Torah Portion of the Week: Intertwined Threads

Parashat Noach.

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The first two Torah portions, Bereisheet and Noach, present human history up to the time of Abraham, the founder of the Israelite nation. Two narrative threads are intertwined in these readings. Beginning with two different stories of Creation, they continue throughout the Torah, where they are joined later by two additional narrative threads. A continuous reading of the first two portions – and indeed of the Torah in its entirety – will run into difficulties: contradictions, doublets and narrative discontinuity. But separating the narrative threads from one another enables us to examine each one, and to discover two continuous, coherent, autonomous texts that have apparently been interwoven by an editorial hand and appear in alternating fashion: a passage from one narrative, then a passage from the other, and so on.

The two narrative threads describing the origins of humanity agree on certain facts and basic articles of faith. For instance, they both recount that one god created our world; that Creation essentially involved a reorganization of pre-existing materials; that soon after Creation, God unleashed a flood; that only one individual, Noah, survived that event, together with his family; and that God ultimately abandoned the hope he had pinned on humanity, and chose to create a special connection with Abraham and his descendants. There are, however, differences between the two stories. For example, was Adam created before or after the animals? How long was the flood? How did it end? Where did Abraham come from? What was the nature of his relationship with the Almighty? Each one of the threads in the story offer different answers to these questions.

Both stories share two other assumptions. First, that human beings, as is known to all, are scattered around the world, speak different languages and belong to different cultures. Secondly, the two stories strengthen the belief that God, in some way, resembles man – or, more precisely, that man is similar to God. As we will see, both depictions also accept the fact that there is a connection between these two suppositions. Nonetheless, although the stories describe the situation in a similar fashion, each one takes a different approach. Is the presence of such god-like creatures good or bad? Is this God’s original plan or is it the result of unanticipated, disruptive human action? 

The approach of the first thread is that the spread of humanity throughout the world and man’s similarity to God correlate perfectly with the original divine plan. Before creating humankind, God declares: “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. They shall rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the cattle, the whole earth, and all the creeping things that creep on earth” (Genesis 1:26). After creating Adam and Eve, God blesses them: “Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it; and rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all the living things that creep on earth” (Gen. 1:28). Humans are destined to represent God on Earth and to dominate it as his emissaries.

This is not the approach of the second account of Creation and of the events that follow it, which include the stories of the sin committed in the Garden of Eden, and of Cain and Abel, and the Tower of Babel. According to the sequence of these events, the resemblance of humans to God and the fact that they are spread around the globe are the results of sinful action. In Eden, the serpent tells Eve that, contrary to God’s warning, she and Adam will not die if they eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge, but will become “like God, who knows good and bad.” (Gen. 3:5). The serpent is right: Adam and Eve eat the apple, do not die and now resemble God. Furthermore, the serpent correctly argues that God fears the likeness between him and humans, as is clear from what God says to himself: “Now that the man has become like one of us, knowing good and bad, what if he should stretch out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever!” (Gen. 3:22). 

In this story, two characteristics distinguish the Almighty from humans: knowledge and immortality. When Adam and Eve acquire knowledge, God realizes that if he does not prevent them from also obtaining immortality, the combination of knowledge and immortality will enable humans to compete with him. According to this second version, the resemblance between humans and God is not the goal of the creation of human beings. To the contrary, it is the unanticipated, undesired result of human deeds. 

In this week’s reading – with respect to the incident of the Tower of Babel, which belongs to this second narrative thread – humans again try to be like God, declaring: “Come, let us build us a city, and a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name for ourselves; else we shall be scattered all over the world” (Gen. 11:4). In any event, this is how God interprets their initiative, and the divine fear reflected in the story of the Garden of Eden is echoed in his words regarding Babel: “If, as one people with one language for all, this is how they have begun to act, then nothing that they may propose to do will be out of their reach!” (Gen. 11:6).

God understands that humans comprehend that he has another quality that they must adopt: the fact that he is one. If all humans unite and cooperate, they can use the power of the knowledge they obtained in Eden and become like God. United, they can conquer death: They will die as individuals but will live forever as a collective. To prevent this – and not according to a previously conceived plan – God decides to scatter them around the world.

Both narratives in question connect human beings’ similarity to God to the fact of their dispersal throughout the world. According to the first story, this is God’s blessing to humanity and also humanity’s mission on behalf of the Creator: Humans represent God and their dominion over the world is essentially his dominion over his world. In this story, the spread of humanity on Earth is described in factual, non-dramatic terms: “These are the groupings of Noah’s descendants, according to their origins, by their nations; and from these the nations branched out over the earth after the Flood” (Gen. 10:32). However, in the second story, their scattering around the globe is a sanction God that imposes on humans because of the threat they pose to him: Since, contrary to God’s will, humans now resemble him closely, he adopts a policy of “divide and rule” – shattering their power through geographic, cultural and linguistic dispersion. The divine qualities given to humans enable them, according to one story, to be God’s emissaries and, according to the other, to attempt to be like God.