Although Parashat Noach is best known for its popular story of Noah’s Ark and the Flood, it contains passages that help us to understand an important aspect of how the Bible understands God’s relationship with humankind.
The story of the Flood told in Genesis chapters 6, 7 and 8 is bracketed by two instances of God "talking to Himself". Genesis 6:5-8 reads:
5The Lord saw how great was man’s wickedness on earth, and how every plan devised by his mind was nothing but evil all the time. 6And the Lord regretted that He had made man on the earth, and His heart was saddened. 7The Lord said, "I will blot out from the earth the men whom I created - men together with beasts, creeping things, and birds of the sky; for I regret that I made them." 8But Noah found favor with the Lord. (Gen 6:5-8)
This is the culmination of generations of life on earth which have given the Creator little but grief - the disobedience of the first couple, the first sibling murder, and then degeneration into complete corruption.
Before God created humankind in the first place, He had also mused to Himself, but then His musing was one of hope, of inspiration: Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. (Genesis 1:26). Looking back from God’s deeply disappointed musings before the Flood, it does seem that God - like many a parent - had wanted His special child, mankind, to be just like Himself, and to use its capacities to act in a God-like way.
But, as soon became clear in the Garden of Eden, mankind had a propensity to use its power of independent thought in a way that did not suit its Creator. What started as disobedience had, by the generation of the Flood, reached the level of pervasive sin and corruption. God grieved in His heart, and decided to end the experiment altogether, planning to wipe out not just humanity but the animal world too.
The text suggests that God’s initial purpose is to end the "life-on-earth" experiment altogether. But then we see God’s intention to save one family and representatives of each animal species. If we then move forward to the aftermath of the Flood, we find Noah making burnt offerings, which God finds acceptable ("smelling" the pleasing odor), and immediately we "hear" God speaking to Himself:
21 ...and the Lord said to Himself (literally to His heart): "Never again will I doom the earth because of man, since/even though the devisings of man’s mind are evil from his youth; nor will I ever destroy every living being as I have done. 22So long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night shall not cease. (Gen 8:21-22)
The three-times repetition of the words lo od or od lo - no more/never again, indicates the permanence of the promise spelled out here. Whilst before the Flood, man’s evil was such a cause for bitterness for God that He decided to destroy all living creatures, now He seems to be accepting that inclination for evil as something He must live with. There is a sense in which God is distancing Himself from man. In the metaphor of the parent and child, the parent seems to be letting go of His rage at the contrary ways of the offspring, who was intended to be an extension of the parent, and now accepts (however reluctantly) the not-me-ness of the child. God and mankind are now "other" in relation to each other.
God has had two experiences: He has watched His world being destroyed by His own doing, and he has smelled the sweet savor of Noah’s burnt offering. It is with that bitter-sweet taste that God is committing Himself to continue the world with man in it, and not to interfere with, nature’s dependable and potentially life-supporting cycles.
Having blessed Noah and his sons, God gives man the right to eat animal flesh, but with the proviso that flesh must not be eaten with its life-blood in it. There follows a prohibition against murder "for in His image did God make man" (Gen 9:6). Thus, even now, following God’s recognition of man’s moral frailty, the creation of man in God’s image - b’tselem elokim - is re-confirmed: "otherness" but still intimate connection. Although obligations are imposed on humankind, the covenant that God now makes is unilateral and unconditional:
8And God said to Noah and to his sons with him, 9"I now establish My covenant with you and your offspring to come,10 and with every living being that is with you - birds, cattle and every wild beast as well - all that have come out of the ark, every living thing on earth. 11I will maintain My covenant with you: never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth." (Gen 9:8-11).
The covenant is to be permanent and astonishingly there is to be sign, not to remind man, but to remind God! The sign is the rainbow, which will become visible when God brings clouds (perhaps when His anger is about to boil over?); and that will remind God of the covenant, so that all flesh will never again be destroyed by flood. In what must surely be an anticipation of the rationale and purpose of tzitzit, God says: When the bow is in the clouds I will see it and remember. If we look now at Numbers 15:39 (in the second chapter of the Shema) we see the striking similarity, though this time, it is Israel who will see and remember:
That shall be your fringe; you shall see it and remember all the commandments of the Lord and observe them, so that you do not follow your heart and eyes in your lustful urge.
It may seem strange to think that God actually needs reminding. However there are later instances where God seems to want man to intervene to restrain His anger, or at the very least He accepts the "way out" provided by human pleading, most particularly that of Abraham in relation to God’s proposal to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, and Moses after the sins of the Molten Calf and the Spies.
By a process of self-limitation (tzimtzum) God "allows" man to be separate. What may not have been fully clear at Creation is clear now after the Flood. The Flood (and the covenant that follows it) may be seen as the culmination of the process of Creation, insofar as it finally sets out the basic relationship of God and mankind. God could have made mankind a kind of appendage, like the angels who (we are told) have no choice. But He did not; He allowed humans freewill, was disappointed at how (from God’s perspective) that freewill was misused and, despite this, He not only allowed life to go on but even gave His blessing to mankind through Noah and his sons.
But didn’t God announce at the end of the Sixth Day of Creation that all that He had made was "very good"? And doesn’t Tanakh later produce the idea of redemption (that the world will be perfected under the kingdom of the Almighty). Why has there always been such a gap between, on the one hand, that "very good" and the intention for a perfected world, and, on the other, the far-from-perfect reality that has always prevailed? One suggestion is that God intentionally left the world flawed and unfinished, so that it would be up to mankind to complete it.
I return to God’s musing after the Flood: Never again will I doom the earth because of man, since/even though the devisings of man’s mind are evil from his youth; nor will I ever destroy every living being as I have done. (Gen 8:21). It seems to me that God is saying: "Yes, I will leave the work of completing Creation for mankind to do, even though it will not happen easily or quickly, as mankind has a tendency towards evil. I will not intervene to destroy all life because of that, but will be patient."
It is in this context that God starts to lay down some laws to guide mankind in how to live in this world. He clearly sees that man can do better. God acknowledges that, although ideally man should not eat animal flesh – Adam had been told in Gen. 1:29 that man’s food was to be seed-bearing plants and the seed-bearing fruit of trees – the nature of man as he actually is may include that craving. Man may therefore eat meat but must be reminded of the principle of respect for life by not eating the blood in the flesh.
So while covenanting with humankind not to wipe it out, and instructing it to be fruitful and multiply, God is at the same time imposing restrictions that are life enhancing. The giving of these laws to Noah and his descendants is clearly the beginning of a process that is taken a great deal further at Sinai. It seems that it is not in mankind’s unchecked nature to live in a way that enhances creation. Law is a way of channeling us towards that end.