The story of Noah and the flood is often presented as a children’s tale, something so fabulous and unbelievable we expect kids to be awed and adults to strain to suspend their disbelief.
The story is, of course, challenging and terrifying when studied in its full setting. The adult reader is filled with questions from the outset, many of which are asked by our commentators:
Was Noah really a righteous man in his time? Many interpreters don’t think so. He was righteous only because the world was mired in immorality.
Was Noah really a hero? In our tradition he is compared unfavorably to both Avraham and Moses.
Why didn’t Noah speak up on behalf of others, as Avraham spoke up for the doomed cities of Sodom and Gomorrah? Our Sages take him to task.
These questions and our responses to them could fill untold chapters and books — and they have!
Yet it is a minor conundrum at the end of the flood story that takes us out of the world of fable once and for all. As the waters recede, we are told that Noah released a raven, then a dove from the Ark.
Most of us know that the dove could not find a place for its foot to rest and came back to Noah. He released it a week later and the dove brought back a plucked off olive branch in its beak. After seven more days, Noah let the dove go and it did not return.
But before ever releasing the dove, the text tells us that, “He released a raven, which took off, flying thither and back until the water dried up from the earth.” (Gen. 8.7)
Where did the raven go? I ask this question every year to my 10th-grade class and their answers are certainly creative:
The raven died.The raven had more strength than the dove and flew until the waters dried up.The raven found its way back to the ark and hid from Noah.
The answer evident from the text, however, is far more chilling. Unlike the dove, which is vegetarian and eats only leaves, the raven is a carnivore. The ravens on the grounds of the Tower of London eat the Queen’s beef. The raven in our Torah narrative needs no such dainty. The seas are not pristine and clear. Rather they are filled with the dead of all creatures who drowned in the flood, including human beings. The raven does not have to search for either food or a resting place. The waters are filled with both.
This image forever destroys the notion of this story as a children’s fable. The Torah is trying to tell us what the consequences of our own moral depravity can lead to. It is teaching us that, in a world of no rules, carnivores fly about unrestrained from doing almost anything.
I am indebted to my beloved teacher, Dr. Rabbi Chanan Brichto of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati for this insight. He constantly reminded his students that rather than set aside difficult texts, we must confront them. He demanded that we suspend our judgment and skepticism in order to find the real essence of any Torah narrative.
We live in a world of carnivores still. It is our task to restrain them and to limit their threat to our hopes for a decent, ethical society. That is why Torah is so important to us, as a guide to making a better world.
We must remember the popular teaching that the only thing evil needs to succeed is for good men and women to do nothing. This teaching is so much more compelling than a fable.
(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)