I have countless versions of the story of Noah’s Ark in my house. When my kids were young, I loved singing the “Rise and Shine” song I grew up with as we turned the pages. (“Rise and shine, and give God your glory, glory….”) A sweet story, perhaps the best known from our scriptures, even among children who don’t grow up in biblically based religions. The tale is of mythic stature, rooted in the Epic of Gilgamesh and other ancient Mesopotamian narratives.
I wonder when it first hits us. At what age do we start to see the darker side of the flood story? When do pictures of devastation replace the cutesy giraffes and happy Noah? We allow our imagination to play out what a flood of that magnitude would have looked like and what it would have left in its wake. Images come to mind of the destruction wrought during the worst of our recent hurricanes. Noah witnessed massive desolation, and lived, no doubt, with survivor’s guilt; no wonder he turned to drink to handle his pain. He was selected for survival for his blamelessness; he walked with God. What words could possibly describe him after living through this tragedy?
And when do we address the darkest part of all? At what point in our lives do we begin to wonder what all humans (and animals) could have done to deserve this? How could the God who created us be so surprised at our behavior? How could this God believe that wiping everything out and starting anew would solve any defect inherent in our nature? Our history of scriptural commentary tells us, as always, that our ancestors were troubled by the same questions.
We are left, nevertheless, with a terrifying theology of retribution: an angry God who sends “the meanest flood that anybody’s seen” either to let off steam or, only slightly better, to terrify us into obedience. Chapters later, that same God will obliterate Sodom and Gomorrah, and on and on. A frequent question I am asked as a rabbi is the origin of Jewish guilt. I think we have a contender. “If you go down in the flood / It’s gonna be your own fault,” sang Bob Dylan in “Down in the Flood.”
Readers may look to myriad places for wisdom and inspiration based on the powerful and ongoing legacy of this parshah. I prefer to emphasize the need to process and counter the theology of retribution our portion introduces. We are witnesses to contemporary natural disasters that should remind us of the Great Flood. But these are not, as our story suggests, the result of divine fury, judgment and punishment.
Each time a horrific disaster occurs, leaders from a variety of religious streams blame those who purportedly invited God’s wrath. Such a retribution theology — one that blames people for their own misfortunes, from natural disasters to disease — has caused centuries of pain, hate, blame and fear. From AIDS to Katrina, this is a place where the intersection of religious theologies and our public sphere have collided dangerously, even to the point of affecting who receives aid and how quickly.
Perhaps I miss the metaphoric or mythic value of this story. No one really takes this ancient theology literally, right? Indeed they do. What caused Hurricane Matthew? According to scores of websites, some Jewish, the blame lies with: transgender people using the bathroom of their choice, Jews who reject Jesus and, most popularly, Orlando’s Gay Pride parade. Such calamities seem to be a breeding ground for rampant racism, anti-Semitism, classism, homophobia and, now, transphobia. Different images of God abound in Torah; retribution theology is countered in Job, Ecclesiastes, Psalms — yet those subtle theologies do not receive the airtime that retribution does.
Rejecting the image of a punitive God can start with us, whenever it arises in our own texts. The beginning of our portion names Noah a righteous person in his generation. As we witness the “high tides risin’,” let Noah inspire each of us to be that person who has the courage to stand up and call out the injustices of our own texts, offer new interpretations and theologies, and begin to rectify the damage done in the name of our sacred stories.
Rabbi Mychal Copeland is the director of InterfaithFamily Bay Area and editor of “Struggling in Good Faith: LGBTQI Inclusion from 13 American Religious Perspectives.” She can be reached at email@example.com.