Noach, revisited

By Min Kantrowitz


The story of Noah is one of the most well known in Genesis/Breishit. Even those with little or no knowledge of Torah can retell the essence of the story: the Flood, the Ark, and the pairs of each kind of animal. But the text does not tell the tale exactly that way. What does it actually say? And why?

The descriptions in Breishit 6 and Breishit 7 do not match. In both places, God is heartsick, sad and grieving the results of creation; humans are behaving badly. The idea that the One Source suffers from human emotions of regret, anger and desire for retribution is often glossed over in some contemporary concepts of God as the ultimate Source of compassion. But, in both texts, the angry and disappointed Divine decides to destroy the final (and, arguably, the most advanced) category of Creation: the human, due to humanity’s propensity for violence. All other creatures that breathe are to be destroyed, too, despite their not being responsible for humanity’s wickedness and evil.

The first version, in Breishit 6:17-20, states, “ I am going to bring floodwaters on the earth to destroy all life under the heavens, every creature that has the breath of life in it. Everything on earth will perish. But I will establish my covenant with you, and you will enter the ark—you and your sons and your wife and your sons’ wives with you. You are to bring into the ark two of all living creatures, male and female, to keep them alive with you. Two of every kind of bird, of every kind of animal and of every kind of creature that moves along the ground will come to you to be kept alive.”

The version in Breishit 7:1-3 differs; “The Eternal then said to Noah, “Go into the ark, you and your whole family, because I have found you righteous in this generation. Take with you seven pairs of every kind of clean animal, a male and its mate, and one pair of every kind of unclean animal, a male and its mate, and also seven pairs of every kind of bird, male and female, to keep their various kinds alive throughout the earth.”

We are left with a question: how many of what kind of animal was Noah told to bring into the Ark: one pair of each kind of animal (Breishit 6) or seven pairs of one category of animal, and one pair from each example of the other category (Breishit 7)? This uneven distribution of pardon sets up the demographic expectation that ‘clean animals’ will outnumber ‘unclean’ ones over time.

In Jewish tradition, seven is the number that signifies completion. For example: there are seven days in a complete week, a highlight of a Jewish wedding is the seven circlings enacted during the ceremony, the ties on tachrichim (traditional shrouds/funeral garments) are twisted seven times before tying. Requiring seven pairs of ‘clean’ animals is a blueprint for a future complete world.

But why include the ‘unclean’ animals? Judaism is not a religion about perfection, but about continual reflection and improvement. Each High Holiday season provides multiple structured opportunities for us to examine our thoughts, intentions and behaviors in order to improve.  The inclusion of unclean animals may be a reminder that there will always be errors as well as opportunities to rectify them…but the disproportionate number of ‘clean’ animals assures that good will eventually triumph over evil.

Perhaps more important in thinking about this floating zoo is the necessity of diversity—of plants, animals and varieties of humans. The Ark did not contain only ‘beautiful’ humans (despite the fact that Breishit 6:2 states that “the sons of God saw that the daughters of humans were beautiful”), but at least a pair of every kind of living, breathing animal was on board, regardless of their moral character or physical characteristics. Diversity of plants, animals and humans is a necessary and delightful aspect of life on earth. When species become extinct or when marginalized groups are excluded, the richness of Creation suffers.

Today we live in an uncertain world: civic structures are unstable, Earth’s climate is changing in erratic and unpredictable ways and sociopolitical trends are segmenting humanity into opposing and mutually incompatible forces. There are earthquakes, droughts, destructive fires…and floods. Climate change and habitat loss are decimating the animal world. For example, the Javan rhino population has shrunk to between 46 to 66 individuals. NBC news reports that more than 2,000 species of amphibians are now threatened by extinction. Species of monkeys, tigers and even spiders are in danger of disappearing. We need to pay attention. After the death of the last dodo bird people didn’t believe that God would take away a creature’s existence after having gone through the trouble of creating them, so no one was truly alarmed at their disappearance. But we are alarmed now…and we should be. Floods remind us that the Earth herself needs rest and renewal. The Flood in the time of Noah wiped out much, but what remained was the possibility of repair and rejuvenation. The Flood as a powerful reminder that our world is precious and we need to care for her and for all life that is supported on this planet.

The name ‘Noah’ comes from the Hebrew “Noach” which means ‘rest’ or ‘repose”, the necessary step for refueling ourselves. We remember this every week as Shabbat reminds us that renewal requires rest. On Shabbat, when everything returns to its source, we rest, so we can start over again, refreshed and renewed, remembering that diversity is a necessary component of creation and committing ourselves to protecting all the variety of life clinging to this very precious planet.