Did Noah Miss the Boat?

And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming,
And the lamp-light o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor.
The Raven, Edgar Allen Poe[1]

dove[Noach] sent out [1] the raven (orev), and it departed. It went back and forth until the water dried up from the land’s surface. He then sent out [2] the dove (yonah) to see if the water had subsided from the land’s surface. The dove could not find any place to rest her feet, and she returned to him, to the ark. There was still water over all the earth’s surface. [Noah] stretched out his hand, and brought it to him in the ark. He waited another seven days, and once again sent [3] the dove out from the ark. The dove returned to him toward evening, and there was a freshly plucked olive leaf in her beak. Noah then knew the water had subsided from the earth. He waited yet another seven days and sent out [4] the dove [again]. This time she did not return to him any more[2].

Four times Noach sent out birds: The first bird was a raven, and the last three times, Noach sent the same dove. Why did he choose a raven and why did he end up using a dove? The text tells us why he sent the dove: to see if the water had subsided from the land’s surface.

Let’s look at the two sheliach[3] in Genesis chapter Eight. The first is the raven.

He sent out the raven, and it departed. He went back and forth until the water had dried[4].

I think it is unwise to think Noach was fresh off the boat. The raven was sent out but his purpose is not stated. The text, in fact, does not document divine permission to send the birds, and this is why I find the narrative so interesting[5]. When the bird was released, he appeared to prefer life outside the tevah[6] and never ventured back. This anomaly helped create the stage for a humorous story found in the Gemara:

And [Noach] sent forth a raven. Reish Lakish said: “The raven gave Noach a winning argument. He said to him, ‘Your Master hates me, and you hate me. Your Master hates me — [since your Master commanded] seven [pairs to be taken] of the clean [animals], but only two of the unclean. You hate me — seeing that you leave the species of which there are seven [pairs], and send 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? Or perhaps, you desire my wife!’[7]

Rabbinic stories are not necessarily to be taken as fact; some are designed to create a moral change in the reader and others are used to highlight an anomaly found within the Biblical text. While this story accents the rabbis’ sense of humor, the fact remains, the raven has a bad rap. In most stories and movies, it’s seen as evil or as a bad omen, as we read from the last verse of Edgar Allen Poe’s poem above. The raven, in the midst of its bad press, still holds a necessary and holy function in our world, because it will miraculously assist a prophet in Noach’s distant future. It’s the ravens that brought food to the prophet Elijah when he hid from King Ahab during the seven-year drought[8]. Even unclean as it is, it continues to serve its Creator and its obedience saved the life of a holy prophet and in the process, the raven pleased Hashem.

Of the two sheliach in Genesis chapter eight, the second is the dove. The text says:

Then he sent forth a dove from him, to see if the waters had subsided from the face of the ground. But the dove found no place to set her foot, so she returned to him on the ark, for the waters were still on the face of the whole earth. So [Noach] put out his hand and took her and brought her into the ark with him[9].

There is a certain tenderness between Noach and the dove we do not see in the narrative with the raven. He stretches forth his hand and she alights on his finger, and he brings her back into the haven of the ark.

Noach has a stated purpose in mind when he sends out the dove. She is to see if the water was still covering the land. I guess he got his answer when, after the third time she was sent, she never returned. But what is the function of the raven? Can it be as the rabbis theorize that Noach was so displeased with the bird that he was expelled the animal from the ark? If so, why didn’t he also rid himself of the orangutan, the rat, and the house cat?

My dear friend Pat postulated, “Seems like the mission of the raven (an unclean bird) was a failure.” I first thought of that, but then I recalled that when the dove returned with an olive branch, the bird was announcing its mission was complete: the water was no longer covering the whole of the earth.

So why a raven?

RAVENS ARE ONE OF THE SMARTEST ANIMALS. These birds rate with chimpanzees and dolphins. In the wild, ravens have pushed rocks on people to keep them from climbing to their nests, stolen fish by pulling a fishermen’s line out of ice holes, and played dead beside a beaver carcass to scare other ravens away from a delicious feast.
RAVENS USE “HAND” GESTURES. Ravens gesture to communicate. Ravens point with their beaks to indicate an object to another bird, just as we do with our fingers. They hold up objects to get another bird’s attention.
RAVENS ARE ADAPTABLE. They live in a variety of habitats, from snow to desert, from mountains to forests. They are scavengers with a huge diet that includes fish, meat, seeds, fruit, carrion, and garbage[10].

Why did Noach send out a raven? My best guesses consist of two options.

  1. The 9th-Century Floki Vilgeroarson, in the Landnamabok manuscript, is said to be the first Norseman to [purposefully] sail to Iceland. He carried several ravens with him on board. He released them at intervals of many days to see where or how they flew. If they circled the ship, he knew no land was in sight. It the bird flew off in one direction or another, he knew the bird had spied land and he followed the birds. In like manner, by observing the raven’s to-and-fro flight pattern, Noach knew land was not yet visible.
  2. The second option would be to see if the raven would find food. If the raven came with food in its mouth, this meant the bodies of the dead were still floating on the surface of the water – which would be a major health hazard for those exiting the tevah. The raven never came home to the tevah to roost, but instead, went back and forth until the water had dried up from the land’s surface, which could indicate the raven’s mission was a success. The water indeed contained food for the raven.

Returning to Reish Lakish’s story, the raven felt[11] worthless. We must recognize G-d created us with a purpose and a divinely inspired function. We cannot allow anyone to feel as the raven felt – including ourselves. If we don’t want to miss the boat, we must remember we are all created in the image of G-d and this will make it easier to remember that everyone is important.

[Ben Azzai] used to say: Do not scorn any person and do not disdain any thing; for there is no person who does not have his hour, and there is no thing that does not have its place[12].

[1] The Richmond Semi-Weekly Examiner version, 25 September 1849
[2] Genesis 8:7-12
[3] Sheliach is a Hebrew word for one who is sent
[4] Genesis 8:7
[5] Everything else Noach did until this point was under divine direction
[6] The ark
[7] b.Sanhedrin 108b
[8] 1 Kings 17:1-6
[9] Genesis 8:8-9
[10] http://mentalfloss.com/article/53295/10-fascinating-facts-about-ravens
[11] Since it was an unclean bird
[12] Pirkei Avos 4:3


2 thoughts on “Did Noah Miss the Boat?

  1. I am still researching the issue of the raven. I had not even questioned the usage of the raven before…but it does pose an issue to think about…. enjoyed your post!


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