Midrash on Noah and the Flood: Texts on the Preservation of Species and Human Responsibility

Compiled by Rabbi David Seidenberg

Study of these texts and commentaries should begin with reading the story of Noah and the flood, Genesis 6:9 - 9:17.

*Note: The following midrashic texts focus on specific verses of the story of Noah and the flood. Page numbers are referenced to the following English editions: Midrash Rabbah, Genesis, vol.1, translated by H. Freedman (London: Soncino, 1983); Midrash Tanhuma, translated by John T. Townsend (New York: KTAV 1989); Tractate Sanhedrin, Babylonian Talmud (London: Soncino, 1983). Wherever possible the version found in Midrash Rabbah is given, since it is the most widely accessible collection in English. The texts are arranged by section according to the verse they comment on, and specific comments and reflections for each text are included below. Some minor changes in the cited translations have been made to facilitate reading.

Noah's Righteousness

A. "These are the generations of Noah: Noah was a righteous, whole-hearted man in his generations." Genesis 5:9

What made Noah unique? Why were he and his family alone saved from among all of humanity? The midrash probes this question from many angles. Each commentary below suggests an answer which may lead us to a second question: How should we emulate Noah?

1. R. Levi said: Everyone about whom it is said that "he was" saw a new world. The Rabbis said: Every man of whom it is said "he was" fed and sustained others. Noah fed and sustained [those in the ark] twelve months, as it says, "And take for you of all food that is eaten..." Midrash Genesis Rabbah, I, 30:8, p.236-7.*

2. "He does not turn by way of the vineyards": the intention [of the generation of the flood] was not to plant vineyards [i.e. not to reproduce]. But Noah's only intention was to be fruitful and multiply in the world, hence, "These are the generations of Noah..." Midrash Genesis Rabbah, 30:2, p.233.

3. Wherever [the phrase] "a man" occurs it indicates a righteous man who warned [others]. For one hundred and twenty years Noah planted cedars and cut them down. On being asked, "Why are you doing this?" he replied, "The Lord of the Universe has informed me that He will bring a Flood in the world." Midrash Genesis Rabbah, 30:7, p.235.

4. Why is Noah called "righteous"? Because he fed the creatures of the Holy One, and became like his Creator. Thus it says, "For the Lord is righteous, loving righteous deeds." Tanchuma, Noah 4, p.35.

God's Compassion

B. "And Elohim remembered Noah and all the beasts and all the animals which were with him in the ark..." Genesis 8:1

In the story of the flood, humans and animals appear to be treated with equal concern by God. The midrash elaborates on this theme frequently. Here are a few examples:

5. "The Lord is good to all, and His mercies are over all His works." R. Joshua b. Levi said: The Lord is good to all [creatures], and His mercies are over all, because they are all His works. R. Joshua of Sakhnin said in R. Levi's name: The Lord is good to all, and He gives of his mercy to all creatures [so that they can be merciful to others]. Midrash Genesis Rabbah, 33:3, p.260.

6. It is written, "A righteous one knows the soul of his animal." (Prov. 12:10) The righteous one of the world [God] even understands the soul of his animal [i.e. the animals in the ark], even when he is angry. Tanchuma, Noah 10, p.39.

7. If He remembered Noah, why also the animals? May the name of the Holy One be blessed, who never deprives any creature of its reward. If even a mouse has preserved its family [i.e. species] it deserves to receive a reward. Tanchuma, Noah 11, p.41.

On Feeding the Animals

C. "And you, take for you of all the food that is eaten, and gather it to you, it will be for you and for them for eating." (7:21)

What did it mean for Noah to have to gather food for all the creatures in the world? These midrashim explore both the spiritual and practical aspects of Noah's task.

8. "And Noah found grace in in the eyes of the Lord." (6:8) How far [did God's grace to Noah extend]? To the point that he knew which animal was to be fed in the second hour of the day and which beast was to be fed in the third hour of the night. Midrash Genesis Rabbah, 29:4, p.231.

9. "And take for you of all the food that is eaten." R. Abba b. Kahana said: He took pressed figs with him... He took in branches for the elephants, chatsubah for the deer, and z'khukhit for the ostriches. R. Levi said: Vine-shoots for the vine plantings, fig saplings for fig trees, and olive saplings for olive trees. Midrash Genesis Rabbah, 31:14, p.247.

10. According to R. Abba b. Kahana " And it will be for you and for them for eating" means something that is [equally] for you and for them. According to R. Levi, "And it will be for you and for them" means you are the principal and they are secondary, [because it says] "and gather it to you" -- people do not store up anything unless they need it [for themselves]. Midrash Genesis Rabbah, 31:14p.247.

More Midrashim about Feeding the Animals

Once we accept the obligation to protect other species, there are many difficult tasks and choices that ensue. Noah and his family had to neglect their own needs in order to take care of all the animals on the ark. The following commentaries explore the difficulties Noah faced.

11. R. Levi said: The whole twelve months that Noah was in the ark, neither he nor his family tasted sleep because they were responsible for feeding the animals. R. Abba b. Kahana said: He brought branches for the elephants... Now some ate in the second hour of the night and some in the third hour of the day, hence you know that Noah did not taste a bit of sleep. R. Yochanan said: One time, when Noah was late in feeding the lion, the lion bit him, and he went away limping. Tanchuma, Noah 14,p.42.

12. R. Chana b. Bizna said: Eliezer [Abraham's servant] to Shem [Noah's son], "What was it like for you [in the ark]?" He replied, "We had much trouble in the ark. The animals which usually feed by day we fed by day, and those which normally feed at night we fed by night. But my father didn't know what was the food of the chameleon. One day he was sitting and cutting up a pomegranate, when a worm dropped out of it, which [the chameleon] ate. From then on he mashed up bran for him, and when it became wormy, he ate it... As for the phoenix, my father discovered it lying in the hold of the ark. "Don't you require food?" he asked. "I saw that you were busy," he replied, "so I said to myself, I will give you no trouble." "May it be [God's] will that you should never perish," he exclaimed. Sanhedrin 108b.

D. "And again he sent forth the dove out of the ark. And the dove came in at evening, and here, an olive leaf torn off in her mouth..." (Genesis 8:9)

Whenever we have to manipulate the environment to save a species, there is a cost. Usually we think of the cost to ourselves, as we noted in the previous section, but the following midrash is concerned with the cost to those creatures we help.

13. "An olive leaf torn off in her mouth.." From where did she bring it? R. Birai said: The gates of the Garden of Eden were opened for her, and from there she brought it. Said R. Abbahu: Had she brought it from the Garden of Eden, shouldn't she have brought something better, like cinnamon or balsam? But in fact she gave [Noah] a hint, saying to him: "Noah, better is bitterness from this source than sweetness from your hand." Midrash Genesis Rabbah, 33:6, p. 266.

E. "And Elohim said to Noah and to his children with him: Behold, I establish My covenant with you and with your seed after you, and with every living creature that is with you, of the birds, of the cattle, and of every wild animal of the earth with you..." (Genesis 9:8-10)

In this passage God establishes the first covenant, which is with both humanity and the other creatures. What was the content of that covenant? In light of the tragic extinction of many of God's creatures in this century, how might we understand the covenant today? What role should we understand ourselves as playing in the fulfillment of the covenant?


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