Just to make it absolutely clear, this is not a standard Torah commentary based on the teachings of the rabbis that one would obtain in a yeshiva. My background is in English and Comparative Literature and what we will be doing in this series of articles is examining the Torah in a similar fashion one might examine the writings of Shakespeare. Accordingly, if you wish to make a comment on the article, I would like to request that you present your arguments utilizing an academic format, based on the text, and not quote outside sources. It is the purpose of these articles to introduce an alternative and, hopefully, a fresh perspective to what is written in the Torah and not merely to reheat and serve up the same ideas that have been presented again and again during the last thousand years. Finally, I would just like to add that the inspiration for these articles comes from the works of the English psychologist Maurice Nicoll and that the source I used for the Torah was the website: http://www.hebrewoldtestament.com/
Genesis 6.9 – 11.32
One would think that a Torah portion named “Noach” would begin at chapter 5, line 28 so that we would get Noah’s entire story, including the prophecy of his birth, in one complete section. Regardless, it doesn’t hurt us to go back a little bit and review the previous Torah portion. In short: we are told that Lamach, the father of Noah, predicted that this boy would give us rest from the frustrations that our hands received from the land that was cursed by God. What, in my opinion, is the most important point here is that we are being told that the land was cursed, not Adam and this, again in my opinion, eliminates the entire concept of “original sin” developed in the writings of the Pharisee Paul of Tarsus. Furthermore, we shall see later on that, when God condemns the Children of Israel to wander in the desert, those under the age of twenty are described as not knowing the difference between good and evil. In other words, men are not born with sin; it is something that they acquire through the process of growing older.
Another important point to note here is that Noah is the tenth generation from Adam and, also as we shall study later, the number ten should be associated with Abraham’s son Asher, whose name means happiness. Of course, this number should also be associated with the Ten Commandments and the ten plagues which in Hebrew are actually referred to as the ten hits.
In order to really appreciate what is taking place in the story of Noah, I believe it is well worth while recalling the parable given by the son of Gideon, as well as the statement made by Samson when he discovered his wife had revealed the solution to his riddle (Both these stories can be found in the Book of Judges). Briefly: Gideon’s son said that grapes are the fruit which make both men and gods happy and we just mentioned the connection between the name Asher, happiness and the Ten Commandments. Samson told his wedding guests that they would not have known the answer to his riddle if they had not been plowing with his heifer. My conclusion from these two stories is that in ancient times knowledge of the law was thought to bring happiness and knowledge of the law was associated with grapes and wine. Furthermore, in ancient times, studying and obtaining knowledge was associated with plowing a field and, as we shall see later, which animal one used to plow the field was an indication as to which knowledge one was trying to obtain. Thus the prophecy in Isaiah about beating swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks has absolutely nothing to do with peace and is a reference to men giving up old sources of knowledge for new ones.
In the previous Torah portion we noted that Adam was punished by being expelled from the garden, which we discussed should be considered a source of knowledge because it contained various fruit trees. Adam was then told that he would only be able to obtain the fruits of the land by working hard and producing sweat from his brow. This punishment, we just mentioned, was described by Noah’s father as: “frustration of the hands”, meaning that Adam is unable to grasp the true meaning of the fruits of knowledge which was being provided to him.
We also discussed in the last Torah portion that on the Sabbath we are commanded to rest from our labors of studying and educating ourselves and to sit quietly and allow God the teacher to provide us with higher levels of understanding. Thus, the name Noah means rest and we see that, eventually, Noah will plant grape vines and produce wine. Even in modern times we are familiar with the concept that the earth is a school and in practically every university in the world one can hear the question: What is your field of study? Hence, what we are really being told is that by cultivating the grape, Noah had establish a new religious school based upon the idea of God providing spiritual knowledge to those who rested from their labors of studying. Let me just emphasize here that I am not saying yeshivas are not important. Men clearly are commanded to work and study for six days in the week. What I am trying to suggest here is that the story of Noah is indicating to us is that there is a limit to how much information a man can obtain through his own efforts.
In this week’s Torah portion we are told about the story of the flood and Noah’s ark. As we briefly mentioned in earlier articles, water should be associated with teachings about the word of God, yet the Torah clearly shows that too much teachings by men is not a good thing (By the way, my own father used to say the same thing about ice cream). So, what we see is that water is used to kill the evil generation and to remove this flesh from the face of the earth. The crucial word here is “flesh”, because in Hebrew what is written is “meat” and we already explained in the last commentary that this Hebrew word also means preachings or the gospels. Hence, what we are being told then in this story is that God has removed false teachings from the school of the earth and did not literally destroy all living beings.
It is my opinion that the ark of Noah is a metaphor for a religious school or a monastery and each of the animals represents a different academic specialty. Thus, in the Garden of Eden, which we discussed represents a religious school or archive, Adam “names” the animals. In modern times, high ranking government or corporate officials are also “named” to the positions they will hold. It is my opinion that what we are actually being told is Adam, as head of the school, was assigning each scholar to a department of studies. Hence this is why the snake and Balaam’s donkey can speak. The snake represented an expert in religious knowledge and what we are being told then is that, originally, God did not want religious establishments, but rather wanted men to obtain knowledge of God directly from God himself. The key to this concept is expressed in the idea of clothing. Basically, when walking down the street of any major metropolis one can easily identify a religious leader by the clothing they wear. Catholic Priests have white collars, Buddhist monks have orange robes and religious Jews have black hats and coats. Adam and Eve, however, were originally naked and in the Books of Samuel we are told that when King Saul was naked the people asked: “Has Saul become a prophet of God?” Thus, we see that, after eating the forbidden fruit, the first action of Adam and Eve was to clothe themselves.
In such a short article, it is impossible to deal with every aspect of every story in this week’s Torah portion, nevertheless, I would like to discuss what I believe is one of the major misconceptions in Bible study: namely that the dove of Noah represents peace. We have stated in the previous article that heaven and earth represent two different levels of understanding. What needs to be understood here is that in Hebrew the word for heaven and sky is the same, hence, a bird represents a medium between God and man. Later we shall see that when God wants to kill Moses it is his wife “Zipporah: the bird”, who intervenes and saves him.
In ancient times, olive oil was considered a source of light, hence messiahs, were considered to be enlightened beings because they were anointed with olive oil. Along these same lines, in the previous article we touched upon the Mount of Olives representing a source of teaching at a high level of enlightenment which in the last days (i.e. the final lessons) will raise the spiritually dead to higher levels of understanding. The leaves of a tree both conceal and protect fruit and a hand represents man’s ability to grasp information.
In short then, “a dove bringing a leaf from an olive tree in its mouth to the hand of a man whose name means ‘rest’ while he is inside of a wooden ark floating on the water” is a combination of symbols which all together form a single message. What Noah, the dove and the olive leaf represent is that “a previously concealed source of enlightenment will be delivered to those who patiently wait (i.e. rest) for God to communicate to them and do not try to reach the highest levels of understanding through their own efforts”.
Here it should be explained that a leaf is used to conceal the source of Adam’s seed as well as the source of Eve’s fruit, hence a leaf becomes a metaphor for concealed knowledge. Furthermore, since water represents the explanations of men, the wooden ark floating on the waters represents a school of knowledge which is based upon the teachings of men, but which exists at a higher level. What is also extremely important to note here is that in Hebrew the ark of Noah is described as “walking” on the waters and, of course, “walking on water” is one of “miracles” found in the New Testament.
We have already touched upon the significance of clothing, so I do not want to go into too much detail about the story of Ham and his father Noah, but what I do believe is worth mentioning is that for some strange reason, Ham himself is not cursed. It is only Canaan, one of the sons of Ham who is cursed. In my opinion, it is a mistake to interpret the Torah literally and conclude that the often quoted blessing: “be fruitful and multiply” has to do with expanding the population. The tree in the garden is clearly associated with knowledge and, as we have already commented upon, the Torah is compared to bread and the word for meat is associated with preaching. Accordingly, it is my personal opinion that all blessings in the Bible have to do with increasing knowledge and all curses have to do with inhibiting the acquisition of knowledge.
We have also discussed that working should be associated with studying, hence the curse on Canaan that he will be a slave to his brothers has nothing to do with the form of slavery experienced in the states in the American south during the first halve of the nineteenth century. Slavery in the Torah is a metaphor which means being forced to produce and develop knowledge according to a religious system of another people. Similar to the way the people of Eastern Europe were forced to study communism in the years after World War II.
The last issue I would like to deal with in this week’s Torah portion is the image of the Tower of Babel. Heaven represents a high level of understanding and the Ten Commandments were written on stone. Thus the Moslems built their mosque on a large stone on Mount Moriah which is called “The Dome of the Rock”. Since the Ten Commandments are written on stone, we can clearly see the connection between stone and the word of God, hence the story of the Tower of Babel represents the confusion which results when men attempt through their own teachings, represented by building with bricks of mud instead of stone, to reach the highest levels of understanding. The name Babel means confusion and the name Adam means ground, so we can begin to understand then that the problem is not that men wanted to know more about God and reach heaven, but that they wanted to accomplish this feat through their own efforts (i.e. via the bricks). Later, of course, we will see that the Israelites, as slaves of the Egyptians, are forced to build structures using bricks made from mud and straw (i.e. water and dirt mixed with plants containing no fruit).
Probably the clearest example of these two concepts was a religious school established around the time of the fall of the second temple. Its official name was Yavne, which can loosely be translated as: “those who will build”, nevertheless, amongst the teachers at this institution, the school was referred to as: “The Vineyard”. So “builders” is a metaphor for those who attempt to reach higher levels of understanding and vineyards represent religious schools. Accordingly, in the case of the Tower of Babel, the problem was not that they wanted to build a tower; the problem was the materials they selected to work with (i.e. the study materials they selected).
Dror Ben Ami is the author of the book: THE MISUNDERSTANDING: An Introduction to Metaphors, Images and Symbols Found in the Old and New Testaments.