Sunday, June 21, 2009

Deluge and Chaos in the Mind of God

My last post was on Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg's wonderful book, The Murmuring Deep. I made the following observation that "Zornberg, discussing the Noah narative reminds us that in Jewish tradition, the name YHWH (Adonai/LORD) represents the merciful aspect of God whereas Elohim is the name of strict justice." In response Allan made this comment

Interesting, but doesn't the Noahic narrative suggest that Yhwh decided to destroy the world due to the mixing of blood and the creation of the Nephilim whereas Elohim instructs Noah to build the Ark? In the story, Yhwh speaks of “wiping off ” all creatures, and ruthlessly enumerates all kinds of them that he will destroy (vi 6). Elohim acts as though in spite of himself, since he says that “the end of all flesh is come before me” (vi 13) and he speaks only generally about destruction, without any specification. My impression is that it's the other way around to: "the Noah narative reminds us that in Jewish tradition, the name YHWH (Adonai/LORD) represents the merciful aspect of God whereas Elohim is the name of strict justice."

Allan's observation is correct however Zornberg is also correct about the Jewish tradition concerning the names and aspects of God. So how can these two facts be reconciled?

First off, it's important to understand that, at least as Zornberg presents it, the Flood is not something that God does or enacts but in a sense ratifies. Zornberg says:

God looks again at the earth and sees that it has already been wrecked: "and God saw how corrupt (nish'chata) the earth was, for all flesh had corrupted (hish'chit) its eways on earth" (Gen. 6:12). Decomposition has already, in a sense, set in.... All flesh human and animal has corrupted its way upon the earth, it has degenerated to a point where the end both of flesh and earth rises up before God, a reality that God has only to ratify. Powerfully, the Torah suggests that a world of violence and anarchy has disintegrated of its own accord. In the Zohar, God declares" "You wish to repudiate the work of My hands: I shall fulfil your wish" (Zohar 69) [Zornberg, 46-7].

And Zornberg reminds that in the Genesis account it's the cosmos that performs the work of destruction not God.

But Zornberg goes further and explores the impact on God of world decomposition. God is not an impassive observer or a bloodthirsty tyrant. In fact God is also impacted by these processes. God is not aloof or impassive at all.

The complexity of God's inner world as narrated in these early chapters of the Torah finely matches human comlpexity.God sees human evil, penetrates to the very heart of darkness, takes it to his own heart, where it becomes regret and mourning... God as a character in the narrative merely acquiesces in the (unconscious) human wish to destroy the world... God's active role in the Flood is thus reduced in the narrative. Even the apparently forceful expression "And I, behold I am about to bring the Flood upon the earth (Gen, 6:17) is translated by Rashi following the midrash: "I am now ready to agree with those who urged me long since, What is man that you should remember him?" Destroying the world is, after all, a long-term consutative process: those angels who originally disputed God's intention to create man have now convinced God of their case. The complexity of God's mind is thus intimated: sometimes divided, sometimes at one with itself. Here the consensus is sinister: there is no dissenting voice to plead for mercy. Even His name is transformed, from the Tetragrammaton (Adonai) to Elohim, the name of strict justice. At the moment of reversal, strikingly, the merciful name is used, together with a decree of doom: "And Adonai regretted that He had made man on earth... Adonai said, I will blot out from the earth the men whom I have created" (Gen. 6:6-7), as though a habit of mercy is being undermined from within. And conversely, when God remembers Noach and ends the Flood, His name of justice, Elohim, is still used, even as the tide turns toward mercy. This yields the effect of movement within the divine ecology, from one modality of relation with the world to another [Zornberg 46-48].

I'm struck by this notion of switching modalities, actually even more an almost confusion even undermining of modalities descrbed by Zornberg here. This God is not aloof, uninvolved, unchanging. Instead it's a God who can even be destabilised and undermined as the creation itself unravels.

The final section of the Flood narrative shows Noah emerging from the ark building an altar and offering sacrifice. Genesis then describes God's response "God smelled the sweet savour, and God said to Himself: "Never again will I doom the earth because of man, since the devisngs of man's heart are evil from his youth, never again will I destroy every living being, as I have done" (Gen. 8:21). Zornberg says:

God seems to be so delighted by the fragrance of the buring meat that He vows never again to destroy mankind and his wolrd. Moreover, He speaks to His heart, evoking the process that inititated the Flood: "He was saddened to His heart". The separation of God and His heart seems unhealed. But Hizkuni suggests that the later phrase represents a real advance over the earlier: God is now in dialogue with His own heart. However mysteriously, some metaphysical alienation does find healing. Language is no longer totally in exile. Mourning and destruction have unexpectedly led God to dialogue and renewed desire [Zornberg 68-9].

And Zornberg will remind us that before the Flood God spoke only in soliloquies whereas afterwards God engages in dialogue. Even Noah, who has been speechless all this time finds his voice. Furthermore she tells us that Hizkuni, a 13th century rabbi, probably of Rashi's school read that line from Genesis, "the devisings of man's heart are evil from his youth" very generously, "the human heart is evil because of its youth." [1] Humans are new and young and have much to learn. "Now implicitly God is more at peace with His own heart and with the human heart, so that youth can become a pretext for tolerance" [Zornberg 69].

Get this book and luxuriate in and be enriched by her rich and generous readings.

[1] I am reminded here of Dame Julian of Norwich's own generous reading of the Eden and Fall story where she likens the first human sin to a child keen to show its parents it can look after itself and so sets off running down the road only to trip and fall into a ditch. God then like the parents comes forward to help the human/child up out of the ditch so that they can continue running along the road.


  1. How could there possibly be "chaos in the mind of god"?

    Such statements are just projections of your own mis-understanding of The Indivisible Divine Conscious Light.

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  2. Hi Anonymous, thanks for your comment. Don't forget that this is a biblioblog and so I'm talking about the God we meet in the biblical narratives and in this case further refracted through Jewish tradition. THnaks for the links, I;ve checked them out and Adidam seems to derive from South ASian tradition where Deity is unerstood often very differently

    Perhaps I rather prefer the notion of chaos in the mind of God; it also fits with concepts of divine kenosis and the tzimtzum of Kabbalah. But clearly that is not your cup of tea.

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