By: Rabbi Shelton J. Donnell
“This is the account of Noah and his family. Noah was a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time, and he walked faithfully with God. Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight and was full of lawlessness (חמס). God saw how corrupt the earth had become, for all the people on earth had corrupted their ways” (Gen. 6:9, 11-12). Our portion for this week, Parashat Noach, begins with these words in which God warns Noach, “I am going to put an end to all people, for the earth is filled with lawlessness because of them. I am surely going to destroy both them and the earth” (ibid. 13). What brought God to the point of deciding to destroy everything on earth – from human to beast – all except for Noach and his family and the animals gathered with him on the ark? And what was the sin of the generation of the Flood that was so egregious according to these verses?
“Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight and was full of lawlessness,” the verse speaks about the earth’s corruption and about lawlessness (חמס), yet when God brings the final judgment down, only one sin is mentioned – “for the earth is filled with lawlessness (חמס) because of them.” Evidently, it was the lawlessness (the חמס) that filled the earth that was the cause of the punishment of the Flood.
Now, what is the meaning of this word lawlessness/חמס? According to our ancient sages and the later commentators (Rashi, Nachmanides and others) this word lawlessness (חמס) implies robbery. The commentator ibn Ezra adds, “Lawlessness (חמס) in robbery and oppression and the taking of wives by force.” So then, was it because of wanton robbery that the whole earth was destroyed?
The Hebrew word חמס appears in the Torah just five times, three times in Genesis (twice here in our portion), once in Exodus and one time in Deuteronomy. In Genesis 49:5-6, Jacob bestows his final benediction upon his sons, in the midst of which he also closes accounts with them. “Shimon and Levi are brothers— their swordsare weapons of lawlessness (חמס). Let me not enter their council, let me not join their assembly.” This alludes to the incident with Shechem (see Gen. 34:13-14) and the brother’s deceitful and ruthless behavior. The remaining two verses relate to giving false or incriminating testimony – “Do not spread false reports. Do not help a guilty person by being a malicious witness (עד חמס)” (Exodus 23:1), and “If a malicious witness (עד חמס) takes the stand to accuse someone of a crime, the two people involved in the dispute must stand in the presence of ADONAI before the priests and the judges who are in office at the time” (Deut. 19:16-17). From this we learn that the meaning of חמס is above all, injustice that is, societal wrong-doing that affects the trust that is necessary between members of a society.
The prophet Micah characterized Jerusalem (or, perhaps, Shomron) in this way, “Your rich people are ruthless (literally are filled with חמס); your inhabitants are liars and their tongues speak deceitfully” (Micah 6:12). And in the book of Ezekiel, the חמס of Jerusalem is given as a reason for its destruction in his time, “Prepare chains! For the land is full of bloodshed, and the city is full of lawlessness (חמס)” (Ezek. 7:23), and “…the land is full of bloodshed and the city is full of injustice” (Ezek. 9:9). And so, social injustice, oppression and bloodshed, “…for the land is full of bloodshed” alludes to “…and the earth was filled with lawlessness (חמס).”
Now the earth was full of lawlessness (חמס) – society cannot exist in a state of total injustice, thus the Flood is a metaphor for the chaos that wipes out all the good in creation and the consequent collapse of a society that does not exist with justice and law.
- Why did Rashi comment, “Their fate was sealed because of robbery,” when we see that the word חמס in the Bible represents a spectrum of sins from oppression to deceit to bloodshed? Do you suppose that robbery might be at the root of them all?
- Ezekiel saw חמס as a cause for the destruction of Jerusalem in his own time. Is there an implicit warning to us in our own day?
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