The narrative in Genesis 2:4-11 represents three attempts by God to have human beings do what the Eternal One wants us most to do: Establish a just caring and compassionate society.
First attempt: Garden of Eden.
Eden was a world of no birth, no death, a place where one did not have to work very hard, and in my opinion, and no sexuality. Sexual awareness is what the first couple discovered when they ate of the Tree of Knowledge.
Second attempt: Post Eden-pre flood
God established a second society after Eden with new ground rules. We had sex, were born, died and had to work hard. This society did not work out either. Cain killed Abel, and things went downhill from there. Finally, God decides to flood the earth and picks Noah, “a righteous man in his age” (GN 6:9) to survive the flood and rebuild the world afterwards.
Now we are all aware from studies of anthropology or ancient literature that many cultures had their stories of a deluge. More noteworthy than the similarities between these stories and the flood story (of which there are many) are the vital differences.
- Only in the biblical flood story does God decide to destroy the earth because of its moral failure. The Torah presents to us a good, caring, God wanting human beings to -as God’s raison d’etre – establish a kind, workable world. The Torah reports that corruption and lawlessness (Hamas) were rampant in the land. Therefore, God regretted making the earth and decided to destroy it. (GN 6:5, 6 and 11).
- Unlike the other ancient flood stories where the hero is chosen at the caprice of the gods, God chooses Noah because he alone in his age is righteous. (GN 6:9)
Now the Talmud (B. Sanhedrin 108a) records an interesting argument between two sages. Rabbi Yohanan who argued that Noah was righteous only in comparison with others of his age who were so bad. On the other hand, Resh Lakish contends Noah’s righteousness even in an age when the culture was so evil makes him all the more praiseworthy than if he lived in an era where there were other examples of righteous behavior that he could have followed.
After the flood God tried a third time to have humanity establish an acceptable world with three very significant new ground rules:
- God makes human beings accountable for administering a system of justice where evil doers are punished (GN9:5).
- For the first time God gives humanity permission to eat meat. (GN 9:3)
- God promises unequivocally “Never again will I doom the earth because of man…nor will I ever again destroy every living being.” (GN 8:21)
By the way, God’s promise that God will not destroy the world again does not mean that we human beings are not capable of doing so. When God created Adam and Eve, the Midrash (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:13) says that God addressed them saying: “Pay heed that you do not corrupt or destroy My universe; for if you ruin it, there is no one to repair it after you.”
Third attempt: Post flood
Unfortunately, the third society gets off to a horrible start. The first thing Noah does upon leaving the ark is plant a vineyard and get drunk. Then Scripture records (GN 9:20) Ham “saw his father’s nakedness and told his two brothers.” (GN 9:22) Now we cannot be sure exactly what that verse means, but the rabbis of the Midrash have a field day with that passage imagining anything from forced sexual contact to castration. (see discussion between Rav and Samuel in B. Sanhedrin 70a).
Then we read of the Tower of Babel. From a modern perspective I love the story of the Tower of Babel. Perhaps the religious question non-Jews ask most frequently (second only to “Why do Jews not believe in Jesus?”) is “Why do we have to have all of these different religions. Wouldn’t the world be better if there was just one religion instead of all the problems caused by religious difference?”
My response to this question is: “Whose religion would it be. Would it be yours where the life, death on the cross, resurrection and ascension to heaven of Jesus is the defining religious motif? Or would it be mine where the life and death of Jesus plays no role whatsoever?”
No, religious unity should not be our goal. Rather respect for and appreciation of honest religious differences is what we need more of in this world
While exactly what happened is not clear from the biblical text, whatever it was it is clear that God did not like it. Seen through Midrashic eyes the building of the tower was rebellion against God’s divinity and authority (Bereshit Rabbah 38:7). According to another Midrash (Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer (Jerusalem Eshkol, 1983, pp. 78-79 and Midrash Ha Gadol 11:3) the wickedness of the generation of the tower was so great and their regard for human life so little that if a brick fell from a scaffold, all work would stop until the brick could be retrieved. If, however, a person fell from a scaffold, they would just plaster over the injured party and build him into the tower.
We see through Midrashic eyes that society number three worked out no better than the first two. Now God has a serious three-pronged dilemma.
- God still cares.
- God is still disappointed in the moral progress of the world.
- But God has promised never to destroy the earth again.
The answer to that dilemma, of course, is that God chooses the family of Abraham and Sarah and makes a sacred Covenant with them and their descendants.