Noah and the Talking Raven

Moshe Ben-Chaim

Question:  The Talmud cites Reish Lakish’s commments on the passage, “And he sent the raven…(Gen. 8:7)”:  

“The raven gave Noah an irrefutable argument: ‘God hates me, and you hate me. God hates me as He commanded to take seven of each pure species, but only two of the impure (my) species. And you hate me, as you did not take from the pure species for your mission, rather, me. If the heat or cold will kill me, the world will lack a species. Perhaps you desire my mate!” Noach replied, “Wicked one! In the ark, I was forbidden to my wife, who is normally permitted to me. All the more so I am forbidden to your mate, who is always forbidden to me (Sanhedrin 108b)!”

Obviously the raven doesn't have the abstract capacity to think, make an argument, or talk to Noah. What is the idea of the Raven’s suspicion of Noah being out to destroy that species? Why would the raven think that Noah would desire his mate?  How are we supposed to understand this? What can the metaphor be?

Rabbi: We must first use the Torah’s clues to grasp Noah’s mindset, if we are to answer your questions. Upon the cessation of the rain, the Torah states:

“Noah opened up the window, “chalon”, of the Ark which he made. And he sent the raven, and it went out to and fro, until the waters dried from upon the Earth. And he sent the dove from himself to see if the waters had ended from the face of the Earth (Genesis, 8:6-8).”

A few questions present themselves: When did God instruct Noah to make a “chalon”, a window? Earlier (Gen. 6:16), G-d instructed Noah to make a “tzohar.” Even if one follows the opinion that tzohar means window, why here did the Torah change the word from “tzohar” to “chalon?” We also notice that the passage states “…the window which Noah made.” Who else could have made it?! This seems superfluous. When we see something apparently repetitive, we know there must be a lesson. And what was the purpose of sending the raven? Why is it not disclosed, as is done regarding the purpose of the dove in passage 8:8?

I believe a few proper questions will lead one to the answer.

What is a window for? 

For when was the window to be used? Prior to the flood, or subsequent? 

What are the differences between a raven and a dove?

A window can be used for light, let in air, shield from poor weather, or to look outdoors. We can determine that Noah knew what was on the outside as the flood waters began, as he was told by God that all life would be destroyed (Gen. 6:17). Perhaps then, the window would be used subsequent to the flood. But for what? Sending out birds alone? From the quotes above, it appears Noah harbored some undisclosed emotional conflict.

The Torah goes out of the way to tell us that it was Noah who made the window. Again, he made the entire ark, which includes this window. Therefore, the words “that Noah made” are not a repetition of who made the ark. Torah does not repeat itself. The lesson is that Noah made the window on his own, with no command from God. The Torah is pointing out that Noah desired a window for some reason. If he knows what is occurring prior to the flood, I suggest that he was concerned with the period subsequent to the flood. Meaning, Noah worried about what he would find after the flood was over. 

Prior to exiting the ark, Noah sent the raven. The Torah is concealing something, for it did not tell us why he sent the raven, as it does disclose regarding the dove. In my opinion, Noah did not want to face the corpses of his society, once the ark landed and the water subsided. The raven is flesh eating. Noah was not yet interested in seeing if the land dried up, as he didn’t send the dove, for whose purpose this served. But he first sent a flesh eating bird, with a concealed purpose to discern whether there were bodies near the ark, something Noah did not want to face. If the raven did not return, Noah would know the raven found food, corpses, and he would be prepared to face the tragic site outside of the ark. This explains why he made a separate structure of a window, in addition to the tzohar. 

A wise Rabbi explained why Noah planted wine grapes upon his exit from the ark. He was experiencing depression from solitude as the only members left on Earth, and used drunkenness to escape the depression. This very same worry is what prompted him to create a window, on his own accord. Now we can answer your questions.

Noah’s state of mind was not favorable. He knew the mission of the animals was to sustain the species. Sending the raven, Noah was grappling with this new reality. He risked a species, possibly as an unconscious expression of his troubled state of mind. Precisely using a species that had only one male and one female, Noah unconsciously expressed an aggression towards his morbid experience and the ark’s purpose; sustaining the species. This is the meaning of the raven’s words. The Rabbis scripted this metaphor to teach this lesson. Additionally, the raven was suspect of Noah committing bestiality with its mate. This too is a reflection of Noah’s state of mind; there was no real discussion between a bird and man. Somehow the elongated stay on the ark among the animals evokes identification with them. Noah’s defense was halachic in content, saying the raven’s mate was a prohibited species. Using a halachic response means Noah would not commit the act of bestiality, but it can also mean that he did harbor the psychological tendency. This is similar to a burglar breaking into a home, and when caught without any stolen items, saying in his defense, “I didn’t take anything!” Although the burglar did not violate robbery, he did have the intention. Noah too possessed some corruption of mind, according to the Rabbis’ scripted metaphor of a talking raven.