The Flood Narrative II

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(continued from here)

II. Bipartite Thematic Approaches

There are essentially two ways in which to deal with the findings of source critics without accepting the conclusion that the passage has multiple sources. One is to deny the inference that there are needless repetitions and changes of style in the passage. The other is to embrace the duality in the narrative but to explain it in a way other than it being based on the redaction of multiple documents. We will present attempts at this latter approach first, and then efforts at the former.

The earliest scholar I found to present such an approach is R. Meir Leibush (Malbim) Weiser.[3] He compares the two addresses by God to Noah (6:13-22; 7:1-5) and notes the different names of God and the different numbers of animals. He suggests that the two speeches represent two reasons for which God was saving Noah from the flood. As a matter of justice, God was ensuring that life would continue in the world. For that reason, God saved Noah’s family and two of every species. That is why the first address utilizes the Divine name Elokim, which in rabbinic theology represents Divine justice. That is also why only two of every species is mentioned–nothing more is needed to continue the existence of those species.

The second address, however, is directed toward the righteous Noah. It is said with the Divine name of Mercy and refers to God saving things that Noah needed for himself–his personal possessions (“you and all your household”) as well as extra animals for his consumption.

Nechama Leibowitz[4] takes this a step further and suggests that this distinction can explain other differences between the language of the two addresses. The first address refers three times to “למינהו” (according to their kinds), while the second address does not do so even once. In general, the first is much more specific regarding the animals that are to be brought. That, presumably, can be explained based on the above. The first address was about saving the animal life of the world and, therefore, is more specific. The second is about Noah’s private needs and did not include all of the many animals that needed to be preserved.

R. Elhanan Samet[5] continues along a similar line and utilizes this type of approach to explain the two covenants discussed in the passage. The first command to enter the ark, in the first address to Noah (6:13-22), is based on God’s covenant–“But I will establish my covenant with you; and you shall come into the ark, you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives with you” (6:18). The second command to enter the ark, in the second address (7:1-5), is based on Noah’s personal merit–“Go into the ark, you and all your household, for I have seen that you alone are righteous before me in this generation” (7:1).

Commentators[6] explain that the covenant in the first address refers to God’s covenant to maintain the world. In this section, Noah is being informed of God’s saving the world through him, despite the destruction He is about to unleash upon it. This part of the narrative, along with its continuations in the bipartite passage, refer to God’s covenant with the world.

The second address, however, is about Noah being saved because of his own personal righteousness. Even had God chosen someone else to be the continuation of the human race, Noah would still have deserved to be saved because of his proper behavior.

Like Malbim, R. Samet uses this double-message to explain the different languages and numbers about the animals to be saved–one version refers to the animals saved as part of the continuation of the world and the other version refers to the animals saved for Noah’s needs–as well as the change in the name of God:

In the first speech, God reveals to Noach within His attribute of justice, as burdening him with the obligation of fulfilling the ancient covenant. Therefore, this speech demonstrates no special closeness or Divine grace towards Noach. But the second speech, which addresses Noach as a “righteous man before God,” reflects Divine grace and the attribute of mercy; it is through the attribute of mercy that Noach merits to be saved from the punishment of the Flood.[7]

R. Samet then addresses the end of the narrative. Unlike the standard source-critical approach, R. Samet sees four covenant sections at the end of the story rather than two. He divides the covenant establishment sections as follows:

8:20-22 Noah’s Reaction
9:1-7 Mutual Covenant
9:8-11 Flood Covenant
9:12-17 Rainbow Covenant

As explained, there already was a covenant on God’s behalf not to destroy the world. That is one of the reasons why He saved Noah’s and the animals. These sections deal, then, not with the establishment of a covenant but with extensions of the original covenant.

The first section is Noah’s reaction after surviving the most horrific and terrifying destruction ever unleashed upon the world. The sacrifices that Noah offered were a plea to God to never destroy the world like this again, to allow Noah to rebuild the society that had just been destroyed.

The next three sections are God’s responses to Noah’s plea. God first establishes obligations on humanity in exchange for security. Just as God pledges to never destroy the world, so too man must pledge to treat his surroundings with respect and responsibility.

God then, in specific response to Noah’s plea, specifies that not only will He never destroy the world, He will never unleash a flood like the one just witnessed. Furthermore, in response to the psychological state of the survivors, God concretizes the covenant by offering a visible symbol of its endurance–the rainbow. This was briefly mentioned in the first section above, Noah’s Reaction, to clarify what Noah’s actions meant. In this section, God’s response is described in detail.

This approach, while innovative, fails to explain all of the repetitions and differences between the redundant sections. However, it clarifies enough of the difficulties to render the split into separate sources unnecessary. Once enough of the repetitions are explained thematically, the other issues raised by source critics can be answered individually, as reflecting concerns of the unique place within the narrative and not any global issue. This type of approach will be further pursued in the next section.

However, before we address that approach, it is worth presenting the view of R. Yitzhak Etshalom in his forthcoming book Between the Lines of the Bible[8]. R. Etshalom finds a continuous dual theme throughout the early chapters of Genesis of man’s obligation to the world and to himself. Quoting R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik[9] as explaining the two stories of Creation as discussing these two aspects of human life, R. Etshalom ably applies these two themes to the two accounts of the flood as well.

God destroyed the world for two reasons–because man failed in his obligation to maintain order in the world (6:11-12) and because man failed to develop his own spirituality (6:5). Noah walked with God (6:9), i.e. he followed God’s path of promoting righteousness in the world, and he was also “righteous before Me” (7:1).

Noah’s offering of sacrifices after the flood is a reflection of his righteousness, and God responds by pledging to never alter the seasons (8:20-22). However, God also interacts with Noah as the representative of humanity, demanding of him basic standards of behavior and offering an official sign of their mutual commitment (9:1-17).

R. Etshalom[10] further points out that, as described above, chapter 8 is usually broken down into two versions, with 8:1-5, 15-19 being part of one version and 8:6-14, 20-22 part of another version. However, the language from both sets of verses bears a striking similarity to the Creation sto
ry in Gen. 1 as follows:

  • Day 1: “. . . and the spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters” (1:2).
    After the Flood: “God made a wind to pass over the earth” (8:1).
  • Day 2: “‘Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters'” (1:6).
    After the Flood: “the fountains also of the deep and the windows of heaven were stopped, and the rain from heaven was restrained” (8:2).
  • Day 3: “‘Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear'” (1:9).
    After the Flood: “. . . in the tenth month, on the first day of the month, were the tops of the mountains seen” (8:5).
  • Day 3: “‘Let the earth put forth grass, herb yielding seed, and fruit-tree bearing fruit after its kind, wherein is the seed thereof, upon the earth'” (1:11).
    After the Flood: “And the dove came in to him at eventide; and lo in her mouth an olive leaf freshly plucked; so Noah knew that the waters were abated from off the earth” (8:11).
  • Day 4: “‘Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days and years'” (1:14).
    After the Flood: “‘While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease.'” (8:22). (Note also that in 8:11, the dove comes to Noah “at eventide,” the first mention of any distinct time of day after the flood; evidently, night and day were blurred during the entire cataclysm.)
  • Day 5: “‘Let the waters swarm with swarms of living creatures, and let fowl fly above the earth in the open firmament of heaven'” (1:20).
    After the Flood: “And he stayed yet other seven days; and sent forth the dove; and she returned not again unto him any more” (8:12) (i.e., the dove returned to its earlier station as a “bird that flies above the earth”).
  • Day 6: “‘Let the earth bring forth the living creature after its kind, cattle, and creeping thing, and beast of the earth after its kind’ And it was so. . . . ‘let us make man in our image, after our likeness . . .’. And God blessed them; and God said unto them: ‘Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that creeps upon the earth'” (1:24, 26, 28).
    After the Flood: “‘Go out from the ark, you, and your wife, and your sons, and your sons’ wives with you. Bring out with you every living thing that is with you, of all flesh, both fowl, and of cattle, and every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth; that they may swarm in the earth, and be fruitful, and multiply upon the earth'” (8:16–17).

The message is clear: The world after the flood was re-created after its destruction. However, notice how this subtle theme is continued in both versions and they both echo Gen. Chapter 1, which itself is supposed to be only one of two versions of the Creation. Furthermore, this explains why some of the repetition is necessary–to advance this theme.

Another way to respond to the findings of source critics… (b”n more to come)


[3] Ha-Torah Ve-Ha-Mitzvah (Warsaw, 1874-1880), Gen. 7:1 ff.
[4] Gilyonot Le-Iyun Be-Parashat Ha-Shavu’a, Noah 5707 (1946). I thank Marvin Stiefel for providing me with a copy of this paper.
[5] “Two Covenants to Preserve the World”: http://www.vbm-torah.org/parsha.63/02noach.htm
[6] Midrash Ha-Gadol, Abrabanel and Ha’amek Davar to Gen. 6:18; Umberto Cassutto, Mi-Noah Ad Avraham (Jerusalem: Hebrew University Press, 1949), pp. 46-47.
[7] R. Samet, ibid.
[8] Yashar Books, 2005. Chapters 7-8.
[9] The Lonely Man of Faith (New York: Doubleday, 1992).
[10] Ibid., Chapter 6.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the founder, publisher and editor-in-chief of Torah Musings.

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