Sometimes, if you want to understand the beginning, it helps to skip to the end. In the case of this week’s reading—the opening chapters of the book of Genesis—the end is a dark note indeed: the utter corruption and wickedness of newly created humanity, to the point where God “repents” for having fashioned man in the first place:
And the Lord said, I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth: both man and beast and creeping things, and the birds of the air. For I repent that I have made them. But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord.
An important question pops out of the text: what is this passage doing in B'reishit? It is, of course, the lead-in to the story of Noah that forms next week’s reading, in which God will indeed destroy everything and start all over again. Wouldn’t it have made more sense just to start the next reading with these verses? After all, Torah readings usually start and finish in logical places with respect to their content, and rarely in the middle of a story. Might understanding the inclusion of this paragraph in this week's reading shed light on the deeper meaning of the first chapters of Genesis—and, by extension, the Hebrew Bible as a whole?
The opening of the Bible includes some of the most famous stories about Creation: the seven days, at the climax of which humanity is depicted as the pinnacle of all of God’s works; the Garden of Eden, where we learn that man’s role is to “work” the world “and keep it”—and where we also see that the quest for moral understanding gets us thrown out of paradise and into the real world; the story of Cain and Abel, which includes the first-ever mention of sin, and real life is revealed as a chain reaction of disillusionment, violence, and decay.
I’ve always read these stories as possessing foundational wisdom about man and the world—an inherently humanistic reading that seems to work well with the Hebrew Bible’s overwhelming interest in persons, history, and real-life morals. This is, after all, the reason why all the great figures of the Bible are deeply engaged in worldly affairs; why there are no descriptions of Heaven and Hell, no otherworldly experiences detached from human fate, no stories of God or angels except as these relate to the standing and destiny of living human beings; and why the only stories about people trying to escape human affairs end in failure—think of Jonah, who tried to flee his responsibility to his fellow creatures and ended up stuck in the belly of a fish until he recognized and accepted his mission.
In this light, it does stand to reason that the opening chapters of Genesis should end with a coda about the implacable poverty of the human spirit, the collapse of Creation, and the run-up to the Flood—reaffirming the sense that all of the stories of B’reishit are really about man’s tragic nature. And not just these stories.
Our weekly reading, it turns out, comprises no less than a microcosm of the Hebrew Bible as a whole. Its three main stories—Creation, Garden of Eden, and Cain and Abel—are a triptych whose narrative arc moves from a massively optimistic, miraculous intervention by God to create the human world, to a stumbling of human nature that ends with Adam and Eve leaving the Garden and entering the real world, to the onset of sin, corruption, and eventual catastrophic collapse. These are the same three stages we encounter in the narrative of the people Israel: the optimistic and miraculous Exodus, in which Israel is created as a living nation; the stumbling and failing that end in the people’s leaving the paradise of the desert and entering the real world of human history in the book of Joshua; the sin, corruption, and eventual catastrophic collapse that end in the destruction of the kingdom and the exile of Israel from the land.
Yet at the same time—and just in case there is any doubt about the parallelism—both narratives, despite everything that has come before, end on a surprising note of renewed optimism. In B’reishit, the final verse tells of a single man, Noah, who “found favor in the eyes of the Lord” and who alone will serve as the basis for the rest of human history. At the end of the Bible, the final verse of the final book (II Chronicles 36:23) is a declaration by Cyrus, the Persian king, heralding the return of Israel to rebuild Jerusalem after the Babylonian exile, an event that alone will serve as the basis for the rest of Israelite history: “Whoever is among you of all his people—the Lord his God be with him, and let him go up!”
In the Bible, the story of humanity and the story of ancient Israel are the same story. Has anything changed in the intervening millennia? We are all born in miracle and optimism, all trudge through the painful process in which protected childhood gives way to hard adult reality, our illusions gradually peeled away along with our strength and youth and health until we end in decay and death. And yet, just as with these stories, we can never lose sight of that spark of hope and optimism at the end: a reminder of all the possibilities inherent in the next generation, in those who will come after and rebuild even when all has been destroyed—even when their works, too, will inevitably be subject to the same mortal law of achievement, disappointment, and promise never quite realized but always beckoning.
To read the original piece at Jewish Ideas Daily, click here.