The Flood – Hashem and Elohim: Destiny and the Individual
What is God?
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Our next stop on this cruise through Genesis takes us to Noah and the great Flood. This is clearly written in the Torah as a historical event and appears to contain almost no metaphor, though who really knows? Flood stories abound in ancient cultures. These days finding some old flood myth is as easy as searching the web. Bible critics have had a blast shooting down the divine authorship of the Bible by demonstrating that almost the same story takes place in a half dozen other Middle Eastern traditions.
We shall examine this story with a specific agenda – to find images of God. The Flood is the first case in the Torah in which the individual names Hashem (YHWH) and Elohim are intermixed into one narrative but not combined into one name. In one paragraph God will be named Hashem and in the next it will be Elohim. The paragraphs even seem to repeat themselves in many ways, and contradict each other elsewhere. In other words, this story is a Bible critic’s gold mine. It leaves their opponents scrambling for answers, trying to explain away the repetitions, resolve the contradictions, and sweep the name-of-God changes under a theological rug. We shall be picking up that rug and dusting it off.
First, we need a brief outline of the entire story, which is rather long.
Hashem sees that mankind has corrupted its ways and regrets creating them but elects to save only Noah (6:1-8)
Elohim sees that mankind has corrupted its ways and decides to destroy them by flood, selecting the righteous Noah as the man who will survive by building an ark, loading his family and pairs of animals aboard (6:9-22)
Hashem tells Noah to enter the ark with seven pairs of clean (kosher) animals and birds, ending with the only verse in the story in which both Hashem and Elohim are mentioned (7:1-16)
The actual flood with no mention of God (7:17-24)
Elohim remembers Noah and the ark and causes the flood to cease and the waters to recede. Elohim then commands him to leave the ark with all the animals and to repopulate the world (8:1-19)
Noah builds an altar to Hashem, who smells the smell of the offerings and decides to never again destroy all life, leaving it to run by the natural seasons (8:20-22)
Elohim establishes a covenant with all life promising never destroy it by flood, using the rainbow as a sign of this covenant (9:7-17)
The key quotes we shall be looking at are: ‘And Hashem saw that the evil of man was great on the earth, and the inclination of his thoughts was only evil all day. And Hashem regretted that He made man in the world, and was grieved in his heart. And Hashem said: I will erase the man that I created from the face of the earth, from to animal to reptile to bids of the sky; I regret that I made them. And Noah found grace in the eyes of Hashem’ (6:5-8). Contrasting this to Hashem’s reaction after the flood: ‘And Hashem smelled the pleasant fragrance (of the offerings) and Hashem said to Himself: I will not again curse the ground because of man, for the inclination of his heart is evil from his youth, and I will not again strike all life as I did’ (8:21).
From the Elohim vantage point we have: ‘These are the chronicles of Noah, Noah was a righteous man, he was innocent among (despite) his generation, Noah walked with Elohim…And the world was corrupt before Elohim, and the world was filled with violence. And Elohim saw the world and saw that it was corrupt, for all flesh had corrupted its way on the earth’ (6:9, 11-12). Whereas after the flood: 'And I shall remember My covenant between Me and you and all living things, all flesh, and there will never again be a flood of waters to destroy all flesh’ (9:15).
The Bible critics would have us believe that there are two flood stories intermeshed within one narrative. One is under the guidance of a God named Elohim and the other is micromanaged by Hashem. In each, there is a reason why the flood is needed to begin with, why Noah was chosen as the key survivor who would save the animals and rebuild the world, and what God’s reaction was after the flood. Their arguments for this are actually quite good. As the outline above shows, there do seem to be two separate stories alternating in the text. How do the traditionalists answer this challenge?
They really don’t, but we’re going to defend them anyway. The Bible critics, first of all, are correct – there are two flood stories here. But there was only one flood and it was engineered by one God. This God has two names and two images, however, and this is the reason the Torah writes out the Flood story from two different angles. The first angle presented is Hashem’s. Hashem’s focus is on the behavior of ‘the man’ – the individual human beings who each controlled their own private destiny. The ‘basis of their thoughts was only evil all day long’. They had given up on their personal battles with their own ‘snakes’. Under such circumstances, the situation was hopeless, so Hashem regretted having made them. The individual man, who was created in the image of the Creator, was no longer creating. Only Noah found favor in Hashem’s eyes. Why, we do not know.
Next we encounter the angle of Elohim. Noah is described as a ‘righteous man, innocent in his generation, (who) walked with Elohim’. He was the only person in his generation who was innocent of the violence and corruption. Plus, he ‘walked with Elohim’. How does a person walk with God? It means that such a person plays by God’s rules and not by his or her own rules. In this case the rules are set by Elohim, the Guide of Destiny. Noah accepted that the world has a plan and that he was meant to play whatever part God had intended for him. Walking with God meant living in accordance with the destiny set out by the Guide. Elohim is not concerned with the failure of individuals as much as the collective failure of the entire project. The world was not headed on its destined course.
So the flood happened because of both reasons – the failure of individual people to live up to their spiritual task of controlling their urges, and the collective failure of all life to maintain the plan of destiny. All life was destroyed and only Noah and his family and the animals that were with him on the ark survived. When it finally ended, Noah looked out onto an empty world, devoid of human and animal life, but ready to be rebuilt. The first thing he did to rebuild was to construct an altar and offer sacrifices to Hashem. The smell of this offering somehow pleased Hashem and seemed to induce him to decide to never do this again. But this is perplexing: Hashem had decided to destroy mankind since ‘the inclination of his (man’s) thoughts was only evil all day’, but then justified never doing it again since, ‘the inclination of his heart is evil from his youth’. It seems almost like the same endemic problem, so how could it be cause for both destruction and protection?
Perhaps Hashem saw in those offerings, or rather ‘smelled’ in them, something that just struck the right divine chord. Hashem looks at the individual. With Noah, Hashem saw that the first thing he did after surviving a calamitous flood that destroyed his entire world was to offer sacrifices to God, who caused the destruction. Man’s thoughts may have an evil inclination, but that was from ‘youth’. People are capable of changing as they learn from experience, as Noah showed with these offerings. No matter what a person has gone through, no matter how corrupt or evil they may be, that individual can always change. Through his offering, Noah demonstrated to Hashem that the individual person always retains the potential to rise above whatever innate inclination the human race may have been born with. The sweet smell of this offering was enough to influence the mind of Hashem to never go down this genocidal road again. An individual can be worth saving even when the entire world is not.
Elohim then declares that never again will there be a flood to destroy all flesh, and even sets up the rainbow to as a reminder of this promise. Why does Elohim need a reminder? This is the Guide of destiny, after all. Perhaps the answer to this question is that human beings could again stray in the future. Who is to say that they won’t become steeped in violence and corruption again, or even something worse, and require another round of destruction to bring them back on course? This covenant was the decision to let things run their course from here on in. Elohim would never again intervene to set things right – that would be the task of the human race. The rainbow periodically shines to ‘remind’ Elohim of this commitment to let them work it out on their own, for better or worse. This became human destiny – to be left to its own devices and no longer have Elohim there to straighten things out by rebooting the system.
God shows two different approaches to the post-diluvian world. Hashem’s focus is on the hope that the ability of individuals to change will enable them to take control of their lives. Elohim’s focus is to withdraw from direct intervention and let human beings run with the world. These two approaches are not entirely contradictory. The world has its own destiny. God may have set things in motion and provided the parameters for where it could go, but ultimately it is up to us to make it happen. But God is still there, still watching, and perhaps intervening in the lives of individuals who show that they want to be watched and accompanied. The two images work together and in unison. At times it may seem as though God abandoned the world, and at others it may seem as though God walks along with us.
Perceiving the Image
We have all seen this contrast. Sometimes one image is so powerful that it blots out the other. Sometimes we are so stunned and so irked by God’s apparent absence in the affairs of the world that we are utterly convinced that God simply isn’t there, and perhaps never was. At other times we may feel God’s presence so powerfully that we cannot imagine it not being there, and we are baffled by the seeming indifference of others to this presence and how they ignore it as they go about their lives. Both images are true simultaneously, though this does seem impossible.
These two images, Hashem and Elohim, work in a kind of tandem to enable the world to flow independently of divine intervention, as it must, while providing individuals with a sense that God plays a role in their lives. It had to be this way. If God’s hand was played too strongly we would never gain the opportunity to reflect back the image of God that we possess. We would always remain mere creations, and not creators. On the other hand, if God abandoned us entirely and left us to the whims of human ordained fate, we would see no ultimate purpose in life. It would take on the appearance of a world that was simply wound up on a spring and left to wind itself out. We would never understand that we were put here to accomplish something and not just keep the show running until it peters out. The image of Elohim reminds us that we play a vital role in the destiny of the world. The image of Hashem assures us that we are not alone.
This contradiction can be troubling. Why doesn’t God intervene to save the planet or the human race, or stop tsunamis, or prevent wars? If God can be such a powerful influence on a personal level, why can’t that same influence work on a global level?
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Date: 08/18/16 at 13:38:29
What does the author mean that "The world has its own destiny. "?