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Classic stories have beginnings, plot developments and endings. But realistic — human — stories are much more complicated, because they include the whole range of possible failures: false starts, ambivalent twists, people who fall short or may even overachieve.
The beginning of the book of Genesis reads sort of like an artist’s first attempt at a major work. It starts well, might have a hiccup or two, and then, thanks to some unintended consequences, finds itself in a hopeless corner, a dead end from which there is no clean way out.
I’d like to share a version of the story that is based entirely on the text but is, as is always the case, not a complete picture. Still, I found it fascinating to develop and thought the change in perspective might intrigue others as well.
Here goes …
G-d makes the world. Then,
God blessed [the living creatures] and God said to them, “Be fertile and increase, fill the earth.”
And they do!
All the animals, mankind included, did what we were told. We procreated and filled the world. But in so doing, we humans emulated the natural world: The biggest and strongest among us called ourselves supermen. Might made us right, following the law of the jungle. And just like alpha males in any species, the supermen among us took, by force, any women we chose.
When men began to increase on earth and daughters were born to them, the sons of the god of nature saw how beautiful the daughters of men were and took wives from among those that pleased them.
We, after all, were the best of the best, the master race, self-definitionally “the fittest,” because we survived. The top men got to take whatever women they wanted.
But it seems that G-d underestimated man’s ability to ignore him. Because we did all this without any relationship with the divine. Instead of leading nature upward, we followed it down.
Which is why the next time the word for “fill” is used, it refers to the world being filled with lawlessness, what happens when mankind seeks to emulate nature in all its facets. Such a world, of course, is “nasty, brutish and short” — but not for whomever is on top, for however long that person remains at that exalted position.
The earth became mashchiss [see below] before God; the earth was filled with lawlessness.
G-d had commanded a physical creation — and we complied, while neglecting or even perverting whatever spiritual goals G-d may have had in mind. We deeply, irretrievably wounded the entire world. And what is mashchiss?
Mashchiss is closely tied to procreative powers, from the implied sexual immorality of the flood generation and Sodom to the explicit sexual wrongdoing of Onan (the fellow who spilled his seed rather than impregnate). Sexual creation is the single most potent biological power mankind has, and choosing to use it for evil denies that we have a productive purpose on this Earth. Mankind should choose to use its creative powers for good and not evil, for productive and constructive ends instead of wasted seed and rapacious violence.
Note the use not only of the word mashchiss but also of the word for “Earth.” The Torah tells us that what we do affects the world around us — not just in an environmental way, but also in a moral or spiritual way (which is why the Torah later promises that if man behaves immorally, the land will spit him out). This is very clear with the flood story: If we are corrupting the Earth with our violence and selfishness, instead of elevating it through holiness, then we have forfeited our right to life. It happened to Onan, and it happened to the flood generation.
It also happens, in the Torah, to Sodom and Gomorrah. Those cities were not merely populated with evil people; they had institutionalized the practice of evil. As we see by Sodom’s response to Lot having guests, it was illegal to host guests, to be kind to others. It also seems to have been a place without true private property, with no legal right to close your door and be left in peace by the local government.
Sodom could be — and was — destroyed not just because it was evil, but because it made evil a requirement. The city made it legally impossible to be good. That made Sodom irredeemable in G-d’s eyes.
Which starts to make some sense. To G-d, life does not have intrinsic value; life only has value if people use it for good. In the long run, all the living will be dead, sooner or later. What matters is what we do with the opportunities we have. But if we are going to prevent human progress and waste opportunity to improve as individuals and as collectives, then in G-d’s eyes (as described in the Torah) we have forfeited our right to live.
The raw moral lesson is hard to handle in today’s hedonistic environment where the common culture is fixated on sexual self-discovery and realization. As much as we want to think that we have totally free choice to waste ourselves and our lives on whatever urge we have, the Torah is telling us that G-d does not, to put it mildly, approve. There comes a reckoning at some point after we no longer try to grow ourselves and our societies.
Back to the flood generation: Men have made it all about themselves, their fame, their power and glory, just like alpha males in any pack. G-d decides it is time to put the world through a gigantic reset, a “rinse and repeat” of the initial creation, but starting with a new family, that of Noach.
Why, of all people, is Noach saved?
The first clue is when he is born:
When Lamech had lived 182 years, he begot a son. And he named him Noah, saying, “This one will provide us relief from our work and from the toil of our hands, from the soil that the Lord cursed.”
What did Lamech do? Lamech is the first person in the Torah since Eve to invoke G-d. And he made Noach about the future. Not a “living in the moment” kind of glory, but a genuine hope for the future. Lastly, Lamech used words to bless a child. Lamech realized that words can change the world, just as G-d had used words to create the world.
In this blessing, Lamech was not emulating nature, like his contemporaries. Instead, he was emulating G-d. Noach reaps the benefits of this blessing. So, when the rest of the world is too far gone to be saved, G-d retains the one person who has been linked to the power of words, to G-d’s existence itself, and to hope for the future: Noach.
Seen in this light, other decisions G-d makes are now clearer: Terach, the father of Avram, is the first to name a son after his father (Nahor) — to connect the past to the future, to see that mankind’s path in this world is a long game, intergenerational.
Avram means “the father of nations,” and he, too, is named for the future. G-d chooses him as well, to be the first person in the Torah who travels to a new place because he has a specific mission, a purpose beyond mere migration. The first three words in the Torah can be read as “G-d created beginnings.” And Avram was the first man after Noach to live those words, to begin entirely anew.
Big picture: G-d wants a relationship with us. He wants to see us grow up, just like any proud parents want to see their child grow. Not just get big and healthy but also develop mentally and emotionally and spiritually. That first failed experiment with the world showed that humans, left to their own devices, became mankind in a state of nature, a chaotic tyranny of might makes right. And it needed to be destroyed so that at least some lives might actually be lived for a higher purpose.
The flood generation was a godless society. Such societies are not burdened with the fanciful idea that each person has a divinely gifted soul and thus deserves respect regardless of that person’s frailties or limitations. In those godless societies, we don’t need a flood to exterminate wide swaths of humanity: We can do it to ourselves with the guillotine, gas chamber, gulag and a Great Leap Forward.
Investing in the long, intergenerational opportunities for mankind to grow and elevate itself and the world around it is the alternative G-d wants us to choose. These are the pathways pioneered by Noach, Terach and Avram.
[An @iwe, @susanquinn and @blessedblacksmith effort.]Published in