Parshat Noach: The Deluge

“And the world was corrupt before Hashem and the land was filled with violent crime.” (Beresheit 6:11)

Hashem decides to cause the Deluge – the Mabul. Noach is commanded to build a ship. He and his family will take refuge on this ship. He will also collect representatives of all the species of fowl and animal life. These birds and animals will join Noach and his family upon the ark. All other life, on the face of the earth, will be drowned by the Mabul.

The Torah reveals the reasons for this severe punishment. Humanity was corrupt. Violent crime was pervasive. Rashi explains that this violent crime was of a specific type. The members of the Dor HaMabul – the generation destroyed by the Deluge – stole from one another.[1] Apparently, these thefts were committed in the open. They were performed with force and the threat of violence. Rashi adds that theft was not the sole crime of this generation. However, this crime played a decisive role. The Almighty decided to destroy the Dor HaMabul because of this crime.[2]

The Torah begins its discussion of this wicked generation at the end of Parshat Beresheit. In that discussion, the Torah describes the wickedness of the Dor HaMabul. The Torah does not describe these people as thieves. Instead, the Torah offers a quite different description of their corruption. The Torah explains that the members of the Dor HaMabul were sexually promiscuous. A man would take, as a wife, any woman he desired. Marriage was not respected. A man would not hesitate to take a married woman as his wife.[3] Rashi adds that the depravity of these people extended beyond adultery. He explains that these people also practiced homosexuality and bestiality.[4]

A comparison of these descriptions of the Dor HaMabul presents an obvious problem. These two descriptions seem to contradict one another. The description at the end of Parshat Beresheit describes a society that is absorbed in promiscuity and sexual perversions. In Parshat Noach, the Torah characterizes the Dor HaMabul as a people willing to resort to violence in the pursuit of material ambitions.

Gershonides explains that these two descriptions are not contradictory. They describe a progression. The initial crime of the Dor HaMabul was sexual promiscuity. This crime led to violence and theft.[5] Gershonides does not explain the mechanics of this progression. How does promiscuity lead to violence and theft?

It seems that the early humanity understood and appreciated the institutions of personal property and marriage. However, during the period of the Dor HaMabul, the boundaries that protected these institutions were destroyed. How did these boundaries break down? The Torah tells us that the disintegration of these institutions occurred though a sequential process. Initially, the concept of personal property was not challenged. The initial sin was adultery. This sin was motivated by an overpowering sexual urge. This instinctual drive drove the men of this generation to ignore the institution of marriage. Eventually, adultery became common and acceptable. This had a far-reaching impact. Adultery subtly undermined the concept of personal property. Taking another person’s wife expresses a disregard for the exclusive relationship between husband and wife. Once this relationship is denied, only a small additional step was required to deny the relationship of the individual to one’s personal property. In other words, once adultery became pervasive the institution of personal property was more easily assailed.

Gershonides’ insight provides an interesting perspective on an important Mishne in Tractate Avot. The Mishne asserts that a sin drags another sin in its wake.[6] This means that the performance of a sin lead to the performance of another sin. Tosefot Yom Tov explains that this is a natural, psychological phenomenon.

Gershonides is explaining one of the ways that one sin engenders another. Humans are faced with the challenge of resisting instinctual urges. Sometimes, we are overcome by a particularly great urge. We commit a sin. Perhaps, the sinful behavior becomes habitual and commonplace. The damage caused by this behavior extends beyond the commission of the specific sin. We become desensitized. Boundaries then begin to weaken. With the deterioration of these boundaries, other sinful behaviors – which were earlier resisted – become acceptable.

The Dor HaMabul illustrates this concept. Initially, the desire for material riches was not a threat to the concept of personal property. There was strong respect for personal property. The desire for material possessions existed. However, this urge was did not overcome this respect. The sexual desire was not as successfully managed. This desire did overpower society’s regard for marriage. This institution was destroyed. With its destruction came desensitization to the concept of personal property. Once respect for personal property was compromised, the desire for material wealth became overwhelming. Theft became rampant.

“And I will keep my covenant through you. And you will come into the ark – you and your children and your wife and the wives of your sons.” (Beresheit 6:18)

Hashem decides that He will bring a deluge upon the world. This flood will destroy humanity. However, Noach and his family will be saved. Hashem tells Noach that, through sparing Noach and his family, He will uphold His covenant. What was this covenant?

First, we must identify the nature of this covenant. Apparently, Hashem had made a covenant that He would not completely destroy the world. Hashem saved Noach, his family and the species in the ark. This remnant served as the basis for a new world that was established after the Deluge. Through the rescue of this seed, the Almighty upheld the covenant not to destroy the world.

Still the question remains. At what point was this covenant made? Gershonides addresses this issue. He explains that this covenant was made on the seventh day of creation. This is the day commemorated by Shabbat.

Through better understanding Shabbat we can uncover the nature of the seventh day of creation. We can also understand the covenant created on that day. What is the meaning of Shabbat? The Torah explains that the Almighty created the universe in six days. On the seventh day, the Almighty rested from creating. Gershonides explains that this rest does not merely mean that creation ended. Instead, the will of Hashem was directed to sustaining the cosmos already created during the previous days. Shabbat recalls the emergence of the Creator’s will that sustains the universe every moment of its existence. Gershonides explains that this will is the covenant referred to in our pasuk.[7]

Why is the will to sustain the universe a covenant to not destroy the world? The will of the Almighty does not change. He does not rescind His decrees. Neither does the Almighty abandon His plans. Apparently, Gershonides maintains that the Almighty’s plan for the cosmos includes a role for humankind. This will does not change. Therefore, this will implies a covenant that the world will never be completely destroyed.

“And from all living creatures, two from each, you should bring to the ark to live with you. They should be male and female.” (Bereishit 6:19)

Noach is responsible to reestablish the earth’s various species of creatures. He is commanded, in this pasuk to bring onto the tevah a breading pair of each species. These will repopulate the earth after the Deluge.

The commentaries are troubled with an apparent contradiction. A short introduction is needed to understand the problem. Halacha divides creatures into two categories. One category is composed of “pure” creatures. These are the animals and fowl which are permitted to be eaten by Bnai Yisrael and used for sacrifices. All other creatures fall into the second category of impure creatures. In our pasuk Noach is required to bring into the tevah one breeding pair for each species. No distinction is made between pure and impure creatures.

In the very next perek – chapter – Noach is commanded to save seven pairs of each species of pure animals and fowl. Now the problem confronting the commentaries can be seen. Initially, Hashem makes no distinction between pure and impure creatures. Each species is to be represented by a single breading pair. Then Hashem seemingly contradicts this command by differentiating between pure and impure creatures. A single breading pair suffices for impure creatures. Seven pairs are gathered to represent each pure species.

Nachmanides and Rabbaynu Nissim offer similar answers to these questions. They explain that there were two objectives in saving the species. The first was that the Almighty wished to repopulate the world, after the Deluge, with all of the various creatures. In order to achieve this objective a single breeding pair of each species was required. The initial command given to Noach reflects this objective. Therefore, this command includes only a single pair from each species.

There was a second objective in the saving of the creatures. Humans require many of the species. Animals will be used by Noach and his descendants for food. They will also serve as sacrifices. This consideration is not relevant to all animals. It applies primarily to pure creatures. The direct consequence of this second objective is that a larger population of pure animals is must be rescued. This second issue is addressed in the second command. Noach is commanded to bring, into the tevah seven pairs of all pure animals.

The two commands do not involve a contradiction. Each command reflects a separate objective. In other words, Noach is required to save one pair of each species to reestablish the population. He is also requires to save an additional six pair of each pure species in order to serve humanity’s needs.

“From the various species of birds and the various species of animals and the various species of creatures which crawl upon the earth, two from each will come to you to live.” (Bereishit 6:20)

The commentaries are troubled by a subtle problem. How did the animals arrive at the tevah? The Chumash at some points indicates that it was Noach’s responsibility to bring the creatures onto the tevah. At other points, the Chumash states that the animals came, apparently spontaneously, to the tevah.

This is not too difficult to explain. The Chumash is explaining that the animals came, of their own accord, to the tevah. Noach then had to bring the creatures into the vessel and provide each with its proper place. However, a problem remains. Oddly all mention of the animals approaching the tevah spontaneously refers to the first breeding pair. Six additional pairs were required of each pure species. These pairs apparently did not approach the tevah. Noach was required to capture these additional pairs. The commentaries ask the obvious question. Why did the first pair approach spontaneously and not the additional six pairs?

Nachmanides and Rabbaynu Nissim suggest that their analysis will also resolve this issue. One pair of each species was saved in order to reestablish diverse creature life. This objective was not related to humanity. Appropriately, less of Noach’s involvement was required in fulfilling this objective. These creatures appeared spontaneously.

The other pairs were saved for the benefit of humanity. This objective was relevant to Noach and his descendants. Appropriately his greater involvement was needed. These animals did not approach spontaneously. Noach was required to capture each of these pairs and bring them to the tevah.


[1] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 6:11.

[2] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 6:13.

[3] Sefer Beresheit 6:2, See Rashi.

[4] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 6:2.

[5] Rabbaynu Levi ben Gershon (Ralbag / Gershonides), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, (Mosad HaRav Kook, 1994), p 83.

[6] Tractate Avot 4:2.

[7] Rabbaynu Levi ben Gershon (Ralbag / Gershonides), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, (Mosad HaRav Kook, 1994), p 85.