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One of the generally overlooked aspects of the story of Noah and his floating zoo is the birds he chose to send out after the flood and before disembarkation. The first to go was the raven, yes, Edgar Allen Poe’s black beauty with its ominous “Nevermore.” After the raven Noah sends a dove, three times, until finally it does not return. Noah reads the message. It is time to drop anchor, de-board and get some fresh air.
We gloss over this part of the story because the other details are so much more dramatic. First the warning, then the flood. Thoughts about how all the animals fit in and managed to co-exist. And the stench…
Nevertheless, the birds are a conundrum. For example: Why send birds at all? Of course it seems clear that Noah wanted to know whether the land was drying. After all, the window of the ark was in the roof – he could only see up and not down. But we are not told the purpose until the second bird, the dove, is released. This leads to another question, why the raven?
Assuming that reconnaissance is the purpose, why send the raven at all? Rabbi Ari Kahn quotes 17th century commentator Hizkuni who offers a logical (if gruesome) explanation for choosing the raven. The raven eats carcasses. So, if the raven comes back with choice morsels from corpses, that means the waters have subsided.
But this raises another question. We don’t know if the raven ever comes back. It says he flew back and forth over the landscape. If he didn’t return, then a more serious problem erupts. Because ravens are not kosher, there was only one couple. If only one raven is left, it cannot reproduce spontaneously, without a partner and it will become extinct.
In contrast, Noah’s attitude toward the dove is different. Several days after the raven is released, Noah sends out a dove “from himself” (meaning – he likes the bird), and here we are told that the purpose was to see if the waters had receded. When the dove returns, Noah lovingly draws it back in, which we don’t see with the raven. And seven days later another reconnaissance mission, and this time the dove returns with an olive branch. Things are looking up. And seven days later, the dove goes out and does not return, meaning the earth is habitable again.
The text, not surprisingly, leaves us without answers. These unanswered and unanswerable questions led CHAZAL to some very weird stories, discussions and theories.
For example, in one discussion, the raven accuses Noah of hating him and wanting to extinguish his line, that Noah doesn’t care if the raven returns or not. Interesting. But the most outrageous storyline is this: the raven accuses Noah of being enamored of its mate, and that’s why he wants to evict the male raven, to get rid of the competition! Let’s not go into that.
The midrash intimates that Noah hated the raven because of the bird’s black complexion and unsavory behavior. Thus, because Noah thought that God was finished with man, and that all was bleak and dreary, he sent out the raven, another dark, bleak and dreary creature, to fend for itself.
While many of the rabbis concur with Poe’s view of the raven as a devil, the raven has advocates. According to Midrash Rabbah, God told Noah to take back the raven. Why? Because ‘A righteous man will arise and dry up the world, and will cause him to have need of them [the ravens],’ as it is written, And the ravens (‘orvim) brought him bread and flesh. This righteous man was Elijah, who was hiding from Ahab. During his years in the desert, orvim, ravens, brought him meat and bread every day. (That sounds disgusting.)
Noah’s love for the dove may indicate a bias against black or it may be Noah’s preference for the goody-goody dove over the raucous unfriendly raven.
But if we look at the Hebrew for raven – orev – we see it actually comes from the root meaning to combine, which the rabbis interpret as combining good and evil. This is something, they say, that Noah did not want, not after the evil that had caused the destruction of all living things on earth. Instead, he preferred the white dove, the symbol of purity, good, and later of peace.
Everything in the story seems to be painted black or white. Until the ending. There the symbol of no more floods is the rainbow.
White, the symbol of goodness, is actually the amalgamation of all the colors of the spectrum. The rainbow in this context may be construed as a symbol of all the possible variations of good and evil. Absolutes are hard to find and very often they are not overly user-friendly. In the immortal words of West Side Story, inside the worst of us is good!
Perhaps it’s the social media, or the hole in the ozone layer, or our addiction to immediate gratification, but today we seem unable or unwilling to delve deeply into the essence of people and of events. Our ability to see nuances of colors, of gradations of good and evil, in and around us is often clouded. Perhaps it’s the age we live in. Or perhaps that’s just the way we are and have always been.