Torah Portion Noach
Genesis 6:9 - 11:32
Isaiah 54:1 - 55:5
This year we will be going through the Torah portion cycle with a short teachings under 30 minutes each. Included in this post are the Haftarah portion and the Echoes Through Scriptures from previous years.
In Noach, we will look at the story of the Tower of Babel and connect it to the Mesopotamian ziggurats. We will see how these structures distorted the understanding of the Divine and will see evidence of this in the Babylonian flood story.
Shalom! This is the second portion in the Haftarah cycle where we will continue on in the book of Isaiah. This year we will be spending approximately one hour on each of the Haftarah portions and investigating them from their historical setting and their ancient Near Eastern context as well as making connections back to the Torah Portion. I pray that you will enjoy these teachings!
This is the same as last week:
In these first portions, we will investigate the themes of creation and deconstruction of creation. These themes will recur in the creation of the nation of Israel and will be traced to the resurrected Messiah Yeshua being the firstborn of the new creation.
Judgment & Grace
Genesis 6:9 - 11:32
How could a loving God allow such chaos and suffering in the world today? Many people today use this argument as proof that there is no God. Others have turned to the Bible and read the story of the destruction of almost all mankind in the Flood and determined that the God of the Bible is a mean, vengeful God whom they refuse to serve. Yet the ancient Israelites coming out of Egypt heard the same story and chose to follow this God who caused the Flood into the wilderness and eventually into a land filled with great and mighty armies. The question must be asked, “How did ancient Israel understand the Flood narrative?”
While many Biblical archaeologists have searched and searched for the location of Noah's ark and other evidence of a worldwide flood, the best evidence of the Flood's historicity actually comes from the written records of other nations of the ancient Near East. Stories such as the Gilgamesh Epic and the Atrahasis Epic tell the story of a great flood that wiped out most of mankind and while they are very different from the Biblical story, they do provide evidence that the Flood actually occurred. If the Flood was simply a myth of Israel, we should expect that only Israel wrote about of such an event occurring. However, if a worldwide flood actually occurred as the Bible claims, we should expect variations of the story to have permeated most, if not all, cultures. Research has found that there are flood stories in ancient Sumeria, ancient Babylonia, ancient Egypt, multiple African cultures, India, China, Korea, the indigenous Hawaiian culture, as well as the Native American cultures in both North and South America. Clearly we have evidence that a worldwide flood did occur and so it is important for us to investigate what the Israelites would have known about the Flood from other contemporary cultures and then compare that to the Biblical narrative in order to discern what God is trying to highlight in the Bible’s version, much like we did with the creation account.
In the Akkadian Atrahasis Epic (18th century BCE), the reason for the god Enlil unleashing the flood was that the "land became wide, the people became numerous, the land bellowed like wild oxen. The god was disturbed by their uproar. [Enlil] heard their clamor and said to the great gods: 'Oppressive has become the clamor of mankind. By their uproar they prevent sleep" (Pritchard, 104). The idea that the gods sleep is actually mocked in the Bible when Elijah mocks the prophets of Ba’al and goads them to cry out louder because perhaps Ba’al is “asleep and must be woken up” (1 Kings 18:27). The Atrahasis Epic’s reason is in direct opposition to YHWH's reasoning for the flood:
"Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. And God saw that the earth was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted its ways upon the earth. And God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence because of them; now I am going to destroy them along with the earth." (Gen 6:11-13).
Comparing these two accounts of the logic behind the Flood is very revealing. The Bible speaks of the reason for God’s actions being that mankind's cancerous violence has reached a level where the only thing left to do is utterly destroy that cancer and start anew. God has gifted humanity with freedom of choice, and that gift remains even when we make horrible decisions. In Genesis 4, God clearly saw Cain's intent to murder his brother, but rather step in and stop it, He simply informs Cain that his anger will lead to sin and that Cain should rule over this desire of sin. God asks us to do the same thing today; to not give in to our base desires by practicing self control. Notice that Cain's sin doesn't just affect Cain alone, it also causes another human's life to end, his parents to suffer, and the whole of humanity to now know of the terrible act of murder. This is a simple principle of reality: one person's sin has a ripple effect which causes problems in other people's lives and in the environment. We do not live in a consequence free environment as many in liberal America today try to pretend, in the real world one person’s sin infects others and replicates like a contagious disease. God gives us this freedom of choice because He desires a people who love Him and mankind can only truly love God if he is given the option not to love God. Yet God does set boundaries on this freedom of choice so that the cancerous effects of sin do not overwhelm all of humanity. This is why the Flood is necessary, for "all flesh had corrupted its ways”; the boundaries were exceeded and God had to step in to put a stop to the cancerous behavior of mankind through utter destruction. Yet we see that God’s method of removal is not to shoot laser beams down from heaven to kill only the wicked individual, He unleashes His judgment in the same manner as a surgeon does an arm that is infected beyond the point of saving; cutting off the whole arm in order to save the rest of the body. While some "enlightened" thinkers of today may deem this as cruel, in reality this is a gift of mercy and grace because without such methodology, the infection would quickly resurge (just look at the United State's failed attempt to cut out the infection in Iraq which resulted in a more deadly infection known as ISIS). The Atrahasis epic, on the other hand, tells of the god Enlil deciding that there are too many people on the earth (sound familiar?) and that they are creating too much noise pollution and this is causing Enlil to have difficulty sleeping. There is no concern for cutting out a cancerous infection of immoral, sinful behavior to protect mankind, instead it is to appease an irritated god. So what is the cultural message to ancient Israel? It is that our God is not a self-absorbed, impersonal deity; He responds to our obedience and our disobedience and acts to preserve us even if we may not understand or agree with His methods.
The Gilgamesh epic (22nd century BCE, from Ur) offers a similar worldview of the gods as the Atrahasis epic. After a six day flood caused by Enlil in which "all of mankind had returned to clay", the immortal man Utnapishtim who had been forewarned by the chief god Ea to build a boat to save himself, offers sacrifices to the gods much like how Noah offers up burnt offerings to God after he disembarks from the ark. In the Gilgamesh epic, the gods respond to the sacrifice in the following manner: "The gods smelled the savor, the gods smelled the sweet savor, the gods crowded like flies about the sacrificer"(Pritchard, 94-95). Since there had been a six day flood, the gods had not been fed by humans in a week and so they were very hungry and thus rather cranky. So Utnapishtim offers up sacrifices in order feed the gods and thus appease the gods' anger. The gods are then likened to flies hungry for their next meal, implying the gods' dependency on humanity for their sustenance. The Scriptures do not offer an explanation for why Noah built an altar and offered up animal sacrifices as burnt offerings because it assumes the reader is familiar with the purpose of the burnt offering. We can most clearly see the function of the burnt offering in 1 Kings 18 with the showdown between Elijah and the prophets of Ba'al. In verse 36-38 we read Elijah's prayer, "YHWH, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that You are God in Israel…answer me in order that this people may know that You, YHWH, are God…then fire fell from YHWH and consumed the burnt offering.” The result of this showdown is that rain returns to Israel, implying that God's blessing and hence His presence has returned. So the burnt offering does function to draw God's presence to the earth much like in the Gilgamesh epic, yet it is not because YHWH is hungry, it is for His honor (the public "knowledge" of God) and for the establishment of His authority over the earth and the people. Based upon this, the cultural implications for the difference between the Gilgamesh Epic's sacrifice and the Bible's account is that YHWH is not dependent on humans to sustain Him, it is we who are dependent upon Him. This is why the soothing aroma of the sacrifice prompts God to make a covenantal promise to never destroy mankind again and that "while the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and warmth, summer and winter, day and not shall not cease" (Gen 8:22); in other words, that YHWH will ensure that mankind's basic needs are always provided for. This is a paradigm shift for a people who grew up in a culture that believed that humans were created to serve the needs of the gods. We serve a God who serves us, just as Yeshua came to serve and not be served! YHWH graciously protects us and provides for us because we are special to Him and He loves us, not because He needs some cheap labor.
Reference & Further Study
James Bennett Pritchard, ed., The Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, 3rd ed. with Supplement. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969)
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