Genesis
and the Big Bang" try to demonstrate that the latest findings of the
scientific world are not only corroborated - they are even anticipated - by
(A marvelous example of this is Ramban's comment on the phrase "Let us make
Man in Our Image", troubling enough on theological grounds. Ramban explains
that God is talking to the earth, creating a partnership whereby the earth
would develop the body of Man and God would, upon completion of that
process, fill that body with a Divine spirit. The notion of the earth
"developing" the body is curiously close to the process outlined by Darwin
- in the widest of strokes.)
The advantages of this approach over the first one are obvious - there is no
need to reject either area of study and a person can live an intellectually
honest life as a member of "modern society" without sacrificing religious creed.
The "downside" is not so clear. Besides some "forced" readings (in both
disciplines - bending science to work with Torah is sometimes as tricky as
"bending Torah" to achieve compatibility with science), this method actually
"canonizes" the products of the scientific method; since the claim is that
these theories are already found in the Torah, that makes them somewhat
immutable. What happens when (not if, but when) a particular theory which
we have "identified" in the Torah - becomes outdated in the world of
science? Will we still hold on to it, claiming religious allegiance?
Although the integrationist school has won many adherents in the recent
decades, I believe that the danger outlined above - along with resting on a
very questionable foundation - makes this approach a shaky one at best.
GROUP C: THE TELEOLOGISTS
Before asking any of these questions - about contradictions within the text
or conflicts between our text and the world of scientific hypotheses - we
have to begin with a most basic question - what is the purpose of the Torah?
Why did God give us His golden treasure, which existed for 974 generations
before the creation of the world (BT Shabbat 88b)?
This question is not mine - it is the focus of the first comments of both
Rashi and Ramban on the Torah. The assumption which drives each of their
comments is that God's purpose in giving us His Torah is to teach us how to
live (note especially Ramban's critique on Rashi's first question). Besides
specific actions to perform or avoid (i.e. Mitzvot), this includes proper
ethics, attitudes and perspectives - towards each other, our nation, the
earth and, of course, towards the Almighty.
Shadal (R. Sh'mu'el David Luzzato, 19th c. Italy) put it as follows:
"Intelligent people understand that the goal of the Torah is not to inform
us about natural sciences; rather it was given in order to create a straight
path for people in the way of righteousness and law, to sustain in their
minds the belief in the Unity of God and His Providence..."
Therefore, our approach to issues of "science vs. Torah" is that it is
basically a non-issue. Science is concerned with discovering the "how" of
the world; Torah is concerned with teaching us the "why" of God's world. In
clearer terms, whereas the world of science is a discipline of discovery,
answering the question "how did this come to be?"; the world of Torah is
concerned with answering a different question - "granted this exists, how
should I interact with it?" (whether the "it" in question is another person,
the world at large, my nation etc.).
Based on this principle, not only do we not regard the concerns of science
as similar to that of the Torah, we can also approach apparent
contradictions in the Torah with renewed vigor and from a fresh perspective.
Since the goal of the Torah is to teach us how we should live and proper
beliefs about God and His relationship with the world (and the relationship
we should endeavor to have with him), then it stands to reason that
"multiple versions" of narratives are not "conflicting products of different
schools" (as the Bible critics maintain); rather they are multi-faceted
lessons about how we should live - different perspectives (and different
lessons) of one event.
THE "TWO ADAMS"
We will need one more brief interlude before responding to our question
about the flood narrative.
The goal in creating Man (Adam) was twofold. As we read in the
"combination" of creation narrative(s), Man was to be a commanded being -
facing God, having a relationship with Him, a relationship which includes
both commandedness and guilt, loneliness and reunification (Adam II in Rav
Soloveitchik's scheme). At the same time, he was to be a majestic being,
bearing the Image of God and acting as His agent in the world (Adam I).
Neither of these goals were met. Not only did Adam fail to observe the one
command with which he was commanded - and failed to own up to his
responsibility in that regard - but his progeny violated the most basic
principle of God's agency - the maintenance and furthering of the natural
and social order - when he murdered his own brother.
These double "failings" continued for generations until God decided to "wipe
man from the earth" - but not before identifying the seeds of a new hope.
Noah was to be the next Adam, with the possibilities for both types of human
ideal (majesty and humility) potential in him.
We can now return to our questions.
BACK TO NOAH
Why did God decide to destroy the earth?
From the perspective of man's duty to maintain and promote the
order-out-of-chaos of Creation - "The earth became corrupt before God; the
earth was filled with lawlessness...for all flesh had corrupted its ways on
earth". Man had failed to promote order, violating both sexual and social
But also - "Hashem saw how great was man's wickedness on earth, and how
every plan devised by his mind was nothing but evil all the time". Man had
also failed to develop spiritually, to grow in his relationship with the
This easily explains why Noah was chosen:
On the one hand, he was the one person in that generation who "walked WITH
God" - promoting the righteousness and perfection of Creation. On the other
hand - he "found favor in God's eyes" and was "righteous BEFORE Me" - he was
able to stand in front of God as a righteous servant.
We now understand the dual purpose of taking the animals on to the ark. As
"majestic Man", God's agent in the world, Noah took two of each kind - one
male and one female - in order to insure continuation of each species. As
"worshipping Man", standing before God and focussed on a dialogic
relationship with Him, he took "clean animals" for purposes of worship.
We also understand the covenant and commitment presented in the aftermath of
the flood. Noah, who stands before God in worship, is pleasing to God and
God responds by committing to never again disrupt the seasons. God
"realizes" that Man is incapable of the sort of perfection previously
expected - and He "fine-tunes" the rules by which the world is governed.
But Noah is also the (potential) embodiment of "Majestic Man", who acts not
only his own behalf as a worshipper, but also on behalf of all existence as
their "king". With this king, God enters into an explicit agreement (King
to king, as it were), complete with a publicly displayed sign of that
covenant. That covenant, however, comes with a codicil - Man must live by
the basic rules of God's order, filling and dominating the land but taking
care never to shed the blood of a fellow. Ultimately, God says, I will act
to correct the order if you do not - the world is Man's to perfect, but God
will intervene to act if Man fails in this task.
The Torah tells us two stories - because there are two different
relationships and duties being re-evaluated here.
In Man's role as God's agent, where God presents himself as "Elohim", the
God of all Creation, it is his lawlessness and reckless abandon of the order
of Creation which must be corrected. In order to do so, Creation is
"reversed" (the "upper waters" and "lower waters" are no longer divided) and
must be reestablished, by taking the one man who promoted that order, having
him take enough of each species to repopulate the earth and forging an
agreement with him by which such destruction would never again take place.
Man, for him part, is responsible for the promotion of God's order on earth.
In Man's role as God's servant, where God presents himself as "Hashem",
highlighting Divine compassion, it is his failure to develop himself
spiritually which must be corrected. To that end, the one man who is
"righteous BEFORE Me" is saved - along with enough animals that will afford
him the opportunity to re-forge the relationship of worship.
The Divine hope that Noah would prove to be a successful "second Adam",
embodying both roles, was only realized ten generations later, with the
entrance of Avram/Avraham onto the scene. We look forward to meeting this
giant among men next week.
Text Copyright © 2012 by Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom and Torah.org. The author is Educational Coordinator of the Jewish Studies Institute of the Yeshiva of Los Angeles.