The biblical story of Noah has been sanitized in our culture. We are inundated with images of a smiling Noah (and, often enough, Mrs Noah) welcoming the animals onto the ark as they enter two by two (“the elephant and the kangaroo”), of doves with olive branches and, of course, of pastel-hued rainbows. But if we read the text closely, it soon becomes clear that it is not a story for pre-schoolers.
The Flood narrative is the most developed story in Genesis regarding the relationship between humans and other animals. The story opens with both humanity and the animal kingdom being so corrupt that God resolves to wipe them out with a great flood, preserving only one righteous man and his family, together with enough animals to re-populate the earth.
In the aftermath of this story, we see the first instance of ritualised animal sacrifice and the first reference to meat-eating in the Bible. We also see significant differences in Noah’s behaviour.
Noah has received mixed reviews in the classical Jewish commentaries, often focused on the interpretation of Genesis 6: 9: ‘Noah was a righteous man, flawless in his generation.’ Is this a high compliment or faint praise? To address this question, it’s helpful to consider two more:
1. What can learn about Noah’s character from his actions prior to the Flood?
2. What do we know about his relationship with God?
Noah is often contrasted with Abraham. He is seen as an obedient servant of God, but not as someone who acts on his own initiative or is prepared to openly question the divine plan. God provides him with detailed instructions about constructing the ark and gathering the animals and, as far as we know, he follows them to the letter. So what might we expect to happen when we read the following?
"And in the second month, on the twenty-seventh day of the month, the earth was dry.
God spoke to Noah, saying,
“Come out of the ark, together with your wife, your sons, and your sons’ wives.
Bring out with you every living thing of all flesh that is with you: birds, animals, and everything that creeps on earth; and let them swarm on the earth and be fertile and increase on earth.”
I don’t know about you, but for me, trying to read this text as if for the first time, I would expect the following:
1. Noah will follow God’s instruction precisely, as he has done previously.
2. The next scenes we see will be ones of positive, constructive activity. Noah will plant sustaining crops. He and his offspring, as well as the animals, will re-populate the earth. After the ultimate long, rainy winter, spring will finally arrive, followed by a joyous summer! God, in partnership with humanity, will have pressed the ultimate re-set button and, at least for a time, everything will be wonderful.
But what happens next? What does Noah do?
"So Noah came out, together with his sons, his wife, and his sons’ wives.
Every animal, every creeping thing, and every bird, everything that stirs on earth came out of the ark by families.
Then Noah built an altar to Y and, taking of every pure animal and of every pure bird, he offered burnt offerings on the altar.
Y smelled the pleasing odor, and Y resolved: “Never again will I doom the earth because of humankind, since the devisings of the human mind are evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living being, as I have done.
So long as the earth endures, Seedtime and harvest, Cold and heat, Summer and winter, Day and night Shall not cease.”
Noah’s first independent act is to offer animal sacrifices. As readers of the Bible, we are, of course, familiar with altars and sacrifices, but at this point in the biblical narrative, they are a novelty. When Noah emerges from the ark, his first act is to build an altar (Hebrew: mizbe’ach) – literally, a slaughtering place – and serve up burnt offerings. This is the first mention of the word ‘olah (burnt offering) in the bible. Cain and Abel are, of course, the first to bring offerings to God; but the word used is minchah, a gift (as when Jacob sends a minchah to his brother Esau), there is no reference to an altar, and it is not obvious that Abel slaughters and burns his sheep.
A conventional reading of our story sees Noah’s actions as praiseworthy, and perhaps it accords with an understanding of the divine plan for the relationship between humanity and the natural world announced in the first chapter of Genesis: “Let Us make Humanity in Our image and likeness, that they may rule the sea-fish and the sky-birds and the animals…” But if this is so, God’s response to Noah’s offerings is curious, to say the least. Rather than speaking to Noah (as He has done before), God speaks to himself, “in his heart”. Rather than praising Noah, God derides humanity as ill-intentioned from youth. And rather than rewarding Noah for rescuing His creatures, or for bringing sacrifices, God simply resolves no longer to curse the Earth because of humanity, nor to destroy all life as He has just done.
God’s first instruction to Noah about bringing animals onto the ark is that he is to bring two of each. A few verses later, the instruction is to take for yourself seven pairs of the “pure” animals and one pair each of the others, together with seven pairs of each bird “to make seed live over the face of all the earth”. Nowhere in the text is there any suggestion of a purpose other than preserving life. And God’s instruction to Noah on leaving the ark is clear: he is to bring out all the animals and birds so that they may swarm, be fruitful and multiply.
But Noah has another idea. The first time we see him acting on his own initiative, he builds an altar and offers sacrifices, killing at least one of the fourteen surviving members of each “pure” species. The medieval commentators see this as a praiseworthy act. Rashi, as we will see shortly, explains Noah’s motivation. But let’s first consider what Rashi’s question is, what problem in the text he might have noticed. We would venture that the question is obvious: given all the divinely sanctioned effort that has gone into preserving the lives of these animals, and given that there is a very limited supply of each species, why slaughter them?
Rashi explains Noah’s reasoning as follows: “God would not have commanded me to take in seven of each [pair] of these unless it was to sacrifice some of them.” To what extent does the text support this reasoning?
Although there are no earlier examples of “burnt offerings” in the biblical text, we can compare God’s response to Noah’s sacrifice with his earlier reaction to the “gifts” offered by Cain and Abel (Genesis 4:3-5). God “inclined” or “paid regard” to Abel’s offering, but not to Cain’s. In our narrative, God’s response when He smells the “soothing savour” is not to “incline” towards Noah as He had done with Abel, but to vocalise his resolve never again to destroy the earth or its non-human inhabitants on account of humankind, because “the devisings of the human mind are evil from youth.” On the evidence of the text alone, the only original “devising” Noah’s mind has done so far is to come up with this plan to sacrifice animals, and, on our reading, the biblical text suggests divine disapproval (or, at the very least, a lack of divine approval.) Perhaps previously God had thought of Noah as an exception to the rule, but now, as he inhales the scent of the barbecue, he realises that even Noah, the righteous one of his generation, cannot be relied upon to pursue the good in accordance with the divine will.
To support this reading of divine displeasure, we note the following: First, after the sacrifices, God never again addresses Noah individually, either directly or, as with Abraham in the aftermath of the Akedah, via an angel. He blesses Noah and his sons collectively that they should “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” and he gives them permission to consume meat (9: 1-3), something we will discuss further below. Echoing God’s earlier interior monologue, God establishes a covenant with Noah, his sons, and every living creature, that He will never again bring a flood to destroy the earth; and He points to the rainbow as the sign of this covenant (9: 8-17). But there is no further individual communication with Noah.
Second, the text suggests that in the absence of divinely issued directions, the “devisings” of Noah’s own mind come up short. His next independently conceived activity is to plant a vineyard; the only result of this project that the text mentions is that he becomes intoxicated, and unfortunate consequences ensue. Why did he not plant a more sustaining crop, such as wheat, or olives? Why do we not see him engaging in any sort of constructive activity?
From a contemporary psychological point of view, Noah’s behaviour is, perhaps, easy to understand: he has been traumatised by the catastrophic flood. More prosaically, we could cut him some slack by acknowledging the midrashic tradition that he was chronically sleep-deprived after tending to the animals 24/7. However, our interest in re-reading this narrative is to understand what it might have to teach us about humans in general. How well does the character of Noah represent what Levinas tells us about the human being, i.e. that to be human is to be responsible for the universe? Earlier in the narrative, Noah seems to be off to a good start, building the ark, rescuing the animals, and tending to their needs. When the ark reaches dry land, he has achieved true hero status. Yet, even for those readers who see Noah’s sacrifices as praise-worthy, it soon becomes clear that he was unable to sustain his “blameless” record.
At this stage of Noah’s life, even his ability to follow divine imperatives seems to be compromised: whereas he was instructed to leave the ark together with his wife (“Depart from the ark, yourself and your wife, your sons, and your son’s wives with you” (8:15), he instead disembarked with his sons (“Noah departed [with] his sons, his wife and his son’s wives.” 8:18). Although this may seem like a minor detail, Rashi and other commentators see great significance in the phrasing: directing couples to leave the ark together indicates that they are now “permitted to resume marital relations”, which were suspended during the Flood (Rashi on 8:15). But unlike Abraham, who continued to “be fruitful and multiply” in his old age, and who “died in a good old age, old and satisfied” (25: 1-2, 8), Noah does not reproduce after the Flood, despite being exhorted twice to “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen 9: 1,7); and his death at the age of 950 is reported without comment (9: 9).
Third, Noah’s actions need to be seen within the context of the whole narrative. In response to evil and corruption, God conceives a plan to wipe out all the creatures on earth, preserving only one righteous family, together with representatives of every animal species. Jointly, they will be charged with repopulating the earth, presumably expecting a better outcome this time. After the enormous effort of building the ark and caring for the animals, as commanded by God, Noah’s response to reaching the safety of dry land is to slaughter some of the very animals required to re-establish the ecosystem. His first act is thus one of destruction at a time when positive, constructive activity would seem to be the order of the day.
Additionally, one can ask whether the animals were even his to sacrifice. Given that he had been charged with caring for them and preserving their lives, what made him think they were his property? Permission to eat meat and to dominate “all that creeps on the ground and all the fish in the sea” is only given later, in God’s speech at the beginning of Chapter 9.
If Noah did deduce that the reason for bringing seven pairs of “pure” animals onto the ark was to have them available to use as sacrifices, one might wonder whether he had focused on an overly narrow understanding of the significance of the “purity” of these animals. Although the meaning of this term is not clear in the text, commentators have often associated it with the animals that would subsequently be deemed kosher, fit to eat. Excluded from this category are predatory animals. Perhaps the bigger picture of the divine plan was to have a fresh start in a world in which peaceful creatures, not violent predators, are the clear majority. Noah’s sacrifices, despite his good intentions, would have detracted from this vision.
There seems to be a certain tone-deafness in Noah; he can hear the literal meaning of the commands he receives from God, but he doesn’t seem to intuit their broader or deeper significance. Arguably, the ability to do so, to see beyond the specific details of laws and commandments, constitutes an essential part of religious life. Of course, Noah did not have access to the Torah and its extensive set of laws and teachings, but we would argue that the general point still applies: a religious person, particularly a prophet, should develop a sense of what God wants, of what is right and good, that goes beyond the specifics of particular commandments or other divine communications. On the evidence of the text, Noah seems to lack this ability. The only other independent action that we see him take is to plant a vineyard and get drunk, with consequences which once again suggest this is not really a story for children!
Drunkenness of Noah: Shem and Japheth cover the naked body of NoahArtist: Crispijn de Passe the Elder (Netherlandish, Arnemuiden 1564–1637 Utrecht) Image Courtesy of The Met.
Based on this reading of the story of Noah, the biblical text seems to suggest that neither animal sacrifices nor human consumption of meat are desirable in themselves; they appear to be concessions to human weaknesses. However, there is one – difficult to translate – phrase in the text that might be cited in opposition to our reading: God “smelled the sweet savor [of the burnt offerings]” (8: 21). Does this not indicate divine approval of the sacrifices?
Given the contextual evidence we discussed above, we would suggest that the verse calls for a different translation of nichoach (“sweet”). Robert Alter translates the relevant phrase as “And the Lord smelled the fragrant odor” (va-yarach et re’ach ha-niho’ach – he smelled the nichoach smell). He points out that nichoach is “always attached to ‘odor’ as a technical term linked to sacrifices”, and that it “probably puns on the name Noah”. Methodologically, Alter, like the traditional commentators, looks to later usages of the term to understand its meaning here. However, we would propose that it is equally plausible to move in the opposite direction: nichoach, mizbeach and olah are all used for the first time in this story, and the association with Noah should always resonate with the reader. Every time we read about the sacrificial rites, about animals being slaughtered on an altar and burnt, we should remember the mixed legacy of Noah, whose success in preserving both humanity and the animal kingdom was quickly followed by acts of destruction.
This reading would be consistent with the Maimonidean understanding that animal sacrifices were a concession to a primitive stage of human development, and with the view of R. Abraham Isaac Kook and others that vegetarianism is the ideal, but that permission to eat meat was only given to humanity as a concession at the time of Noah. This permission, as noted above, is given at the beginning of chapter 9 of Genesis. The end of chapter 8, which we discussed earlier, is the episode of Noah’s sacrifice. We might wonder what the connection is between the two. Our suggestion is that God, almost in the role of a therapist or perceptive parent of a young child, sees Noah’s sacrifice specifically as an indication of Noah’s own desire to consume animal flesh, and more generally, as representative of the weaknesses and moral failings of even the best human beings.
Returning briefly to the question of translating “nichoach”, Fox’s alliterative phrasing “smelled the soothing savour” conveys the semantic sense of “comfort” in the false etymology of Noah’s name (announced by his father at his birth) as well as something of the poetic rhyme and rhythm of the Hebrew phrase. We would also suggest that the idea of “soothing” is directly related to what God “said in his heart” at the time of Noah’s sacrifice – like frustrated parents reminding themselves that their destructive two-year old is “just a toddler” and doesn’t know any better, the scent of animal sacrifices enables God to self-soothe, reminding himself of his own observation that humans, even the best of a generation, are inclined towards evil from youth.
Commenting on Zevahim 6a-b, a Talmudic passage about sacrifices, R. Adin Steinsaltz explains that, unlike the sin offering, “The korban olah […] is not a sacrifice of atonement for a particular sin, rather it serves as a gift to God that repairs a broken or distressed relationship with Him […]”. How, we might ask, does it repair this relationship? Perhaps the mechanism is similar to what God states about the rainbow: it is a reminder to God of the divine promise never again to destroy all living beings. In the case of the rainbow, God says: “It shall be: when I becloud the earth with clouds and in the clouds the bow is seen, I will call to mind my covenant” (Gen 9: 14 -15.) In the case of the burnt offering, humans actively create the reminder through creating the “soothing savour” of the sacrifice. Animal sacrifices remind God that humans are, after all, only human.
 The translation is ambiguous but in the Hebrew “be fertile” clearly refers back to “them” – it is not a separate injunction to Noah and his family  Bereshit 8:14-22, Sefaria translation; “Y” indicates use of the tetragrammaton  Bereshit 1:26; we will look at this idea in more detail in section 3 below.  Bereshit 6:18-19  Bereshit 7:2-3. It’s not clear whether this means that the birds specifically will propagate vegetation or that the animals and birds themselves will reproduce, but in either case this verse would seem to underscore the purpose of rescuing the animals, i.e. to  Bereshit 8:16-17  Rashi on Bershit 8:20  See Judy Klitsner, Subversive Sequels in the Bible.  See Judy Klitsner, Subversive Sequels.  Everett Fox translation. Alter, The Hebrew Bible, vol. 1 p. 31  https://steinsaltz.org/daf/zevahim-6a-b-the-purpose-of-a-burnt-offering-olah-i/ Fox translation,