What’s So Special About a Flood?
Why Was a Flood God's Weapon of Choice?
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
There are so many questions we can ask about the story of the Flood. Why destroy humankind? What was Noah’s role? How did all the animals fit on one ark?
But there is one question staring us right in the face, so obvious we probably forgot to ask it: Out of all the ways God could have destroyed the world, why did God choose a flood? The Torah makes no small deal of this flood either. It spends verse after verse painting such a vivid picture with so many details about the flood and its aftermath.
In this video on Parshat Noach, Rabbi Fohrman uncovers some fascinating parallels between the story of the Flood and the story of Creation and reveals a brand new side to this story that was hidden right in front of our eyes.
Hi, this is Ari Levisohn, Curator at Aleph Beta, and welcome to our section on Biblical stories. We’ve collected our best material for each story in the Torah in order to uncover the hidden lessons brought to life by the Torah’s narratives. You’re watching our video on the Flood and its connection to the story of Creation.
Hi everybody, this is Rabbi David Fohrman, and welcome to Parshat Noach!
I want to share with you a fascinating pattern that I think exists in this week’s Parsha, and I want to explore with you what it is that we might make of it.
Themes from Creation
So come with me for a minute back to the very beginnings of Creation:
וְהָאָ֗רֶץ הָיְתָ֥ה תֹ֙הוּ֙ וָבֹ֔הוּ וְחֹ֖שֶׁךְ עַל־פְּנֵ֣י תְה֑וֹם וְר֣וּחַ אֱלֹהִ֔ים מְרַחֶ֖פֶת עַל־פְּנֵ֥י הַמָּֽיִם׃
And the world was formless and void; darkness was on the face of the deep,
And the spirit [or wind] of God was hovering over the waters.
Try to draw a picture in your imagination of that scene. It’s a water world, isn’t it? Darkness over the deep. Deep waters, probably. And you’ve got this wind, or this spirit, of God that's hovering al pnei hamayim, over these waters. And of course, it is very chaotic, it's tohu v’vohu, so there’s like these waves crashing everywhere, right? I mean, doesn’t it remind you of something in this week’s parsha?
It looks like a great flood. It’s almost like we’re fast-forwarding to Parshat Noach! Might the very first story of the Torah, the story of creation, somehow be connected to the story of the flood?
Could be. Let’s see if we can explore this somehow a little bit further.
Creation and the Story of Noah
So, let’s go back to that primordial creation story. As I mentioned to you before, one of the things we hear back on Creation Day One is that:
וְר֣וּחַ אֱלֹהִ֔ים מְרַחֶ֖פֶת עַל־פְּנֵ֥י הַמָּֽיִם
it was a spirit of God, or literally, a wind of God, that was hovering over the waters.
So stop right there and ask yourself if there’s anything like this in the flood story in Parshat Noah? Curiously, turns out that there is. At the start of Chapter 8 in the Book of Genesis, we actually hear of the world's recovery from the flood. And lo and behold, that wind of God – it’s back.
We hear that God remembered Noach, and:
וַיַּעֲבֵ֨ר אֱלֹהִ֥ים ר֙וּחַ֙ עַל־הָאָ֔רֶץ וַיָּשֹׁ֖כּוּ הַמָּֽיִם
God caused a wind to blow over the waters.
So there you have it. In both the creation and the flood stories, there’s this wind of God, or from God – and in both cases, that wind is over the waters. It’s kind of intriguing.
Do these parallels continue? Let’s move on to consider Day Two in Creation.
Back in that primordial world, on Day Two, we’ve got another scene that’s also a little bit hard to visualize.
וַיַּ֣עַשׂ אֱלֹהִים֮ אֶת־הָרָקִיעַ֒ וַיַּבְדֵּ֗ל בֵּ֤ין הַמַּ֙יִם֙ אֲשֶׁר֙ מִתַּ֣חַת לָרָקִ֔יעַ וּבֵ֣ין הַמַּ֔יִם אֲשֶׁ֖ר מֵעַ֣ל לָרָקִ֑יעַ
And God made the sky, and the sky divided between the water below the sky and the waters above the sky.
Now, I know that’s kind of hard to picture, because, you know, waters above the sky, what really are those? But hold that thought, and let's just kind of fast forward to Noah. As the world recovers from the flood in Chapter 8, we actually hear about something curiously similar to those two sources of water:
וַיִּסָּֽכְרוּ֙ מַעְיְנֹ֣ת תְּה֔וֹם וַֽאֲרֻבֹּ֖ת הַשָּׁמָ֑יִם
The fountains of the deep and the floodgates of the sky were stopped up.
In other words, how did God create the flood in the first place? It seems that what He really did was, He brought two sources of water together. There was of course the rain, coming from the clouds, upper waters, but there were also lower waters, there was well-water, that came up from the earth. And when you brought those two sources of water together, it inundated the world.
So what did God do to stop the flood? Basically, God had to bring each source of water back where it came from: The rainwater, that’s got to go back to the clouds; the well-water, it’s got to go back beneath the earth.
So one more time, you’ve got water above and water below. And after the flood, as the world recovers, you’ve got just a blue ribbon of sky. Just like in creation, the sky is once again dividing between upper waters and lower waters.
OK, so what have we got here? We’ve got echoes of Creation Days One and Two, in the world after the flood. What about Creation Day Three?
Dry Land, Vegetation, and Birds
What happens on Day 3? Water recedes and dry land appears. So, wouldn’t you know it, that’s actually exactly what happens next in the Noach story: Water recedes and dry land appears.
And after that in the Noach story? Well, Noah, you know, he’s in the ark and he’s got this dove. He sends it out, and it comes back with an olive branch, freshly plucked. What does that branch tell Noah that he didn’t know before? It tells him that vegetation, trees in particular, they are back in the world.
Well, go back to the Creation story: After the appearance of dry land, trees begin to come into the world.
OK? Let's fast forward to Noah again. What does Noah do after he gets that olive branch from the dove? He sends out the dove once more, and this time, the bird doesn’t return to him. Which means the world now has birds in it. Oh. Welcome to Creation Day Five, when birds came into the world.
OK, I hear you saying, not so fast. I see how the Noah story has stuff from Days One, Two, Three in Creation and now… Day Five, but you skipped something. What about Creation Day Four?
Digging Deeper into Noach's Story
And of course on Creation Day Four, that’s when you get the sun, the moon, and the stars. The great heavenly luminaries. So is there any correspondence to that in the Noah story?
Well, that’s a good question. At face value, there isn’t anything like that in the Noach story. So that seems to be a little puzzle, a little hole in these parallels as it were. Let’s leave that aside for a second, and go back to our search.
Back to Noah: What happens in the Noach story after the birds? Well, God tells Noah to open up the ark and let out all the animals and humans. Does that remind you of anything back in Creation? Think about Day Six, the day in which animals and mankind were created and began to come and inhabit the earth.
It's really kind of remarkable, isn’t it? It really does seem like there’s a correspondence between the world after the flood and the world of Creation. It doesn’t seem coincidental. But what exactly do these parallels mean? What is their significance?
God's Second (Re)Creation?
Well, if you’re really interested in this question, I have good news for you: We have a whole course in Aleph Beta devoted to exploring exactly this mystery. I actually created it a few years back, it's called Genesis Unveiled – and you can find it by clicking below. I highly recommend checking it out. In the meantime, though, I want to leave you with at least the beginnings of a theory here.
So, here’s a way to make sense of all of this: The creation story is getting mirrored by the story of the world after the flood. Why, you ask? The answer might just be: The Torah wants us to understand that after the flood, it is as if the world is being created again.
To put it a little bit differently, the building process of creation, it's getting mirrored by the re-building process of what we might call re-creation – the re-creation of the world after the flood.
And you know, this might, actually, help us understand why there is no analogy in Noah’s world to the creation of Day Four’s heavenly bodies, the sun, moon, and stars. They weren’t created again because they were never destroyed in the first place. Only the terrestrial world was destroyed; not the heavenly one.
I want to ponder one last thing with you: This idea we’ve been talking about – that God was re-creating the world after the flood – let’s stop and think why it matters so much.
It matters because it actually changes, in a subtle way, our whole understanding of why God brought the flood in the first place.
Why God Decided to Flood the Earth
Stop your average person in the street and ask them: According to the Bible, why did God bring the great flood? Most people would likely say: You know, mankind turned evil. They were really bad, and so God decided to punish them. So that’s how the flood came to be.
But the Torah seems to be telling us something else. The point of the flood wasn’t really to destroy people; it was to destroy the world, our environment as a whole.
You know, had the point been just to destroy people, God wouldn’t need a whole recreation enterprise; all He’d have to do is repopulate the existing world. No, if there’s a recreation going on here, the Torah is telling you that it was the earth that had been destroyed. That was the flood’s principal target. Humanity’s demise was almost, strange as it is to say it, incidental.
And I know that sounds crazy, but the truth is, you sort of see it if you look carefully at the Hebrew words that describe God’s decision to bring about the flood:
וַתִּשָּׁחֵת הָאָרֶץ לִפְנֵי הָאֱלֹהִים וַתִּמָּלֵא הָאָרֶץ חָמָס: וַיַּרְא אֱלֹהִים אֶת-הָאָרֶץ וְהִנֵּה נִשְׁחָתָה כִּי-הִשְׁחִית כָּל-בָּשָׂר אֶת-דַּרְכּוֹ עַל-הָאָרֶץ
The earth, it was corrupt before God, the earth was filled with violence. And God looked at the earth and saw that it was ruined; because all flesh had corrupted their way upon the earth.
Earth, earth, earth! It's over and over again. People, they filled the earth with violence, and somehow, that evil, it corrupts the earth itself. In other words: God had to get rid of the old world – it was ruined – and create a new one, and while He was renovating – you know, painting the apartment – well, there's no place for you humans to live.
It’s not so much that they were being punished as that they didn’t all deserve to be saved: I’ll put some of you guys in a boat and keep them alive until the renovation is complete, but until then, look, there's no place to live. I’ve got to fix the world. Can’t have a ruined world!
One of the tantalizing questions we are left with is this: If after the flood, God is, in fact, re-creating the world, is He making the same world all over again, or is he designing a different world?
Differences After the Flood
A friend of mine, Simcha Baer, once pointed out to me that, as it began to rain and the floodwaters began to rise, God closed the door to the ark: In the words of the text, וַיִּסְגֹּר יְהוָה בַּעֲדוֹ. But when the flood was over, it was Noach who opened the doors of the ark.
God closed the doors on His own world, Simcha suggested, and when it was over, Noach opened the doors on a new world – on his own world.
You know, consider man’s role in the new world: Isn’t it interesting that, for the very first time, mankind is given permission to eat meat? To be sure, God had told Adam and Eve they’d rule over animals – but they were vegetarians; they had never been given the ultimate power to hunt and kill animals for food.
In the first world, man and animals were co-tenants in God’s world. On some level, in this new world, man is the landlord.
God promised never again to destroy this new world. Why? Maybe it’s because He had given over the keys to us. It was our world now. Chillingly, God promised that He would never ruin the world… but He never promised that we wouldn’t.
It’s our world now. Whether we keep it or ruin it is up to us.