Noah and Shoah: Purification by Violence from the Flood to the Final Solution

In shul this morning, I was musing on this passage from Genesis 8:21, which was in the parsha, or Torah portion, we read for the week:

…the Lord said to Himself: “Never again will I doom the earth because of man, since the devisings of man’s mind are evil from his youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living being, as I have done.”

This statement comes just after the Flood has ended. God commands Noah to leave the ark, to take all the animals with him. Noah does that and then makes an offering to God. God is pleased by the offering, and suddenly—out of nowhere—makes this resolution: I won’t do this again. I won’t drown the world, destroy its ways (“So long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease”) or its beings, again.

This is no sudden moment of humanitarianism on God’s part. There’s not even a hint of regret or remorse in the passage. But it is an acknowledgment on God’s part, a resolution born of a sad realization, that the Flood was a mistake. Born of a very wrong-headed idea.

The original idea of the Flood was not to destroy all of creation, to rid God of God’s work. If that were the case, why tell Noah to build an ark for him and his family and the animals? No, the idea was to destroy all that part of creation that was evil and wicked and tainted—but to separate and save a remnant of goodness that would be the seed of a new civilization.

The destruction of the Flood, in other words, was violence of a particular and familiar kind: a purifying, separating violence of the sort we so often see in ethnic cleansing or genocide. Get rid of the stain, which can be located in a specific people or place, separate the remnant from that stain, and you can begin again, with goodness and virtue and purity.

What is God’s realization? It doesn’t work. Stains are everywhere, evil is everywhere, you can’t murder your way to goodness, you can’t purify through violence. Other ways must be found, other means are necessary. This isn’t an argument against political violence or even violence, which have their strategic uses. It’s an argument against the notion that violence can purify, that violence can make a people spiritually, morally, whole.

The ethnic cleansing/genocide comparison came to me while reading another passage in Genesis, not long before this one. It’s just before the Flood begins. Noah has built the ark, as God commanded. He’s gathered all manner of animal and his family. And then God commands them to go in. It’s not clear if they go up or down into the ark; if they ascend or descend. But in they go, silently as far as we know, two by two. The passage ends with this terrible sentence:

And the Lord shut them in.

I had never thought it before, but the passage reminded me of descriptions of Jews going into the gas chambers. There’s a particularly visual moment I had in mind from the movie Denial, about the Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt who is sued for libel by David Irving. In one scene, Lipstadt and her attorney travel to Auschwitz on a research mission, and as they’re looking around Auschwitz, they come upon a gas chamber, which is preceded by a long downward ramp. Something people would walk down and from which they would enter the chamber, where they would then be shut in.

For some reason, the passage I read, culminating in “the Lord shut them in,” called that scene to mind. Only in the Bible, the genocide works in reverse: those who are shut in the ark are saved; everyone else is destroyed.

If the comparison offends or horrifies you, I completely understand. I was jarred by it myself; it made me uncomfortable. And I don’t raise it to be provocative or to over-share a thought better kept to myself. Because the more I thought about it, the more the resonances between the Flood and the Final Solution, between Noah and Shoah, came.

So it’s clear, as I said, that God knows the Flood was a mistake, on a massive scale. And it’s a mistake, as I said, born of this terrible idea: that you can murder your way to purity, that you can remove the stain by separating out a part of a people and destroying the rest. This is why, immediately following that realization, God makes a covenant with Noah. Every time it rains, there will be a rainbow: a sign of God’s promise that God will never again destroy the earth by flood (or other measures, the passage seems to suggest). This is the famous “rainbow sign,” which figures in that couplet from a black spiritual—God gave Noah the rainbow sign. No more water, the fire next time—that gave the title to James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time.

(How we square that promise from God with the multiple mass murders and cleansings that follow in the Bible—from Sodom and Gommorah to the Israelites slaughtering the Canaanites—is another story.)

But after God makes this promise, we come to the Tower of Babel story. That story, I would argue, is an epilogue to the story of the Flood. It is about humanity’s own encounter with the very impulse that God has just indulged and then renounced.

The men and women who build the Tower of Babel are not unlike God in the Flood. Traditional interpretations see that imitation of God as the sin, the wrong, at the heart of the Tower of Babel story. The men and women who built the tower, the argument goes, were inspired by hubris, they wanted to be as high as God, and so on.

But read against the Flood, the Tower of Babel suggests a different interpretation: the sin was not wanting to be like God. The sin was to repeat the same mistake God had just made with the Flood: that is, wanting to purify your way to unity by separating yourselves from the rest of humanity.

Upon seeing the Tower, God notes:

Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language;

God serves here not as a judge but as a witness, as a narrator or stand-in for the reader. God observes here, for us, that the people’s oneness is the problem. (There’s a different interpretation of this passage, which focuses on how separation and division make collective action and solidarity impossible, but I want to set that aside for another day.) The people have built their way, have cloistered themselves, into oneness. It’s true that no violence is mentioned in the story, but our rabbi in shul today told us of an ancient midrash or commentary that says that in the building of the Tower, the men and women cared more about the bricks than the workers who built it. So the workers would fall from the height and no one would notice or care, but a brick would fall, and all would wail and weep. In their aspiration for wholeness and unity via separation, a holy unity that would mimic the moral purity and perfection of heaven precisely because it was so removed from the rest of the earth—”let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth”—the people of the Tower willingly countenanced all manner of murder and mayhem. Not unlike what God did in the Flood.

And how does God deal with that desire for purification by separation, that violence that they countenance on their way to unity?

Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech. So the LORD scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth:

God establishes plurality, the multiplicity of peoples, the varieties of culture and language, as a condition of the world. Not as a punishment for hubris, I would argue, not as a punishment for seeking improvement or even working toward utopia, but as a reminder and a reaffirmation of what God came to realize after the Flood: purification by violence, moral wholeness by separation, final solutions—none of these is an answer to the condition of the world. They are, in fact, an assault on the condition of the world.

This, as Hannah Arendt recognized in her famous epilogue to Eichmann in Jerusalem, was the Nazis’ great crime, the crime for which Eichmann should hang. “And just as you,” she imagines a court telling Eichmann,

supported and carried out a policy of not wanting to share the earth with the Jewish people and the people of a number of other nations—as though you and your superiors had any right to determine who should and who should not inhabit the world—we find that no one, that is, no member of the human race, can be expected to want to share the earth with you.



  1. Amiri Barksdale October 21, 2017 at 5:28 pm | #

    You would like Richard Slotkin’s Regeneration Through Violence trilogy, which deals exhaustively with these themes in US history and culture.

  2. Ellen Tremper October 21, 2017 at 5:32 pm | #

    What does this story tell us about the infallibility of god?

  3. John Maher October 21, 2017 at 5:37 pm | #

    Perhaps the real problem at the core is a mode of thinking and cultural understanding based upon the great agrilogistic religions of the middle east which frame human temporality. Depite the dreary business of analogizing suffering and interrogating Nazi mindsets as if they are any different from the rest of humans who destrpy the earth, we should consider an ecological exclusion of criminals such as all humans, who plainly act against sharing the earth with all life. That would mean taking moral responsibility where Eichman and Moses did not.

  4. Lorenzo from Oz October 21, 2017 at 5:52 pm | #

    Revolutionary violence which goes beyond overthrowing a regime into purifying society (e.g. Year Zero) is the same impulse.

  5. Jim October 21, 2017 at 5:59 pm | #

    Gaia is already wreaking her revenge on the parasitical human race that is seeking to destroy her.

  6. John Ennis October 21, 2017 at 8:33 pm | #

    Thank you for this beautiful, and for me new, rendition of a very old passage. Don’t know how I overlooked it for almost 60 years. John

  7. Piro Aiwohi October 21, 2017 at 10:57 pm | #

    This was really deep, I never considered this particular reading of this story, or the Babel connection afterwards. Thank you.

  8. davidly October 22, 2017 at 10:28 am | #

    I rather dig the beauty in these provocative comparisons. However, the challenge inherent in biblical exegesis lies in my opinion knowing what to take as literal and what to view symbolically. I’d go so far as to posit God as metonym for natural occurrence on the one hand, and human instigator on the other whenever it relates to the voices in humankind’s collective head. As to analogous recent history, while I find it plausible that what drove the Nazis was a genuine belief in racial purity — as opposed to, say, using it as cover for exploitation of labor (which it would be nevertheless) — I see a definite problem in attributing the same tendency to those who merely use other excuses to conquer territory and exploit its resources (and labor). Then again, I suppose ridding the world of terrorists is as good an excuse as any. Still, I question how many important decision makers in that ostensible war honestly believe that’s what they’re really doing. So, in the end, for everyone else who really still believes there are good humans attempting to purify the world of evil ones, there are two lessons lost on them.

  9. Yan October 22, 2017 at 10:49 am | #

    Your mention of the Tower of Babel reminds me of a disturbing similarity I only recently noticed for the first time in Frtiz Lang’s Metropolis. The story of Babel is, of course, a central theme in the film. But in the famous scene in which factory machinery turns into a diabolical head of Moloch, and row after row of haggard workers marches up a ramp and into the flaming mouth, i found it impossible not to see a chilling premonition of the Holocaust. It’s no surprise that a film written in Berlin in those years should anticipate much of what was to come, but I find it disturbing that it could so specifically envision that.

  10. G Richard October 22, 2017 at 12:43 pm | #

    “God knows the Flood was a mistake, on a massive scale. And it’s a mistake, as I said, born of this terrible idea: that you can murder your way to purity.”

    A god who makes mistakes and has terrible ideas is not a god I can follow.
    A god who can create the universe but can’t figure out how to purify the human race of evil-doers without killing every living thing on Earth (including innocent animals) is not a proper god, but a badly conceived fictional character.

    But yeah, I get it, it’s the moral of the story that counts.
    …”purification by violence, moral wholeness by separation, final solutions—none of these is an answer to the condition of the world.”

  11. Donald October 22, 2017 at 2:28 pm | #

    The Bible is an extended debate between people with different theologies. Joshua is genocidal. The Flood story is too, but ends with what sounds like rethinking.

    The book of Jonah presents a non genocidal God. Jonah badly wants to see God destroy Nineveh and sulks when it doesn’t happen. God points out that Nineveh contains innocent children and even innocent cattle. I like the concern expressed even for the animals.

  12. Aardvark Cheeselog October 24, 2017 at 12:55 pm | #

    > you can’t murder your way to goodness

    This is a beautiful turn of phrase and I plan to steal it.

    Is it original with you, do you suppose?

  13. b. January 31, 2018 at 5:49 pm | #

    Hannah Arendt imagined purification by capital punishment?

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