Our Sages have taught that “the Torah speaks in the human idiom” and one understanding of this instruction, when considered carefully, is that the Torah responds to ideas and conventions which impact on our lives from the cultures which surround us. Certainly, we can recognize the truth of this assertion in our own day but sometimes it is more diffccult to see this operating in the Torah’s ancient context.

The week’s parsha is a superb example of the principle of “speaking in the human idiom.” Archaelogical discoveries in the 19
th century in Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq and parts of Syria) have provided us literally with thousands of examples of storytelling, mythological narratives and similar literary creativity of the ancient peoples of Sumer, Assyria, Babylonia. This literature goes back thousands of years and provides us with invaluable insights into the civilization, mindsets and cultural values of these early peoples. Such resources are particularly important for Jews, if for no other reason than that Abraham and Sarah, as our own Torah teaches us, came from that very region of the world. Our own sacred tradition has been well-aware of the role Mesopotamia played in our own origin and evolution.

Often, passages in the Torah are best understood as
responses to matters posed by alien cultures. By understanding what our neighbors believed, how they worshipped, how they conducted their lives, we can better appreciate what our Torah is teaching and what it is asking of us. The Mesopotamians told an extensive tale about a worldwide flood which destroyed humankind, about the saving of an individual who built a boat to withstand the ravages of the inundation and who, after the flood subsided, regenerated the human race. The narrative is full of details which recall similar elements in the account of Noah. But, as the French might say, vive la difference! Over and over again, the sublime moral tone of the Torah proclaims a vivid contrast to the outlook and values of our primordial neighbors. One example makes this crystal-clear.

We learn from Mesopotamians about the cause for the decision to bring a flood and destroy the earth:
When the land extended and the peoples multiplied,
The land was bellowing like a bull,
The god got disturbed with their uproar,
(The god) Enlil heard their noise
And addressed the great gods:

“The noise of mankind has become too intense
for me; with their uproar I am deprived of sleep
…let mankind be destroyed…” (
Atrahasis II i:2ff)

In a word – the great flood is brought to destroy terrestrial life because human beings are noisy and they disturb the sleep of the gods! Immediately, one turns to this week’s Torah reading and finds that the Flood of Noah is brought by God because of mankind’s
immoral behavior: “…the earth had become corrupt…and filled with violence” (6:10). And there, in a nutshell, is a prime example of how our Torah speaks in the human idiom. For the pagans (and everyone knew this story) the great flood brought quiet for nap-time but, as we chose to tell the story, the great Flood was a demonstration of God’s dissatisfaction with corruption and violence. That theme would go on to fill the pages of the Bible and the pages of all subsequent Jewish life: God’s expectation of us is that we perfect the quality of human life, that we cause justice and equity and respect for life to prevail. Our Torah has answered the pagans of antiquity as it continues to answer the corrupt and violent of our own day -- in an idiom which both they and we can understand.

Dr. Brauner is Professor of Judaic Studies at Siegal College, Cleveland, OH