Flood, Salt, and Sacrifice: Post Traumatic Stress Disorders in Genesis

By Luger, Steven | Jewish Bible Quarterly, April 2010 | Go to article overview

Flood, Salt, and Sacrifice: Post Traumatic Stress Disorders in Genesis


Luger, Steven, Jewish Bible Quarterly


Part of our job in reading and understanding the Bible is using a lens of our times to view these eternal characters. I would propose using the lens of modern psychology to help understand the behaviors and outcomes of 3 biblical personalities.

Post traumatic stress disorder [PTSD], is a diagnosis being more commonly recognized since the initial use of the term in 1980. The National Institute of Mental Health defines it as follows:

   Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, PTSD, is an anxiety disorder that
   can develop after exposure to a terrifying event or ordeal in which
   grave physical harm occurred or was threatened. Traumatic events
   that may trigger PTSD include violent personal assaults, natural or
   humancaused disasters, accidents, or military combat. (1)

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders [DSM-IV]--has a complicated definition for PTSD and sets criteria for its diagnosis. The ; however, the information needed to make this diagnosis is only available after a full evaluation, observation and discussion with the patient over time.

The diagnosis of PTSD can be suspected in an individual who exhibits a significant behavior change after a traumatic event. I would propose that in the early narratives in BereshitGenesis--particularly the stories of Noach, Lot'sNoah, Lot's wife, and Isaac--we see different manifestations of severe psychological stress and reactions consistent with PTSD in these biblical personalities.

Noach Noah is introduced to us in the Book of BereshitGenesis and is described as an "Ish tzaddik, tamim hayah b'dorotav"be-dorotav [Noah was a righteous man; he was blameless in his generation] (Gen. 6:9). It is also says, Noah walked with God. (6:9). We know of his righteousness not only from this characterization, but also from Noah'sNoach's actions. He demonstrates his loyalty and his acceptance of God'sGod's commandment by completing the building of an ark over a period of 120 years.

Steven Luger, M.D., is the medical director of the Hartford Medical Group and a board certified family physician.

After gathering all the animals into the ark and being joined by his family, NoachNoah witnesses the complete annihilation of all known civilization. The midrashic literature is replete with narratives of how burdensome life on the ark was for Noach.Noah. (2) At the end of his stay on the ark, the NoachNoah that emerges is no longer the same NoachNoah that boarded the ark a year earlier. Gone is the righteous man whom we saw earlier. He is replaced by a broken man who has a drunken encounter with his son, after which we hear of him no more. After witnessing the destruction of the known world, it is not surprising that NoachNoah turns to alcohol--a common outlet for patients with PTSD.(3)

We know much less about the background of Lot's wife. She was married to Abraham'sAbraham's nephew, and lived in the wicked city of Sodom. When God'sGod's messengers [angels] told Lot to take his family and leave Sodom, they were instructed by these the messengers, not to look back on Sodom and its destruction. Lot'sLot's wife disobeys and, like Noah, sees the world as she knows it destroyed. What is her reaction to this terrible loss of her entire world? She becomes "a pillar of salt" (19:26) --a catatonic reaction to stress. She becomes as immobile and rigid as a pillar of salt. This catatonic reaction, too, has been described in the psychiatric literature as a result of severe psychological trauma. (4)

Isaac, Abraham'sAbraham's son, one of the forefathers of Judaism, is destined for greatness.

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Flood, Salt, and Sacrifice: Post Traumatic Stress Disorders in Genesis
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