The events covered in this week’s Sedra are so well-known and have been analysed so often that it is difficult to find much that is new to say about the stories of Noah and the Tower of Babel. So I thought I might focus on some of the less familiar aspects of the Sedra, particularly what it has to say or imply about the relationship between G-d and mankind. For this I am indebted to Rabbi Samet on the Gush Etzion website.
As we know, this week’s Sedra precedes the birth of Abraham, so whatever is said here is concerned with the whole of mankind—or at least the descendants of those who survived the flood—and not just the Jewish people. So any commandments or covenants mentioned in this week’s Sedra must apply to the entire human race.
The nature of G-d’s covenants
Several covenants are forged between G-d and people in Sefer Bereishit as well as later on in the Torah. In every instance, with the exception of the covenant in our parasha, the covenant is made with a forefather of the Jewish nation, or with the nation as a whole. But the covenant that G-d makes with Noah and his sons as they emerge from the ark (9:8-17) is a covenant with all of humanity; not only humanity, but also with "every living thing that is with you, with the birds and the animals and every creature of the earth with you, from everything that comes out of the ark to all the creatures of the earth" (9:10).
If we add to this covenant what appears in previous verses (8:21-22), "And G-d said to Himself: I shall not curse the ground again because of man… for as long as the world stands, sowing and reaping, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will not cease," we find that the covenant includes even the ground and the cycle of seasons upon it.
The first appearance of the term "covenant" (berit) in the Torah is not at the end of the story of the Flood – the covenant of the rainbow – but rather at the beginning of that story, when God first speaks to Noah (6:13-19):
"And God said to Noah: The end of all flesh has come before Me, for the earth is full of corruption because of them, and behold, I shall destroy the world. Make yourself an ark … And behold, I shall bring a flood of water upon the earth to destroy all living flesh from under the heavens; everything that is in the earth will die. And I shall establish My covenant with you and you will come into the ark, you, and your sons and your wife and the wives of your sons with you. And of all living things, of all flesh, you shall bring two of each into the ark…"
So what is this covenant that G-d promises to establish with Noah?
The covenant of Creation
If we go back to last week’s Sedra of Bereishit, we can see that the very act of Creation must have included within itself a covenant between G-d and His world. G-d did not create the world to be chaos, and He will not go back on His intention and His actions – not even when "all flesh has corrupted its way." According to the Midrash Ha-gadol (Bereishit 6:18) and Abarbanel (6:18), this covenant is included in the very act of Creation, since this act contained an unconditional Divine commitment not to annihilate it. Other commentators suggest that this commitment is included in the blessing that G-d bestows upon Adam and Eve immediately after their creation. Either way, there is a covenant concerning the existence of the human race within its necessary framework – the world.
What are the implications of this primordial covenant (whatever its source) for our understanding of the story of the Flood? We are accustomed to think that the absolute annihilation of humanity and of all of Creation was avoided solely by virtue of Noah's righteousness. This turns the salvation described in our parasha into something coincidental, for if the generation had not contained a man as righteous as Noah, then nothing would have remained of Creation. But according to the commentators quoted above, who claim that a primordial covenant was made concerning the preservation of Creation, this is not correct. Because of that original covenant, it was imperative that the Flood would not destroy everything, and that a descendant of the human race would remain, capable of reviving humanity.
It was Noah's righteousness that gave him the merit of being selected for the task of fulfilling the covenant with all of humanity. The choice of survivor from whom the whole of humanity would be built up anew was not arbitrary, but rather in accordance with a moral criterion. This was at the same time both a fitting reward for his righteousness and an expression of hope that the new humanity that would emerge in the future from this righteous person would follow a better path than its predecessor.
First two covenants with Noah
Upon close examination, we find that these two reasons for Noah's salvation – the necessity of preserving a remnant of Creation based on G-d's first covenant with it, and the reward appropriate for the righteous man of the generation – are what differentiate between G-d's two speeches to Noah prior to the Flood, speeches that follow closely upon each other – 6:13-22, and 7:1-5.
If we compare the wording of the two passages, the most important difference concerns the reason why Noah is to enter the ark in each of the respective passages. In the first speech, his is told (verse 18) that he is the subject of the primordial covenant: "And I shall establish My covenant – with you." Noah is commanded to build an ark into which he will enter when the Flood comes, but he is told nothing of the reason for his selection. He is given a task – to act for the salvation of humanity and the animal kingdom – and this task is given one reason only: the fulfilment of the covenant. Hence it is of no importance why it is specifically he who is chosen for the task rather than anyone else.
It is only in the second speech, when Noah is commanded to enter the ark seven days before the onset of the rain, that G-d tells him (7:1), "Come – you, and all of your household – into the ark, for I have observed you to be righteous before Me in this generation." It is only now, that G-d approaches the question of why Noah has been singled out, rather than someone else. And here the answer is given, with emphasis: "Come, YOU" – specifically you, rather than someone else, "for I have observed YOU to be righteous before Me in this generation" – and therefore you are worthy of being saved from punishment (and of fulfilling the covenant with Creation).
The fact that the first speech makes no mention of the reason for his specific selection, while only the second speech provides such a reason, implies that priority is awarded to the consideration of fulfilling the covenant over the moral consideration of saving the righteous person from punishment.
Covenant of the Rainbow
We then come to the covenant of the rainbow, forged with Noah and his sons after they leave the ark. What significance does this have? After all, there had been an earlier covenant forged with Adam and the world at the time of Creation, and the contents of the two covenants are similar – that Creation will not be destroyed.
The covenant of the rainbow does indeed represent a return to the fundamental covenant with Creation, but it contains several expansions and additions
1) Explicit Mutual Commitment
In the covenant of the rainbow, God places His relationship with humanity upon an explicit basis of mutual commitment – something that was not clear in the earlier covenant. God does not obligate Himself to Noah and his sons until He has clearly indicated their part of the deal. Therefore, God's detailing of the human obligation to maintain the world (9:1-7) should be seen as an intrinsic part of the covenant of the rainbow.
Just as God commits Himself in this covenant not to destroy all living things, so man himself must commit himself to treat them with respect and responsibility. He is forbidden to scorn the lives of animals by eating limbs from their flesh while they live (9:4), and he is likewise prohibited from ending human life – his own or that of someone else – through an act of murder; a murderer must be brought to justice (ibid. 5-6). These commitments are both preceded and followed by God's blessing and command to man: "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth… and you shall be fruitful and multiply and swarm over the earth, multiplying within it."
Seven Noachide laws
- Prohibition of Idolatry
- Prohibition of Murder
- Prohibition of Theft
- Prohibition of Sexual immorality
- Prohibition of Blasphemy
- Prohibition of eating flesh taken from an animal while it is still alive
- Establishment of courts of law
According to our tradition, the seven laws were given by G-d as a binding set of rules for the "children of Noah" – that is, all of mankind. Any non-Jew who lives according to these laws is regarded as a Righteous Gentile, and is assured of a place in the world to come, the final reward of the righteous. It is, however, paradoxical that none of the Noachide Laws derive from this Sedra, but were given to Adam in the Garden of Eden, according to the Talmud's interpretation of Genesis 2:16. This reads: "And the Lord God commanded the man saying, of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat." If you can’t work out how that verse contains seven commandments, I will give you the Talmud’s explanation at the end.
2) "There Shall Not Be Another Flood"
The Divine commitment in the covenant of the rainbow is broader than that of the first covenant. Not only will the world not be utterly destroyed, but no Flood like the one that occurred will ever visit the world:
"And I shall establish My covenant with you, and all flesh will not be cut off again by the waters of a Flood, and there shall not be another flood to destroy the world." (9:11)
What makes this expansion necessary? Why is the original covenant, by virtue of which Noah and his sons were saved, insufficient? It has been suggested that when Noah emerged from the ark, he and his family were so upset and depressed by the destruction and desolation surrounding them that they were reluctant to contemplate repopulating the world. As Rashi comments:
"Noah was hesitant to engage in procreation, until the Holy One promised him that He would not destroy the world again."
3. "I Have Placed My Rainbow in the Cloud"
In the covenant with Noah and his sons, God does not stop at the commitment that there will not be another Flood, but also adds a "sign of the covenant." What is the significance of the rainbow?
Its significance flows from its symbolism, but it also arises from the psychological need of Noah and his children, survivors of the Flood, for some strengthening of their faith in the possibility of rebuilding the world. The verbal commitment is not sufficient to provide the necessary encouragement. They need a visible sign that will appear from time to time and serve as a guarantee for the preservation of the world that they are gradually reconstructing.
What is it about the rainbow that makes it a sign of the covenant that there will not be another Flood? Nachmanides sees it as a symbol of peace between heaven and earth, between God and His world. The Flood was a kind of war that G-d declared against His world. The waters that descended upon the earth from the windows of heaven were like arrows of war that were directed against all of existence. And now, suddenly, G-d declares a "ceasefire." The earth will still need rain, but this will be rain of peace and blessing, not arrows of death any more. For this reason (9:14), "and it shall be, WHEN I BRING A CLOUD OVER THE EARTH" – when you mortals are terrified, fearing the return of the Flood, "and the rainbow will appear IN THE CLOUD" – it is specifically within the context of rain that the symbol of peace between God and His world will appear, relieving man's fear.
Chizkuni provides an even more profound understanding of the symbolism of the rainbow. A rainbow, when it appears in its entirety, stretched over a large area, is one of the most beautiful and powerful sights in nature. But it is not tangible. We see that in the prophet Ezekiel's vision of the Chariot; he says (1:28), "Like the sight of a rainbow that appears in the cloud on a rainy day – so was the appearance of the glow around, and it was the vision of the image of G-d's glory." Chizkuni interprets this as meaning that the rainbow represents the actual presence of G-d in the world after having made peace with His servants. He appears among them at the time when He brings down rain.
Thus the rainbow teaches us about the content of the covenant that is now being made between God and the world. This content is concentrated in one impressive sight that arouses wonder in the heart of everyone who sees it. But more than that, the rainbow, which had always existed since the time of creation, now becomes a defined and explicit sign of the covenant with Noah and assumes a new symbolic meaning for the world after the Flood. It is a symbol of peace and reconciliation, coming after the destruction of the world and allowing humans to rebuild it.
We have seen three ways in which the covenant of the rainbow expanded on the original covenant of Creation. These all reflect one fundamental difference between the two covenants. The covenant of Creation was of necessity a one-sided act on the part of the Creator, for there could obviously be no reciprocity before anything had been created. But the covenant forged after the Flood arises from a plea on the part of man that the covenant be renewed and expanded, and from God's positive response. This, then, is the first covenant in the Torah forged between God and man, containing mutual connection and bi-lateral commitment out of agreement – it is indeed something chosen by both. It forms the basis for all future covenants between G-d and the Jewish people from the time of Abraham onwards.
And if you want to know how you can derive all the seven Noachide laws from that single verse in Bereishit, this is what Talmud Babli Sanhedrin, page 56b has to say:
R. Johanan answered: The Writ saith: And the Lord God commanded the man saying, of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat.
- And [He] commanded, refers to [the observance of] social laws, and thus it is written, For I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the Lord, to do justice and judgment.
- The Lord — is [a prohibition against] blasphemy, and thus it is written, and he that blasphemeth the name of the Lord, he shall surely be put to death.
- God — is [an injunction against] idolatry, and thus it is written, Thou shalt have no other gods before Me.
- The man — refers to bloodshed [murder], and thus it is written, Whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed.
- Saying — refers to adultery, and thus it is written, They say, If a man put away his wife, and she go from him, and became another man's.
- Of every tree of the garden — but not of robbery.
- Thou mayest freely eat — but not flesh cut from a living animal.
Neville Nagler 29 October 2011