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Finding God in the Text

  • Finding God in the Text

    Noach, Genesis 6:9−11:32
D'var Torah By: 

Focal Point

  • Then the Eternal One then said to Noah, "Go into the ark with all your household, for I see that you [alone] in this age are righteous before Me." (Genesis 7:1)
  • God then blessed Noah and his sons, saying to them, "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and let the awe and dread of you be upon all the land animals, and all the birds of the sky, and all that creep on the ground, and all the fish of the sea: they are given into your hands. Any small animal that is alive shall be food for you, like green grasses—I give you [them] all." (Genesis 9:1-3)

D'var Torah

If you were university-educated in the Bible, then you undoubtedly studied the Documentary Hypothesis, which conjectures that the stories in the Bible were written by a variety of authors and that the stories were integrated by a later editor, or redactor, who made them appear as one seamless literary work.

In contrast, for modern Jewish Bible commentator Umberto Cassuto, not only is the Torah the work of a single author, but it also displays a literary beauty and complexity that could hardly be attributable to human authorship.

I would like to explain two parts of Cassuto's complex theory, because they are so elegant and teach us how to look for beauty in the Torah that might otherwise be missed.

A number of ancient Middle Eastern civilizations recounted flood stories. One such story exhibits a close relationship to the biblical account: the Mesopotamian account of Gilgamesh. It was passed from the Sumerians to the Akkadians to the Mesopotamians, finally influencing the progenitors of the Jewish people. In all likelihood, Abraham heard the epics in Ur of the Chaldees and brought them to the Land of Israel. Various versions have come down to us, and it is likely that there are still more versions, because our own prophets refer to epical literature in their accounts of the Flood. This literature would have been part of the people's repertoire, and everyone, even the illiterate, would have recognized parts of the stories.

In Cassuto's theory, God took these epics and altered them for the Jewish people to teach divine lessons, but utilized the basic narrative so that the people would be familiar with the context and accept the stories.

Cassuto contends that lessons are taught by literary structure. Let's take the Noah epic that we have in the Bible and focus on how God used this story to teach new lessons to the people. Cassuto writes:

The Torah could not very well pass over in silence the ancient poetic tradition regarding the Flood, which was already widely current among the Israelites. . . . Hence the Torah accepted the traditional story, purified and refined it, and harmonized it in all its aspects with its own doctrine. (Umberto Cassuto, From Noah to Abraham: A Commentary on the Book of Genesis [Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1984], p. 27)

What did the Bible change from the Mesopotamian flood story, known as the Gilgamesh Epic? Any references to the will of the gods or of natural forces were excised. Only God possesses control, transcending the will of the natural world, as it is written, "God then blessed Noah and his sons, saying to them, 'Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and let the awe and dread of you be upon all the land animals, and all the birds of the sky, and all that creep on the ground, and all the fish of the sea: they are given into your hands. Any small animal that is alive shall be food for you, like green grasses—I give you [them] all" (Genesis 9:1-3).

Noah is not raised to semi-divine status as a result of the Flood. Most importantly, our God does not act with cunning or give deceitful advice. Instead, the overall message of the story teaches that the righteous will be saved and that God cares about the activities of human beings in a beneficent way, as it is written, "The Eternal One then said to Noah, 'Go into the ark with all your household, for I see that you [alone] in this age are righteous before Me'" (Genesis 7:1). An amoral epic from Babylonia thus is thus changed to a moral imperative to humanity. How this is done comprises a good part of Cassuto's argument.

Cassuto points to two sections that appear in the first story in Genesis 6-9. The two sections are themselves each composed of six parts, reflecting the Babylonian arithmetical system based on the number six. Cassuto's description of the structure gives us the flavor of the genius of Torah:

The first group depicts for us, step by step, the acts of Divine justice that bring destruction upon the earth, which had become filled with violence; and the scenes that pass before us grow increasingly gloomier until in the darkness of death portrayed in the sixth paragraph there remains only one tiny, faint point of light, to wit, the ark, which floats on the fearful waters that have covered everything, and which guards between its walls the hope of future life.

The second group shows us consecutively the various stages of the act of Divine compassion that renews life upon the earth. The light that waned until it became a minute point in the midst of the dark world, begins to grow bright till it illumines again the entire scene before us, and shows us a calm and peaceful world, crowned with the rainbow that irradiates the cloud with its colours—a sign and pledge of life and peace for the coming generations. (Ibid, pp. 30-31)

We see not only that the literary structure reveals a conscious substratum with a profound message about the divine structure of the world and its morality, but also that words are repeated in such a way as to display the divine origin of the story. There are too many of these examples to go through them all, but we will suffice with a taste:

The number seven, which, as we have seen, is the number of perfection, is mentioned explicitly in the text many times; periods of seven days . . . ; seven pairs of clean animals, and likewise of the birds of the air . . . ; and if we count the number of times that God spoke to Noah, we shall find that they total exactly seven. . . . Similarly in the second paragraph, in connection with the construction of the ark, the stem 'asa [made] occurs seven times; . . . in paragraphs 3-5, in regard to the entrance into the ark, the stem bo [come] is found seven times (Ibid, p. 32)

The simple reality is that we, who live in a generation that reads more for the meaning of words than for the meaning of structure or the poetry behind words, have very possibly imposed on this ancient saga an origin that befits our way of thinking about the world-the Documentary Hypothesis. But in doing so, we fail to uncover the divine inspiration of the Torah.

We, the people of the book, possess a wonderful opportunity in this new year to discover the divinity in Torah. As the ancient sage Ben Bag Bag used to say, "Turn it, and turn it, for everything is in it" (Pirkei Avot 5:22).

By the Way

These first books of the Bible had as extraordinary a manner of composition as any book on earth. Imagine assigning four different people to write a book on the same subject, then taking their four different versions and cutting them up and combining them into one long, continuous account, then claiming that the account was all by one person. Then imagine giving the book to detectives and leaving them to figure out (1) that the book was not by one person, (2) that it was by four, (3) who the four were, and (4) who combined them. . . .

The flood story is a combination of the J source and the P source. . . . If you read either source from beginning to end, and then go back and read the other one, you will be able to see for yourself two complete, continuous accounts, each with its own vocabulary and concerns. (Richard Elliott Friedman, Who Wrote the Bible? [New York: HarperCollins, 1997], pp. 53-54)

Your Guide

  1. What difference do you think it makes that the number seven is repeated so many times? What does the number seven convey to you?
  2. How do you feel about the idea that God's message in the Torah may have been revealed in the differences between the Hebrews' Flood story and the flood stories of surrounding peoples?
  3. Do you think it is likely that Abram and Sarai knew the flood stories of the Ur of the Chaldees and Haran, and transmitted those stories to their families?

At the time of this writing in 2005, Mark H. Levin, D.H.L., was serving as the rabbi at Congregation Beth Torah Overland Park, Kansas.

11/05/2005
Reference Materials: 

Noach, Genesis 6:9-11:32 
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 57-91; Revised Edition, pp. 57-83; 
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 35-58