October 21, 2023 | 6 Cheshvan 5784
Torah: Genesis 6:9-11:32 Triennial: Genesis 8:15-10:32
Haftarah: Isaiah 54:1-55:5
The Flood is horrible. The Flood is intended as the destruction of the world and everything in it – parents and children, dogs and cats, fruits and vegetables. The very earth itself has become corrupted. It is unthinkable that this is a story we teach our children, with toy boats and wooden animal cutouts. The Flood is God’s reaction to pain. It is God deciding that it would have been better if the world had not been created. It is God trying to unmake the world, to destroy so that all destruction could stop.
But God fails. Even God could not destroy everything. Even when the ground itself has been so desecrated with blood that the only way to heal it is by totally immersing it in water, even then, the ground still emerges. Those fruits and vegetables will grow again. Even after God unleashes the primordial waters, those forces that were constrained at creation, back onto creation to destroy it, even then, the world cannot be destroyed.
We do not need another creation story after the flood. God does not need to go to battle with the primordial waters to wrestle them back into confinement. After enough time, they stop. And creation reemerges. The world is still here. We are still here. Life cannot be wiped out. Humanity cannot be wiped out. Having created, you cannot ever totally destroy your creation. There will always be a remnant, a spark, a hope. In one of the most beautiful verses of the whole Torah we read,
“As long as all the days of the earth—
seedtime and harvest
and cold and heat
and summer and winter
and day and night
shall not cease.”
But the symbol of this hope in the story of the Flood is also horrible. The first covenant made in the Tanakh is sealed by a bow. Traditionally, this is read as a rainbow and we all get out our watercolors to show how the world is at peace again. After all, the bow is set in the clouds. The verses themselves read:
“My bow I have set in the clouds to be a sign of the covenant between Me and the earth, and so, when I send clouds over the earth, the bow will appear in the cloud. Then I will remember My covenant, between Me and you and every living creature of all flesh, and the waters will no more become a Flood to destroy all flesh. And the bow shall be in the cloud and I will see it, to remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures, all flesh that is on the earth.”
As biblical scholar Ronald Hendel has written, the bow can be read as a part of traditional bow and arrow too. The bow is an instrument of war. After the flood, God puts God’s weapon in the clouds as a sign to himself. Perhaps God is pointing his weapon at himself. Perhaps God is going so far as to say he would rather destroy himself than attempt to destroy humanity again. Perhaps God is hanging up his bow, showing he no longer needs it. Perhaps God is aiming his bow at the clouds, the place where the primordial waters are contained, in order to ensure that they stay contained. But most of all, God’s putting his bow in the clouds reminds me of a heartbreaking line from “The Tyger” by William Blake. He writes:
When the stars threw down their spears
And water’d heaven with their tears:
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?
I don’t want a God who creates and destroys dispassionately. I need a God who cannot smile at destruction. I need a God who waters heaven with his tears. And I need a God who knows when to hold back those tears, to restrain the waters, so that life can reemerge.