Finding Balance Without Rocking the Boat (or Ark)
Only two weeks into the reading of the book of Genesis, you’d wonder whether or not God had much of a plan when creating humanity. The second generation of people saw one brother kill the other. A few rungs down the ladder, angels and humans co-habituate to create a race of giants known as the nephilim (if you want to know more, you’re out of luck; the Torah doesn’t waste more than one verse describing these creatures). By the time Noah’s age comes into the picture, humanity is described as being so wicked that “every plan devised by the human mind w2as nothing but evil all the time.” (Gen. 6:5) God is frustrated and ready to start again.
Noah’s Ark is one of the most common stories in the Bible, because it is a simple one to understand, and who doesn’t like a parade of animals? God destroys the earth with a flood and everything that contains “the breath of life,” while preserving Noah, his family, and representatives of every species in order to try again for a better start. For the Biblical writers, this is a lovely way to express the fear of nature that is understandable in an era before meteorologists. The weather outside might be frightful, but at the end of the story God promises to never use nature as a weapon to destroy all of life again. What a relief.
But the very next story after Noah’s family’s saga is one showing people misbehaving again. All of humanity comes together to build a tower, in order to make a name for themselves and ascend to the heavens. God isn’t happy with this and declares, “If as one people with one language this is how they have begun to behave, then nothing that they may propose to do will be out of their reach.” God disperses the people across the lands and gives them unique languages so that they can’t collaborate on similar tomfoolery in the future.
So let’s get this straight: first humanity is cruel to one another, and God doesn’t like that, so God wipes out everyone. Then, human beings are working too well together, and God doesn’t like that either, and so all of humanity is dispersed. What lesson is this section trying to teach us?
In some ways, the ambiguity is the lesson for how to read the Biblical text in the first place. Having stories with perhaps competing outcomes is an indication that this section is a mishmash of different anecdotes, stitched together to create a single, if not coherent narrative. But that also has something to teach us about the seriousness with which we take ourselves. God is, it seems, trying to find a way for human beings to rest somewhere in between evil and divinity, to find a worthwhile place in the world that does not require us to abuse one another, not set us to lofty heights that are unattainable.
After all, in the early verses of this portion, God limits the number of years a human being can live to 120 (never mind that Noah STARTS his story at 600 years old 10 verses later). As Mary Oliver famously asked, “what is it you plan to do with this one wild and precious life?” We are not expected to be the greatest people who ever lived, nor are we allowed to be the worst. We are allowed, called even, to find something in the middle, to live lives of kindness and compassion, without judging ourselves by the towers we build or the heights we achieve. So much of Judaism reminds us to find the happy medium. We are not completely evil; we are not completely righteous. We are, in fact, human.