World Catastrophes as Punishment

In his great fright and looking back on what did happen to a former generation, the thinking man imagined that the catastrophe must have been provoked by the iniquity of the ancestors, their vices and evils. Such thought could provide a hope for a non-repetition of catastrophes: should humankind abstain from wretched acts, it would be spared. By this, man assumed that the planetary gods could be kept at bay by his own decency - and if he already formulated for himself what is good and what is evil, or ate already from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, he needed a covenant with the outraged deity and commandments for behavior.

Whether the catastrophes were really provoked by sinful behavior or not - the answer is not easily provided: is always a good deed rewarded and a sinful behavior punished?

Rabbi Abuya, surnamed Acher, one of the greatest rabbinical authorities of the second century of the present era, became an agnostic when his pious colleagues were flayed of skin and burned alive; and millions of the martyrs that were gassed in our time have raised the question of whether mercy and righteousness save from doom, and the tens of thousands of their tormentors living to a good old age raise the same question from its other side.

The saying of the sage, “I have reached an old age and I have not seen a pious man given to evil fate,” is most certainly self-deception and actually an injustice and mockery: it adds insult to injury. It is an assertion to justify the unseen power, that must be wise, good, and omnipotent; if such attributes are not the qualities of the deity, then all hope for an insurance against evil by righteousness is dissipating. But if the power against which man is pitted, is sensitive to the distinction of good and evil, then the only hope is to placate it by abstention from evil and furtherance of good.

When the chronicler tells us that the Deluge was caused by the population of the world growing evil and that the Lord repented of his act of creation and decided to destroy it, he needs to ascribe to the animal world the same depravity and moral wretchedness that he ascribed to man. G. Couvier, paleontologist and catastrophist, asked with sarcasm: Was the fish free from ardent passions that it was spared in the common destruction? (But, to a great extent, it perished, too).

Man grew evil, a catastrophe destroyed him, but did the few survivors come purified by the disaster and by their own miraculous salvation? The biblical story of the deluge tells us that as soon as the waters subsided, Noah drank himself drunk, and his son, Ham, committed some act of indecency, the Midrashic version of the act being castration of his drunken father; and this scene on the large stage of the devastated world, does not convey the thought that the worth-while ones were the object of salvation, nor does it lend support to the conviction that a global catastrophe is called for to rejuvenate humankind.

It is asserted that the Lord made a covenant with the survivors - Noah and his descendants - as he made another one, more detailed, with the survivors of the holocaust of the days of the Exodus - the deluge of fire - when, amid the groaning nature, Moses interpreted the groans as commandments. It is clearly in the domain of a psychological truth - this imposition of self-restraint, an awakening of the sense of good and evil. Man and the animal kingdom - all on this earth together - are bound by a common bond to placate the great power by self-restraint in pursuit of pleasures, by suppression of instincts, and by sacrificing pleasurable things to the all-powerful deities.

The deity must have created man good, if it, itself, is good; if it created man bad, then there is no point in punishing him for the nature with which he was endowed from the beginning. Where is left room for absolving the deity from being unjust? Obviously, in the self-accusation by man of having lost his innate purity and of having selected evil when he was free not to do so. Here again, man, by accusing himself of degeneration, grasps for the only hope of mollifying the Great Power, or great powers; he accuses his free will and behavior for what happened in the past and ascribes to the Deity a good plan, a perfect creation, a just attitude towards its creatures, though not a merciful one. Therefore, the Lord has to repent of having created man and animal; but where is, then, the prescience of Omnipotent?

And what particular sinfulness can be ascribed to animals? If one insect places its eggs into the body of another creature and the larvae when hatched will devour the host from the inside of his body - and if the Creator is not responsible for this arrangement, is the animal kingdom to be rightly accused of cruelty and insensitivity to the sufferings of others?

But the catastrophes did not eradicate or change such cruel urges, and witness to this is any book on zoology, especially on insects and their most cruel parasitic schemes needed for survival and procreation, or on the widespread urge to suck blood, and the almost omnipresent need to devour. With the last of these urges man is endowed, too; but strangely, the talmudic tradition tells us that only after the Deluge did man become carnivorous. Can this be regarded as a change from vice to holiness? Then is the belief that the world’s population was nearly completely destroyed because its nature and behavior became unchaste or violent, only an invention to justify the act of uncontrollable powers? Was it invented o give solace and hope in the face of the unchained terrors of the past and equally horrifying prospects for the future? If bad inclination and outrage did bring chastisement, would not an upright spirit and good acts assuage the powers and aver the repetition of the act that carried the world to the brink of annihilation?