The Torah’s Perspective on the History of Humanity

And he waited another seven days; he sent the dove and it did not again return to him. And it was on the six hundred first years on the first day of the first month the water evaporated from upon the land And Noach removed the cover of the ark. And he saw and so it was that the surface of the land was dry. (Sefer Beresheit 8:12-13)

And G-d spoke to Noach saying: Go out from the ark – you, and your wife, your sons and sons’ wives with you. All the living creatures that are with you from all flesh – fowl, animal, and all creatures that swarm on the earth – take forth with you and they will propagate on land and be fruitful and multiply. (Sefer Bereseheit 8:15-16)

1. The decision to emerge from the Ark

Parshat Noach deals primarily with two incidents – the Deluge and the Dispersion. The account of the Deluge – the Mabul – begins in the end of Parshat Beresheit. Parshat Noach begins with Hashem’s announcement that Noach and his family will be spared. Also, Hashem assigns to Noach the responsibility of constructing an ark. Representative pairs of the various species are to be brought into this ark. The ark will provide refuge from the waters of the Deluge.

The above passages describe a mysterious series of events that occurred after the waters of the Deluge receded and dry land again emerged. Noach cautiously released, first, a raven and then a dove in order to determine whether the land could support the reestablishment of life. Repeatedly, Noach released the dove and it returned to the shelter of the ark. Finally, the dove was released and did not return to the ark, thereby, signaling to Noach that the dove had found a suitable habitat outside of the ark. Noach removed the cover from the ark and saw that indeed, the land was dry and suitable for the support of life.

However, before Noach abandoned the ark Hashem spoke with him. He told Noach to leave the ark. He was to lead out of the ark his family and the creatures that had survived the Deluge. Hashem assured Noach that humanity and the creatures that would disembark from the ark will propagate and multiply upon the Earth. In other words, although Noach was apparently preparing to leave the ark of his own accord, Hashem commanded Noach to abandon the ark. Why was this command needed? What was its purpose?

This is the book of the offspring of Adam on the day that G-d created Adam, in the likeness of G-d He made him. (Sefer Beresheit 5:1)

And these are the offspring of the sons of Noach – Shem, Cham and Yafet; and they were children born unto them after the Deluge. (Sefer Beresheit 1:1)

2. The mishne’s strange enumeration of humanity’s first generations

Parshat Beresheit provides an enumeration of the generations from Adam to Noach. In Parshat Noach this enumeration is resumed and Noach’s descendants are listed. The mishne comments that there were ten generations from Adam to Noach and a further ten generations from Noach to Avraham.[1] The Torah’s enumeration of Adam descendants is consistent with the mishne. The Torah identifies ten generations from Adam’s through Noach. These are the following: Adam, Shet, Enosh, Keynan, Mehalalel, Yared, Chanoch, Metushelach, Lamech, and Noach. However, the Torah’s enumeration of Noach’s descendants indicates that there were eleven generations from Noach through Avraham. These are the following: Noach, Shem, Arpashcahd, Shelach, Eyver, Peleg, Re’uh, Serug, Nachor, Terach, and Avraham. The Torah’s account includes one generation that is not included in the mishne’s calculations. Which generation does the mishne exclude and why is it excluded?

3. A strange interpretation of the mishne

Perhaps, the simplest response is provided by Rav Yom Tov Lippman in his Tosefot Yom Tov. He explains that the mishne does not include Noach’s own generation. Noach’s generation was identified as the last of the pre-Deluge generations. It is one of the ten generations from Adam to Noach. Therefore, because the mishne already identified Noach’s generation as a pre-Deluge generation, it is not counted among the post-Deluge generations leading up to Avraham. In other words, the mishne includes each generation in a single tally – either the pre-Deluge tally or post-Deluge tally. Noach’s generation is among the pre-Deluge generations; therefore, it is not included among the post-Deluge generations.[2]

Rabbaynu Menachem Me’eri ignores this simple explanation of the mishne and instead asserts that it is the generation of Shem – Noach’s son – that is excluded from the mishne’s tally.[3] This raises two questions. First, why would the mishne not include the generation of Shem in its calculation of the generations from Noach to Avraham? Second, as Rav Lippman observes, it is reasonable to assume that the mishne counts each generation a single time and either includes it within the pre-Deluge or post-Deluge era. According to Me’eri, Noach’s generation is counted twice. Why is a single generation included in both talies of the mishne?

4. The first post-Deluge generation and its members

The first of these questions is the more easily answered. Apparently, according to Me’eri, Shem’s generation is regarded as included in Noach’s generation. Although Shem was Noach’s son, Noach’s generation includes Noach and his sons. Of course, this only raises a new issue. Why are Noach’s sons not regarded as constituting a separate generation from their father? The apparent answer is that all those who emerged from the ark and renewed humanity are regarded as humanity’s first post-Deluge generation. Although, this group included a father and his sons, from the perspective of the future generations of humanity, this group constituted its origin and initial generation. Humanity was renewed by those who emerged from the ark and they are post-Deluge humanity’s generation of origin.

This interpretation of Me’eri’s comments provides an explanation of the mishne’s ambiguous treatment of Noach. According to Me’eri, Noach’s generation is included within the tally of pre-Deluge generations and post-Deluge generations. This is not “double-counting”. Humanity began with Adam. Pre-Deluge humanity ended with Noach’s generation. He survived but his generation perished and it was the final pre-Deluge generation. Noach and his sons were also the first generation of a renewed humanity. Post-Deluge humanity traces its origin to the group that emerged from the ark – Noach and his sons. In other words, Noach was a member of the last pre-Deluge generation and the first post-Deluge generation. These are treated by the mishne as two discrete and separate generations. Noach is regarded as a member of each.

5. Two perspectives on human history

The different interpretations of Rav Lippmen and Me’eri can be better understood when considered from a slightly different perspective. According to Rav Lippman, humanity’s origin lies in Adam and continues to our generation. Humanity is a continuous chain of generations. Some parts of the chain have identities distinct from other parts; the chain can be subdivided into pre and post-Deluge periods. However, this does not negate the continuity of the chain of human procreation.

Me’eri opposes this view. Humanity does not consist of a continuous chain leading back to Adam. The Deluge represented the end of the first iteration of human development and initiated a completely new iteration. Noach and his sons emerged from the ark as the patriarchs of a new humanity. They are the ancestors of the generations that followed them. They were a new beginning for humanity.

6. The implications of the command to leave the ark

This discussion suggests an explanation for Hashem’s commandment to Noach to emerge from the ark. Clearly, Noach was preparing to emerge before receiving this commandment. He sent forth the raven and dove in order to test the suitability of the land for habitation. He removed the covering from the ark and studied the area in which it had settled. All these actions indicate that he was prepared to leave the ark and would have done so even without Hashem’s command. Hashem’s command was not required to persuade Noach to return to the land. However, if Noach had emerged of his own accord, how would he have perceived his return to the land? Noach’s understanding of the experience would have been that he had survived a punishment that Hashem had brought upon humanity. He would see himself as a spared member of the doomed generation that had perished. He would reenter the world and regard himself and his children as the link between the past and future of humanity. Through him and his children the human race had survived to rebuild and carry-forward. In short, he would have emerged from the ark to continue his life and extend the chain of humanity.

What was the implication of Hashem’s commandment to leave the ark? Hashem implicitly communicated to Noach, through this command, that he was not authorized to disembark from the ark of his own accord and continue his pre-Deluge life. He could only leave the ark in response to Hashem’s directive. Why was a Divine directive required? It was required because only a Divine decree can endow the post-Deluge humanity with the status of a new beginning for the human race. Without a Divine command Noach would have emerged as a refugee from a terrible disaster charged with the responsibility of rebuilding the past. Through the Divine command, he emerged as a new father of humanity charged with the responsibility of building a new and better future.

Hashem commanded Noach to emerge from the ark with his family and the creatures that had been saved. Hashem repeated the blessings that were first announced during the initial creation of the universe – be fruitful, multiply, inhabit the Earth. A new world and a new humanity required its own blessings. The significance of the blessings of the original creation ended with the destruction of that creation.

7. A second message and its lesson

Perhaps, there was a second message in Hashem’s commandment. Before the commandment Noach perceived himself and his children as the sole survivors spared from a terrible punishment. Hashem was a harsh judge. He had destroyed most of the human race, sparing only a handful of innocents. With the commandment, the Deluge assumed a different meaning. Hashem had not merely spared Noach and his family. He had chosen them and preserved them to be the beginnings of a new humanity. When humanity had failed terribly in its mission, a merciful Hashem had preserved the few who were good in order to create a new beginning and fashion a better future.

A merciful G-d does not ignore evil or demur from enforcing consequences. However, His mercy is expressed in His overarching objective. Hashem punished humanity severely. However, the destruction brought upon humanity was for the purpose of creating a new beginning and providing humanity with a new opportunity.

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[1] Mesechet Avot 5:2.

[2] Rav Yom Tov Lippman, Tosefot Yom Tov Commentary on Mesechet Avot 5:2.

[3] Rabbaynu Menachem Me’eri, Bait HaBechirah, Mesechet Avot 5:2.