2 Noah (Genesis 6, 9 – 11, 32) – roots of humanistic psychology in the Noah story

In the Torah reading of Noah, after the destruction of the flood, and after Noah and his family are saved, Noah offers a sacrifice (Genesis 8.21):

 

And the Lord smelled the sweet savour. And the Lord said in his heart, I will not again curse the ground any more for man’s sake, for the inclination of man’s heart is evil from his youth.

 

This is shocking because previously when God decides to destroy the entire world because of human wickedness (Genesis 6, 5-7) it is written:

 

And the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that all the inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the Lord repented that He had made man on earth, and it grieved Him in His heart. 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.

 

What is shocking is that the reason that after the flood God swears never again to destroy the world (“for the inclination of man’s heart is evil from his youth”) is the very same reason that God had previously decided to destroy the world (“all the inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually”)!

 

Before attempting to make sense of this, I want to point out that the Hebrew Bible is completely absent of systematic theology and philosophy – and, the Biblical conception of God is anthropomorphistic (a God conceived in human form). From the beginning of the Bible, God is depicted as having physical form. God walks in the garden of Eden. God talks to Adam and Eve. Does God have legs with which to walk, or a mouth and vocal chords with which to speak? God redeems the people Israel from Egypt with a strong hand. God is depicted as having emotions and feelings like those of a human being. God is described as an angry God, a jealous God, a vengeful God, and a compassionate God – thus displaying the full range of human emotions. God is conceived as having conscious will, a human trait. God repents, and changes decisions and decrees that God has decided and decreed, characteristic of a human being – as for example here in the story of Noah when God repents of having created the human being and decides to exterminate human and other life (Genesis 6, 5-7).

 

The essence of religion in the Biblical conception is not theology or philosophy – and, the Bible does not concern itself with abstract theological or philosophical questions such as whether God truly exists or is truly provident. Rather, the essence of religion in the Biblical conception is psychology and ethics – and, the Bible is concerned with giving us spiritual guidance of how to live as human beings especially from a moral point of view. Rabbi Akiva, one of the greatest Talmudic rabbis, points to the Biblical verse (Leviticus 19, 18) “love your neighbor as yourself” as the essence of Judaism. The verse assumes that we love ourselves.

 

By the way, as a psychologist-counselor, I studied for a number of years at the Adler Institute in Israel. Adler Institutes, throughout the western world, are based upon the teachings of Alfred Adler who was the first to have fundamental disagreement with Freud (and Freud expelled Adler from his group in Vienna as a kind of psychological heretic). Adler was the first great thinker in the field of modern psychology to emphasize the social aspect of psychological health. According to Adler, a psychologically healthy person has a feeling of social belonging and social interest characterized by cooperation with, and contribution to, others – and, such a feeling necessarily expresses itself in good relationships with those around us. Adler himself wrote that the essence of religion is the verse (cited by Rabbi Akiva as the essence of Judaism) “love your neighbor as yourself”, and it can be said that for Adler the verse expresses the essence of psychological health (What Life Should Mean To You, P. 253).

 

Psychology and ethics are thus intimately related. In order to fulfill the command to “love your neighbor as yourself”, one must love oneself. Most of the things that we do that cause hurt and pain to others is the result of our own not feeling good about ourselves, or of our being filled with anger and upset that we irresponsibly vent on others. And, as Adler argued, ethical relations of social harmony are the greatest sign of psychological health.

 

Psychology is actually a very ancient field, and through the ages the field has been referred to as the science of the soul or mind (the literal meaning of the term psychology). In my view, there are deep roots of modern, humanistic (cognitive) psychology in the Jewish tradition and in the Hebrew Bible.

 

The fundamental principle of humanistic (cognitive) psychology, which in my eyes characterizes humanistic (cognitive) psychology more than any other idea, is that our internal experience and feelings as human beings come from thoughts. According to humanistic (cognitive) psychology, our internal experience and feelings are not a direct response to external causes in the environment; and, events or situations that occur in external reality do not cause our feelings – as people are widely accustomed to think.

 

Humanistic (cognitive) psychologists use the famous analogy of a cup filled half with water (whether the cup is half full or half empty) in order to exemplify that our internal experience and feelings are a determined by thought and interpretation (or perspective). Events and situations that occur in external reality are a factual matter – and not good or bad in an inherent sense in and of themselves. The concepts of good and bad are a matter of subjective value judgment and perspective – and good and bad do not exist in external reality. Likewise, the concepts of opportunity and problem are a matter of subjective value judgment and interpretation – and opportunities and problems do not exist in external reality.  Events and situations exist in external reality from a factual point of view – but, they are neither good nor bad, and neither opportunities nor problems.

 

If we interpret a given event or situation in a positive way (a cup half full) as an opportunity (and every event or situation no matter how difficult may be viewed as, at least, an opportunity to learn and grow), we will feel positive feelings such as excitement, anticipation, appreciation, thankfulness and so on (or at least minimize negative feelings); conversely, if we interpret a given event or situation in a negative way (a cup half empty) as a problem, we will feel negative feelings such as anger, upset, discouragement, fear, anxiety, worry, despair, dejection, depression, stress and so on. We do not always have the power to change (or even influence) external events (as things often occur beyond our control); but, we always have the power and freedom to choose whether we will interpret circumstances and events positively (as opportunities) or negatively (as problems) – and, this power to choose how we will relate to external reality applies even toward unwanted external reality. Even if unwanted external reality presents us with objective difficulties, nevertheless we may view the event or situation as offering an opportunity to grow and learn, in spite of, or even because of, the difficulties.

 

If we return to the story of Noah, notice that after the flood God does not change human nature at all in response to the wickedness of the human being. Human nature, characterized by an inclination to do evil remains the same even after the flood. The only change is God’s attitude. Prior to the flood, God despairs of having created the human being – because of the inclination of the human being to do evil! After smelling the sacrifice of Noah, God is understanding and optimistic, and swears never again to destroy the human being, in spite of human wickedness – because of the inclination of the human being to do evil! The sacrifice is perhaps an external influence upon this shift in God’s attitude (making it easier for the shift) but not a cause. The sacrifice will influence God in a positive way only if the attitude of God toward the sacrifice is positive (that the sacrifice is a sincere offering) – if God were to view the sacrifice in a negative way (as a kind of bribe), then the sacrifice would not influence God in a positive way. In any case, the attitude of God toward the evil inclination has shifted from seeing the cup half-filled with water as half-empty to seeing it as half-full, and this is the direct cause of the change in the attitude of God from despair and complaint to understanding and optimism.

 

Incidentally, immediately following this passage (Genesis 8, 21-22) in which God swears never again to destroy the world, because of the inclination of the human being to do evil, God gives humanity the first set of laws recorded in the Bible (Genesis 9, 1-7) that include among other things the prohibition of murder. I want to suggest that such laws have been given to humanity by God as an antidote to the inclination of the human being to do evil. God has given a set of laws to humanity demanding obedience to their authority in order to control the inclination to do evil. However, such a solution to the “problem” of the inclination of the human being to do evil cannot be found by God so long as God’s attitude or perspective is negative – pessimistic and despairing. A negative attitude clouds one’s thinking. It is only when God makes a shift in attitude or perspective to a positive attitude and perspective (of understanding and optimism) regarding the inclination of the human being to do evil that God can then think clearly and engage in effective problem solving that allows God to find an antidote to the inclination of the human being to do evil.

 

Thus, the conception of God reflected in the story of Noah, and in the Bible in general, is anthropomorphistic (a God conceived in human form) – and, from the point of view of systematic theology and philosophy this is a very primitive conception of God. However, I emphasize that the Bible is not concerned with abstract theology and philosophy divorced from behavior. One can have an elevated theological conception of God and yet be an immoral person; conversely, one can have a primitive conception of God and yet be a righteous person. The Bible is not concerned with teaching us theology and philosophy. The Bible is in the main concerned with teaching us how to live especially from a psychological and ethical point of view. In the story of Noah, then, although God is depicted in a very crass human form (of a God who smells the sacrifice of Noah), nevertheless the Bible in presenting such a primitive conception of God teaches us a fundamental idea of psychology that anticipates by several thousand years modern humanistic (cognitive) psychology.

 

Jeffrey Radon

Author of orthopraxjudaism.com

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