Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Noach and the Flood

*** Possible potential heresy warning ***

Over on his blog, Dovbear asks what an Orthodox Jew is supposed to do with the story of Noah and the flood. He provides several answers, and to be honest, none of them are totally satisfactory.

I would add another difficulty to the story, which is the great similarity of the wording to the Epic of Gilgamesh. In the words of James Kugel:

the Bible’s Flood story is nowadays generally held to be a recasting of an ancient Mesopotamian legend – one that even retains some of the original wording (“smelled the pleasing odor” and so forth) of the text from which it was copied

(If you look in his book "How to Read the Bible" he discusses this in greater detail)

In other words, not only is there a lot of evidence that the flood did not actually take place as reported in the Torah, but it also looks as though the 'author' of the Torah copied and pasted from the earlier Epic.

I wonder (and I'n not sure if this is heretical or not) whether Rashi provides us with an answer to solve these issues. In Gittin there is an argument between Rabbi Yochanan and Reish Lakish as to how the Torah was given to Moshe Rabbeinu.
א"ר יוחנן משום רבי בנאה תורה מגילה מגילה ניתנה שנא' אז אמרתי הנה באתי במגילת ספר כתוב עלי ר"ש בן לקיש אומר תורה חתומה ניתנה שנאמר לקוח את ספר התורה הזאת

R. Johanan said in the name of R. Bana'ah: The Torah was transmitted in separate scrolls, as it says, Then said I, Lo I am come, in the roll of the book it is written of me. R. Simeon b. Lakish said: The Torah was transmitted entire, as it says, Take this book of the law.

(Tosefot points out, quoting from Rashi's commentary on Chumash, that Reish Lakish also agrees with Rabbi Yochanan's basic premise that the stories were given independently. The argument between them is whether they were given in the order in which they were to be written, or in a different order, and were later compiled into the order in which they appear in the Torah)
תורה חתומה ניתנה. תימה דכתיב (שמות כד) ויקח ספר הברית ויקרא באזני העם ופרש"י בפי' חומש דהיינו מבראשית ועד כאן ונראה לפרש דלא קאמר חתומה ניתנה שלא נכתבה עד לבסוף אלא שעל הסדר נכתבה דיש פרשיות שנאמרו תחילה לפני אותם הכתובים לפניהם ולא נכתבה עד שנאמר לו אותה שכתובה לפניה וכותב זאת אחריה

Rashi there expains Rabbi Yochanan's view:
כתוב עלי. מאז ניתנה התורה הוזכרתי בה ואת שתי בנותיך הנמצאות (בראשית יט) בזכות דוד שעתיד לצאת מרות המואביה ונעמה העמונית אמו של רחבעם כתיב הכא הנמצאות וכתיב התם (תהלים פט) מצאתי דוד עבדי אלמא מגילה איקרי משום דמתחילה נכתבה מגילת בראשית והדר מגילת נח והדר מגילת אברהם והיינו דקאמר במגילת אברהם כתוב עלי:

... First the 'Scroll of Genesis' was written,then the 'Scroll of Noach', then the 'Scroll of Avraham'...

Here is my question - why did Rashi not simply explain (based on his own commentary on chumash cited by Tosefot above) that the entire book of Bereishit and the beginning of Shemot were given to Moshe at once. And the argument between Rabbi Yochanan and Reish Lakish is only about the remainder of the Torah - whether it was given at once, or piecemeal.

Rashi specifies that before the Torah was actually written there was something called 'Scroll of Genesis' etc. Is it possible that G-d told Moshe to take existing stories from other the ancient world, and transform them into Torah through editing etc. Everything that happens in the world is ultimately from G-d, so the fact that these stories may have originally been written in other mythologies does not mean that they do not contain an element of G-dly truth.
Perhaps Moshe was told by G-d to take certain ideas from the Epic of Gilgamesh, and other works, which teach us ultimate and eternal truths, (and obviously to discard those parts which are not true). This would explain the similarity of wording between the Torah and the Epic.
We know that there were earlier works which the Torah expects us to be familiar with. for example, Bamidbar 21:14 states:
עַל-כֵּן יֵאָמַר בְּסֵפֶר מִלְחֲמֹת ה': אֶת וָהֵב בְּסוּפָה וְאֶת הַנְּחָלִים אַרְנוֹן
wherefore it is said in the book of the Wars of the LORD: Vaheb in Suphah, and the valleys of Arnon

There is also mention of Sefer HaYashar and others.

And if you will grant me that G-d told Moshe to copy and edit earlier texts - is it possible that the key thing from those texts was the ethical/moral message? Perhaps the historicity of the event was irrelevant to G-d and Moshe. Perhaps the fact that people were aware of this myth, and it became part of Torah, was sufficient. Whether it 'actually' happened the way it was written or not may not be the issue that G-d was concerned with.

It seems to me that if someone does not believe that there was a literal (whatever that means) revelation at Sinai they are putting themselves outside the traditional faith of Judaism. But perhaps Rashi in Gittin (and the gemara itself) is alluding to the fact that the earlier parts of the Torah are based on other texts, and only became 'the word of G-d' once G-d told Moshe to put them into the Torah.

What do you think? Is this a valid reading of the gemara/Rashi? Does it help to answer the flood questions? And is it heresy?


  1. I think the basic idea is supportable, but not from the gemara you site. R' Yochanan and Reish Laqish are debating whether Moshe was given the Torah incrementally over 40 years or was given it all at once.

    (BTW, note that R' Yochanan, who spent all his life developing his learning, holds the Torah was given incrementally. Reish Laqish, the baal teshuvah, says it was given all at once.)

    But the Torah itself explicitly says it's quoting other books, such as Sefer Toledos Adam and Sefer Milchamos Hashem. And if it's purely frum to believe that the revelation of the Torah includes Hashem's rendition of Moshe's speeches in Seifer Devarim, why not these books?

    But, while I think your idea is supportable, I'm wondering why it's necessary. The mabul happened. Why is it so hard to believe that some other people passed the story down to their children with little enough drift for many of the details to match what HQBH told us happened? Or that Noach, Sheim and Eiver wouldn't have seeded the story they started out with with the right spiritual terminology?

    Last, about "heresy"... Heresy is a word too rapidly thrown around. You didn't deny Torah miSinai, you tried to suggest a way the Torah could contain earlier texts and still be miSinai. The Rambam lists the three types of heresy in Hil' Teshuvah 3:7-8. AFAIK, we take an incredibly lenient version of them (and the 13 ikkarim) in practice, for example when assessing conversion candidates or people who may touch my wine. Nothing there about Hashem using or not using prior texts.

    BTW, R Gil Student wrote a web page advocating basically the same idea back in 2001. Which, had I remembered it earlier, would have saved me writing much of this comment.

  2. Now that the latest Hashkafah Circle post reached my mp4 player, I understand where this question came from. Not having listened to it yet, I probably should wait before commenting further. "Should", but won't. <grin> But only because I want to restate bits of my previous comments' points in a way that might clarify.

    I think that the discussion is of a Megillah about Avraham, not one given to him.

    I also think that the commonality of "reiach nikhoach" in both Gilgamesh and lehavdil the Torah may simply be diberah Torah belashon benei Adam. The Torah didn't so much use a common source text as use the existing idiom. Just as people of the Middle East in those days used "hand" to mean power, control or possession, which then becomes "Yad Hashem" as an anthropomorphic idiom and (probably much later) "yad" as a halachic term of art.

    But until Higher Criticism (eg the Kuzari) parallels between our claims and theirs was taken as proof, not a question. Why assume the week with a 7th day of rest was something we picked up from Bavel (who had a very different reason for not working then) rather than thinking that it shows a common heritage from Noach, Sheim and Eiver? Similarly the mabul, which has no geological, botanical or anthropological evidence, does have human record in cultures around the globe. Jungian symbology? Or proof that miracles are remembered, but leave no incontrovertible proof of themselves in the natural world?



  3. Micha -
    The Hashkafa Circle shiur from Rabbi Triebitz does indeed begin with this gemara, and is very interesting, but is not on this topic. I tried to get Rabbi Triebitz to comment on this idea, but he side-stepped the issue. So it was he who reminded me of the gemara, but my thought process - don't blame him for my (non-)heresy.
    I agree with you that it looks like a book about Avraham rather than given to Avraham.
    I'm also not sure that the similarities between Gilgamesh and Noach can be put down to popular idiom. Perhaps that is a sufficient answer - I hvae not studied Gilgamesh inside. But my understanding is that the whole incident, including the language in which it is written, is almost identical in both stories. If it is only a couple of phrases there is no question. If it is a whole paragraph copied and pasted it raises a serious question.
    You propose an 'ur' text which was passed down out of which came both Gilgamesh and Noach. That is certainly an interesting idea, and resolves the problem. There is no evidence for such a text, but perhaps that is not necessary. Perhaps, in fact, that ur-text is the one referred to by the gemara in Gitin.

  4. Actually, I tried to not propose anything. I find the existence of an ur story inescapable, as I believe the flood happened and it's virtually impossible that its survivors didn't tell their kids. But was there a text, or a common memory told in the same kinds of idioms? I don't know, and don't really see a need to take a position on it.

    As for how close they are... Wiki has a translation of the relevant 2/3 of tablet 11 of Gilgamesh, the part about Utnapishtim and the flood.

    A few obvious differences... The notion of a global flood is pretty much ruled out by line 1. Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh a secret story that happens in one city. Something that kills everyone but a common ancestor can't be too secret.

    His boat is square, perhaps even cubic, and had 6, not three decks.

    He only claims to load all the animals that he had. And also includes his hired craftsman in addition to his family.

    He lands on the planes.

    There are common elements. But in terms of details, I really only see the dove and the raven (but the events differ in details), the sacrifice and the one phrase about "pleasant fragrance."

    Judge for yourself.

  5. Oh, and the excuse for including the story is to explain how Utnapishtim and his wife became the only people to gain immortality. So the central theme of the Gilgamesh version is at odds with our version!

  6. The broader topic is Panbabylonism. But what I said about the difference between the Kuzari considering it a proof of the historicity of that part of the Torah and the Bible Critic who takes it as evidence of our borrowing still holds.