By Rabbi Judith Rosen-Berry
Never having paid much attention to the role of the Raven in the Noah story before, I was surprised by the number of interpretations, commentary and general wealth of observation that surrounds the part that the Raven plays in this Torah portion. It’s interesting. In the grand sweep of this story’s narrative arc we are simply told that Noah “… sent out a raven, and it kept flying back and forth until the water had dried up from the earth” (Genesis 8:7). And that is it. Nothing more is said. And yet the flight of this bird, “ya-tzo va-shova” – back and forth, hither and thither, going and returning, now forward, then backward, which says so much ‘ornithologically’ about the actual bird, its natural behaviour and ‘character’, doubles as a description of the Raven’s hesitancy to do as commanded, which then becomes (perhaps) the key to the Raven’s downfall, at least in Western imagination.
For centuries the bird’s flight “ya-tzo va-shova” has been read as wilful and disobedient. Regardless of Noah’s plan for it – the bird’s ‘nature’ prevails. The Raven is damned. Castigated as disloyal. And as if to justify this characterization it is with hindsight (or some sort of post-rationalization) consequently depicted as only ever having been motivated by greedy, selfish appetites, which the rabbis reinforced by suggesting that the Raven was the perfect symbol of sexual sin, as well as other vices (See: BT. Sanhedrin 108b).
Of course, before any of this character assassination has unfolded, and prior to the deluge – the Raven’s fate has already been sealed. Classified as an impure species, only two ravens were permitted to board the Ark. Unsurprisingly then, Shimon ben (Resh) Lakish has the Raven “retorting” to Noah: “Your master hates me and you hate me” – God hates the Raven, and therefore told Noah to bring only two ravens, as opposed to the seven of the “pure/tahor” animals – and Noah hates the Raven choosing to send it out, and by doing so imperilling an entire species. The Raven therefore accuses Noah of intentionally trying to kill him (BT Sanhedrin 108b). I certainly have sympathies with the Raven’s argument, sympathies that become more pronounced as I realize how differently the Raven has been treated – especially in comparison to the treatment meted out to the more likeable/biddable (and consequently famous) Dove of the same story.
Perhaps closer to his heart, we are told that Noah sends the Dove out “from himself” (me’ito), with the clear task of seeing whether “the water had receded.” Not only is the personal modifier me’ito totally absent in the case of the Raven, but the motivation behind the sending out (from the Ark) of this tarnished bird is ambiguous– we don’t know why it was selected (singled out) and neither does the corvid (but – it has its suspicions!).
Ever since its fateful coinciding with Noah the Raven has become a seriously maligned bird. Huge damage has been done to this avian species, whose behaviours have been negatively anthropomorphized and so loaded with harmful symbolism that it can never escape the distortion of its demonization, perhaps most infamously depicted in Edgar Allan Poe’s poem The Raven, “Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil! – prophet still, if bird or devil” (See: Bethany Brookshire’s Pests: How Humans Create Animal Villains).
Without compassion or clear instruction then, the Raven who initially flew ‘to and fro’, refusing to venture further than the Ark – a boat built, it suspects, for the preservation of select species, which may not have included itself, defies the odds stacked against it by being intelligent.
Its reputation for finding land is well known. But the Raven is a cautious bird, avoiding where possible the unfamiliar and dangerous. This bird is no fool. (See: Thom van Dooren’s The Wake of Crows: Living and Dying in Shared Worlds). Rather than becoming a dispensable compass or risking a watery death, alongside the possible extinction of its own species – the Raven embraces a different future to the one that is expected of it. Finding itself at cross-purposes with the unfolding of this singular (biblical flood) story – a story that is only going in one redemptive direction – (according to tradition) the Raven simply leaves. Noah sent the Raven forth, and off it went. Brilliant.
The Raven then, may be a fleeting, and rather marginal character in this particular biblical narrative but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t, or couldn’t be another story in which it will appear as essential, or on its own terms, possibly in a role scripted by its own quill, or at least free from our rather prejudiced perspective. The Raven’s own story deserves to be heard. Something about The Raven demands a different telling.
Addendum: Later, possibly 2.000 years give or take, after the flood, Elijah is sustained by bread and meat brought by the Raven, when hiding in the Kerith Ravine – so not such a wicked bird after all.
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