Teaching the Flood Story: The Importance of Cultural Context

  • by: Joel B. Wolowelsky

Reprinted from Ten Da’at 9:1 Winter 1996
Most yeshivah students learn the pre-patriarchal biblical stories in the early years of elementary school, and for many this remains their only systematic study of any parts of Bereshit. This is most unfortunate, as the narrative sections of the Torah require as rigorous an analysis as that afforded the more halakhic sections studied in high school or college-level institutions. We discuss here one issue that, in our opinion, deserves presentation in a yeshivah high school Bible class: the importance of cultural context.
An anecdote might provide an orientation to this approach. While visiting in Jerusalem few years ago, I mentioned to an Israeli friend that Agudath Israel had decided to stop serving turkey at its annual national convention dinner. He reacted with disbelief. Surely the question of the kashrut of turkeys has not become the latest American humra. True, he continued, some individuals had refrained from eating turkey because there is no mesora as to its kashrut; but certainly this had not become the normative opinion in the American haredi community! Why, he concluded, he himself had seen numerous gedolim eating turkey at various semahot!
Needless to say, I was bemused by his reaction. As an Israeli, he had no idea that Agudath Israel holds its annual convention on Thanksgiving and that Americans traditionally eat turkey on Thanksgiving. He certainly he had no way of knowing that the rabbinic leaders of Agudath Israel had taken an educational line that yeshivah students should not observe Thanksgiving, which, in their opinion, has a quasi-religious status. Thus he did not realize that turkey was banned at the convention dinner to underscore their approach that, whereas Thanksgiving was a convenient time to hold a convention, there was nothing more significant to the date. Lacking the context, he could not appreciate the message that the rabbinic leaders were trying to convey.
When I explained all this to him, he asked if any American Orthodox people celebrated Thanksgiving. I told him that our yeshivot do, and added (somewhat mischievously) that in our shul we read the Torah every Thanksgiving at shaharit. This ritual innovation upset him very much; unaware that Thanksgiving is always celebrated on Thursday, he missed the point that there was no significance to the fact that we read the Torah each Thanksgiving.
Context is important, and we should not lose sight of the fact that the Torah was revealed in the context of the real-life experience of the Jews standing at Sinai. The Torah speaks in the language of people; its words and messages, while eternal, had to be compre­hensible to the people who heard them. We forfeit part of the Torah’s eternal significance if we don’t understand the circum­stances of its revelation. As Rambam noted:
Just as, according to what I have told you, the doctrines of the Sabians are remote from us today, the chronicles of those times are likewise hidden from us today. Hence if we knew them and were cognizant of the events that happened in those days, we would know in detail the reasons of many things mentioned in the Torah (Guide III:50).
We understand a story differently if we know whether the teller’s aim is to report previously unknown material or to correct a previous misperception of the event. For example, many students do not realize that the Jews at Sinai already knew the general Flood story, as did most pagan people in the area. We now have access to many of the pagan sources, lost to us for centuries, that were circulating at the time of Sinai and centuries before. The Tanakh and Hazal frankly admitted that, unfortunately, Jews were well integrated into their neighbors’ pagan cultures.
If we ignore this fact, we miss part of the eternal message of the biblical story. The Torah, after all, is not a history book. In saying this, we are not suggesting that the Flood story—or any other specific part of the Torah—is necessarily allegory rather than fact. But we must be aware that the Torah retells selectively specific episodes in the lives of our ancestors. We must therefore read its stories as something told with a purpose, and under­standing the purpose involves reading the tale and its language in context.
The relatively recent discovery of these ancient texts was not welcomed by all Torah educators. After all, Bible critics and secular academics, long intent on seeing the biblical text as just another ancient Near-Eastern document, touted these stories as proof that the Torah had no special sanctity. Moshe David Cassuto, however, began investigating these stories from the perspective of Jewish pride, if not kedusha. He soon realized that, far from demonstrating the banality of the Torah text, a study of these documents enhanced our understanding of the holiness of our text.
Some educators in college-preparatory yeshivah high schools felt it important to introduce their Bible students to these texts in order to “inoculate” them, so to speak, against the devastating effects of confronting these texts in an antagonistic, secular, college environment. There is certainly merit to this approach, but it is not our motivation here. (After all, given the anti-intellectual realities at current universities, most students will probably see few if any of these texts in their respective colleges.) Understanding the biblical story in the context of the mind-set of those who received the Torah is part of reaching amitta shel Torah.
Nahum Sarna’s Understanding Genesis tries to offer a full-scale educational curriculum for studying Genesis based on understanding its ancient Near-Eastern setting. But it is inappropriate for us on many levels, not the least of which is its attitude towards higher biblical/ source criticism. As important as it is to expose our students to the literature of the ancient Near-East, we have no interest in making it the primary focus of our biblical study. In a yeshivah, primary focus should be on the words of Hazal and the generations of traditional biblical interpreters. But just as we often supplement the commentaries of Mikraot Gedolot with other sources, we should be devoting some time to this discussion.
In introducing the Flood story to our students, we might first ask the students if they thought that Jews and non-Jews knew the Flood story before it was revealed at Sinai. Teachers have a continuous obligation to understand their students’ mind-set ‑‑just as we are about to understand the mind-set of our ancestors at Sinai. Listening to one’s students should be a basic component of every lesson. It is therefore important to pose the question and not answer it in the same breath. New information does not replace previously-stored information as quickly as we might suspect.
Our students should know that throughout the region, people knew the general theme: there had been a devastating flood and one person and his family were saved. The name used to describe the individual hero might vary from locale to locale, but the story remains, on the surface at least, substantially the same. The hero, warned by one of the gods, gathered his family and many animals with him in an boat, rode out the storm, and, after releasing some birds to verify that the waters had subsided, exited and gave sacrificial thanks to the gods who had saved him and his family.
We should ask why the Torah included this information if everyone knew it. Was it just to get the names right? The Torah tells us so little about the Avot and their lives. Why was it necessary to devote all that space to Noah and his adventure? Giving out a few sheets which present, side-by-side, a paragraph from one of the well-know pagan adventures and the Torah’s version gives a concrete example of appreciating Torah in context. It should take no more that a few minutes to elicit from the students an appreciation of to what the Torah objected and what message it wished to convey.
It should be superfluous to say that the teacher must prepare for this class with the same professionalism that he or she brings to any lesson. One has to know much more than one expects to present to a class. Understanding Genesis, Cassuto’s commentary (in Hebrew or English translation), or James Prichard’s Ancient Near Eastern Texts (ANET) are good reference texts for anyone unfamiliar with the subject; the new JPS Commentary on Genesis gives a good orientation on which issues one can focus and would be a good starting point for teachers.
In any presentation, the following will certainly emerge. The Torah wishes to uproot any hint that the Flood lacked a moral quality. In the Sumero-Akkadian versions, the Flood is brought for capricious reasons –in one, because the noise made by human beings kept the gods from sleeping. Their hero was saved not because he was, like Noah, a righteous man, but because he had “good connections” with one of the gods. An ancient Jew who knew the Torah’s version certainly had better tools to sense more intensely the immorality of the pagan version he or she was certain to hear. We should not deprive our students of that opportunity.
The Torah’s willingness to correct even minor details reflects this anti-pagan polemic. Utnapishtim (one of the names of the pagan heroes saved from the Flood) relates that, when he thought the waters had receded,
I sent forth and set free a dove. The dove went forth but came back; since no resting-place for it was visible, she turned round. Then I set forth and set free a swallow. The swallow went forth, but came back; since no resting-place for it was visible, she turned round. Then I set forth and set free a raven. The raven went forth and, seeing that the waters had diminished, he eats, circles, caws, and turns not round.
The Torah’s version (Gen. 8:6-12) not only takes pain to point out that redemption comes incrementally –the dove first comes back with a plucked-off olive branch– but reminds us that redemption comes not from the carnivorous raven but from the peaceful dove.
Not only changed details drive home the Torah’s message, but omitted ones do too. We are often struck by the anthropo­morphic quality of God having a sense of smell that is mentioned in the Torah’s version:
The Noah built an altar to the Lord and, taking of every clean animal and of every clean bird, he offered burnt offerings on the alter. The Lord smelled the pleasing odor, and the Lord said to Himself: “Never again will I doom the world because of man, since the devisings of man’s mind are evil from his youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living being, as I have done” (Gen. 8:20-21).
But ancient Jews hearing this rendition would have understood this as part of an anti-anthropomorphic polemic, because they knew the following version from their neighbors:
Then I let out to the four winds and offered a sacrifice. I poured out a libation on the top of the mountain. Seven and seven cult-vessels I set up; upon their pot-stands I heaped cane, cedar wood, and myrtle. The gods smelled the savor. The gods smelled the sweet savor. The gods crowded like flies about the sacrifice.
Nowadays, we cannot fully understand v. 21 without this pagan text as background. Pagan gods smell the sacrifice and crowd around like flies. Hashem, so to speak, smells the sacrifice and –far removed from any physical reaction– makes a moral judgment. This informs the way we appreciate the phrase “sweet savor (rei-ah nihoah)” when it appears subsequently in the Torah in connection with various sacrifices.
When we read the biblical Flood story as a contrast to the existing parallel ancient Near-Eastern literature, we hear things somewhat differently than had we read it as part of “the revealed history of the world.” We not only see things that we had missed, but begin to notice the relative importance or tangential quality of various details.
For example, we know that when some pagan text says that “every” animal was included in its refugee-boat, we understand that we are not reading a prophetic statement conveying information that could only have been revealed. (The pagans had no way of knowing whether, indeed, every species in the world, including those species from far-away lands unbeknown to them, was saved from a flood.) They were using the word “every” in the same way that we do in the sentence, “He thought no one knew his secret and then discovered that everyone knew it.” We understand that this sentence does not really mean to exclude the possibility that someone in room ‑‑let alone the world– did not know the secret.
If the Torah has a specific educational purpose in retelling the story of the Flood from its ethico-religious perspective, we have little reason to think that its statement that every species was included in the ark was meant to give divine confirmation of that specific detail of the pagan story and to exclude the possibility that some esoteric species from far-away New Zealand (unknown to Noah) had survived the Flood. After all, we do not find it particularly upsetting to be told (Num. 16:32-33) that every member of Korah’s family had been killed, only to learn some chapters later (Num. 26:11) that Korah’s sons had not been killed.
We should offer our students the opportunity to appreciate these additional dimensions of the sacred text; to do so requires seeing the Torah in the setting in which it was revealed. I myself first encountered this approach many years ago in Rabbi David Eliach’s Bible classes at the Yeshivah of Flatbush Midrasha. It’s an approach to which all our students should be exposed.