God is disappointed in man, God decides to destroy mankind, God saves Noah by having Noah build a giant boat, Noah saves the animals in the boat, the rains come, the springs open up, the flood rages for 40 days and 40 nights, eventually the waters subside, Noah and his children settle back on dry land.
Moderns have three main issues with the flood narrative in the Bible. The first issue is the historicity of the event. The second issue is the confluence of deluge stories in other cultures, particular the Epic of Gilgamesh from the ancient Babylonians. The third issue is whether there are two flood narratives or just one.
Orthodox Jews rarely deal with these issues. The preferred method of handling these questions is to make a general statement about how the questions are flawed and then to change the subject.
However, the great Rabbi J.H. Hertz deals with these issues in his excellent Chumash. Everyone should have a copy. (Buy one here: Amazon). Although he only speaks briefly and somewhat superficially on the subject, the fact that he makes the effort to discuss these issues is very admirable and unique. I don’t believe he sufficiently tackles the issues and puts them to rest, but I do think it is laudable that he tries. This post will deal with his approach to the first two questions and an apparent bombshell therein. Inquiring minds can research his approach to the third question on their own.
R’ Hertz assumes that there was a flood. This is not solely based on the Biblical narrative, as he also mentions the support of the science of his day in dating the flood to 3800 BCE. Today, science can show that there was no worldwide flood in 3800 BCE, but there is much evidence for a flood at some prehistoric time. This explains why almost every single ancient civilization has a flood story.
The way R’ Hertz frames the comparison of the Bible’s flood story and the Epic of Gilgamesh is very fascinating. He says the our forefather Jacob studied the ancient traditions of man in the Study halls of Shem and Ever. One of the things they studied was the ancient memory of a terrifying flood that caused “a complete breach in the continuity of civilization in the primitive dwelling-place of mankind.”
Later, R’ Hertz compares it to the Babylonian tale. The similarities are uncanny. A great flood is doomed to destroy mankind, man and beast are saved in a boat, there is dove and then a raven sent to determine if the waters have subsided, and after leaving the ship the saved people bring sacrfices. He notes that the Biblical tale is far more hopeful and imparts an important moral lesson that the basis of humanity is justice and righteousness whereas the Babylonian tale is unethical, devoid of any morality. Specifically, Noah was saved because of his righteousness. The people were being punished for their evil sins. In contrast, the Babylonian tale tells the story of quarreling Gods who deceive one another and mankind. It is a story without moral value. Its primary purpose is to put fear in the hearts of the people. As much as the stories are similar, the differences tell the real story.
R’ Hertz concludes with this incredibly difficult tightrope act:
In its Babylonian form, Assyriologists tell us, the story seems to have been reduced to writing as early as the days of Abraham. It must have been known in substance to the children of Israel in Cannaan and later in Egypt. But in the form in which, under God’s Providence, the Patriarchs transmitted it to the their descendants, it was free of degrading elements, and became an assertion of the everlasting righteousness of One God.
I can’t be certain, but this sounds to me like a borderline controversial statement. It sounds like he is saying that the Torah incorporates legends that were part of Jacob’s family lore in a specific way and in turn they become Torah. In other words, the story of flood need not be taken as a literal narrative that was told to Moses by God in a vacuum. Rather, the Jewish people knew this story, it carried a valuable lesson, and God incorporated it into the Torah.
I think this is a remarkable assertion and certainly outside the mainstream view in orthodox Judaism today. I guess my question is if is should be outside the mainstream orthodox view? I don’t think so. Currently, the modus operandi for handling delicate questions such as these is to retreat to the fundamentalist, maximalist position. It is going to become harder and harder to maintain those views. Perhaps the methodology used by R’ Hertz is worth a second glance.
(Thank you to Steg Belsky and Jacqueline Nichols for sending me images of the essays in the Hertz Chumash. Having recently moved, my copy seems to have gone missing, or been confiscated by the thought police).