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Be Very Careful What You Wish For

My #2 son and I discovered something just now that changed our entire understanding of the Flood in Genesis. And it all has to do with how a human desire to change the world was fulfilled by G-d in a most unexpected way.

Here are the pieces: G-d curses the earth that man should suffer to extract food from it:

Cursed be the ground because of you;
By suffering shall you eat of it
All the days of your life: (Gen. 3:17)

Generations later, one of Adam’s descendants decides that he wants to change the status quo:

When Lamech had lived 182 years, he begot a son. And he named him Noach, saying, “This one will provide us nachum from our work and from the toil of our hands, out of the very soil which the LORD placed under a curse.” (Gen. 5:29-30)

This word, Nachum/Noach is usually translated as “comfort”. But that is not what it means in the text. A more accurate translation can be found by the way it is next used in the text:

And the LORD nachumed that He had made man on earth, and His heart suffered.

Nachum refers to a change in direction, a deviation from and earlier plan.

And what does He do after changing?

The LORD said, “I will blot out from the earth the men whom I created—men together with beasts, creeping things, and birds of the sky; for I nachum that I made them.”

Nachum is clearly a word that refers to changing one’s mind, to finding a resolution, a way forward. It may be good or bad – but it certainly is a big shift in approach.

Why does G-d need to change, to blot out the world? Certainly one answer is that mankind was iredeemably evil. But another answer is that mankind asked for this change, even named a person after the very concept of change. And Lamech did it to relieve or change the original curse, and to eliminate the suffering that came from it.

Here’s the kicker: Noach succeeded in fulfilling the expectations his father laid on him! Not because he removed the curse on the land, but because he removed the need for mankind to eat from the earth in the first place!

Why? Because G-d brings the Flood, Noach saves the animals, and as a result of saving the animals, mankind (who were previously commanded to only eat vegetation) gets to eat animals. As I wrote here,

Noach’s salvation of the animals changed the relationship between man and the animal kingdom. Originally, before the Flood, G-d tells both man and animals to eat plants:

God said, “See, I give you every seed-bearing plant that is upon all the earth, and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit; they shall be yours for food. And to all the animals on land, to all the birds of the sky, and to everything that creeps on earth, in which there is the breath of life, [I give] all the green plants for food.” And it was so. (Gen 1:29-30)

Before the Flood, man was essentially in parallel with animals: we could shear sheep and milk goats, but we could not eat them. Not until Noach saved their lives.

When Noach saved the animals, he created a debt from animals to mankind, which resulted in a rearrangement of the food chain. Mankind saved animals, and so they owe their very lives to mankind. As a result, after the Flood, we are allowed to eat animals.

Which means that we no longer had to eat vegetation, and that we no longer needed to suffer to do so! There was another, better, food option. It is no accident that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the tribes and Moses were all shepherds!

Indeed, the concept of suffering also seems to go away. At first, there is a parallelism: man suffers, and G-d later also suffers (as bolded in the earlier extracts):

By suffering shall you eat of it; and

And the LORD nachum that He had made man on earth, and His heart suffered.

But this same word is use two more times (to refer to interpersonal anguish, not agriculture) then vanishes from the text entirely. It is not found in any of the other books of the Torah.

Which means that Lamech’s blessing of his son Noach actually came true. Noach (who was named for “change”) relieved human suffering from the curse of the earth caused by Adam’s eating of the fruit. But he did it in an extremely roundabout way: after all, the Flood extinguished almost all life on earth.

Be careful what you wish for, indeed.

[An @iwe, @blessedblacksmith and @susanquinn production]

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