The Great Flood
The story of the flood, found in many ancient civilizations, is etched into the collective consciousness of humankind, feeding our fears of a world-ending cataclysmic event. That only makes the biblical account more relevant than ever.
Almost all ancient civilizations have a story about a great flood that wiped out civilization. For instance, there is a document found in Nippur, which was in ancient Babylonia, in the Fertile Crescent, written in the 19th century before the Common Era. It is more than 4,000 years old and describes a great flood that destroyed civilization. Only a single family survived by building a boat, and from them the rest of civilization rebuilt.
Naturally, the story had a pagan twist to it. They said that the god of water fought a battle with the god of land. Nevertheless, the core of the story is clear. In the ancient world, any natural disaster – earthquakes, floods, drought, etc. — was seen as a war between gods.
There is an Assyrian text from the seventh century before the Common Era (which says that it quotes an earlier text) about a great flood that is very similar to the story described in the Bible. In the fifth century before the Common Era, the Greek poet Pindar wrote a poem about the great flood. There are flood legends among the ancients who lived in Borneo, Sri Lanka, New Guinea and Russia. Similarly, the Mongols, Chinese and American Indians have it, as well as the Aleuts and Eskimos.
It is one of the conundrums of Anthropology. How did so many different civilizations from different epochs and locations, generally with no connection to each other, end up describing the same apparent event?
A Field of Denial
It is interesting that, after bringing all the evidence that the flood story exists in such a great number and wide variety of ancient civilizations, one finds authors that come to the conclusion that it never happened. Invariably, the reason they can’t accept it is because to say so is to give credence to the Bible, and thereby violate the inviolable assumption (from the secular point of view) that the Bible is nothing more than a collection of myths. This form of assumptive thinking replays itself in many areas of the archeological field. In the land of Israel, where innumerous archeological finds back up the Bible one way or another, most of the leading archeologists in Israel do not believe the Bible. It’s a very strange thing.
Many a rabbi will tell you that they will prove to a non-observant Jew why he should be a stronger, better Jew and go to the synagogue, for instance, but then hear the reply, “Everything you say is right, rabbi, but if I accept what you say, it means that I can’t sleep in till noon on Sundays anymore, or I can’t play golf on Saturdays. And therefore, even if I know you’re right, it’s too wrenching an experience for me to change.”
And it really is a wrenching experience. Therefore, people continue to go on as they were before.
The “Why” of it All
Another interesting fact regarding all the pagan mythologies is that they say there was a cause why the flood came about. The scientific community, today, does not ask, Why do these things happen? What moral failing brought it about?
In the ancient world, even though they were not scientifically our equal, and they had many superstitions and pagan gods, they at least believed that all natural phenomena had a spiritual cause, a moral lesson to learn. In all the legends of the flood the cause is lawlessness; the world was without any form of justice; there was no right or wrong.
Of course, the Bible too states that the world was destroyed because of the complete lawlessness rampant in the world. Everyone oppressed everyone else; might was right; nobody had any defenders. Therefore, God brought upon human civilization the flood. Otherwise, humanity would have destroyed itself from within. The flood gave civilization a chance to start over again in a different fashion, hopefully in a way that it now would survive and grow.
The Jewish point of view of the flood was that even though God could tolerate paganism and idolatry – as well as the other things that went along with it — He could not tolerate lawlessness. He could not tolerate a world that had absolutely no standard of right and wrong.
The sages say that one of the seven commandments that bind all of humanity — that bind the children of Noah, not just Jews, but everyone — is the commandment called dinim – “laws.” There has to be a system of justice. There has to be a system of redress, a way to protect those who need to be protected. If that doesn’t exist, then you have totalitarian state. The mullahs in Iran, Stalin in Russia, Hitler in Germany, Mao in China — that’s lawlessness! God cannot brook that.
Therefore, that is the basic reason why the flood came about. God had warned the world through Noah 120 years before the Flood, “The flood is coming. We have to somehow change our ways.”
Cynics say nobody can change their ways. That’s not true. That’s why on Yom Kippur, during the afternoon service, we read the story of Jonah. Jonah was sent by God to Nineveh to tell them that in 40 days God would destroy them for their lawlessness — and they believed it! Therefore, they turned the entire city around. They established righteousness and the king himself led the repentance. As a result, the city was saved.
In Noah’s time they had 120 years to turn everything around. However, they didn’t.
In the Jewish view the flood saved civilization, not destroyed it. Without the flood, the lawlessness would have been so overwhelming that civilization would have eaten itself up alive. The flood became the mechanism by which the world could continue.
After the Holocaust
Noah was traumatized after he left the ark. The whole world was destroyed. Everybody he knew, the civilization that he knew, was all destroyed. And he suffered from the traumatic shock.
Today it’s identified in psychological terms as “post-traumatic syndrome.” Soldiers that go into war and people who witness terrible events are frequently diagnosed with it. They are still treating people from 9/11 in New York because of the trauma they underwent. Regarding the Holocaust nobody came out the same.
Noah could not be the same after the flood. No human being could have been. Nevertheless, everyone’s response to trauma is different. Some people become greater. Abraham was tested 10 times and came out greater than he was before. Other people give up. They lose their will to live. There are different reactions to trauma.
Noah was not able to be resilient. He could not do it again. Not only that, Noah acquired a tremendous guilt complex, which psychologists also say often exists in survivors. “Why did I survive? Everybody else in my family was destroyed.” There’s an element of guilt in every survivor.
Noah was overcome with guilt. Part of his guilt was that he knew it was going to happen and he warned them that it was going to happen, yet he was unable to convince anyone that it was going to happen. That’s not only the guilt of survival, but the guilt of impotence to prevent what one knows is going to happen.
The prophets who were ignored suffered terribly. Jeremiah said, ani hagever – “I am the person” who witnessed the destruction. I saw it. I told them it was going to happen. I warned them. No one was more tormented by what could have been than Jeremiah.
Some people might react by saying, “I told you so. You didn’t listen. You deserve it. Good for you.”
However, that’s only at best an initial reaction. When that becomes trite, the other reaction sets in: “I saw it. I told you how it could have happened. Why didn’t you listen to me? And why was I not able to get the message across? It’s my fault!”
After the flood, Noah was depressed. That’s why after he left the ark, he built a vineyard and got drunk. The English phrase is “to drown out your sorrows.” That is why people become alcoholics, take drugs and withdraw into escapism, because life is too unbearable.
Noah was consumed by double guilt. He could have made a school, as numerous great Jewish leaders who survived the Holocaust did afterward. Noah could have and should have done something positive. But he did not. That is where Noah failed.
Before the flood, he was Noah, the great righteous person, the greatest man of his generation, the one who followed God. After the Flood, he was just Noah. No titles, nothing. He was unable to restore himself to his previous greatness, because he was unfortunately the victim of trauma.
The Big One
One of the stresses that we live with is the awareness that the world can be destroyed. The flood originally taught us that; it lies within our DNA. There can be a nuclear war, God forbid. That is part of the terror that exists within us.
If you are ever in the middle of an earthquake, even a minor earthquake, it’s not pleasant. You can’t control anything. All of a sudden, everything is moving. People who live in California know they live on the greatest fault-line in the United States. All 55 million of them are waiting for the “Big One.” Deep down in their hearts they know that there’s something to be afraid of.
That feeling started with the flood. The idea of the flood and the description of how it happened are burned into our collective conscience and find expression in our world today. The Torah is not merely telling a story that happened thousands of years ago. Our world and its problems are right there for us to see and learn from. What looks like an ancient tale is very relevant to us. That’s why we read it over and over again every year.