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New Players, New Board, Same Game

By: Rav Jonathan Bailey

The rain has stopped, the tevah has settled on firm ground atop the mountain range of Ararat; Noach decides it is the right time to discover the state of the outside world. He chooses birds for this mission: a raven once, and a dove, ultimately, three times. Why these birds and why this process – what was he hoping to discover? A raven is a scavenger, and therefore when Noach sees that it merely ‘went back and forth’ over the land, he understood that there must not yet be any exposed carrion; the land, as yet, had not significantly dried up. He waits and then sends out a dove – a very social bird[1] – a perfect ‘testing’ bird for his purposes: for if even a dove doesn’t return, it would assuredly prove that there must be ample opportunity to establish its life in a habitable world. And, sure enough, the first attempt proves telling: it cannot find a place to rest and therefore immediately returns to Noach. The second time the dove is sent out it brings back a torn (טרף) olive-branch in its mouth. The fact that it was specifically torn off means that it is a new growth (as opposed to a dried branch from a previous growth that is easily broken off) and it therefore demonstrates to Noach that the water has subsided enough to expose even new growth! And, after the third and final time Noach sends out the dove and it does not return, he confidently removes the cover of the tevah and sees, for himself, that the land has totally dried (8:6-13).

But, truly, why do we care? The Torah spends eight pesukim detailing the type of birds, the specific processes and the results of each stage which Noach used to determine whether the land had dried out or not – but why is this important?! It isn’t to report how Noach knew when to make his exit, for even upon conclusively determining that the land had indeed dried out, Noach merely opened the cover of the tevah; he doesn’t exit until God tells him to! Does the Torah record this section, therefore, merely to relay how Noach eased his worried mind or satisfied his excited curiosity? Impossible[2].

The Torah reports that once the rain had stopped, forty days after the tevah had landed on a solid mountaintop, Noach opened the window and sent out the raven. Why did he wait forty days? Similarly, before Noach sends out the dove for the second time, the Torah states, “ויחל עוד שבעת ימים אחרים” – ‘and he waited an additional further seven days’. To what is the ‘an additional’ and ‘further’ referring? There weren’t any previous ‘seven days’! Rather, as Rav Hirsch points out, these seven days were in addition to the previously waited forty days. According to the Torah, therefore, Noach consciously set up a ‘40 + 7 day’ system to ascertain the end of the flood. In 7:10, when the flood began, the Torah reports that ‘seven days passed’ and the flood-waters were upon the land. Then two pesukim later, it states that ‘the rain was upon the land for forty days and forty nights’ (7 + 40!). It would seem, therefore, that to signal the end of the flood, Noach in essence reversed the time-line of how the flood began: he waited forty days after the rain had stopped to open the window and send out his first bird; and then waited another seven days on top of that to send out the dove (the second time).

So why would Noach purposefully establish his upcoming exit (only upon God’s command) on this ‘reversed’ context? Because, back when God relayed Noach His plans to destroy the world, He told him that, ‘I will establish My covenant with you; and you will enter the tevah…’ (6:18). Therefore, if Noach has created a ‘reversal’ thus far, the next step would be God telling him to leave the tevah – and then the next step would be God establishing His personal mutual covenant with Noach! After more than half a year, Noach is excitedly anticipating his true goal: receiving the promised unique covenant from God[3]. So Noach does all he can to ‘lay the perfect stage’ for this moment: he reverses the ‘process of days of the flood’, and then waits for the command to exit - the reverse of the command to enter. For, once that command is given, he is assured that the final most-anticipated step will follow immediately afterwards!

And, right on cue, after Noach opens the cover of the tevah (13), God speaks to Noach and commands him to leave the tevah (15)! Perfect. Next stop – personal covenant. Sadly, however, God does not then mention anything about the covenant[4]. It is not surprising therefore, that upon exiting the tevah, Noach builds an altar. Upon not hearing the expected next step, Noach, disappointed, decides on his own to ‘force’ the issue – a mizbeach and Korbanot are the perfect symbol of connecting with God…just like a covenant! A nice gentle reminder. But while God is positively affected by the gesture, and does ‘smell’ the pleasing odor and as a result promises to never destroy the world again, there is still, however, no mention of the hoped-for covenant.

The Torah then reports that God speaks to Noach. He blesses him and his children to be fruitful and to multiply; to create an awe and fear-inspired separation between the human and animal world. He also states that no human can kill his brother, for humans are all created in the image of God (9:1-6). And, finally, right after He charges Noach to actualize this blessing, to go out and be fruitful and multiply and fill the land, God then says ‘behold, I am establishing My covenant with you, and your generations…’! The final step! The long-awaited declaration Noach has been yearning for!

So, why did God make him wait so long? Between the time God ‘should have’ mentioned the covenant (right after Noach’s exit 8:16)) and when He finally does declare it (9:9), God enumerates four truths (as listed above, pesukim 9:1-6): 1) fruitful and multiply, 2) awe and fear between nature and humans, 3) prohibition against killing brothers, 4) humans are created in the image of God. These four specific ‘facts’ are all from the recorded history before Noach! Adam and Chavah (#1, #2 and #4) and Kayin and Hevel (#3)! It would seem therefore, that before God was ready to establish the personal covenant with Noach and his family, before He was willing to ‘complete’ the final stage of Noach’s reversal-expectations, He needed to ensure that Noach received and understood a quick history lesson. When God originally told Noach that the world was going to be totally destroyed, and that He was going to only save Noach and his family to repopulate the new world, and that they were to receive a personal covenant – which no one in the past had ever received before – it is easy to understand that Noach may have deeply misinterpreted God’s meaning. God was establishing a new world, with a new people, and instituting a new, unprecedented Divine relationship. Noach therefore believed that God was resetting everything: not only the physical world as he knew it, but the entire original Divine plan. The first idea didn’t succeed, so God was moving in a totally different direction, with all new people and all new rules.

This, however, was a dangerously erroneous belief. For while God was in fact wiping the physical world clean, and was in fact introducing a new personal covenant with humankind, the plan for this world was still the same! Humankind still needed to make the right choices, respect its surrounding society, and appreciate and accept that there is a greater authority than themselves[5]. Which is why before God mentioned the final and newly introduced stage of Noach’s expectations – the personal covenant – He reiterated all the facets of the past world’s expectations, establishing them once again in this new reality. The world of Adam and Chavah, Kayin and Hevel and all the demanded obligations and learned truths established within that world were still to be relevant and expected in this new one! While God will now ‘add’ a component of Personal involvement to assist in the sustaining of the world in this second attempt, Noach had to understand that this addition didn’t change the ultimate goal that was established at the moment of the first creation. 

And this newly revised system: same expectations plus the newly added covenantal relationship, also evolves as the history of the world continues with Noach and beyond. For example, unlike when the generation before Noach sinned where God immediately decided to start all over again, when the generation transgresses at Migdal Bavel (after Noach and the addition of the covenant) God personally descends to see what is going on (11:5). And when He sees they are defying God’s constant ‘original will’, He disperses civilization instead of wiping it out. He then personally chooses a nation to help sustain the world in its adherence to its original obligations and makes yet another more unique covenant with Avraham and his descendants. From the very beginning God intended humankind to exist ‘well’: to live morally, ethically and with a heightened level of social responsibility and consciousness of the Divinely defined objective right. Although the method with which this is to be achieved has been tweaked throughout history, God’s expectations remain eternally constant and unchanged.



[1] Also nicely hinted to by the words ‘וישלח את היונה מאתו’ – from him.

[2] The following idea was inspired by a question from Atira Ross, Midreshet Harova 5780

[3] Noach is originally described as ‘את האלוקים התהלך נח’ – he already had an amazing devotion to God; to be told right before the flood that he would also be chosen to be a part of a unique mutual covenantal relationship with God was understandably deeply significant for Noach.

[4] Although He will later; i.e. God not mentioning it here isn’t because He’ll never bring it up again.

[5] An obviously overly-simplified summary of humankind’s essential lessons/obligatory responsibilities recorded in the first seven chapters of the beginning of the Torah.


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