Id and Superego: The Two Flood Stories and the Human Condition
Evil from Youth
The flood story ends with the famous verse:
בראשית ח:כא וַיָּרַח יְ-הוָה אֶת רֵיחַ הַנִּיחֹחַ וַיֹּאמֶר יְ-הוָה אֶל לִבּוֹ לֹא אֹסִף לְקַלֵּל עוֹד אֶת הָאֲדָמָה בַּעֲבוּר הָאָדָם כִּי יֵצֶר לֵב הָאָדָם רַע מִנְּעֻרָיו.
Gen 8:21 YHWH smelled the pleasing odor, and YHWH said to Himself: “Never again will I doom the earth because of man, since the devisings of man’s mind are evil from his youth.
The meaning of this verse seems to be straightforward – people’s impulse is evil already from their youth, and for the rest of their life. This seems to be a decreed fate, such that nothing is accomplished by cursing the earth because of humanity.
Ramban’s Creative Interpretation: People Are Only Evil in their Youth
Ramban (Moshe ben Nachman, 1194-1270), however, creatively attempts to evade this meaning by suggesting that people’s impulse is evil in their youth, but improves with age:
מלמד עליהם זכות שיצירתם בתולדת רעה בימי הנעורים ולא בימי הזקנה
This accrues to their (=humans) merit, as their impulse is evil in their youth and not in their old age.
Thus, there is no reason to curse the earth. He tries to buttress this reading by interpreting mem of מנעוריו, as “on account of,” i.e., humans are evil on account of their youth:
...כי מן הנעורים, כלומר מחמתם תהיה רעת היצר באדם, שהם יחטיאו אותו:
…Because it is from his youth, meaning stemming from it, that it is the cause of the evil in man’s impulsivity.
Avoiding Original Sin
Ramban’s creative effort suggests that the simple meaning of the verse was obvious to him, but troubled him in principle. He was apparently troubled by the fact that this verse reflects the concept of “original sin,” a central Christian doctrine according to which people, after the sin of Adam and Eve, are doomed to be sinners for their entire lives (and thus need the grace of Jesus’ self-sacrifice for atonement).
Ramban sought to evade the simple concept that “the impulse of man’s heart is evil.”Still, “the written text does not go beyond its simple meaning” (אין מקרא יוצא מידי פשוטו), and the meaning of the verse apparently is not that only people’s youthful impulse is evil, but that this evil impulse begins in youth, and continues throughout life. Nevertheless, Ramban’s generous reading of the story, that humanity has the potential for goodness, has its place in a different part of story.
Two Interwoven Accounts of the Flood
It is well known that the story of the Flood is composed of two intertwined stories that create a roughness and suspense in the flow of the story we have before us. Many have written about this and here is not the place to detail the division of the stories. Here we will limit ourselves to discussing the main theme of each of the stories, and in doing so also introduce the connection to the verse that troubled Ramban.
The YHWH Account – Humanity Is Weak
The first story uses the name YHWH (typically rendered in English as LORD), and starts at the end of Parashat Bereshit, with the following verses (Genesis 6:5-8):
בראשית ו:ה וַיַּרְא יְ-הוָה כִּי רַבָּה רָעַת הָאָדָם בָּאָרֶץ וְכָל יֵצֶר מַחְשְׁבֹת לִבּוֹ רַק רַע כָּל הַיּוֹם.
Gen 6:5 YHWH saw how great was man’s wickedness on earth, and how every plan devised by his mind was nothing but evil all the time.
ו:ו וַיִּנָּחֶם יְ-הוָה כִּי עָשָׂה אֶת הָאָדָם בָּאָרֶץ וַיִּתְעַצֵּב אֶל לִבּוֹ.
6:6 And YHWH regretted that He had made man on earth, and His heart was saddened.
ו:ז וַיֹּאמֶר יְ-הוָה אֶמְחֶה אֶת הָאָדָם אֲשֶׁר בָּרָאתִי מֵעַל פְּנֵי הָאֲדָמָה מֵאָדָם עַד בְּהֵמָה עַד רֶמֶשׂ וְעַד עוֹף הַשָּׁמָיִם כִּי נִחַמְתִּי כִּי עֲשִׂיתִם.
6:7 YHWH said, “I will blot out from the earth the men whom I created—men together with beasts, creeping things, and birds of the sky; for I regret that I made them.”
ו:ח וְנֹחַ מָצָא חֵן בְּעֵינֵי יְ-הוָה.
6:8 But Noah found favor with YHWH.
The overall features of this version are the following:
- Humanity – The focus of this story is humanity. Humans are evil and they sin; because of their sins, YHWH destroys all the creatures on earth.
- God’s favor – Noah is not described as a tsaddik in this version, but rather he “only” finds favor in God’s eyes.
- Clean animals and sacrifices – Noah must bring into the ark seven pairs of every clean animal, in order to sacrifice some of them following the flood. This is indeed how the story ends – Noah builds an altar and offers up sacrifices, and seemingly thanks to these sacrifices God repents.
This story depicts a weak humanity with weak character. This leads to the divine conclusion that there is no reason to bring a flood on the entire world for humanity’s sake; humanity simply cannot really achieve much righteousness, and YHWH will need to learn to live with that.
The message of this story, if we define it in Freudian terms, is the id. Humans have weak character, driven only by their natural impulses, and these, unfortunately, are evil. All that remains for humanity to do in order to be good is to bring a sacrifice (or in later practice – to pray), throwing themselves on the mercy of the deity, so to speak.
In the continuation of this story, after Noah exits from the ark, he becomes drunk and exposed in his tent (9:21). This demonstrates that even after the rebooting of the world, humans remain impulsive; their hearts are evil from youth.
This idea admittedly resembles the Christian concept of original sin, and Ramban was not mistaken in identifying the point that troubled him in the verse, “…for the impulse of man’s heart is evil from his youth…”
The Elohim Account
The other story, however, relates the narrative of the Flood from a different perspective. This story uses the name Elohim (typically rendered in English as God), and it starts with the opening verses of Parashat Noah. The focus of this story is not on humanity, but on the entire world. The earth is full of wickedness (6:11), “all flesh had corrupted its way on the earth” (כִּי הִשְׁחִית כָּל בָּשָׂר אֶת דַּרְכּוֹ עַל הָאָרֶץ). Something had completely gone awry, and God tells Noah (6:13), “The end of all flesh is come” (קֵץ כָּל בָּשָׂר בָּא לְפָנַי).
Opposing the world full of wickedness stands Noah (6:9), “Noah was a just man and perfect in his generations” (אִישׁ צַדִּיק תָּמִים הָיָה בְּדֹרֹתָיו). In this story Noah represents a different model, the model of the moral, ethical man, and if we were to use Freudian terms here too, this is the story of the superego.
At the end of this version of the story, humanity is given the great responsibility to be a ruler over the earth, over the animals, similar to the first Creation story, but this time with permission to eat animals (9:1-7). The image of God in people, then as now, is what makes this rule over the world possible.
R. Isaac Arama (Akedat Yitzhak): Humans Thought They Were Animals
Thus, the author of Akedat Yitzhak, R. Isaac Arama (1420-1494) contends that the initial problem was that people did not realize they were different from the animals, and therefore “all flesh had corrupted its way on the earth.” For this reason, the story ends with humans eating the meat of the animals, while God will require accountability for the blood of humans spilled, whether by other humans or even animals. In other words, the permission to eat meat clarifies in a tangible fashion the distinction between humans and animals, a distinction whose meaning is specifically the responsibility people, created, in this source, in the image of God Gen 1:26-27; 5:1).
Two Freudian Messages of Two Intertwined Flood Stories: Both Are Correct
Thus we have the two main messages of the two Flood stories: The first story is the narrative of the id, according to which “the impulse of people’s heart is evil from their youth.” The second story, on the other hand, is the narrative of the superego, which raises the concept of people’s distinction from the animals – the ability of people only to discern moral and ethical values.
These two concepts seem to be completely contradictory, but an earnest look at reality shows that sometimes the first message is correct, and sometimes actually the second. Sometimes we are the first Noah, whose impulse is evil from his youth, and in such situations nothing remains but to offer a sacrifice or a prayer in order to compensate somewhat for our transgressions. And sometimes – hopefully more often than the first scenario – we are the second Noah, the moral and ethical Noah, who can rule over the world responsibly, by virtue of the image of God within him.
Thus, by analyzing each story independently, we see two images of humanity, one derisory and the other hopeful. Knowing this allows us to appreciate the combined effect of the Noah story, and the Torah’s complex depiction of the human condition.
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November 4, 2016
February 25, 2020
Rabbi David Bigman has been the Rosh HaYeshiva at Yeshivat Ma’ale Gilboa since 1995. Before becoming Rosh HaYeshiva at YMG, he served as the Rabbi of Kibbutz Maale Gilboa, and as the Rosh HaYeshiva in Yeshivat haKibbutz HaDati Ein Tzurim. He was one of the founders of Midreshet haBanot b’Ein Hanatziv.
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