Beyond binaries
Seven things

On stories and floods.

This week we're reading parashat Noach, which opens with the story of Noah and the Flood. This fall has been marked by the devastating floods of hurricanes Rita and Katrina (and, more recently, Wilma); far less destructive, though closer to home, was the New Hampshire flooding Lorianne chronicled here. This year, I read the Flood story and imagine the roiling waters I saw on the news, and I shudder.

It's the opening lines in particular that draw me up short: "When God saw how corrupt the earth was, for all flesh had corrupted its ways on earth, God said to Noah, 'I have decided to put an end to all flesh, for the earth is filled with lawlessness because of them: I am about to destroy them with the earth...'" Reading those, I can't help thinking of the rhetoric of intolerance which held that God sent Katrina to destroy New Orleans because of its supposed sinfulness.

To me that's appalling theology. (Fortunately a lot of religious leaders agree with me.) I can't countenance an understanding of God in which it is possible that God sends hurricanes and floods to punish us. But isn't that what the story of Noah tells us took place?

A literal reading of the story could support that argument, I guess. Though even a literal reading has to take into account God's vow, after the Flood, never to do such a thing again. "Never again will I doom the earth because of man," God muses to God's-self. And, later, God proclaims "I now establish My covenant with you and your offspring to come, and with every living thing that is with you--birds, cattle, and every wild beast as well--all that have come out of the ark, every living thing on earth." The rainbow is given as a sign of that eternal covenant between God and creation.

But I find literal readings of Torah in general (and Noah in particular) problematic. As the character River Tam says, in an episode of the television show Firefly, "Noah's ark is a problem. We'll have to call it 'early quantum state phenomenon.' Only way to fit five thousand species of mammal on the same boat." Not only is Noah's story difficult to reconcile with logic, it's also fascinatingly similar to the flood stories of other ancient Near Eastern cultures--notably this Sumerian one and the one from the Epic of Gilgamesh--which calls its unique divine origin into question for many readers.

Although I know there are people working to find archaelogical evidence that the Bible is literally true, that's not my way of interacting with Torah. I think the Noah story is more powerful when we read it metaphorically. What matters to me is not whether and when the Flood actually took place, but what we can learn from the tale our people has cherished for so long, and how those lessons impact the way we face the realities of our own day.

When I read the story of Noah and the Flood, I learn that God is capable of feeling despair at our misdeeds; that it is worthwhile to take heroic measures to preserve the variety of species on our planet; that the appropriate response to survival is praise; and that the beauty of creation can be understood as an implicit promise from God that our relationship remains intact and meaningful. These are powerful lessons, as resonant today as they were when Torah was first committed to parchment.

"Is the story of Noah true? Is it historical? This question distracts from the Torah’s purpose. The Bible’s Flood story is intended to show that God cares about both the kind of society we create and the way we live our lives. It is this message that makes it an authentic Jewish teaching." So writes Rabbi John Friedman in Cast Truth to the Ground, a d'var Torah on this week's portion. When we read Torah literally, we limit it. When we read it with an eye to metaphor, we allow the living text to continue to flower.

As we read Noah this year, may we continue to feel (and to act upon) deep compassion for victims of flood and natural disaster around the world, and may we find in creation's rainbow of colors a symbol of our multifaceted relationship with the Eternal, Whose presence pervades the holy texts of our lives.

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