Responding to Chaos — Two sets of Noachide Commandments

The story of Noah is the story of a cataclysm, the first universal crisis to afflict humanity since the exile from Eden, which was itself the first step out of animal reality into the new reality of tool-using, large-brained creative beings.

God saw the earth, and behold it had become destroyed (nishchatah), for all flesh had destroyed (hishchit) its way on the earth. And God said to Noah, “The end of all flesh has come before Me, for the earth has become full of robbery because of them, and here, I am destroying them  (mashchitam) from the earth.
וַיַּרְא אֱלֹ-הִים אֶת-הָאָרֶץ, וְהִנֵּה נִשְׁחָתָה:  כִּי-הִשְׁחִית כָּל-בָּשָׂר אֶת-דַּרְכּוֹ, עַל-הָאָרֶץ.  וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹ-הִים לְנֹחַ, קֵץ כָּל-בָּשָׂר בָּא לְפָנַי–כִּי-מָלְאָה הָאָרֶץ חָמָס, מִפְּנֵיהֶם; וְהִנְנִי מַשְׁחִיתָם, אֶת-הָאָרֶץ.

Note that the word used here, commonly translated as “corrupted,” hishit, means “destroyed”. The repeated word is a key theme. The implication is that God’s declaration that the “end of all flesh has come before me” is merely a statement of fact. The world had already been destroyed by human activity, taking all life with it.

And so Noah’s story is interwoven with a calamity which unfolds in the real and perceptual realms. The fountains of the deep are opened; the mingling of the waters below and the waters above brings back the primordial chaos from which creation ensued. It is the actualization of the chaos beneath the solid earth—a glance into the abyss.

Noah, his family, and whatever he could save ride the waves of upheaval, without sail or rudder, tossed by the tempest. Is it coincidence that out of this chaos, human beings long for a promise of stability? The great naturalist Loren Eiseley writes:

The inorganic world could, and does, exist in a kind of chaos, but before life can peep forth, even as a flower, or a stick insect, or a beetle, it has to have some kind of unofficial assurance of nature’s stability, just as we have read that stability of forces in the ripples impressed in stone, or the rain marks on a long-vanished beach, or the unchanging laws of light in the eye of a four-hundred-million-year-old trilobite.

The nineteenth century was amazed when it discovered these things, but wasps and migratory birds were not. They had an old contract, an old promise, never broken till man began to interfere with things, that nature, in degree, is steadfast and continuous. Her laws do not deviate, nor the seasons come and go too violently. (The Firmament of Time)

Such stability is the substance of God’s promise to Noah after the flood: From now on, season will follow season; the world will provide the stability necessary for humans to evolve and fulfill their potential.

Is this prophecy or perception? As perception, it may be that this is the dawn of the recognition of natural law—finally we understand that the world follows laws, that it is ordered. Just knowing that such order exists is enough to make us want to understand it and to order our own life accordingly.

The Noahide Commandments

Nor is it a coincidence that the recognition of the stability of nature—of the laws of nature—is the occasion for the giving of laws to mankind. Custom is man’s attempt to enshrine the stability of nature in human society.

Scarcely had he stepped across the border of the old instinctive world when he began to create the world of custom. He was using reason, his new attribute, to remake, in another fashion, a substitute for the lost instinctive world of nature. He was, in fact, creating another nature, a new source of stability for his conflicting erratic reason. Custom became fixed: order, the new order imposed by cultural discipline, became the “nature” of human society. (Eiseley, ibid.)

And so, human legislation makes its first appearance in the Covenant of Noah, out of the need to build a human equivalent to the stability of nature. God promises physical stability; legislation promises societal stability, for without law and custom, human society will not long endure.

The seven Noachide laws, as traditionally enumerated, are:

  • Do not deny God.
  • Do not blaspheme God.
  • Do not murder.
  • Do not engage in illicit sexual relations.
  • Do not steal.
  • Do not eat from a live animal.
  • Establish courts/legal system to ensure obedience to the law

These commandments are the quintessential rules mipnei darchei shalom (for the sake of peace), whose goal is to establish the minimum requirements for humans to live together in peace. Humans must not kill each other, steal from each other, or steal each other’s mates; in the event of a conflict, there must be some agreed-upon mechanism for dispute resolution. Interestingly, the requirement not to eat the limb of the living also sets humans apart from other animals, who of necessity would begin eating their prey on the spot.

In the Talmud (Sanhedrin 56b), Rabbi Yochanan derives all seven laws from a single verse: Gen. 2:16—“The Eternal God commanded the human being, saying: From any tree of the garden you may eat”. By citing this first command from God to human beings as the source of law, R’ Yochanan emphasizes their universal nature.

The mysterious alternate set of Noahide Commandments

But it turns out that there are two different versions of the Noahide Laws in the Talmud. In addition to the familiar set of seven laws derived by R’ Yochanan, there is a second version:

For a Tanna of the School of Manasseh taught: The sons of Noah were given seven precepts. viz., [prohibition of] idolatry, adultery, murder, robbery, flesh cut from a living animal, castration, and forbidden mixtures. (B. Sanhedrin 56b)

While the Noahide Laws are a form of “natural law”—the sort of rules that any reasonable person would agree on so that humans can live together—the Tanna of the School of Menashe is referring to a very different sort of law. To see that this is so, just compare the two lists: the Tanna of the School of Menashe includes the prohibition of castration and cross-breeding of different species of animals or plants instead of the commandment to set up a legal system and the prohibition of blasphemy.

What’s more, while R’ Yochanan derived all the laws from a single source, the Tanna of the School of Menashe derives each law from a different source, most of them from the story of Noah:

[The prohibition of]
“Idolatry and adultery,” for it is written, “The earth also was destroyed before God.”
“Forbidden sexual relations,” as it is written, “for all flesh had destroyed its way upon the earth.”
“Idolatry,” for it is written, “Lest you corrupt (destroy) yourselves and make for yourselves a graven image, etc.”
“Bloodshed,” as it is written, “Whoever sheds man’s blood, [by man shall his blood be shed].”
“Robbery,” for it is written, “As the wild herbs have I given you all things;”
“Flesh cut from the living animal,” as it is written, “But flesh with the life in it, which is blood, you shall not eat.”
“Castration,” for it is written, “Bring forth abundantly in the earth, and multiply.”
“Forbidden mixtures,” as it is said, “Of fowls after their kind..”

– B. Sanhedrin 56b-57a

Not only are idolatry and sexual offenses derived from verses that link the word “destroyed” with these two sins, but most of the other laws are also derived from verses that use the same word “destroyed.”

But why this emphasis on the word “destroyed/corrupted”? The Tanna of the School of Menashe’s derivation seems to reiterate lessons learned from catastrophe. The prohibition against castration is derived from God’s commandment to Noah and his sons after the flood: “bring forth abundantly in the earth and multiply in it.” The prohibition against crossbreeding is derived from God’s instructions to Noah to bring specimens of each animal kind into the ark: “of birds according to their kinds.”

Both verses are echoes of the creation story. The Tanna of the School of Menashe seems to be showing the limits of man’s dominion: the world was created to work in a certain way and we must not interfere too radically in the way the world works. If we ignore this rule, we risk destruction. Looked at this way, the flood wasn’t so much a punishment for wrong-doing as a natural consequence for crossing certain boundaries.

In particular, the Tanna seems to be advocating for non-intervention in the destiny of individuals and species. Where R’ Yochanan emphasized the societal requirement to set up a system of laws, the Tanna advocates respect for natural law. In today’s environmentally conscious terms, we might phrase this as: Don’t mess with evolution!

A time to tamper, and a time to rest from tampering

Once again, Loren Eiseley provides us with a relevant midrash; he tells the story of a “great atomic physicist” who, while out on a walk with a friend, came upon a little tortoise.

“Overcome with pleasurable excitement, he took up the tortoise and started home, thinking to surprise his children with it. After a few steps he paused and surveyed the tortoise doubtfully.

“What’s the matter?” asked his friend.

Without responding, the great scientist slowly retraced his steps as precisely as possible, and gently set the turtle down upon the exact spot from which he had taken him up.

Then he turned solemnly to his friend. “it just struck me,” he said, “that perhaps, for one man, I have tampered enough with the universe.”

Eiseley points out that the scientist’s “I have tampered enough” was not a disparagement of science. Rather:

It was a final recognition that science is not enough for man. It is not the road back to the waiting Garden, for that road lies through the heart of man. Only when man has recognized this fact will science become what it was for Bacon, something to speak of as “touching upon hope.” Only then will man be truly human.

The use of the symbols of midrash aggadah here is nothing short of inspired. For what is Shabbat, but a day when we “stop tampering”, realizing that we are not the measure of all things, that our needs are not reason enough to alter the flow of the world.

And so, for one day a week, we re-enter the Garden. We allow nature to run along without our hands on the tiller. We let the world’s winds take us where they will, trusting that we will not run aground. This one day of letting go is a sore trial for some. For others, it is a taste of paradise. But for all, it is a moment of humility, a statement about our place in the world. In giving up our place at the pinnacle of creation, we earn it.

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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