Today and tomorrow we observe Rosh Chodesh, the beginning of a new month, for Cheshvan, aka Marcheshvan. The rabbis say the “mar” comes from the Hebrew for “bitter,” since poor Cheshvan has no holidays in it (for which I am ever so grateful). That’s just wordplay. It appears to come from the Akkadian for “eighth month.” Anyhow, this means we read Numbers 28:9-15, about new moon sacrifices from a second scroll, and a special haftarah, Isaiah 66:1-24.
This week, we read about Noah, the Tower of Babel, and the genealogical line from Noah to Abram (later called Abraham). Noah’s story: Humanity has become wicked since Creation, so the Lord decides to start over, wiping out all humans and animals with a great flood. Only one family, Noah’s, will be spared, along with pairs of animals for breeding and additional animals for sacrifices. Noah builds a rudderless vessel, an ark, as commanded by the Lord. After 40 days of rain and close to a year while the water recedes, they disembark and offer sacrifices. In a renewal of Creation, the Lord then makes a covenant with Noah. It parallels the charge given to Adam in Gen. 1:27-30 (be fruitful and multiply, etc.), but now Noah and descendants will clearly dominate the animals, eat meat, and set up a system of laws. The Lord promises never to wipe out life on earth again, at least not with a flood.
Noah’s story is similar to several Mesopotamian flood stories, especially the story of Utnapishtim in the Epic of Gilgamesh. In Chapter II of his book Understanding Genesis (1966), Nahum M. Sarna lays out pertinent similarities and differences between the two stories. In both, the flood is a divider between historical epochs; it is initiated by the Deity/deities; the ship is built to exacting specifications; both animals and the hero’s family are saved; upon disembarking, they offer sacrifices having a “sweet savor” to the Deity/deities; and both heroes are blessed afterward. On the other hand, Utnapishtim’s selection appears arbitrary, while Noah is “righteous in his generation” (grading on a curve?) in the midst of everyone else’s wickedness; the Mesopotamian gods’ power is limited, versus God’s omnipotence; and the sacrifices seem to be actual food to be eaten by the gods, but not for God. Only Utnapishtim and his wife are blessed, with immortality and isolation from humanity. Noah and his descendants are all blessed with an ongoing covenant symbolized by a rainbow, and a promise that God will not drown them again. The cosmic nature of the Noah story is also seen in the very word used for Flood-with-a-capital-F, mabbul, which “is now recognized as having denoted originally the heavenly, or upper, part of the cosmic ocean…the primeval sea.” (Sarna, p. 55).
Unfortunately, Noah, back on dry land, now plants a vineyard, discovers wine, and gets so drunk as to be humiliated and/or assaulted by his son Ham. This story is possibly a way to set up a claim to moral superiority for the descendants of the other sons, Shem (Abram’s ancestor) and Japheth.
The Tower (better, Ziggurat) of Babel story is a bridge from Noah to Abram (see Sarna, Chapter III). It’s a story of the origin of languages; note, however, that the fact that different nations have different languages was already introduced in Gen. 10:9, 20, and 31. It can also be read as an example of Biblical satire, centered on the 300-foot ziggurat in Babylon, built to glorify the god Marduk. Apparently, while Noah’s descendants are contentedly being fruitful and multiplying, they are reluctant to go out and fill the earth. Instead, they are concentrated in one place, with one language, consolidated as one people. But sometimes, lockstep unity can lead to a bad outcome. They decide to build a humongous tower to serve as a physical link between earth and heaven. This is halted by the divine imposition of myriad languages and consequent dispersal of the people, filling the earth.
The portion ends 10 generations after Noah with the introduction of Abram, who is blessed by God at 75 and sent on a journey to Canaan. We’ll read about that next time.
Shabbat shalom and Chodesh tov (a good month),
THE BLOG 04/02/2014 02:19 pm ET Updated Jun 02, 2014
Noah Tells the Real Story (abridged)
First of all, I wasn’t 500 years old. They totally made that up. I was maybe 75, max, which — don’t get me wrong — was pretty old back then. Decrepit actually. When God chose me for this genius shipbuilding project, I should have said, “Thank you very much for the honor, Your Holiness. I’m flattered, but please, do me a favor: Find somebody else like maybe… I don’t know… a carpenter? Do I look like a guy who can schlep 3000 tons of lumber back and forth, all day and night?
The first thing I asked was the obvious question: “Why, oh Lord, do you want me to build a boat? I live in the desert.” And then he lays this story on me: He made humans, but he’s not thrilled about the direction that went in so he’s going to make a big flood and drown everybody.
This did not amuse Him. Basically, he wanted a do-over. He decided to save me because He thought I was a righteous man (evidently, He hadn’t heard about that shoplifting incident).
Of course, I thought he wanted me to build a small boat just for my wife and my sons and their wives and me. But then He gave me these measurements — 500 cubits this, 2000 cubits that. Basically, He wanted me to build an aircraft carrier. I wanted to say, “God, you made the earth and the seas and the mountains and the trees, you can’t just make a lousy boat yourself and save me the aggravation?” But I didn’t. I could see that He was a little moody.
Then there was the animal business. OMG. Somehow, I was supposed to round up all the animals on earth and get them all on the ship. I have a dog, and I can’t even get him to sit. All I could think of was who’s supposed to clean up two months of animal sh**.
So I built the ark and somehow I got the animals on. Then, it rained. Boy, did it ever rain. Try drying your clothes in humidity like that. Of course, I had to wonder why I was the only guy on the entire planet who had a boat.
The raven and the Mt. Ararat stuff — never happened. The boat sank. Surprise! When He saw what was happening, he threw us 450,000 life preservers.
But it all worked out for the best. It’s so comforting to know that Mankind isn’t evil anymore.
I have joy in my heart and a glass of wine in my hand. Coincidence??
When you get a hangover from wine it’s called the grape depression.
I enjoy a glass of wine each night for its health benefits. The other glasses are for my witty comebacks and my flawless dance moves.
The secret of enjoying a good bottle of wine:
- Open the bottle to allow it to breathe.
- If it doesn’t look like it’s breathing, give it mouth-to-mouth.
I can’t wait for the day when I can drink wine with my kids instead of because of them. (It arrived! IGP)
Jokes about language, translation, and interpreting
Two translators on a ship are talking.
“Can you swim?” asks one.
“No” says the other, “but I can shout for help in nine languages.”
A former secretary of commerce liked to tell how a high ranking official once responded to a subordinate’s request for a raise by saying, “Because of the fluctuational predisposition of your position’s productive capacity as juxtaposed to governmental statistics, it would be momentarily injudicious to advocate an incremental increase.”
The staff person said, “I don’t get it.”
The official said, “That’s right.”
A cat is sitting on the throne, and two dogs, an envoy and his interpreter, are standing before him. The interpreter dog is whispering to the envoy dog, “You’ll have to rephrase that. Their language doesn’t have a word for ‘fetch’”.