…”Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil! – prophet still, if bird or devil!
Whether Tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore,
Desolate yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted,
On this home by horror haunted – tell me truly, I implore,
Is there – is there balm in Gilead – tell me – tell me, I implore!”
Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore.”
— The Raven, by Edgar Allan Poe1
In the aftermath of the destruction, as Noach floats along on his Ark, the waters have become eerily still, and a strange silence has replaced the angry, deadly, destructive storm. Now the Torah reports that Noach and all of creation have been remembered:
“But the Almighty remembered Noach and all the wild animals and the livestock that were with him in the ark, and the Almighty sent a wind over the earth, and the waters receded.” (Bereishit 8:1)
The name of God utilized in this section is Elokim. The connotation of this name is “God of Judgment”,2 as opposed to “God of Mercy”. We might have thought that a “harsh and angry God” punished humankind and then a kind (albeit perhaps fickle) God changed his mind, but the Torah informs us that now that judgment has been meted out, Elokim, the very same aspect of Judgment, remembers Noach. At the end of 40 days Noach opens the window and sends forth a raven:
After forty days Noach opened the window he had made in the ark, and sent out a raven, and it kept flying back and forth until the water had dried up from the earth. (Bereishit 8:6-7)
The raven suffers from a negative reputation, associated in both Rabbinic and general Western literature with demonic forces.3 In the unforgettable words of Edgar Allan Poe, quoted above:
…”Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil! – prophet still, if bird or devil!4
While we can leave it to scholars of American Poetry to reveal Poe’s sources of information and attitude, the negativity toward the raven apparently goes all the way back to chapter 8 of Bereishit. But why the antagonism? What dastardly deed did the raven commit to deserve this reputation? Compare the raven to the dove, which is regarded as a loving, faithful, loyal harbinger of peace. The contrast is stark – as stark as black verses white. While in fact the raven is dark and the dove is white, can the Torah actually ascribe such significance to pigmentation? Let us continue the story and see what happens with the dove.
Then he sent out a dove to see if the water had receded from the surface of the ground. But the dove could find no place to set its feet because there was water over all the surface of the earth; so it returned to Noach in the ark. He reached out his hand and took the dove and brought it back to himself in the ark. He waited seven more days and again sent out the dove from the ark. When the dove returned to him in the evening, there in its beak was a freshly plucked olive leaf! Then Noach knew that the water had receded from the earth. (12) He waited seven more days and sent the dove out again, but this time it did not return to him. (Bereishit 8:8-12)
A careful reading of the verses brings several problems to light: While the objective of the dove’s mission is clearly stated, “to see if the water had receded”, the text does not reveal the motivation for sending the raven. While the juxtaposition of the two birds might suggest a common mission, the lack of explanation for the raven’s mission is nonetheless striking. This leads to additional questions about the raven: We don’t know why specifically the raven was chosen or if the mission was successful or aborted. Was this Noach’s idea, or was he commanded to send the raven out? Did Noach perhaps seek permission or approval for his initiative? The text is silent.
When we compare the two verses which describe the sending of the raven and dove respectively, we notice a second difference: When Noach sends the dove, the word used is me’ito : literally rendered, he sent the dove “from himself” (an idiom that is difficult to translate). The reader is left with the impression that Noach had a close relationship with this dove – perhaps it was his personal pet. This sort of modifier is totally absent in the case of the raven.
The dove’s mission was successfully completed when it returned with the olive branch in its beak, creating the enduring image of peace. But what of the raven? Why was it sent and how did it fare? The Chizzkuni suggests an ominous mandate for the raven:
The raven was sent because its nature is to eat carcasses, and if the water subsided, it would find corpses strewn on the shore. (Chizzkuni Bereishit 8:7)
In contrast to the olive branch in the mouth of the dove, eternal symbol of peace, we have a vivid image of the predatory, carnivorous raven descending upon corpses, perhaps even mutilating one to bring something back to Noach. The image persists even though the raven apparently fails to even leave the immediate vicinity of the Ark – and doesn’t bring back any flesh. While the Chizzkuni’s may be the correct reading of the text and of Noach’s motivation for sending the raven, we are still baffled as to why this is not stated explicitly – namely that the raven was also sent to see if the water had subsided. This, coupled with the other outstanding textual oddity – the dove described as having been sent “from him” – leaves us searching for the deeper meaning of the narrative. Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin (“The Netziv”) in his Torah commentary Ha’amek Davar 5 raises some important questions: Why were the raven and dove singled out? There are many birds that fly farther and better then these two. Furthermore, who gave Noach permission to release these birds prior to the time when all the other inhabitants of the Ark would be released? The Netziv theorizes that these two birds were not of the “two by two” brought to the Ark, rather they were Noach’s pets. With this suggestion, the Netziv solves one problem, but exchanges it for another: While we may now know why Noach was permitted to send these birds, we don’t know how he brought them to the Ark in the first place.
The Ohr Hachaim (Hakadosh) also questions why the raven was sent, but rejects the suggestion that it was in order to check the water level: The Torah surely would have stated this, as it does subsequently regarding the dove’s mission. Rather, in keeping with a Talmudic tradition,6 the Ohr Hachaim reveals why the raven was sent: because Noach didn’t want it around. The Talmud suggests that the raven was cast out because it broke protocol and had relations on the Ark. While the dove was sent on a reconnaissance mission, the raven was simply expelled. The raven, for his part, refused to leave.
The Talmud recounts that the raven lodges a complaint: He accuses Noach of acting with cruelty and prejudice, for his expulsion would result in the extinction of the species.7 In fact, that is just one of many accusations the raven puts forth:
“And he sent forth a raven.” Resh Lakish said: The raven gave Noach a triumphant retort. It said to him, ‘Thy Master hateth me, and thou hatest me. Thy Master hateth me – [since He commanded] seven [pairs to be taken] of the clean [creatures], but only two of the unclean. Thou hatest me – seeing that thou leavest the species of which there are seven, and sendest one of which there are only two. Should the angel of heat or of cold smite me, would not the world be short of one kind? (Talmud Sanhedrin 108b)
The Talmud describes the raven as having a winning argument. He accuses both Noach and God of hating him: God had shown an obvious preference for other species, commanding Noach to preserve seven of each. And surely it would have been more prudent for Noach to send a bird from one of the species of which more than two of a kind had been on board the Ark.
“And it came to pass at the end of forty days, that Noach opened the halon [e.v. ‘window’] of the Ark.” This supports the view that it was a window [trapdoor]. “and he sent forth a raven”: thus it is written, He sent darkness, and it was dark” (Ps. 105:28). “And it went forth to and fro (yatzo va’shov). R. Judan said in the name of R. Judah b. R. Simon: It began arguing with him: ‘Of all the birds that thou hast here thou sendest none but me!’ ‘What need then has the world of thee?’ he retorted; ‘For food? For a sacrifice8 ?’ (Midrash Rabbah 33:5)
Perhaps Noach sees the world through utilitarian eyes: Either something can be used or it has no value. If a raven can’t be eaten and can’t be used as an offering, the world simply doesn’t need it.
Then the raven goes even further and hurls a bizarre accusation:
Or perhaps thou desirest my mate!’ – ‘Thou evil one!’ he exclaimed; ‘even that which is [usually] permitted me has [now] been forbidden: how much more so that which is [always] forbidden me!’ And whence do we know that they were forbidden? – From the verse, And thou shalt enter into the Ark, thou, and thy sons, and thy wife, and the wives of thy sons with thee; whilst further on it is written, Go forth from the Ark, thou, and thy wife, and thy sons, and thy sons’ wives with thee. Whereon R. Johanan observed: From this we deduce that cohabitation had been forbidden. (Talmud Sanhedrin 108b)
The raven accuses Noach of fancying his spouse; Noach honors the accusation with a response, proving the raven’s charge outrageous: If, while on the Ark, he has maintained abstinence from his own wife, how much more so would he avoid intimacy with the raven’s spouse, who is always off limits! What could have made the raven construe the situation in this manner? The Talmud portrays this as a case of projection. The raven was one of three who broke boundaries on the ark and engaged in illicit sexual behavior:
Our Rabbis taught: Three copulated in the ark, and they were all punished – the dog, the raven, and Ham. The dog was doomed to be tied, the raven expectorates [his seed into his mate’s mouth]. And Ham was smitten in his skin. (Talmud Sanhedrin 108b)
Noach’s perspective of the raven is negative, but of the three transgressors, surely the one who bore the most responsibility was Ham, though some commentaries suggest that only after seeing the raven engaging in this behavior did Ham “heat up”9 and follow suit. While Noach doesn’t have much use for the raven, seeing him as dark and devoid of utility, he also may not have much use for his son Ham, whose outrageous and immoral behavior in the following verses leads Noach to cast a dire curse upon one of Ham’s sons.10 In citing Ham’s punishment by affliction of the skin, the analogy between Ham and the raven is drawn on more than one level, and we return to the theme of pigment. Later in the narrative we are also told that one of Ham’s children is Kush – which means black.
Noach sees the raven as a symbol of the darkness and cruelty that surround him and that have led to the massive, nearly total destruction of the world and its inhabitants.11Noach believes that God has abandoned the world.12 God’s kindness has disappeared and the attribute of Elokim13 reigns. For his first overture in the ante-deluvian world Noach sends forth a symbol of cruelty and darkness. Only later does he explore the possibility of kindness, loyalty and peace, sending the white dove which represents God’s merciful and kind attributes, even with its name (the Hebrew word yona is composed of three of the four letters of the Divine Name denoting omnipresence). Noach rejects the raven, casts it away, and identifies with the dove that he sends “me’ito” – of or from himself.
There is, however, someone who does not concur with Noach’s judgment and attitude toward the raven: God, the Creator of this dark, maligned creature.
R. Berekiah said in R. Abba’s name: The Holy One, blessed be He, said to him [Noach]: ‘Take it back, because the world will need it in the future.’ ‘ When? ‘ he asked. ‘ When the waters dry off from on the earth ‘ (ib.). He replied: ‘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, etc. (I Kings 17:6). (Midrash Rabbah 33:5)
This Midrash refers to an episode that we may consider an inverse of the flood – a time of drought. The raven comes into its own, as it were, and rises to the occasion.
Now Elijah the Tishbite, from Tishbe in Gilead, said to Ahab, “By the God of Israel (YHVH) whom I serve, there will be neither dew nor rain in the next few years except at my word.” Then the word of God came to Elijah: “Leave here, turn eastward and hide in the Kerith Ravine, east of the Jordan. You will drink from the brook, and I have ordered the ravens to feed you there.” So he did what God had told him. He went to the Kerith Ravine, east of the Jordan, and stayed there. (The ravens brought him bread and meat in the morning and bread and meat in the evening, and he drank from the brook. (verses 1-6)
God’s answer to Noach is, “I have a plan for the raven. He will be needed in the future.” The name of the raven in Hebrew, orev, does not mean “black”; it comes from the root word meaning “mixture.”14 While Noach may treat the raven as black,15 especially when compared to the fair dove, whose name and nature possess a hint of the Divine, the raven is apparently far more complex – reflecting the mixture of good and bad, a representation of post- Eden reality. Noach chooses to reject and expel the raven. He does not accept the merger of good and evil. He sees his own survival as testimony to the eradication of evil and the triumph of good. God sees things differently.
There is another book that grapples with this same tension: Should an imperfect society be saved or eradicated? The prophet who chooses to see the world in black and white is none other than the prophet named Yona, the Hebrew word for dove.
The word of the God came to Yona son of Amittai: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.” But Yona ran away from God and headed for Tarshish. He went down to Jaffa, where he found a ship bound for that port. After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to flee from God. Then God sent a great wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arose that the ship threatened to break up. (Yona 1:1-4)
The name of God used here indicates compassion. Yona runs away from God’s compassion; he thinks that he would prefer pure justice.
But Yona was greatly displeased and became angry. He prayed to God, “O God, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, O God, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.” (Yona 4:1-3)
In order to appreciate the irony, and to fully understand the connection, we must take a closer look at the other main protagonists in the Book of Yona, namely the inhabitants of the city of Ninveh. What is their lineage – from which dark place did they emerge?
Kush (the son of Ham) was the father of Nimrod, who grew to be a mighty warrior on the earth. He was a mighty hunter before God; that is why it is said, “Like Nimrod, a mighty hunter before God.” The first centers of his kingdom were Babylon, Erech, Akkad and Calneh, in Shinar. From that land he went to Assyria, where he built Nineveh, Rehoboth Ir, Calah,and Resen, which is between Nineveh and Calah; that is the great city. (Bereishit 10:8-12)
The city of Ninveh is built and populated by descendants of Ham, his son Kush and his grandson Nimrod16 – quite an unholy trinity of forebears. Such a city should certainly be destroyed; what justification could possibly exist for its salvation? This seems to be Yona’s perspective. The rebellious prophet tries to escape God’s call to judgment on a boat, just as Noach did all those years before. Now Ninveh, which is thematically connected with the raven, has as its adversary Yona – the thematic continuation of Noach and the dove. Yona, like Noach, sees the world as black and white, while the city of Ninveh represents the raven – the orev – the combination of good and evil. When Yona looks at Ninveh – its past, present and future – he sees evil. God sees the more complex reality, the confusion of good and evil represented in the figure and personality of the raven.
How appropriate that the symbol of God’s covenant with Noach, and through him with all of humanity, is the many-colored rainbow: The world is not black and white, it is multi-colored, and each color melts into the next. Good is merged with Evil, and Evil with Good. The very existence of the world in the aftermath of the deluge is a testament to the Merciful God, and the symbol of His covenant is a spectacular mosaic of color. Even when the world seems foreboding, dark and evil, we must learn from God and not from Noach or Yona: We must look more carefully and learn to distinguish between the elements of the mixture. Good may be found amongst the evil, and things that don’t look completely good are not necessarily completely bad. That is the lesson taught by the raven.
1.First published on January 29, 1845, in the New York Evening Mirror. (return to text)
2.See Shmot 20:1 and Rashi’s comments, as well as Rashi ‘s comments to Psalms 58:12. Occasionally the word elohim refers to a human judge. See Exodus 22:28. This name denotes “possessing power”, hence my use in translation of the name “Almighty”. (return to text)
3.The Be’er Mayim Chaim points out that the word raven in Hebrew is spelled ayin resh bet, the same letters which spell b’rah in reverse, which means “in evil.” (return to text)
4.See note 1, above. (return to text)
5.Haemek Davar Bereishit 8:7. (return to text)
6.Sanhedrin 108b. (return to text)
7.In his commentary to Sanhedrin 108, the Ben Y’hoyada points out that once the raven had relations, a new generation of raven was now on the way, and there was no danger of extinction. (return to text)
8.Apparently Noach is not troubled by the potential extinction of the raven. (Zohar Genesis 36b) (return to text)
9.The name Ham means hot. See comments of Rav Shimshon ben Rafael Hirsch to this section. (return to text)
10.See 9:24-26. (return to text)
11.See Rav Zadok Hakohen, Kometz Mincha part 2 section 24, where sources are cited that the raven hates it own offspring. (return to text)
12.See Zohar Chadash, Bereishit 38b. (return to text)
13.The issue of the use of the different names of God, used as an intellectual battering ram by certain students of Biblical criticism, sheds much light on Bibilical study when properly understood, particularly when studying Bereishit and Noach. If one keeps in mind that the Torah always uses YHVH in connection with offerings, some insight may be achieved. The commandment to bring certain animals to the Ark “two by two”, simply to insure survival of the species, is ordered by Elokim – a name associated with nature. The command to bring ritually pure animals on to the Ark seven by seven, to facilitate the bringing of offerings after the flood, is commanded by YHVH. The two names are merged in 9:26-27. (return to text)
14.The raven represents the mixture or confusion of good and evil that is the result of eating from the Tree of Knowledge. See comments of Noam Elimelech to Parshat Ki Tavo. (return to text)
15.It is important to note that black is not a primary color – but rather a lack of color. (return to text)
16.According to tradition it was Nimrod who threw Avraham into the fiery furnace. See Bereishit Rabbah 38:13. (return to text)