Noah’s Ark and the Tower of Babel: Not What You Think

This week’s Torah reading is Noach, which begins with the well-known narrative of the Great Flood. We are first introduced to the righteous Noah, and his three sons, Shem, Ham, and Yefet (known in English as “Japheth”), who were living in a world that had become completely corrupted. God commands Noah to construct a sanctuary that could house his own family, along with a sample from the rest of nature. How Noah constructed the Ark, what it was like, and which materials it was made from are, for the most part, a mystery.

'Noah's Ark' by Edward Hicks (1846). According to Jewish tradition, Noah's Ark was nothing at all like this.

‘Noah’s Ark’ by Edward Hicks (1846). According to ancient Jewish texts, Noah’s Ark was nothing at all like this.

In the past, we’ve written of mystical teachings suggesting that Noah constructed the Ark using divine powers of speech. The Torah states that the Ark was made of atzei gofer, translated as “gopher-wood” – an unknown species which, even more perplexingly, is a term that appears nowhere else in any book of the Tanakh. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 108b) presents one opinion stating that it was more like golamish, a hard stone (see also Psalms 114:8).

The Torah also mentions that the Ark had a tzohar, again a totally unique word that appears nowhere else in Scripture. Various ancient Jewish texts describe the tzohar as a divine tool with all sorts of supernatural powers. The Midrash (Beresheet Rabbah 30:11) describes it as a lamp that illuminated the Ark. The fascinating description here presents the possibility that the Ark was far more than just a boat that fills the imaginations of most people. The Ark was an entire ecosystem, a biodome of sorts, with the tzohar serving as an artificial sky, appearing as the sun during the day, and as the moon during the night. Noah and all those aboard the Ark were in a world of their own. Moreover, the tzohar was an accurate astronomical map that could be used for navigating the skies, and indeed, was later used by Abraham for astrological purposes (Bava Batra 16b).

Further still, the word used by the Torah to describe the flood waters that descended from above is geshem. For the modern Hebrew speaker, there is nothing at all puzzling about this. After all, the common term for rain in Modern Hebrew is geshem. However, this is not so in the Torah. The word “geshem” appears just twice in the Five Books of Moses, both with regards to the flood. Nowhere else is rain called “geshem”, rather it is far more commonly known as mattar (which is the root for the Modern Hebrew word for ‘umbrella’, mitriyah). So what exactly was “geshem”? The Talmud (Sanhedrin 108b) says that the “waters” of the flood were actually some sort of thick, hot substance!

This same Talmudic passage also gives us some insight into the pre-Flood world. It is commonly assumed that since this took place thousands of years ago, the people were primitive and ignorant. The truth is quite different. The Talmud states that when Noah warned the people about their impending doom (in fact, he was given 120 years to do so), the people mocked him, not because they didn’t believe that something was coming, but because they thought they could overcome anything sent their way:

‘A flood of what?’ They jeered. ‘If a flood of fire, we have a substance called alitha. If a flood of water: if the water comes from the ground, we can prevent it from rising with iron plates, and if from above, we have a substance called akov (or akosh).’

The pre-Flood generations had knowledge that we can’t even imagine today. Despite the historical time period being before the official “Iron Age”, the people of the flood boasted of their superb iron technology. They had substances to prevent fires and floods. Much of this wisdom came their way through various angelic beings. Mystical literature speaks of an angel called Raziel, which taught Adam and Eve a collection of Heavenly secrets. These mysteries were passed down from generation to generation. Enoch received this wisdom, and it played a role in his bodily ascent to Heaven (Genesis 5:24). Meanwhile, the fallen angels Shamhazai and Azazel taught man both many evils and many otherworldly powers.

In fact, one of the reasons that God sent the flood is because of the misuse of Heavenly powers and the manipulation of angels by humans. After the deluge, the bulk of these mysteries were hidden. However, people eventually rediscovered them, and soon began to use these powers for the wrong purposes once more. This is described in the second major narrative of this week’s Torah reading, that of the Tower of Babel.

Here, the Torah begins by saying that all the people spoke a common language (Hebrew), and had a common purpose. They were united in their goal: to ascend to Heaven and take complete control of the universe (Sanhedrin 109a). Again, this narrative has been commonly taught as a story of ignorant people that foolishly built a very tall tower to the clouds, thinking that the clouds are the homes of angels. But they weren’t going to the clouds.

'Confusion of Tongues' by Gustav Dore

‘Confusion of Tongues’ by Gustav Doré

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 106) speaks of a migdal haporeach b’avir, “a tower flying through the air”. When they were ascending to the Heavens, they meant it. Commenting on the perplexing words of the Torah that states the people of the Tower wanted to nisrefa lisrefa, “burn in order to burn” (Genesis 11:3), Rabbi Yonatan Eybeschutz (1690-1764) suggests that the Tower had a flame coming out of one end!

These people were not foolish, and their threat was taken seriously. Thus, angels descended from Heaven to destroy their Tower, confound their language, and disperse the people across the world (Genesis 11:7). Why was this specifically the punishment for their crime? The Arizal (in Sefer HaLikutim) teaches that the Tower generation used the secrets of the Hebrew language to access spiritual powers and to manipulate angels. And so, knowledge of Hebrew was taken away from them; their languages were confused and they were scattered around the globe. No longer able to communicate with one another, and spread far apart, they would be unable to unite against the Heavens ever again. The secret supernatural powers of the past were concealed once and for all; the real history of the ancient world was forgotten. In one instant, a single people with a single past was turned into countless nations, each with their own language, culture, mythological origins, and historical narratives.

The beauty of it all, of course, is this: to suggest that the past was ever any different than what we think and know from history books is immediately ridiculed. No one could ever believe such a thing!

And that’s exactly how God and His angels wanted it.

3 thoughts on “Noah’s Ark and the Tower of Babel: Not What You Think

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