By Nathan Schumer
On Shabbat Noach we read of the great flood and Noah, the righteous man chosen by God to survive. In the time of Noach, traditionally called the generation of the flood, God sees that the Earth itself has grown corrupt because of human violence and wickedness. In biblical theology, human evil quite literally transforms the Earth. God commands Noah to build an ark and bring two of every species on to it. Then God brings a flood and wipes out humanity, leaving only Noah’s family. After the flood, God promises to never again destroy the land, creating the rainbow to signify the covenant.
The resonance with today’s climate crisis is obvious. While God may have promised not to destroy the Earth, we seem to be doing a fairly good job of it. Like the Generation of the Flood, our actions, particularly the actions of those who live in industrialized countries, are radically changing the atmosphere. Many who deny the science of climate change doubt that humanity is able to influence the physical nature of the Earth, yet this same concept is implicit in the Bible itself. Humanity’s actions influence the physical world.
Flood myths exist throughout the ancient Near East. In ancient Sumeria, the legend of Gilgamesh details a similar flood story. The Greek story focuses on the righteous Deucalion and his wife, who survived Zeus’ great flood in an ark. In these cultures, water was essential to life. Too much water could wipe out civilization, but too little water led to devastating drought. These stories theologically explain and account for human vulnerability to water.
From the melting Arctic ice cap to floods and droughts, water is at the center of today’s climate crisis. An atmosphere, transformed by human carbon emissions, brings increased rains to some places and droughts to others. This summer, Great Britain had its wettest summer in over a hundred years. At the same time, catastrophic drought in the Midwest ravaged crops. Both of these cases illustrate our fundamental vulnerability to extreme weather. We still need the rains to come at the right time and in the right amount.
On Shabbat Noach, as we face climate catastrophe, it is important to recognize our role in the crisis. Just like Noah’s generation, our actions contributed to this catastrophe. Despite many warning signs, those of us in first world countries continue to burn fossil fuels that are radically transforming our atmosphere. It is tempting to respond the way that Noah did, to batten down the hatches and prepare for the worst. However, climate change can only be addressed through large scale collective action. This time around, our ability to prevent global havoc depends on how well we mobilize our institutions to address the problem, not on gopher wood arks. The story of Noah is emblematic of what happens when we take on challenges alone. Instead, we need a broad reinvention of civic responsibility, citizenship and a commitment to tackle this crisis together.