Beginnings: Noah’s ark

We’ve been discussing the story of the Flood and touching different themes here. However, I think you all would agree that the Ark of Noah is at the very heart of this story. Therefore, it is the Ark that becomes God’s prophetic message to future humanity. In the old times, people would throw a bottle containing a message into the sea, and years later it would be found and the message contained within it would be  read. This is the picture I have for the Ark of Noah: the prophetic message is inside this story, and it is our task to ‘unseal’ it in order to understand the message. Noah himself probably did not fully realize the prophetic meaning of his own story (just as people who throw a bottle into the sea don’t know when and by whom it will be found) – but God definitely did know: He threw this sealed Ark into the waves, for us to unseal and to read. Today, as we open this ancient message, what do we find there?

To Pitch or to Atone?

First of all, I wanted to share once again that amazing secret of the Ark – Sod – that we discover only when we read its description in Hebrew. When God instructed Noah how to build the ark, He commanded him “to pitch it within and without with pitch[1]. In English, it sounds like a mere technical description, and you may never have given much thought to this verse. However, when read in Hebrew, quite unexpectedly we find here a root כפר (kafar: kaf-pei-reish): “vehafarta ota mibait umihutz  bekofer”.

If you know even little bit about Israel and Hebrew, you would probably know what Yom Kippur is, and therefore would know the meaning of the root  כֹּפֶר. All the possible meanings of this root have to do with “atonement” (or so people think). But Yom Kippur, as well as the whole concept of atonement, will only be introduced much later. Why then would this verb be used here, in the story of Noah? We don’t find the word “atonement,” or anything pertaining to atonement, in the translated text – so what’s going on here? Why does this amazing root word occur here in the Hebrew text – and why then does it disappear in translation? This word is too significant, too deep, too important for all its future redemptive meanings, and therefore cannot be ignored.

Turn with me to a dictionary if you will, and once again you will be overwhelmed (as was I, and have been ever since) by the incredible profoundness of His Word and His language. In my last post, commenting on another example from the same chapter, I wrote: “The verbs in Hebrew are derived from the roots, most often by changing vowels and adding different prefixes and suffixes, thus forming different stems. Depending on their stem (binyan), verbs from the same root can have very different meanings, as we see here in our text. Nevertheless, being derived from the very same root, they all have something in common, they all relate to the very same “essence”. We should definitely remember that, in this case, when we find in the dictionary two verbs derived from the same root, with two completely different meanings:

(qal):  כפר  (kafar)  – to pitch something with pitch; and

(piel) כיפר (kiper) – to atone, to pardon

Thus, this very technical command – you shall pitch it within and without with pitch – in Hebrew sounds almost like a theological statement. We all know of course, that the Flood and the Ark are great symbols of punishment of the wicked and salvation of the righteous; however, without Hebrew, we completely lose something that is evident in the original text: the story of Noah is the story of atonement, because the root “to atone” is there from the very beginning of this story.

God Remembered Noah   

You probably know that many Near-Eastern cultures also have stories about a great flood. Moreover, there is an agreement between these stories and the biblical account of the Flood in many details (the ark, the raven etc.). Yet, we all understand that the Biblical account is very different from other ancient folk legends. Is there a way to prove it by analyzing the literary structure of the Hebrew Biblical narrative?

Today, I’m going to show you a very beautiful literary device, called inverted parallelism; another word for it is chiasm. The term chiasm comes from the Greek letter chi, which looks like X. A chiasm (or chiasmus) is a literary method in which a sequence of ideas is presented and then repeated in reverse order: for example, the structure ABBA refers to two ideas (A and B) repeated in reverse order (B and A). In some cases, a chiasm includes another idea in the middle of the repetition: ABXBA; then this idea in the middle represents the central point of chiasmus – the most important point of the whole story, the focal point not to be missed!

Some chiasms are quite simple.  For instance, Benjamin Franklin’s saying “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail” presents a simple chiasm where the words are repeated in the reverse order. You can find a lot of chiastic patterns in Scripture—both in poetry and prose, in Hebrew and in Greek.

Why was chiasm needed? We live in a visual culture today, but ancient people lived in an audible culture – and there were techniques available to ancient Israelites (not only to Israelites, there are also chiasmus outside the Hebrew language, but it is used frequently in Hebrew) that helped them remember a certain unit of the text: where the unit starts and where it ends, and what is the structure of it and what is the center of it. In this sense, the story of the Flood is one of the longest and most impressive chiasmus in the Torah: the Flood chiasm begins in Genesis 6:10 and ends in Genesis 9:19—and the parallels are striking!

However, for me personally the most striking detail of this chiasm is its center! Its center is in Genesis 8:1: “God remembered Noah”. As I just mentioned , the center is the most important point of the whole story – and therefore, we can clearly see that the biblical account is far more than a prehistoric memory, or a variant of an ancient folk legend; first and foremost, this is the story about God and man. Man living in accordance with God’s will, and God remembering His righteous one – this is the central point of this story.  Thanks to this chiasmus and its focal point, we can highlight a fundamental difference between the biblical story and other Near Eastern flood stories.

 

[1] Gen. 6:14

The insights you read on these pages, are typical of what we share with our students during DHB (Discovering the Hebrew Bible) or WTP (Weekly Torah Portion)  classes. If these articles whet your appetite for discovering the hidden treasures of the Hebrew Bible, or studying  in depth Parashat Shavua, along with New Testament insightsI would be happy to provide more information (and also a teacher’s discount for new students) regarding  eTeacher courses[1] (juliab@eteachergroup.com) .

If you like the  articles on this blog, you might enjoy also my books,  click  here to check them out. 

[1] At this point, we offer WTP course only in English, while DHB course is offered also  in Spanish and Portuguese.

About the author

Julia BlumJulia is a teacher and an author of several books on biblical topics. She teaches two biblical courses at the Israel Institute of Biblical Studies, “Discovering the Hebrew Bible” and “Jewish Background of the New Testament”, and writes Hebrew insights for these courses.

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Join the conversation (5 comments)

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  1. John Freeman

    I invite you to read my blog article about Noah’s ark “Cover It With Covering”. In it I discuss the direction to pitch it inside and out. If it’s not OK to mention my blog here, don’t post my comment.

    1. Julia Blum

      Hi John, I read your article with a great interest, but I had to take the link out, sorry!

  2. Jean-Baptiste WALIBADA

    Hi! May il have a translation in french? Thanks! God bless!

    1. Julia Blum

      Thank you for your interest, Jean-Baptiste! Unfortunately, we don’t translate this blog into French. Sorry! It exists in Spanish and Portuguese though, maybe it will help?

  3. Stephen Funck

    Salvation History is a chiasm with the center the cross. All leads to it and then away. God “remembered” Jesus.