Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Bereishis-No'ach Interface

The end of last week's parsha and the beginning of this week's parsha seem very similar. One way to examine them is to determine the reason for the break, both in parsha and in sedra, at specifically that point (I have created a separate blog, Parshiyos, with the goal of examining questions of this type as we travel through the year). For this post, though, I would like to take a look at the two sections together, as one unit.

The narrative of the evilness of the world leading up to the flood at the interface of P' Bereishis and P' No'ach seems to be divided into three distinct parallel sections, each consisting of three subsections:

I. A. 6:1-2 - Man begins to multiply upon the face of the earth, and the b'nei HaElohim take wives from whichever of the beautiful b'nos HaAdam they want.
B. 6:3 - God declares that He shall not contend with man forever, being that he is mere flesh, but rather man's days shall be limited to 120 years.
C. 6:4 - The Nephilim result from these unions.

II. A. 6:5-6 - God sees that man's evil is great upon the earth and that all of the thoughts of his heart are evil. He regrets that he made man and is saddened (or, as Onkelos reads it, He decides to "break their strength").
B. 6:7 - God declares that He will blot out man and all beasts and birds on the earth.
C. 6:8-10 - No'ach is righteous (and presumably will not be subject to this decree).

III. A. 6:11-12 - The world is full of corruption and violence
B. 6:13 - God tells No'ach that He will destroy all flesh along with (lit., es) the earth.
C. 6:14-16 - God gives No'ach instructions of how to build the ark and what to do with the animals.

The three "action" sections each describe a different form of evil. In the first, it has to do with the b'nei Ha-elohim marrying the b'nos HaAdam. The sin here could either be the powerful b'nei Ha-elohim abusing their power to take the b'nos HaAdam against their will, the righteous b'nei HaElokim allowing themselves to be negatively influenced by the wicked b'nos HaAdam, or something different, but the verses use a relatively objective tone in describing this phenomenon. In the second, it has to do with man's "great evil" upon the earth and his evil heart. In the third, the sins are specified to be (sexual) corruption and violence that even pervaded the very land, which appears to be a type of sinful climax.

The three reaction sections are also different. In the first, God declares that He will limit man's days to 120 years. In the second, He declares that He will blot out man, beasts, and birds. In the third, he declares that he will even destroy the earth (if we take es to mean "with", as per Rashi). From section to section, the subject of the punishment is broadened (man - man and animals - man and earth), and the magnitude of the punishment also seems to be increasing (limiting of years - blotting out - destruction, although the last seems to be a bit equivocal).

Finally, the three concluding sections have different results. In the first, the Nephilim are singled out as being mighty men that are mei-olam and "men of name". In the second, No'ach is singled out as being righteous and finding favor in God's eyes. In the third, No'ach is singled out to build an ark to survive the coming punishment.

Perhaps the following is a way to understand the parsha that utilizes the noted parallelism. Originally, the sins of the people were relatively minor, so God only set a limit upon the days of man. The midrash explains that this is a period of 120 years' probation before which God will punish the people. Colloquially, this passuk is the source of the blessing "May you live until 120 years", which I had always understood to be a mistranslation of the verse, but it does seem to fit the simple reading of the passuk. This being the case, perhaps this is not merely a preparation for punishment, but rather is a punishment in itself, in that man's days would become shortened. This would seem to be somewhat remniscent of the opinion of the Rambam in Moreh HaNevuchim, who holds that only the people mentioned in the lineage from Adam to No'ach lived exceptionally long lives, while the rest lived normal lives. Perhaps long life could be part of the gevurah, mei-olamkeit and sheim of the Nephilim, who were exceptions to this decree for reasons unclear. It's true that if we connect the pesukim in this way some of the Nephilim would even be tzaddikim, which would be strange, but not impossible. However one understands the Nephilim, one would also have to deal with the mention of the Nephilim by the meraglim and by the conquest of the land.

The way the verses are usually read, they all occur at the same time, so that the 120 years began at the same time that No'ach began to build the ark. However, perhaps it's possible to read the verses differently. The first set of verses could have happened much earlier in the chronology (since, even according to the normal way of reading things, 5:32 is out of order), perhaps even as early as the time of Sheis (bearing in mind that the b'nei Kayin were also part of this sinful world). In the second section, which occurred during No'ach's life, God planned to punish the world, but perhaps held back because of No'ach's finding favor in God's eyes, perhaps due to his potential to turn the world around. Finally, in the third parsha, which took place at some point later in Noach's 600-year antediluvian lifetime, God realized that No'ach does not represent untapped potential to save the world, and thus decided to start the world again from scratch, using No'ach as a second Adam.

There are several significant holes in this presentation, but I think that it addresses certain patterns within the pesukim.

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