What is the message to be learned from the biblical narratives preceding the giving of the Torah?

Aren't the stories in Genesis just a bunch of legends?

The narratives in Genesis have a common thread to them, which is of a universalistic nature, for those who are troubled by the particularism of the Torah in general. That common thread is, surprise, surprise, an Objectivist one. We'll take a look at the first three major episodes following the expulsion from Eden:

  1. The Flood
  2. The Tower of Babel
  3. The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorra

As we saw in the story of the Garden, the first sin was the sin of theft. Okay, you can make a case that it was evading the rational conclusion that the Fruit did not belong to them and that the serpent was just making trouble, but the act was theft.

Nor do we see any sign that Adam and Eve understood this to be the case. They, and Cain after them, simply didn't see why they should not do as they wish (you may, if you choose, see that as a cheap way of jumping over the story of Cain and Abel). Society until the Flood was in a state of anarchy.

The Torah says that in the time preceding the Flood, "the world was filled with hamas" (can I help it that a bunch of Arab murders were perceptive enough to take as their name the very reason Hashem destroyed the world?). Hamas is explained by the commentator Rashi as gezel, or theft. "Aha!" you cry.

Basically, man had run into a dead end. We were deeply enough into a total disregard for the life and possessions of others that it was necessary to essentially start over. And so: the Flood.

Noah was told explicitly by Hashem that the world was being destroyed because it was filled with theft. So the new world had a hint how to conduct itself the second time around. The episode of the Tower of Babel was the result of an irrational overcompensation. According to Jewish tradition, the Tower was a mass project. The first such in history. It was "public works" and no one asked you if you were interested in participating. Essentially, it was believed that the sin of the flood was that everyone did what they wanted with the lives and property of everyone else. Anarchy. Which was true, so far as that went. But the solution that was proposed, and carried out, was totalitarianism. Complete statism. Not only would no one be permitted to affect the lives of others, they wouldn't even be in control of their own.

We are told that the value of a human life became so devalued at this time that if a brick fell from the building site, men would burst into tears. But if a man fell and plummeted to his death, it was shrugged off as just part of the price that needed to be paid for the great accomplishment. The people at the time really felt that they had learned from the Generation of the Flood. And hey, they were half right. There was no more theft and murder by the guy next door. Only by the government. So Hashem trashed them as well.

Abraham was a contemporary of the Tower project. The Cities of the Plain (Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, Zeboiim and Zoar) were founded in the wake of the destruction of the Tower and the confusion of tongues. The founders of the Cities were well aware of the failings of the Tower builders. They determined that they would not make the same mistake. There would be no more anarchy. There would be no more totalitarian central ownership. Everyone would own what he owned, and live as an individual. Sounds like an Objectivist utopia, no?

And in truth, they were getting closer. But not close enough. Now I beg your indulgence for a moment as I take what appears to be an off-the-topic digression. Trust me.

In Pirkei Avot (correctly translated as "Chapters of Basic Principles," but more familiar to the general populace as "Ethics of the Fathers" - feh), we are told of four types of people:

Do you see anything strange here? I'll give you a hint: it's in the second line. A minor dispute is one thing. But to have the same behavior identified both as completely normal and as comparable to Sodom is a bit jarring.

Oh, by the way, a hassid is a person who practices hesed. Hesed means acting benevolently. It means doing things that are not obligatory, but are over and above the call of duty. The term is in contrast to tzedek, or righteousness, which means doing all that which is obligatory. One who does tzedek is called a tzaddik. A hassid is on a higher level, but no one can ever be criticized for being "merely" a tzaddik. Because by definition, there is no obligation to be a hassid. In Judaism, our version of "charity" is called Tzedakah, which derives from the word tzedek. Unlike charity, tzedakah is obligatory.

Back to Sodom (figuratively speaking, of course). Jewish tradition tells us that in Sodom, it was forbidden to help a stranger. It was forbidden to give the unearned to anyone. Under any circumstances. Under dire penalties. Coins were marked so that if a poor person or a stranger was found with money, the criminal who gave it to him could be punished. It was from this city that the cry went up to heaven which resulted in the destruction of the Cities of the Plain.

What was the mistake of Sodom? They believed that the socialism/communism of the Tower builders was wrong because it forced people to share their lives and properties with others. Which was true. But their solution was to force people not to share. Their mistake was in not recognizing that the government, or any group you like, simply has no right to tell individuals what they may or may not do with their lives and property, provided that they do not actively hurt others with them.

Now we can understand the strange line in Pirkei Avot. When a person says, "What is mine is mine and what is yours is yours," they can mean it in two different ways. One is optional and the other is mandatory. In other words, a person who recognizes that everyone owns their own lives and property, and that no one has a "right" to the lives or property of others, is a regular person. But one who tries to outlaw hesed, to prevent individuals from voluntarily acting benevolently, this is the behavior of Sodom.

This is why these three stories were included in the Torah. This is the lesson they were intended to communicate.

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