Monday, October 15, 2007

The Raven

"At the end of forty days, Noah opened the window of the ark which he had made-- And he sent forth a raven, which went forth to and fro, until the waters were dried up from off the earth." (Gen. 8:6-7)

Given that the choices a person makes are often reflections of his or herself, even more-so when resources are unlimited (and within the context of the story Noah had animals of every kind in his ark), Noah's choice of sending the raven can be considered an an entry into Noah's immediate post-flood psyche.

The Midrash (Gen. Rabbah 33:5) confirms the semiotic significance of the raven quoting psalms, "He sent darkness, and it was dark." (Ps. 105:28) As an extension of himself, Noah chose a bird that would be at home in the scenes of horrific catastrophe. It is not hard to imagine the depression that being in a coffin of a boat with the world collapsing around him would create or the nightmares that he would have been continually facing. In fact, Yalkut Shemoni reports that upon being sent out, the raven found a carcass on one of the mountains and never returned to the boat (diverging from the text of the Torah). This symbolically presents a possible route for Noah, or one that he indeed psychologically followed. Coming out of the ark, his mind resting on all of the death around him made him unable to go on in the world. In fact, given his ignominious ending in the story, we wonder if the psychological state represented by the raven completely won out.

This psychological state can be further understood through the conversation that Noah had with the raven in the Midrash (Gen. Rabbah 33:5)-- the raven playing the darker part of Noah's psychology. We can imagine Noah having both sides of this conversation, a madman blurring the lines of his own consciousness and the world around him.

R. Yudan said in the name of R. Yehudah bar. R. Simon, "It (the raven) began to argue with him: ' Of all the birds that you have here You send none but me!’
And Noah replies, "What need then has the world of you? ' he retorted; 'For food? For a sacrifice?’ (Gen. Rabbah 33:5) implying of course, that he is fit for neither.

True, God saved him, but why did God send him into the unknown? What good was he? Did a God who valued his righteousness and pureness of heart expect him to fashion a world of righteousness and pureness of heart but a world also willing to accept all of this death as his God just did? Would he get any guidance how to balance all this?

Noah eventually moves away from the darkness and moves to the more pleasant symbol of the tranquil dove, sending it out not once, but twice-- persistence sometimes being necessary when trying to make lightness and goodness dominate your motivations. In the Midrash, the dove also reminds Noah of another side of his psyche (again, from the Yalkut Sheomi Noach) that his will and preferences are worth less than the will and preferences of God. The dove or the other part of his psyche says, "I would rather have this olive branch, that which is bitter, from the hand of God than something sweet from your hand."

The raven is not forever doomed to the negative images that are associated with it-- and in the Talmud there are Cassandra-ish associations (Gittin 45a), predicting doom, being ignored (but being right). The Midrash also talks about the awful way that the raven feeds it's children (from its own refuse) (Vayikra Rabba 19:1). But the ravens eventually textually emerge in I Kings 17:6 to become the feeders of Elijah, as he hides from Ahav, after Elijah pronounces a drought on the land. This future forces Noah in the midrash to have to rescind his "What good are you?" condemnation of ravens as reported in Gen. Rabbah 33:5. From this we can learn the Midrashic perspective that our purpose on earth is not always immediately apparent and furthermore that darkness can help to nourish.

My cousin Danielle suggested an entirely different possibility, one that I had not imagined: That Noah sent out a raven because the raven had a shrill call, as opposed to other birds. The raven would be best to alert survivors of the flood that other life still existed, like a fog horn or a shout in a mine.

Picture of Raven from:

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