At the very start of Parashat No’aḥ, which we will read this week, we find the following doom-laden verse: “The Earth was corrupted before God; all the Earth was full of violence.” (Genesis 6:11) This is actually part of the same narrative as the very end of last week’s reading, which is somewhat artificially split between these two parashiyyot. This week we get the context for the Flood: the Earth being full of violence, God has decided on destruction. Last week, we got the backstory.
These verses probably don’t register among the highlights of Parashat No’aḥ for most of us, eclipsed instead by the sidrah’s eponymous (anti-)hero and the world-erasing Flood. Yet, this subtle reference to the Earth’s corruption harkens back to the end of Parashat Bereshit and the casual mention of the Nephilim (Gen. 6:4), those fallen angels (literally, Fallen Ones) who rebelled, took on material bodies to come to Earth, seduced human women, and produced a race of semi-divine half-human giants.
All of those elements are present in the narrative of the Flood, but we typically gloss over them on the way to the much greater action about to come. However, to our earliest Sages, these verses about the ‘corrupt Earth’ existing in Noah’s life would have had a tremendous mythological context- with several books penned that detail the stories of these Fallen Angels and their misadventures on Earth. This may sound absurd to us, as the Sages who canonized the Tanakh carefully excluded the (mostly) Aramaic texts which contained these myths. Yet, many of them survived in translation, (Enoch and Jubilees, for instance) and there is much we can gain from studying them. No’aḥ gives us the tiniest window out onto the antediluvian world, but its most critical contribution to our modern minds may be this: to remind us of the potency of mythological story-telling.
Mythology may sound like an ancient relic itself, yet our modern world can likely learn a lot from our ancestors’ tales- these bits and pieces of our legacy that were never made into canon. In the words of author Neil Gaiman: “Fairy tales are more than true- not because they tell us that dragons exist but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” Similarly, it may be that in our twenty-first century life we need these millennia-old myths that give context and colour to the Torah’s text more than ever.
If we take the time to delve more into the stories beneath the story of the Flood, we can learn from the mythology of our ancestors how to cope with the problems of modernity. Perhaps it is us, today, who most need to hear that even an Earth corrupted by angelic disobedience can be cleansed, that survival is possible even in the face of total environmental destruction, and that even rebellious angels have to answer to a higher authority. Perhaps it us who can make meaning of the mystery of our ancient tales, and maybe we should.
**this week’s Thought will also appear in an abbreviated form in the Jewish Chronicle’s sidrah column, published tomorrow.