Thursday, October 27, 2022

Hebrew Insights into Parashat Noach (Noah) Genesis 6:9 – 11:32

 Our Parasha spans the Flood, its causes, and its aftermath, leading to events related to the Tower of Babel and to the subsequent dispersion of humanity. Here, as is the case in many of the other Parashot*, we find certain keywords (words stemming from the same three-letter root) which are repeated within a given passage, or strewn throughout the text.

In Parashat* B’resheet (in Gen. 5:29), Noach’s name was explained: “Now he called his name Noach, saying, this one will comfort us “. The root of “comfort” in this instance, is (nun, chet, mem), pronounced nachem. Noach’s name, however, does not contain the consonant “m” (the letter “mem” in Hebrew). And whereas in his evil generation he was a comfort to Elohim, his name actually means “rest” (, noon, vav, chet). At the end of Parashat B’resheet (6:6), there is another reference to the root We read there, “And YHVH repented [or “regretted” that is, “was sorry”] that He had made man on the earth”. In this case “regretted” is “(va)yinachem”. But how is “comfort” related to “regret” or to “being sorry”? The root’s primary meaning is to be “sorry” or to "reconsider" which indicates that only deep empathy with another’s sorrow can be a source of genuine comfort at a time of grief. Conversely, a change of attitude or direction may also bring comfort and relief.  Moreover, a close examination of Lamech’s words reveals what it was that he was lamenting, and why he was hoping that his newborn would be a “comfort” concerning (literal translation): “our toil and sorrow of our hands, from the ground which YHVH cursed”. In his lament, Lamech was echoing YHVH’s words in 3:17 to Adam (literal translation): “Cursed is the ground for your sake, in sorrow you shall eat of it…” Lamech repeats the three terms used in 3:17, being: “sorrow”, ground, and "cursed". 

At the end of Parashat Noach, an explanation is given for the name Ba’vel (Babel). According to 11:9 “Ba’vel” was so named because “there Elohim confused the language” of the builders of the tower. However, the verb “confuse”, used here is “balal” and even though similar in sound, Ba'vel does not originate from this root and actually means (in the Sumerian and Acadian languages) “Gate of El”. The names Noach and Ba’vel are two examples of how the Tanach (O.T.) employs puns in order to drive a point while overlooking grammatical accuracy (for another such case refer to Yehoshua-Joshua 5:9).

 In spite of the sought-after-comfort-cum-rest, ironically, Noach lived at a time of great unrest, a fact that led to the natural disaster that befell his contemporaries. Yet in the midst of it all, calm could be had in the 'eye of the storm' represented by the one who was found righteous at that time (ref. 6:9; 7:1), and by the place of refuge that he was constructing. In 8:4 we find the ark “resting upon the mountains of Ararat” (italics added). Following the raven, a dove was sent out “to see if the water had abated… and [she] found no resting place for the sole of her foot… “(8:8, 9 italics added). Rest is depicted here, and even highlighted, against the backdrop of the grave catastrophe. When Noach, his family, and the animals emerged out of the ark, Noach built an altar. In 8:21 we read, “And YHVH smelled the soothing aroma”. The word for “soothing” is “nicho’ach”, which once again originates with the root “rest”.

 The dove was sent “to see if the water had receded” (8:8). “Receded” in this case is “kalu”, spelled with the letter “kof” rather than with the expected “kaf” (which would have meant, “finished, done, complete”).  The word “kalu” as it appears here means “having become light, or of little substance” from which stems “k’lala”- "curse" (and literally, to “make something of light esteem”).  In 8:21 YHVH says: “I will never again curse [a’ka’lel] the ground”. Is the unusual form of “recede”, as used here, inferring to the fact that?the?cause?for?the?great?deluge?was YHVH’s curse?

Last week we dealt with the root of “erev” (“evening”), which means a “pledge” and a “mixture” (being but two of its several meanings) … This time it is the “raven” (“orev”) which shares this root. The association between “raven” and “evening” is found in the Song of Songs (Song of Solomon) 5:11, where the beloved’s dark curls are compared to the dark raven. The black fowl, therefore, borrows its name from the evening’s fading light (i.e., darkness).

Mankind’s corruption is highlighted in 6:11. The word used there is “tisha’chet”, of the root (shin, chet, tav), which primarily means to “destroy or destruction”. In verses 12, 13 and 17 derivatives of this root appear four times as “corruption” and also as the verb for the “destruction” that YHVH was about to bring upon the entire earth and its inhabitants (v. 13). Inherent in the verb “sha’chot”, therefore, is corruption's self-destructiveness. In Yishayahu (Isaiah) 11:9 (and 65:25) we read the following: “They shall not hurt nor destroy – yash’chitu - in all My holy mountain”.

Interestingly and in a strangely similar way, the condition of ‘no destruction’ ("lo yashchitu") is also characterized by water, as Isaiah 11:9 continues: “… for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of YHVH as the waters cover the sea”, which in our narrative is the agent of annihilation. Additionally, the impact of the verb “sha’chot” (with the letter “tav” at the end) receives an extra emphasis, as it evokes a similar sounding verb ending with a different “t” consonant (“tet”), which is to “slaughter” (e.g., Exodus 29:11,16, 20).

The other noun repeated in chapter 6 is “chamas” (ch.m.s, chet, mem, samech), translated as “violence”: “…And the earth was filled with violence” (vs. 11, 13). As a rule, the noun/verb “chamas” is connected to sinful acts of violence and injustice. “Chamas” rhymes with another verb - “chamad” - which means to “delight” but also to “desire or covet” (as was the case with the fruit of the tree in Gen. 3:6, which seemed “desirable – nechmad - to make one wise”). Quite often similar sounding words, like “chamas” and “chamad” are also connected in meaning. Thus, the violent actions of “chamas” are motivated by covetousness or unbridled desire. (Is it a lingual coincidence that Chamas is also the name of the notorious terror organization, bearing in mind the similarities between Arabic and Hebrew?)

Planted right in the midst of these descriptions of corruption, violence, and pending destruction is the only (potential) solution: the ark - "tey'va". More than a millennium will pass, when another would-be savior will be protected by a "tey'va" (though translated as "basket" in English), which will also float on water. This will be Moshe. In the process of building this ark, our attention is first drawn to the act of propitiation and atonement: “kippur”. “Make yourself an ark of gopher wood… and… cover it inside and out with pitch" (6:14 italics added). The verb and noun for the action (of “covering”) and the material itself (“pitch”) are of the root k.f.r (kaf, pey/fey* resh) – which makes up “kippur”. Thus, this ark was to become a shelter, offering a protective covering from the disasters resulting from the sins of the age. The rabbis believe that anyone among those who had watched it being built, through the many years of its construction, could have also found refuge in it. Instead, the spectators chose to scoff and ridicule its builder. In most other cases, the verb and the noun stemming from the root k.f.r are used directly in connection with “atonement” (e.g., Daniel 9:24), or as “payment of a price, or ransom” (e.g., Num. 35:31).

The very principles of atonement, and the reasons for its requirement, also find expression in our Parasha. Thus, we read in chapter 9:4-6: “But you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood. Surely for your lifeblood I will demand a reckoning … From the hand of every man's brother I will require the life of man. Whoever sheds man's blood, by man his blood shall be shed…”  Indeed, for atonement to be effective blood is imperative.

The importance of covering is brought out one more time in our Parasha, in the story of Noach’s three sons’ respective responses to their father's drunken stupor. Cham (Ham), the son who looked upon his father’s nakedness, was condemned to slavery by a curse which was pronounced upon his son, Cna’an (Canaan) (9:25), whose name stems from the root to?“subdue”?or be?”subdued”?(k.n.a, kaf, noon, ayin).

The other two siblings, on the other hand, are said to have covered their father’s naked body.

Notice how the escalation and acceleration of the waters increase, on the one hand, serve as the platform on which the ark is raised higher and higher, on the other. Thus, we read: "The waters increased and lifted up the ark, and it rose high above the earth. The waters prevailed and greatly increased on the earth, and the ark moved about on the surface of the waters"(7:17-18 italics added).

"And it happened in the six hundred and first year, at the beginning, on the first of the month that the waters were dried up from off the earth. And Noah removed the covering of the ark and looked. And, behold, the face of the earth was dried!” (8:13). “Dried” in both instances in the above verse is “cha’rvu”. In 7:22 we read, “All that was in the dry land, died”. Once again, “dry land” is “charava”. Both the verb, as well as the noun, are of the root ch.r.v (chet, resh, bet/vet) which is also the root for “waste, desolate, attack, sword, plunder, wage war, fight” and more. In Hebrew thought “dryness”, denoting lack of water and rain (and hence drought), is commensurate with terms associated with lifelessness and destruction, which points to the shortage of water characterizing the land of Israel (even before the latter?is?ever mentioned!)

When they emerged out of the ark, Noach and his family were given the same ‘marching orders’ as Adam, their predecessor. Humanity’s survivors were to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth”. The injunction to be fruitful is “pru”. In the 10th generation, one of Noach’s descendants, Avram (Abram), will be informed by the bestowal of a blessing that, he will become “fruitful” (Gen. 17:6), while four generations after that event, Avraham’s grandson will be named, in faith, “multiple fruitfulness?-?that?is,?Ephraim. However, one striking difference between Elohim’s blessing and charge to and over Noach and his sons and the one over Adam’s, is that this time the Almighty declares that “the fear of you and the dread of you shall be on every beast…  bird … and on all that moves on the earth, and on all the fish…” (Gen. 9:2). Notice that the “fear and dread” are absent from YHVH’s word to Adam regarding the latter’s “subduing” of the earth and the “dominion” he was to have over all that lives and moves (ref. Gen. 1:26, 28).

 Among the many names found in our Parasha, there are three, in particular, that call for our attention. The first two persons are second cousins: Yefet’s (Japheth) grandson, the son of Yavan (Javan) is Dodanim (or Rodanim, as he is called in 1 Ch. 1:7), the second is Cham’s (Ham) grandson, the son of Cush – Nimrod.

Yavan is the Hebrew word for Greece. Down the road of history, Greece will become a major power of unprecedented influence over the entire world in a number of areas, one of which will be government (democracy). Yavan’s son’s two names, Dodanim and Rodanim (see 1st Chron. 1:6) mean, respectively, “cousins and rulers” (“rdu”, connected to Rodanim, is the verb YHVH used when He told Adam and Chava to subdue the earth in Gen. 1:28). His cousin, Cham’s grandson, Nimrod, is the one who built Ba’vel; a place which will become synonymous with the world’s hierarchal systems, especially as pertaining to religious matters. Nimrod means, “we will rebel”, and rebelling he does by setting up his own kingdom, as a direct counterfeit of Elohim’s kingdom (10:10).

In the following generation, we have the son of the third cousin, Shelach, whose name was Ever, who is of the firstborn lineage. It is his name that is given to the entire race - the Hebrews (“Ivrim”) who are to represent Elohim’s Kingdom on earth. The name Ever is derived from the verb “pass or cross over”, a fact that this race will be demonstrating throughout biblical history, beginning with Avram. We will observe the Hebrews passing over from one place, or condition, to another, whether in a physical sense or otherwise, in order to earn the name of their forbearer.

The generation of the “cousins” (is it a coincidence that one of them, as mentioned, is actually named “Dodanim”- cousins?) is unique, having left its imprint upon humanity to this?very day.

It says that Noach and his sons were to “fill the land/earth”. It is quite likely that this “filling” was not meant only in a physical sense. Nimrod and the other inhabitants of the land of Shinar rebelled against Elohim and busied themselves by erecting a tower, which, by their own admittance was designed to prevent their scattering ( noon, pey/fey, tzadi) on earth (ref. 11:4). But in verse 8 it says that YHVH Himself “scattered” them – va’yafetz (being of the same root as used by the builders of the tower). In verse 3 “they say to one another, come let us make bricks…” and in verse 5, they say once again, “come let us build ourselves a city…”. In both cases, “let us” is “ha’vah”. YHVH’s watchful eye over them is underscored by His “let us” – ha’vah – when He says in verse 7: “Come, let us go down…” etc

Earlier, in 9:19, it says about the sons of Noach that, “the whole earth was populated by them”, with the verb “populated” being literally “scattered” (the same one as used in 11:4, 8). The “scattering” was YHVH-initiated because, “indeed, the people are one and they all have one language, and this is what they will begin to do; now nothing that they propose to do will be withheld from them” (11:6). “Propose to do” is “yazmu”, which in Modern Hebrew refers to “initiatives” and “entrepreneurship”, but in Biblical Hebrew the root y.z.m. means  “unrestrained activity”, and not surprisingly is analogous to the verbs  “zamom” which is “to devise wickedness”, and “zimah” which is  “to lust”.

At the very end of the Parasha (11:26ff), we are introduced to the “exalted father” - Av’ram, whose goings forth, preceded by the command “lech lecha” (“go!”), will be reported next, in the Parasha?by?the?same?name.

Parashot - plural of Parasha (feminine gender)


*Parashat – “Parasha of…”

* The p and f sounds are designated by the same letter and may be pronounced as “p” in one form of the word, and as an “f” in another. The same is also true about the “b” and “v” sounds.


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