Photo Credit: Drew Kaplan / Wiki Commons

This week’s portion describes the famous story in Genesis of the great deluge that destroyed the earth. Why must the narrative tell us about the flood in such great detail? The Torah could have told us very simply that the world had turned to evil and that God had no other choice but to destroy all living things.

Several answers come to mind.


When thinking about the deluge most of us conjure up an image of a God who is vengeful seeking to punish with great brutality the entire world. But the extent of the narrative indicates a very different message. Far from God being a God of retribution, the length of the descriptions teaches that God is a God of compassion who actually hesitated to destroy the world.

Thus Nechama Leibowitz divides the section prior to the flood into six paragraphs. The tedious discussion of what God goes through before allowing the waters to come down reveals a God who waits until the last instant to eradicate the world, hoping against hope that humankind would repent.

Indeed, on the morning of the flood, the Torah says, “and rain [not a flood] was upon the earth” (7:12). Rashi tells us that the great flood began as only rain because, even at the last moment, had humanity repented God would have turned the waters into a rain of blessing.

It is noteworthy that there is a similar phenomenon that takes place in the narrative describing Noah’s exit from the ark. The detailed and deliberate style may indicate an uncertainty on the part of Noah. Having experienced “the deluge,” Noah hesitated to start over, wondering and worrying why he should exit and start the world anew.

After all, more destruction could be around the corner. Note that God commands Noah to leave the ark with his wife so that he could cohabit and continue to live as a family. Noah, however, exits with his sons, while his wife leaves with their daughters-in-law as they could not fathom living together as husband and wife and continuing the human race (Genesis 8:16,18).

One other thought. Maybe the flood narrative is extended to parallel the Genesis story. Just as the world started with water, so too did water flood the earth. Just as God first created light, so too the only light in the world was in the ark itself.

Just as the Torah details God’s creation of animals, so too does the narrative detail Noah’s taking the animals out of the ark. It is almost as if the world started all over again. Not coincidentally, after Noah goes forth from the ark God tells him he should procreate, control the earth, and be on a special diet (Genesis 9:1-3). Blessings of procreation, control. and diet were also given to Adam (Genesis 1:28-29).

But there is one significant difference between the creation story of Adam and of Noah. In the beginning God creates alone. When Noah leaves the ark to start beginning the world again, Noah participates in creation by immediately planting a vineyard.

The creation with Noah as a partner may be almost a repairing of the first version, where God alone created. Being given something and taking part in its creation are two different things. Once involved, one feels a sense of responsibility. For this reason Noah stands a greater chance of succeeding than Adam. And while soon after Noah the earth suffers in the dramatic incident of the Tower of Babel, still the earth is not destroyed as it was in the deluge. Progress had been made and still more progress would be made once Abraham and Sarah come on the scene.


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Rabbi Avi Weiss is founding president of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and senior rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale. His memoir of the Soviet Jewry movement, “Open Up the Iron Door,” was recently published by Toby Press.