Noah, the raven, and the dove

October 20, 2017 § 3 Comments


Midrash is a kind of story-telling, created by the ancient rabbis, to fill in the gaps in the Biblical narrative. These stories are sometimes wildly inventive; the rabbis make use of the oddities in the Hebrew grammar, transforming them into hooks for nuanced theological points. The midrashic literature is a form of serious play, something like a jazz riff.

There are several different kinds of Midrashim (= plural of Midrash); the best known are those that use a metaphor to explain the Biblical story. One of the most famous formulas is to say “this is like a king who had a son…” or “this is like a king who had a daughter…” – in these stories, God is the king and the son or daughter is the people Israel.

My favorite kind of Midrash, however, are those that involve lengthy conversations between characters in a given Biblical narrative, such as this interchange between Noah and the raven:

““And he [Noah] sent forth a raven, and it went forth to and fro” (Gen. 8:7). It to-and-fro’ed, argued with him, saying: of all the cattle, beasts, and fowl you have here, you send none but me! Noah replied: What need has the world of you? You are fit neither for food nor as an offering.” [1]

The idea here is that the raven is treated badly by Noah and God, for it has no way to become sanctified; it is an unclean animal that cannot be sacrificed on the altar. The reason for the prohibition of sacrificing the raven has to do with the fact that it is a scavenger. The Midrash continues:

“Then, said Resh Lakish, the raven gave Noah an irrefutable retort: Your Lord hates me and you hate me. Your Lord showed His hatred of me by ordering that seven pair of the clean fowl be taken into the ark, but only two pair of the unclean. And you hate me, seeing that spare the species of which there are only two pair, you send me. Should the prince of heat or the prince of cold smite me, might not the world lose one entire species of creature?”

Resh Lakish, by the way, was a bandit who left his gang to study Torah – he’s one of the sources that I quoted in my High Holiday sermons. Resh Lakish’s comments regularly demonstrate a keen eye for these kinds of injustices. He seems to be aware that God or nature or Providence – whatever you might want to call it – does not always deal a fair hand to every creature. It’s an interesting point to ponder.

This midrash does not arise in a vacuum, however. It is a response to a very particular problem in the text. The rabbis have noticed that the Noah story has a series of redundancies in it.

For example: How many animals went into the ark?

  • A pair of each kind: Genesis 6:19
  • Seven of each clean animal and a pair of each unclean animal: Genesis 7:2

How many days did it rain?

  • 40 days: Genesis 7:12
  • 150 days: Genesis 7:24

What kind of bird did Noah release?

  • A raven: Genesis 8:6-7
  • A dove: Genesis 8:8
  • A second dove: Genesis 8:10

Some Biblical scholars believe that the Noah story may be two separate stories stitched together from two different sources. In fact, in one of the exercises in Rabbinical school in our second-year Bible class, we were asked to use two different colors of highlighter to identify the two different stories regarding Noah. It is something you can try at home.

The ancient rabbis, of course, were very aware of this aspect of the text, but they were committed to the reading strategy that sees the whole text – even these composite stories – as part of a larger revelation from God, one that is perfect in its own way.

That is to say, if the text has contradictions in it, or seems to be an amalgam of two sources, it must be trying to tell us something. This doubling must have meaning.

In the case of the raven and the dove, for example, the rabbis conclude that Noah’s relationship with the raven was already strained. Hence, they write:

“Noah replied: What need has the world of you? You are fit neither for food nor as an offering.”

It is a cutting remark, to remind the bird that its death would be the sum value of its life – and even in death, the bird is not worth much. That is why the bird responds:

“Your Lord hates me and you hate me. Your Lord showed His hatred of me by ordering that seven pair of the clean fowl be taken into the ark, but only two pair of the unclean. And you hate me, seeing that spare the species of which there are only two pair, you send me. Should the prince of heat or the prince of cold smite me, might not the world lose one entire species of creature?”

‘The prince of heat’ and ‘the prince of cold’ are references to the angels in control of the weather. The raven has a point: Noah is the one who makes the decision to send a raven – it is not a decision attributed to God by the text. Noah sends one of the pair of unclean birds rather than one of the seven pairs of clean birds. Noah has no extra ravens to spare, and could accidentally cause the extinction of a species by his choice.

That point, though interesting, is not the core meaning of this text. I have only quoted about half of it so far, in fact:

“Nevertheless, “Noah did send out the raven” (Gen. 8:7) to learn what was going on in the world. The raven flew out and, finding a man’s corpse flung on a mountaintop, perched itself over this food and did not come back to its sender with word concerning its errand.”

The raven finds food, forgets its errand, and (in the process) demonstrates exactly why it is not able to be sacrificed on the altar. It might also be noted that the raven also apparently forgets about the other raven in the ark. The raven cares only about the immediate need, and is willing to gorge on offal. The Midrash continues:

“Then Noah sent out the dove, and she did bring back word. “And lo, in her mouth an olive leaf freshly plucked” (Gen. 8:11). From where did the dove bring it? R. Bebai said: The gates of the Garden of Eden were opened for her, and she brought it from there.”

Let’s stop there for a moment and consider what has been said so far. These ideas may seem far-fetched for you. For one thing, where in the Bible does it suggest that the gates of the garden of Eden were ever opened for any creature? Are they not making things up when they write this material?

As I said earlier, the ancient rabbis make a series of assumptions about the text: this text is meaningful – all of it – and this text is the revelation of God. Nonetheless, the text’s deeper meaning is not always obvious to us. There is a possibility that we may have to interpret it. As the rabbis will remark at times, “this text says ‘interpret me!’” – they are aware of the problems and difficulties of the text. They are aware of the repetitions and the contradictions. They are committed to uncovering its meaning, but they are not committed to a process that relies on objective historical research.

It is not yet clear where they are going with this comment. Therefore, we will return to the text to try to discern the point that the rabbis were making here. A different rabbi elaborates:

“R[abbi] Aibu said to him: Had she [the dove] brought it [the olive branch] from the Garden of Eden, would she not have brought something finer, such as a stick of cinnamon or a leaf of balsam? But in truth the dove’s olive leaf was a way of hinting to Noah: My master Noah, I would rather have something even more bitter than this from the hand of the Holy One than something sweet from your hand.”

The rabbis are responding to the reality that an olive leaf is an odd choice for the dove to pick. Olives are bitter fruit, which is why we brine them. Think of that astringent olive taste: the leaves must also taste bitter, like the unbrined fruit. There is a reason why we never eat olives raw!

The olive tree, however, provided the oil for the lamps in the Temple. In this reading, the olive is an allusion to the sacrificial system that would one day be instituted in the Temple in Jerusalem. In this context, then, it should not surprise you to find out that the dove also is often a symbol for Israel in the rabbinic literature.

What does this text mean, then? The rabbis were aware that the life of the Jews may be exceedingly difficult at times. But here they are framing it as a choice: we would rather partake of the blessings of God (even if they are bitter at times) than the blessings of humanity (even if they are much sweeter). Unlike the raven that is content to scavenge, the dove seeks out the higher reality behind the everyday search for food and shelter.

What about the gentle reminder that the dove gives to Noah? What does that mean? Noah represents the righteous people of the world. The dove (that is to say, the people Israel) is aware that there is more to life than mere righteousness, praiseworthy though it may be. We are also called to serve God.

In this regard, the Midrash is referencing other Midrashim: Noah was righteous in his generation, according to the Biblical text – but would not have been righteous in another generation, according to some Midrashim. How so? When told that the whole world would be destroyed, Noah built an ark for his family. In contrast: when told that the cities of Sodom and Gemorrah would be destroyed, Abraham argued with God, suggesting that God should not destroy the righteous and wicked alike. It is righteous to take care of your family; it is godly to take care of others as well.

What are we to take from this text, then, for our own lives? It takes all kinds of courage and character to follow the voice of God in our lives. It can be very difficult. But above all else, know this: we are defined by the choices we make in our lives. Are you Noah, the raven, or the dove?


[1] Hayim Nahman Bialik and Yehoshua Hana Ravnitzky, The Book of Legends: Sefer Ha-Aggadah, Legends from the Talmud and Midrash, William G. Braude, transl. (New York: Schocken Books, 1992), p. 28.

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