One phrase seems to have been used more than others to describe the catastrophic flooding in the wake of Hurricane Harvey: “A flood of biblical proportions.”
That phrase calls to mind the great flood of the Noah story, a flood so great that tradition holds it wiped out an entire generation, one that is still known as ‘the generation of the flood’ to this day.
Although there is something to be said in comparing large-scale floods that produce era-defining change for a population, the biblical narrative
offers a challenging explanation because the Torah tells us that the flood was a punishment for the actions of its victims.
Flood narratives are present in many ancient Mesopotamian traditions, where the image of the flood is used as a way of delineating a pre and post-flood reality, where the flood waters provide some kind of cleansing or rebirth.
These stories make sense in their context and act to set up a particular world view. In the Noah story, the narrative arc concludes with the Noahide covenant, setting out ethical behaviours and accompanied by a promise from God that such a flood will never be sent again.
This is the context through which the idea of flood as punishment was intended to be viewed, in a limited and narrative supporting way.
Abstracted from this context, it presents a violent and punitive theology, which finds a dangerous partner in some of the most discriminatory theology of our modern era.
We must be vigilant for moments when echoes of the Torah’s flood narrative are co-opted to cause pain to those already suffering, and seek instead to bring the post-flood promise of hope and restoration into our world.
Deborah Blausten is a rabbinic student at Leo Baeck College