Parshat Noach - Why A Flood?

Noah. : Genesis 6:9–11:32

Noah is a good man, living in a terrible time. Everyone’s doing corrupt things, except for him. God tells Noah that a great flood is coming that will destroy the world, and Noah should build an ark and take two of every animal, and his own family, into the ark. It rains— for forty days.

After the Flood subsides, Noah and his wife, his sons, and their wives emerge from the ark. Noah’s sons become the ancestors of the nations of the ancient world. But things don’t get better. People become arrogant, and they build the Tower of Babel, trying in vain to reach the heavens and become famous. God is just about ready to give up on the whole humanity thing.


  • Because the earth has become corrupt and lawless, God decrees that there will be a flood, and commands Noah to build an ark, and to take his family and animals into it. (6:9–7:5)
  • God unleashes the Flood, which lasts for forty days. When a dove returns to the ark with an olive leaf, Noah knows that the Flood has subsided. God promises never again to destroy the earth. (7:10–8:22)
  • Noah’s sons and daughters-in-law have many children and be- come the ancestors of the nations of the ancient world. (10:1–32)
  • The people of the world, unified by a single language, build the Tower of Babel. (11:1–9)

The Big Ideas

  • The Bible portrays God as having “human” feelings— disappointment, anger, etc. God is not detached from creation and from human beings; to the contrary, in this Torah portion and elsewhere in the Bible, God is very much affected by what people do—especially by evil.
  • God is also “human” because God “changes” and “grows.” God grows from the experience of the Flood and makes a covenant with Noah, in which God promises to never again destroy the earth. The rainbow is the sign of that covenant.
  • Civilization needs basic ethical laws. The ancient sages suggest that as a result of the Flood, God demanded that humanity follow certain basic laws: to abstain from blasphemy (misusing God’s name), idolatry (worshiping false gods), incest, murder, robbery, and mistreating animals; and to establish courts of law to make sure that these laws are observed. This code of laws is called the Noahide Laws.
  • All human beings are part of the same “extended family.” Genesis 9 contains the famous “table of nations,” which imagines that all the nations of the ancient world are descended from Noah’s three sons. While this chapter’s geographic understanding of the world is very limited (it doesn’t mention the peoples of North America, eastern Asia, or Australia, for example), it demonstrates that all human beings are connected and part of the same huge family.
  • Multiculturalism is good. All the nations have their own terri- tories, languages, and cultures. Human diversity is part of God’s plan. Then, when the nations gather together, united by one com- mon language, to build the Tower of Babel, it is not only an act of

    massive chutzpah (building a tower to go into the heavens!); it is also contrary to God’s wishes for different languages, and there- fore, different and diverse peoples.

Divrei Torah


No doubt about it—Noah was a good person. In fact, the Torah tells us that he was the most righteous person in his generation. But, perhaps that’s like praising someone for being the best player on a losing team!

Let’s look more closely at Noah.

Noah saved his family and the animals. This is all good. But some- thing is missing. Nowhere do we read that Noah tried to persuade his friends, neighbors, and anyone who would listen to repent and change their ways. He didn’t utter a word of concern for all the peo- ple who were about to drown in the waters of the Flood. While it’s true that God commanded Noah to bring just his family and the ani- mals aboard, you would think he would have argued with God about the death sentence for humanity.

The Hasidic master, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, once re- ferred to a certain rabbi (in Yiddish) as a tzadik in peltz—“a righteous person in a fur coat.” Here is what he meant: “When it is freezing cold outside, you can build a fire, or you can wrap yourself in a fur coat. If you wear a fur coat, you’re the only one who gets warm. But, if you build a fire, everyone else can get warm, as well.”

While Noah didn’t wear a fur coat during the Flood, he certainly remained content with saving just his family. This is precisely why, in the opinion of many of the sages, even though Noah was a good per- son, he was not great. When the decree of the Flood came, Noah did as he was told, but didn’t intercede on behalf of all those who would lose their lives. As the Torah says simply, “Noah did so; just as God commanded him, so he did” (6:22).

Unlike Noah, Abraham, ten generations later, stands up to God. As soon as God tells Abraham that Sodom and Gomorrah are to be de- stroyed, Abraham approaches God and famously says: “Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty?” (18:23). In a huge debate, Abraham asks God how many innocent people it would take to spare

the city. It’s all there in 18:16–33. For many sages, God chooses to make Abraham the first Jew precisely because of his concern for others.

Righteous people cannot merely care about themselves and their families; they have to care about others as well. This is why, for exam- ple, we honor the righteous gentiles who saved Jewish lives during the Holocaust, often at the risk of their own lives. The greatest heroes in history have been those who have gone beyond their own needs and their own safety to save others.


Was the Tower of Babel “real?” Maybe, maybe not; but the story has something to teach us. The tower may well have been modeled on the ziggurat, the sacred tower located in Ur, in what is now southwestern Iraq, which according to the Bible was Abraham’s birthplace. Some early sages thought that Abraham might actually have seen the zig- gurat when he was growing up.

As towers go, it was relatively short—only three stories high. It had monumental staircases, however—reminding us of the sulam, the “staircase” (or, as it is usually translated, “ladder”) that figured prominently in Jacob’s famous dream (Genesis 28). It was constructed from raw bricks surrounded by baked bricks.

It sounds like a great building. What could possibly have been wrong with it?

First, there is something troubling about the project itself. In Gen- esis 10, the chapter before the building of the Tower of Babel, we read that every nation has its own location—and, presumably, its own lan- guage. God wanted every national group to have its own place, its own culture, and its own language. God never needed diversity training; God invented diversity!

But instead, what happened with the building of the Tower of Ba- bel? According to the sages, the people ignored their own languages and local cultures. The builders united under one language, but that unity came at a price. As Rabbi Daniel Gordis suggests: “Dispersion is part of the divine plan. It is only thus that human beings may fully realize their own unique potential. The tower builders of sought to sustain uniformity. That is why they had to be stopped.”

Second, the building of the Tower of Babel was basically an ego trip on the part of the builders. The Bible makes it very clear that the people wanted to make a “name for themselves” (11:4). They wanted bragging rights for having the biggest, tallest building in the world. They believed that this would make them famous. They may have even thought that it would bring them closer to God. Yet, apparently the builders did not consult God!

But the worst part, according to a midrash, is that the builders be- came so absorbed in their project that they forgot the rules of a decent society. They neglected their basic responsibilities to other peo- ple, and in the process, they lost their humanity: “If a man fell off the tower, they paid no attention to him, but if a brick fell they sat down and wept, and said: “Woe is us! When will another brick come and replace it?”

With people like this, it is no surprise that God decides that in the very place where the tower was built—ancient Ur—a man would be born who would teach the world a new way. That man will be Abraham.


  • Some people read the story of Noah, the Flood, and the ark and they see a connection between that story and contemporary environmental concerns. What connections can you make be- tween the story and our concern for the environment, such as climate change?
  • A midrash says that the major sin of the generation of the Flood was that people cheated each other for such small amounts of money that the courts could not prosecute them. Why is this a sin?
  • How does the story of the Flood portray God? How can God be disappointed with the world that God created? Why couldn’t God have created a perfect world in the first place?
  • How good a man was Noah? Was he “good enough?” Should he have warned people about the Flood? Why or why not?
  • If Noah was so special, why wasn’t he the first Jew?
  • What was the sin of the builders of the Tower of Babel? What are some examples of this sin today?

מתני׳ דור המבול אין להם חלק לעוה"ב ואין עומדין בדין שנא' (בראשית ו, ג) לא ידון רוחי באדם לעולם לא דין ולא רוח דור הפלגה אין להם חלק לעולם הבא שנאמר (בראשית יא, ח) ויפץ ה' אותם משם על פני כל הארץ (וכתיב ומשם הפיצם) ויפץ ה' אותם בעוה"ז ומשם הפיצם ה' לעולם הבא אנשי סדום אין להם חלק לעולם הבא שנא' (בראשית יג, יג) ואנשי סדום רעים וחטאים לה' מאד רעים בעולם הזה וחטאים לעולם הבא אבל עומדין בדין

The members of the generation of the flood have no share in the World-to-Come and will not stand in judgment at the end of days, as it is stated: “My soul shall not abide [yadon] in man forever” (Genesis 6:3); neither will they stand in judgment [din] nor shall their souls be restored to them. The members of the generation of the dispersion have no share in the World-to-Come, as it is stated: “And the Lord scattered them from there upon the face of all the earth” (Genesis 11:8), and it is written: “And from there did the Lord scatter them upon the face of all the earth” (Genesis 11:9). “And the Lord scattered them” indicates in this world; “and from there did the Lord scatter them” indicates for the World-to-Come.

(ו) אַף הוּא רָאָה גֻלְגֹּלֶת אַחַת שֶׁצָּפָה עַל פְּנֵי הַמַּיִם. אָמַר לָהּ, עַל דַּאֲטֵפְתְּ, אַטְפוּךְ. וְסוֹף מְטִיפַיִךְ יְטוּפוּן:

(6) He also saw a skull that was floating on top of the water. He said (to it): "Since you drowned [others, others] drowned you. And in the end, those that drowned you will be drowned.

והיא גרמה שאמרו לאל (איוב כא, יד) סור ממנו ודעת דרכיך לא חפצנו מה שדי כי נעבדנו ומה נועיל כי נפגע בו אמרו כלום צריכין אנו לו אלא לטיפה של גשמים יש לנו נהרות ומעינות שאנו מסתפקין מהן אמר הקב"ה בטובה שהשפעתי להן בה מכעיסין אותי ובה אני דן אותם שנאמר (בראשית ו, יז) ואני הנני מביא את המבול מים

And that success caused them to say to God: “Depart from us; for we desire not the knowledge of Your ways. What is the Almighty, that we should serve Him, and what profit should we have if we pray unto Him” (Job 21:14–15). The members of the generation of the flood said: Do we need Him for anything, even for the drop of rain that He causes to fall? We have rivers and springs from which we take our supply of water; we do not fear Him. The Holy One, Blessed be He, said: With the goodness that I bestowed upon them, with that they infuriate Me and with it I will sentence them, as it is stated: “And behold I will bring the flood of water” (Genesis 6:17).

(ב) מבול שֶׁבִּלָּה אֶת הַכֹּל, שֶׁבִּלְבֵּל אֶת הַכֹּל, שֶׁהוֹבִיל אֶת הַכֹּל מִן הַגָבוֹהַּ לַנָּמוּךְ; וְזֶהוּ לְשׁוֹן אוּנְקְלוּס שֶׁתִּרְגֵּם טוּפָנָא, שֶׁהֵצִיף אֶת הַכֹּל, וֶהֱבִיאָהּ לְבָבֶל שֶׁהִיא עֲמוּקָה, לָכַךְ נִקְרַאת שִׁנְעָר, שֶׁנִּנְעֲרוּ שָׁם כָּל מֵתֵי מַבּוּל:

(2) מבול A FLOOD — so called because it ruined (בלה) everything; because it cast everything into confusion (בלל), and because it brought (הוביל from root יבל) everything down from the heights to a lower level. And this last explanation underlies the translation of Onkelos who translates it by טופנא (Ar. טוף = Heb. צוף) because the Flood caused everything to float about and brought it (the Ark) to Babel which is a low-lying district. That is the reason why it (Babylon) is called, also, Shinar (שנער): because all those who died through the Flood were shaken out (ננערו) into it (Shabbat 113b).