The Flood Changes God Not Humanity
One of the curious features of the Flood story is that humans don’t change, but God’s mind does. This change is not really highlighted in the P version, in which God simply cleanses the earth from the corrupt acts of living creatures (humans and animals), and then starts over with Noah as a new Adam. In the J version of the story, however, YHWH’s changing his mind is heavily underscored. In fact, J’s account of the Noah story is one of the inspirations for a key rabbinic theological concept.
God’s Dual Attributes of Justice and Mercy
The classical rabbis developed a theory of the two attributes of God that He takes into account when dealing with humans. One is the attribute of justice (middat ha-din) and the other is the attribute of mercy (middat ha-rahamim). The rabbis divide these attributes according to God’s name, claiming that whenever Elohim (a generic name for God) is used, it refers to the attribute of justice, and whenever YHWH is used, it refers to mercy.
For example, in glossing why Genesis 2:4 uses the unusual dual name of God, YHWH Elohim, in describing creation, Genesis Rabbah (12.15) writes:
י"י אלהים למלך שהיה לו כוסות רקים אמר המלך אם אני נותן בהם חמין הן נבקעים, צונין הן מקריסין, מה עשה המלך ערב חמים בצונין ונתן בהם ועמדו, כך אמר הקדוש ברוך הוא אם בורא אני את העולם במידת רחמים הוי חיטוייה סגין במידת הדין אין העולם מתקיים, אלא הריני בוראו במידת הדין ובמידת רחמים והלווי יעמוד י"י אלהים (תיאודור-אלבק).
“YHWH Elohim”—This is comparable to a king who had empty cups. The king said: “If I put hot water in them, they will burst; cold water, they will crack.” What did the king do? He mixed hot and cold and put that it, and the [cups] remained intact. Thus said the Holy One, blessed be He: “If I create the world with attribute of mercy, there will be too much sinfulness, if with the attribute of justice, the world will not survive. Rather, I will create it with the attribute of justice and the attribute of mercy, and hope that it survives.” [Thus, the text writes,] “YHWH Elohim [made earth and heaven].”
J’s description of YHWH’s merciful response to Noah’s sacrifice is one of the main prooftexts for the idea that the name YHWH represents mercy (in this story, P uses Elohim exclusively and J uses YHWH exclusively).
YHWH Regrets Humanity but Favors Noah
J’s version of the story starts when YHWH sees that the human heart is filled with evil intentions. His response is emotional and decisive:
בראשית ו:ה וַיַּרְא יְ־הוָה כִּי רַבָּה רָעַת הָאָדָם בָּאָרֶץ וְכָל יֵצֶר מַחְשְׁבֹת לִבּוֹ רַק רַע כָּל הַיּוֹם. ו:ו וַיִּנָּחֶם יְ־הוָה כִּי עָשָׂה אֶת הָאָדָם בָּאָרֶץ וַיִּתְעַצֵּב אֶל לִבּוֹ. ו:ז וַיֹּאמֶר יְ־הוָה אֶמְחֶה אֶת הָאָדָם אֲשֶׁר בָּרָאתִי מֵעַל פְּנֵי הָאֲדָמָה… כִּי נִחַמְתִּי כִּי עֲשִׂיתִם.
Gen 6:5 YHWH saw how great was the evil of humans on the earth, for every design of their hearts was only evil all day long. 6:6 YHWH regretted that he had made humans on the earth, and his heart was pained. 6:7 YHWH said, “I will wipe out humans, whom I created, from the face of the earth … for I regret that I made them.”
God is deeply disturbed at the extent of human evil. He decides to destroy them, כִּי נִחַמְתִּי כִּי עֲשִׂיתִם “for I regret that I made them.” This is a strong response, driven by emotion and moral commitment. But in the next verse, God tempers his decision to “wipe out humans” by finding one human – Noah – who is worthy of favor.
בראשית ו:ח וְנֹחַ מָצָא חֵן בְּעֵינֵי יְ־הוָה.
Gen 6:8 But Noah found favor in YHWH’s eyes.
God changes his mind about total destruction and decides to save a seed of humanity. Why?
An Emotional Sequence
God experiences an emotional and moral development. God’s “heart was pained”—an involuntary visceral emotion—when he perceives that humans are filled with evil, and he regrets that the made them. These emotions of heartbreak and regret trigger his decision to destroy humans.
Then Noah “found favor in YHWH’s eyes”; God experiences here a positive emotion, a delight or pleasure. This emotion triggers his determination to save a human family, which radically revises his previous determination to destroy humans totally.
God’s change of mind is motivated by his change of heart. Here we see an emotional turn, what in narrative terms would be called character development. He becomes, in a sense, a more mature God, experiencing interior growth, and from this emotional turmoil learns to temper justice with mercy.
YHWH’s Enjoyment of Noah’s Sacrifice
YHWH’s compassionate mercy is taken to a new level in the story’s end. After the Flood recedes, Noah builds an altar and offers a sacrifice to YHWH, who responds with a solemn promise never again to destroy the earth and all life:
בראשית ח:כ וַיִּבֶן נֹחַ מִזְבֵּחַ לַי־הוָה וַיִּקַּח מִכֹּל הַבְּהֵמָה הַטְּהֹרָה וּמִכֹּל הָעוֹף הַטָּהוֹר וַיַּעַל עֹלֹת בַּמִּזְבֵּחַ. 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 וְלֹא אֹסִף עוֹד לְהַכּוֹת אֶת כָּל חַי כַּאֲשֶׁר עָשִׂיתִי.…
Gen 8:20 Noah built an altar for YHWH. He took one of every clean animal and every clean bird and offered burnt offerings on the altar. 8:21 YHWH smelled the soothing aroma, and YHWH said in his heart, “I will never again curse the earth because of humans, for the designs of the human heart are evil from their youth. Never again will I destroy all life as I have done….”
Notice two things: first, YHWH doesn’t give a reason for his decision, and second, the description of YHWH smelling “the soothing aroma” (רֵיחַ הַנִּיחֹחַ) describes an emotional response. What is so soothing about this aroma that YHWH recalibrates his future actions?
The “soothing aroma” of sacrifice is not just the delightful smell of roasting meat, the smoke wafting upward like an outdoor barbecue. What is pleasant about the sacrifice is also that it is offered by a worshiper, Noah. The smell is soothing because it is a part of the gift of sacrifice.
The Function of Sacrifices
Noah here offers a ritual sacrifice, which restores a bond of reciprocity between YHWH and humans. Sacrifice is a gift (מנחה, which means “gift” and thus also “sacrifice”) from the worshiper to God, who, if He chooses to accept it, reciprocates by granting the worshiper His blessing. This general idea of sacrifice is explained by God at Mount Sinai, in the prologue to the Covenant Collection:
שמות כ:כד מִזְבַּח אֲדָמָה תַּעֲשֶׂה לִּי וְזָבַחְתָּ עָלָיו אֶת עֹלֹתֶיךָ וְאֶת שְׁלָמֶיךָ אֶת צֹאנְךָ וְאֶת בְּקָרֶךָ בְּכָל הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר אַזְכִּיר אֶת שְׁמִי אָבוֹא אֵלֶיךָ וּבֵרַכְתִּיךָ.
Exod 20:24 You shall sacrifice on [the altar] your burnt offerings and your peace offerings from your flocks and herds. In every place where I cause my name to be remembered, I will come to you and I will bless you.
The aroma of Noah’s sacrifice is soothing to smell and soothing to YHWH’s heart. In response to this renewed emotion, God’s heart turns again towards compassion, and He promises never to send a destruction like the flood.
YHWH’s Interior Speech
After the sacrifice, the text emphasizes YHWH’s interior speech: וַיֹּאמֶר יְ־הוָה אֶל לִבּוֹ לֹא אֹסִף לְקַלֵּל עוֹד אֶת הָאֲדָמָה בַּעֲבוּר הָאָדָם כִּי יֵצֶר לֵב הָאָדָם רַע מִנְּעֻרָיו “He said in his heart, ‘I will never again curse the earth because of humans, for the designs of the human heart are evil from their youth…’” Previously, because humans were evil, YHWH sent the flood. Now, despite the fact that the human heart is still evil, YHWH will never do it again.
Although YHWH doesn’t say why, it is significant that he makes this resolution after smelling the soothing aroma; the resonances of the “soothing aroma” of Noah’s sacrifice suggest a deeper emotional and moral motivation.
As God emphasizes, humans have not changed. Even Noah and his family are governed by this human condition. But God has changed, at least in His attitude toward humans. God is now willing to put up with the evils of the human heart. His compassion now outweighs his justice when it comes to his wayward human creatures.
God becomes a patient parent, whose children may rebel, but he will never again destroy or renounce them.
YHWH’s Reaction in Ancient Near Eastern Context
When we stand back from the story and consider the ancient Near Eastern context, we may see another layer of significance to YHWH’s developing into a more compassionate God.
Ancient Mesopotamians wrote flood stories that have remarkable parallels with the biblical flood—various biblical authors may have known and utilized these stories. But in them, the divine protagonists are many, since the religion was polytheistic. The main adversaries in these stories are two high gods, Enlil, who sends the Flood to destroy humans, and Enki, who saves them from destruction.
Enlil is angry at humans because they make noise and keep him awake at night. But Enki loves humans, because he created them. The flood hero, Atrahasis, Ziusudra, or Utnapishtim (the name varies in the versions) is Enki’s human protégé, and Enki instructs him to build an ark and to put all kinds of animals on it to survive the Flood.
At the end, Atrahasis offers a sacrifice, and the gods flock around it to smell the nourishing smell. They had previously been starving due to the absence of sacrifices. Enki then berates Enlil for sending the Flood, which destroyed the wicked and the righteous alike, and Enlil relents, allowing the Flood hero and his wife to survive.
A Monotheistic Twist
In the biblical flood, there is no possibility for a cast of divine characters, two of whom are in conflict. In the monotheism (or in the earliest phase, monolatry, the exclusive worship of one God) of biblical religion, there can only be one divine protagonist. (There are lesser divine beings, like angels, but they play supporting roles.) In the biblical flood – most prominently in the J version – God takes on the two major divine roles, the God who destroys and the God who saves.
In the Bible, the attributes of justice and compassion cannot be apportioned to different divine characters, but must contend in the heart of a single God. This is a deep reason that YHWH changes His mind in the Flood story. He must change, because he must internalize the conflict between the attributes of justice and mercy, which earlier versions apportioned to Enlil and Enki. In a sense, YHWH must reconcile his inner Enlil with his inner Enki.
The innovation of monotheism requires that YHWH have a more complicated interior life than any single deity in polytheistic religions. YHWH’s changes of mind and heart in the Flood story are a mark of the ascent of monotheism. When YHWH becomes one, the one must become many, taking on a multiplicity of traits and motivations. In the monotheism of the Bible, YHWH’s heart has a deep interiority, at times changeable, at other times inscrutable.
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October 31, 2019
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Prof. Ronald Hendel is the Norma and Sam Dabby Professor of Hebrew Bible and Jewish Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. He holds a Ph.D. from Harvard University in Biblical History and Northwest Semitic Philology and is author of many articles and books, including recently The Book of Genesis: A Biography (Lives of Great Religious Books, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013). He is the general editor of The Hebrew Bible: A Critical Edition, a text-critical project sponsored by the Society of Biblical Literature.
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