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In Parashat Noah God destroys all of humanity, save for Noah and his family, in a great flood. The text provides us with a reason for God’s wrath–va’timale ha’aretz hamas, that the earth was filled with violence. A simple reading may bring to mind a brutish anarchic existence, in which people fight, steal and destroy without restraint. Indeed, various rabbinic interpretations explain hamas as connoting theft, murder, sexual sins and kidnapping.
Were The Sins So Bad?
One midrashic source, however, proposes that the crimes of the generation of the flood were in fact cunningly small: “If a countryman brought a basket of vegetables to market, they would edge up to it, one after the other, and abstract a bit, each in itself of petty value.” We might assume theft, especially this kind of petty theft, to be the product of a culture of scarcity, where fierce competition for resources encourages some individuals to take from others.
Perhaps surprisingly then, the Rabbis insist that the moral depravity of the generation of the flood was due to prevalent abundance and plenty. We learn that “as a consequence of their extraordinary prosperity, they grew insolent…A single sowing bore a harvest sufficient for the needs of forty years.”
In addition to the nature of the sin, an interesting feature of the Noah narrative is the extended wait between God’s warning of imminent destruction and the moment flood waters engulfed the earth. Commanded to build an ark, Noah plants the trees that will be used as wood, taking 120 years to complete the construction. This painstakingly slow building regimen was intended to serve as a warning sign. Rashi writes that passersby would ask, “What is this of yours?” And he [Noah] would say to them: “In the future God will bring a flood to the world, [thinking] maybe they will repent.”
With the aid of the midrash, we have a fascinating picture of the generation of the flood. Firstly, society was in a crisis caused by the cumulative effect of seemingly insignificant individual acts; secondly, prosperity and abundance were the root of their societal malaise; and thirdly, the punishment for their actions–a destructive flood–was slow in coming, allowing adequate time for them to change their ways.
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