|Noah's Drunkeness - James Tissot, 1896-1902|
Prior to the flood we are told that "the Lord saw the wickedness of man upon the earth, how every form of his heart's devising was for evil, only and always" (Gen. 6:5). But then in its aftermath, after God promises never again to drown the earth, the Lord declares "for that which the human heart forms is evil from its youth" (8:21). A strange literary envelope. Humanity slouched toward evil beforehand, and slouched toward evil forever afterward, though in the interim an entire world was unmade and remade anew. One may be forgiven for asking to what end was all this destruction? For what purpose did God blot out countless living-creatures, be they human or beast? When all is said and done: 'The human heart schemes evil from its youth.' What changed?
There is a great deal that is repetitious in Genesis, more than several recurring themes and plots. To share a few examples. A close inspection of the story of Cain and Abel reveals hues and colors borrowed heavily from the scenery of Eden. In both stories, sin is instigated by fruit: the fruit of knowledge of good and bad and the fruit of the ground that Cain offers to God in tribute. In the Garden, sin is likened to a snake in the grass poised to 'bite at Eve's heel' (3:15). Likewise God says to Cain , 'If you do well, bear it (e.g. the burden of doing good); and if you do not well, sin crouches [like a beast] at the door" --akin a coiled serpent poised to strike its prey (Gen. 4:7).
Misdeed and disobedience in each story is followed by a divine interrogation. "Where are you? Who told you that you were naked?" These questions unmask Adam's heart. Yet the saddest question in all of Torah is directed toward Cain, "Where is Abel your brother?" We later read that the "earth is cursed" on account of Adam's sin, "...by the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread." So terrible is Cain's murder of his brother that God declares, "cursed be you from the earth...which will not henceforth give you its strength."
Adam and Eve are 'driven from the Garden' and settle somewhere to its East. (3.24) Fittingly, Cain complains "you drive me away this day from the face of the earth....later Cain settled in the land of Wandering (Nod), east of Eden" (4.12).
Adam began life in Paradise, eating fruit trees at his pleasure, and ends a farmer, with scythe and plough in hand. Cain begins a farmer and ends a scavenger, wandering the earth for wild fruit and berries. Cain has regressed to a life that is notably Eden-like for its apparent absence of responsibility, "my burden is too great to bear," he cries out (4.13). No spade or scythe are necessary for his new way of life. While all this is fascinating in detail, on a wider plane, what is the purpose of parallel language, why this literary return to Eden through the employment of recurring symbols and themes?
Another example. After Noah and his family disembark from their sunless cruise they settle down. "And Noah, a husbandman of the earth, began by planting a vineyard. He then drank from the wine and was drunk, and exposed himself in his tent" (9:20-21). Here too the reds of Eden reappear. In Eden, there was a fruit and a tree, while with Noah we have grape and vine. Having imbibed of this fruit, Noah falls asleep in the nude, his grapes the cause of his nakedness. It falls upon Noah's sons, Shem and Yafeth to cover their somnolent father. Sound familiar? In the garden, the fruit of knowledge awakens Adam and Eve to their bare-skinned state. They sew themselves fig leaves in shame. Remarkably, both episodes end with damnations. As God cursed the earth for Adam's sins, Noah curses Ham (his son) and Canaan (his grandson) for having 'seen Noah's nakedness.'
The symmetry is striking. One one level, it conveys humanity's ever-terrible temptation of returning to an Eden-like way of life. Cain does not wish to be burdened with the human responsibility of doing good, e.g. sparing the brother who has caused him sorrow. "If you do well, carry the burden (se'et)." Cain further shirks responsibility for his crimes. "My iniquity is too great to bear." Noah, a survivor of apocalyptic destruction and death, imbibes to forget, to sleep, to return to that youthful -- less intellective -- state; a state embodied by the innocence of Eden, where man and woman ran about like unclothed children.
On a deeper level, the fact that the flood and exile do not change humanity's basic nature speak volumes about humanity's darkest crimes. Though our capacity to love and care is as deep as the sea, our penchant for evil is as wide as the ocean. There is no end to villains, terrorists, and despots. There is no accounting for the murders of one or the genocides of many. The flood in Noah's generation teaches a lesson that we have yet to internalize. Humanity is all-too deserving of destruction for its crimes. In the words of the House of Shammai, "It would have been preferable for man to not have been created."
Yet God spares us each season, and each day of each year. "I will never again strike down all living-things, as I have done.... sowing and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall never again cease" (8:21-22). But having been spared, left alive like Adam, Eve and Cain, like Noah and his sons, what shall we do? Do we rise up and carry the responsibility of doing what is good and right? Just as importantly, when we do not well, how do we answer the questions, Where are you? Where is Abel your brother?