Parashat Noah: Justice and the Chiastic Structure of Reality

Parashat Noah has been taken by our sages as the beginning of human legislation. In fact, the Talmud offers two different derivations of “Noachide Law”—laws which are meant to be binding on all human beings. Noachide Law is “natural law”, the sort of rules that are required for human beings to live together in peace.  Hints of such law are provided by the Covenant of Noah, in which God promises physical stability to allow human beings to fulfill their destinies.

But despite the Talmud’s attribution of law to Noah, our parashah doesn’t mention law per se. Instead, Noah is given two very fundamental rules:

Every creature that lives shall be yours to eat; as with the green grasses, I give you all these. You must not, however, eat flesh with its life-blood in it.

כָּל־רֶ֙מֶשׂ֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר הוּא־חַ֔י לָכֶ֥ם יִהְיֶ֖ה לְאָכְלָ֑ה כְּיֶ֣רֶק עֵ֔שֶׂב נָתַ֥תִּי לָכֶ֖ם אֶת־כֹּֽל׃

אַךְ־בָּשָׂ֕ר בְּנַפְשׁ֥וֹ דָמ֖וֹ לֹ֥א תֹאכֵֽלוּ׃

This is followed by:

But for your own life-blood I will require a reckoning: I will require it of every beast; of man, too, will I require a reckoning for human life, of every man for that of his fellow man!

וְאַ֨ךְ אֶת־דִּמְכֶ֤ם לְנַפְשֹֽׁתֵיכֶם֙ אֶדְרֹ֔שׁ מִיַּ֥ד כָּל־חַיָּ֖ה אֶדְרְשֶׁ֑נּוּ וּמִיַּ֣ד הָֽאָדָ֗ם מִיַּד֙ אִ֣ישׁ אָחִ֔יו אֶדְרֹ֖שׁ אֶת־נֶ֥פֶשׁ הָֽאָדָֽם׃

Human beings are given permission to eat the flesh of other animals, under certain conditions. But at the same time, human beings become responsible for one another in a way that may only have been implicit before. A human being who kills another human being is guilty of a fundamental crime, and it is the duty of “every man” to avenge the murder upon the killer.

Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; For in the Image of God did He make man.

שֹׁפֵךְ֙ דַּ֣ם הָֽאָדָ֔ם בָּֽאָדָ֖ם דָּמ֣וֹ יִשָּׁפֵ֑ךְ כִּ֚י בְּצֶ֣לֶם אֱלֹהִ֔ים עָשָׂ֖ה אֶת־הָאָדָֽם׃

Law mirrors world

It is significant that not only is society allowed to kill the murderer, but it is required to do so!  We are not allowed to turn a blind eye to the danger to human life. In the Noachide laws, their is no option to let a murderer go unpunished. Leon Kass, in his book The Beginning of Wisdom, makes the point that the chiastic (mirrored) structure of this commandment reflect the mirrored structure of the act itself:

The murderer’s life for the life he murdered in fact exemplifies the first principle of strict and equal justice: the violator gets exactly what he deserves. The language of the Hebrew text—shofekh (sheds) dam (blood) ha’adam (of man), ba’adam (by man) damo (his blood) yishafekh (will be shed)—makes the point beautifully, through word repetition and inverted word order. In the mirrored (chiastic) structure—abccba—the second three-word injunction, for retribution, precisely and equally reverses the first three-word shedding of human blood. As you go in, so you come out; as you do to another, so by another it will be done to you. The first deed is mirror-reversed by the second; the second deed constitutes an undoing of the first.

There is in this a hint of the way actions necessarily provoke a reaction, a sense that this is built into the universe—just as it is built into the text. Modern readers might understand this as “karma”. However, what the Noachide law is making explicit is that for human beings, karma will henceforth be wrought by other human beings. The generation of the flood did not take responsibility for their own actions; there was no judge and no judgment in the human realm. From now on, humans will need to provide their own checks and balances.

But more, by making the rule universal, the commandment to Noah makes it clear that no human being is “more equal” than others. While in the past, family members might have avenged the murder of one of their own, from now on, they are obligated to do the same even for strangers. Law is thus the extension of “family rules” into the universal realm; we are to treat all human beings as if they were our family. 

The image of God or the image of judges?

Significantly, this responsibility is introduced by the phrase “for in the Image of God” (tselem Elohim) God made man”. This is so not only because the murder victim is in the image of God, but also because the avenger of the murder is in the image of God, ie, is God’s representative on earth.

Other animals can live perfectly well with instinct to guide them. Only human beings, with their inestimable potential for good or harm, need the conscious constraint of law. What was implicit in the creation stories—that the evolving human being is a creature apart—is now made explicit and conscious. We know we are different. We know we are a danger to ourselves and to all of creation. Now we are given the means to do something about it. Significantly, this means that we must now act as God’s representatives (indeed, this is one of the meaning of tselem elohim) as agents of karma. And we must do so in full awareness. The inner workings of the karmic universe have become conscious of themselves, and they are us!

Where in last week’s parashah, the “image of God” sparked wonder and speculation, here the phrase acquires legal teeth. To the extent that we live outside of instinct, we must provide our own replacement for it in the form of law, culture, and community norms.  One can see this as the corollary to God’s promising stability in nature. God promises that the natural order will remain in balance, with season following season. Now humans must ensure that their society also stays in balance. They will need to keep man’s wild side from breaking loose and destroying the world.  If God is to forfeit the solution of erasing all life because of man’s wrongs, man must step in to make sure that justice is done, and balance is preserved.

The Genesis of Justice

And so, the first steps out of nature and into human history begin. Later still, the Torah will “institutionalize” and soften this primitive first law, and will build a framework for channeling human wildness into constructive paths.

In her book Punishment & Freedom, Devora Steinmetz notes that the punishment of murder is the one place where Torah law seems to intersect Noachide Law. This is illustrated by the fact that the punishment for murder in halakhah is hereg, death by sword, which is assigned to almost no other crime.

Killing by sword is a social act: the assignment of this form of execution to the crime of murder both underscores the reciprocal nature of the punishment for a murderer and emphasizes that that punishment is in the hands of human society. Execution by sword, like the assignment of the role of executioner to the go’el haddam (ed. avenger of blood), suggests that the court incorporates rather than supersedes the social response to murder. While it is the court’s job to regulate this response, to acquit the inadvertent homicide and to convict the intentional murderer, the judicial response to murder, at the end of the process, reverts back to the primordial notion that “he who spills the blood of a human being, by a human being shall his blood be spilled”.

The notion that the Torah comes to “regulate” the natural response of passion is a very fruitful idea, in particular when dealing with issues where our moral sense recoils. For example, the Sotah (the woman suspected by her husband of adultery), the Yaffat Toar (the beautiful woman taken in battle), the Ben Sorer More (the rebellious son). In all of these cases, the Torah seems to be saying: “You want revenge? You want to slake your lust? Your need to control? Sure, but not so fast! There are procedures that must be satisfied first!”

And in the course of fulfilling the required bureaucratic requirements, tempers cool, lust subsides, sanity prevails.

Do we still need such procedures? A look at the news in our region attests to the adage that a stream returns to its natural course. Just as 70 years ago Europe proved to us that the veneer of civilization is thin indeed, the Middle East too seems fated to periods of violent upheaval.

Yes, we still need legal rulings to channel human barbarism and cruelty into the fragile sanity of bureaucratic procedure. And yes, we still require such procedures to be backed by Divine sanction. We need to know that in following the saner course, we aren’t simply giving in to the temptings of our own cowardice or—dare we say it—of a wimpy compassion. Rather, we have the higher order of heaven and earth at our back when we choose mercy over cruelty, forgiveness over revenge. I am convinced that if evolution itself could be given a voice, it would applaud such choices in the voice of the Torah itself.

Perhaps it already has!

About the Author
Yael Shahar has spent most of her career working in counter-terrorism and intelligence, with brief forays into teaching physics and astronomy. She now divides her time between writing, off-road trekking, and learning Talmud with anyone who will sit still long enough. She is the author of Returning, a haunting exploration of Jewish memory, betrayal, and redemption.
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