On double rainbows in Noah
A few years ago, my daughter showed me a viral video of a stoned guy blissing out on a double rainbow in Yosemite. “It’s … it’s a double rainbow!” He moans. “Oh my G-d, oh my G-d,” he repeats over and over, “It’s so bright. Ohhhh, it’s so beautiful!” He breaks down in full-on sobbing, crying in a seizure of ecstasy. “What does it mean?” he asks, his mind blown.
I’m not sure, dude. But one thing you missed in your rapture is a curious phenomenon: look carefully and you can see that the colors of the second rainbow invert the usual order: VIBGYOR.
As early as 1520 or so, the Jewish sage Sforno[i] noted that even by his time, the double rainbow was already a cliché.
“Scientists have already tired of trying to explain why the various colors of the second rainbow appear in the opposite order of the colors in the original rainbow.”[ii]
Nonetheless, he uses it to explain the rainbow following Noah’s flood. Since the ordinary rainbow already existed at the time of Creation, Sforno reasons, the actual rainbow displayed after the Flood must be this second rainbow, a much rarer and more startling sight (as our ecstatic friend saw in Yosemite). The reverse order of the colors are a warning:
“When this rainbow appears it is high time to call people to order and to warn them of impending natural calamities unless they change their ways.”[iii]
Sforno’s insight made me think of another secret duality in Noah: there’s really not one but two floods in this weekly reading. I believe they’re connected.
The two floods
The first more famous flood is obviously the one of water. Nature itself was corrupted, the Sages say. Animals and humans alike preferred abominable stuff to trying to reproduce. So the flood washes all life on earth clean, vegetation included. It’s a bio-disaster.
G-d chooses Noah because he’s the right man for the job. The book on Noah is that he was only outstandingly righteous for his generation, and we Jews sort of damn him by faint praise. But I think he gets a bad rap. Go ahead. You try being the most righteous guy in the room, let alone your generation. And despite whatever flaws, we know he’s an excellent boatbuilder at least. But he also had to have been an expert zoologist, entomologist, herpetologist, ornithologist, and botanist to identify male and female of all the species, and identify and preserve seeds. On the ark, he had to be a great veterinarian. And after he lands, he shows he’s even an oenologist.
What is Noah’s special merit and the secret to his success? As God’s chosen caretaker and intimate, he’s a scientist who also knows that the natural world is not merely mechanistic and physical, it is meta-physical. After all, he’s talking to G-d; he knows there’s another dimension to the cosmos. He knows what’s coming and the cosmic reasons why. So he is the only man who can ensure the biome’s survival.
But after the first Flood, Noah’s brood gets busy repopulating the earth as G-d commands them. A few generations after the deluge, united and inspired by their common tongue, all the cousins gather in Babel to “make a name” for themselves. They build a tower so grand, it will have its “head in Heaven.” G-d punishes them for their hubris,[iv] which must have shocked the hell out of them. He tumbles their tower and confuses them by “confounding their language,” multiplying the number of tongues. Unable to communicate, they can no longer unite with one mind and one purpose so they scatter.
This is the second flood, a deluge of languages. And whereas our first crime was more a bestial transgression against the natural order, the second one is harder to define. It seems at once quite human and admirable, stemming from our godlike intellects. Where’d we go wrong?
What were the engineers of Babel after?
Beyond the plain sense of trying to storm heaven itself with a tower of bricks, what were the engineers of Babel – all of humanity, really – after? Why are they punished for their demonstration of human ambition, unity, and ingenuity?
Ramban suggests that they’re after the Tetragrammaton – that most awesome four-letter Name of G-d, but also the one particularly associated with Creation. He gestures at dark depths by suggesting that only students of the Kabbalah will fully understand the mystical meaning of their ambition.
We can guess what he’s implying, though: humans hoped to dominate the cosmos by challenging G-d and replacing Him with their own grandiose engineering. R. Bachya is expansive on this point: “The people of that generation were very advanced in matters of philosophy and even technology,” he writes. “However, they used their intelligence in a sinful manner” by staging a Divine coup.[v]
It’s all about the bricks
But even the original text hints that their crime is overestimating their engineering prowess. As they plot to build the tower …
They said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks and burn them hard.” Brick served them as stone… [Gen 11:3]
The Torah seems illogically focused on the bricks. Just in case we miss the point, it redundantly hammers the point home in the next sentence: “The bricks served them as stone.” When we turn to the Hebrew, we see it’s really emphatic. What it says is more like “let’s burn them til they’re burnt” or “let’s super-burn them” [V’n’S-R-P-H, l’S-R-P-H; וְנִשְׂרְפָה לִשְׂרֵפָה]. The words just before this are another pair that pun on the word for brick, נִלְבְּנָה לְבֵנִים [n’LBNH LBNH]. Most translations render the first word as white, perhaps referring to the super-heated bricks in the kiln. But the letters might also be trying ot imply something like ‘the brickness of the bricks’.[vi] In any case, the pride they take in their mastery of super-brick engineering is emphatic. They wax poetic and pun twice in a row [נלבנה לבנים ונשרפה לשרפה].
But still, so what? Why the sudden obsession with the bricks? And why call attention to the obvious fact that bricks “served them as stones?
The first, plainest sense is it fits with the idolatry the Talmud accuses them of. The Babel generation turned to idolatry, worshipping stones. More to the point, independent of any interpretation, they are plainly in love with and united around the structure they’re making from their artificial stones to supplant G-d in heaven, maybe encouraged by their conviction that their artificial ones are even better than nature’s.
Or perhaps the Torah is looking forward to the only other time it mentions bricks: when the Hebrews are slaves in Egypt. The message echoes back to us from this future: folks are now enslaved to their delusory engineering ambitions. They worship their belief that they can storm Heaven and overthrow the G-d with their own handiwork.
Fittingly, G-d scatters them in a flood of confusion.
Biology and the second rainbow
Thousands of years after the construction of Babel, we are still suffering from this hubris, maybe more so. Computers and other technological artifacts of our sciences, like bricks, convince us of our transcendent power to conquer and exceed nature’s limits, to parse the physical world without the need for metaphysics.
Biology, to take one instance of the sciences, is devoted to providing mechanistic descriptions of the processes of life. Its fundamental ‘theological’ conviction is that life is simply a matter of matter, a complex system of material actions and processes. Ultimately, once we get the technical manual of nature written, human handiwork will imitate life. The same goes for human consciousness, which is simply a product of biology and the complexity of the brain.
This mythology of artificial life and artificial intelligence is, ironically, deadening. It sucks the life out of biology, as if the science is committing a form of parricide, trying to kill the vital phenomenon after which it is named. The biological-mechanistic mythology is also ubiquitous. It grips our popular imagination in movies and images and books about robots, artificial super-intelligences, clones, and cyborgs. New companies and new sciences spring up betting on them. The sense is these are inevitable, and the premise that we can replace life with our own works feels like a foregone conclusion, encouraged by our incontrovertible success. Creating artificial humans is a new Tower of Babel, just as global and just as unanimous. Whether you speak Chinese or Hebrew or English at home, on this we’re of “one mind,” united by scientific ambition.
Thank G-d biology works. It’s saved my life and the lives of my loved ones many times. But it is not omniscient nor omnipotent, as any doctor will tell you. As it falls short of its ambition, it echoes the crash of Babel and the ensuing noise.
This would just be an academic discussion of an old dualism, except that as we choose the wrong side, our modern secular, scientific, rational calculus seems to be quietly eroding the transcendent value of human life, especially at its end and its beginning, with real effects on real lives.
I didn’t choose to pick on biology at random. I believe the two floods roped together in the narrative of the Bible address the idolatry of biology specifically. The first flood erases the corruption of life. Noah, the ultimate naturalist, ferries the biome safely across from the old washed-away world to a new one. Then the new generation achieves a utopian state of global unanimity never seen before or since. In some senses they achieve the pinnacle of global civilization, yet G-d punishes their more sophisticated, civilized crime with a more subtle flood, a flood of languages. Call it one of logos (for “word” or “language”). He floods their minds with the noise of different languages. Together, the two floods spell bio-logos, biology, and biology holds the key to understanding the coherence of the two floods.
From a metaphysical view, even with unalloyed human cooperation on a scientific project and perfect mutual communication, we still can’t get it right. This time, the latter generations didn’t corrupt life with bestiality but rather the very purpose of being human itself. They deploy language to achieve great things, like super-fired super-hard bricks that are better than natural ones, but then they erect an idol to their own ambition and proceed to serve it slavishly, with the collective delusion (and implicit violence) only mobs attain. They have forgotten about G-d. They decide they can replace the transcendent source of life.
Our scientific age deserves a double rainbow as the warning Sforno saw in it. Science explains what causes the mysterious inversion of colors in the secondary rainbow, but it doesn’t get the celestial reminder of the ways we lose our way. They broke the dual pact between G-d and humanity: Yes, the world is indestructible, the first rainbow promisess, but nature will fully yield its treasures to our ambitions only when we acknowledge, with a helpful reminder from double rainbows, that the world is continuously vitalized by Divine attention. Together, physics and metaphysics suffuse the cosmos with spectral radiance.
San Mateo, 5780
[A shorter version of this was originally published online in the Jewish Journal – https://jewishjournal.com/culture/religion/torah_portion/table-for-five/306419/weekly-parsha-noach/ (Oct 3, 2019). I am grateful to Salvador Litvak, editor of the Accidental Talmudist, for his prompt to write this, and the discipline of boiling down my ramblings to 250 words. I also thank Marcos Frid, Yael Esther Berenfus, Eddy Berenfus, and Ron Kardos, for their suggestions which vastly improved this piece.]
[i] Ovadia ben Jacob Sforno, Italian, 1475-1550
[iii] See his comments on Bereishit 9:17; https://www.sefaria.org/Sforno_on_Genesis.9.17.1?lang=bi&with=all&lang2=en
[iv] Literally their hyperambition (the words hubris and hyper have the same root). They propose to go beyond themselves, to exceed their mortality.
[v] Rabbi Bahya ben Asher, commentary on Gen 11:4 (1255-1340, Spain): “The people of that generation were very advanced in matters of philosophy and even technology. However, they used their intelligence in a sinful manner. …The reason G’d had to scatter them was because they planned to nullify His world order.” https://www.sefaria.org/Genesis.11.4?lang=bi&with=Rabbeinu%20Bahya&lang2=en
[vi] Most translations relate the first word to the whiteness [LBN = white] of a super-heated brick, emphasizing the heat of the fires they create. Sforno (see n. 2 above) says one of their ambitions was to challenge G-d by “taming fire.” But the original without vowels might also refer to the “brickness” of the bricks.