I suppose that most of us have almost identical visual images of Noah’s ark. We envisage it as a large houseboat with rounded contours and an upper deck occupied mainly by African animals, especially the obligatory giraffe.
Although that depiction might be ubiquitous in cartoons and children’s toys, it hardly fits the description found in the Bible itself. In fact, the craft that Noah built was not designated as a ship or boat at all, but as a container or box (as indicated correctly by the English “ark”). It was a rectangular structure three hundred by fifty by thirty cubits (137 × 22.9 × 13.7 meters), tapering to a point towards its top (useful for draining the torrential rain). A statement in the midrash noted that these proportions were ideal for ensuring the stability of a vessel at rest in harbour; and this was consistent with the construction practices for Roman merchant galleys. The ark was, at any rate, comparable to the cubic craft constructed by Utnapishtim to survive the flood, as related in the Babylonian “Epic of Gilgamesh.”
Now, the Torah provides what seems at first glance to be a clear and precise timetable of the various stages of the rainfall, the rising and receding of the waters, and the ark’s eventual settling onto Mount Ararat. For some of the stages it counts the numbers of days, whereas in other instances it identifies them by the dates in the months. Unfortunately, months in biblical parlance did not have names, but were referred to by numbers, and it is not always clear how the counting is being done. Does the “seventh month” refer to a fixed calendar—and if so, would that be the normal biblical calendar beginning in the spring with Nissan, or the alternate system that begins with Tishri in the fall? Or is it just counting the months from the last-mentioned point in the narrative?
The rabbis of the midrash provided a chronology according to which the divine judgment of that wicked generation extended for exactly twelve months. Perhaps this was regarded as a prototype for the sentences that are meted out to all of us sinners after death.
The Torah says that the water level at the flood’s peak was at least fifteen cubits. According to the rabbis’ calculations, the ark came to rest after the waters had receded only four cubits. From this premise they deduced that part of the craft—the bottom eleven cubits—must have been submerged under the water as it floated. This would prevent it from keeling over, and makes good nautical sense. It might reflect the sages’ familiarity with the structures of the boats in the Sea of Galilee or the Mediterranean; though it is not clear why they felt obliged to raise this technical matter in a religious commentary.
In the eleventh century in France, Rashi included a paraphrase of that complicated midrashic calculation in his commentary to the Torah, supplemented by his own justification for the rabbis’ identifications of the various months in the biblical chronology. This all seems perfectly reasonable. Rashi often elucidated scriptural passages in accordance with the ancient rabbinic interpretations.
And yet when we advance to thirteenth century Catalonia, we find that Rabbi Moses ben Nahman (Nahmanides, Ramban) was not at all pleased with Rashi’s judgment in this matter. He frowned upon Rashi’s eclectic propensity to fluctuate between literal explanations and midrashic expositions. Invoking the talmudic proposition that “there are seventy facets to the Torah,” Nahmanides allowed himself to challenge Rashi (and the midrash), and argue for a different reading of the biblical text. With that in mind, he attacked Rashi for his inconsistency in attaching different meanings to the Torah’s various enumerations of months in the passage.
Nahmanides also rejected the premise that water recedes at a steady, unchanging rate. This seemed unlikely, especially when applied to uneven mountainous terrain. Furthermore, Noah’s ark was a flat-bottom craft with its top section narrowing to a single cubit in width. If more than one third of its lower portion were submerged beneath the surface of the water, it would not be seaworthy.
A very similar exegetical disagreement emerged a few generations later, but this time in the domain of Christian exegesis. The Franciscan scholar Nicholas de Lyra was the author of the “Postilla litteralis super totam Bibliam,” which was completed in 1332 and went on to become the most widely read Christian commentary to the Bible. In his notes to the Noah narrative in Genesis, de Lyra boasted that, based on the dates and numbers provided in the scriptural account, it was possible to compute how much of the ark was submerged under the water. His calculation came to nine or thirteen cubits.
Almost a century later, in 1429, the learned Castilian expositor Pablo de Santa Maria of Burgos completed a work devoted to criticism of de Lyra’s interpretations: “Aditiones ad postillam Magistri Nicolai Lyra.” Pablo was particularly concerned to set distinct methodological boundaries between literal and allegorical readings.
Pablo objected vehemently to de Lyra’s discussion about the receding of the waters and the dimensions of the ark’s submersion. For one thing, the trivial exercise in deduction served no useful purpose in steering the reader toward correct beliefs or practical moral behaviour—in effect, Pablo was claiming that Nicholas had gotten in over his head. Without going into precise argumentation, he claimed that the biblical text was open to other and better interpretations.
It is no coincidence that the controversy among these Christian exegetes bore such an uncanny similarity to the to the one between Rashi and Nahmanides. Nicholas de Lyra was a devoted admirer of Rashi, and courteous references to “Rabbi Salomon” appear on just about every page of his lengthy commentary. In Nicholas’ eyes, Rashi was the epitome of reasonable Jewish literal exegesis. It was probably through Nicholas’ subsequent influence on Christian biblical studies that the King James English translation came to incorporate a great deal of traditional Jewish interpretation.
As for Pablo de Santa Maria—this prominent Catholic theologian and exegete had begun his career as Rabbi Solomon Ha-Levi. He converted to Christianity in 1391, apparently out of sincere religious conviction; though many other Spanish Jews were accepting baptism on account of the large-scale massacres that were being perpetrated at that time. Pablo rose to important positions in the universities, the church and in the government of Castile, and he took an aggressive part in attempts to convert or persecute his former coreligionists.
It has been suggested that with respect to his exegetical approach, Pablo’s opposition was not so much to Nicholas de Lyra himself, but to his excessive reliance on Rashi. Or, to put it another way: even after abandoning his ancestral faith, Pablo continued to uphold the persistent scholarly rivalry between the French and Sephardic approaches to scriptural interpretation. The Sephardic authors had developed their own rigorous system of grammatical and literary methods for uncovering the original meanings of the sacred texts; and they often felt that it was unfair that Rashi should be treated by northern European Jews and Christians as the doyen of literal exegesis. Nicholas’ tacit reliance on Rashi’s analysis of the ark’s dimensions and nautical state (he seemed unaware that Rashi was in fact paraphrasing an earlier midrashic source) exemplified his own shortcomings, as well as Rashi’s failure to maintain the distinctions between literal and midrashic hermeneutical methodologies.
In choosing which of the competing interpretations is the better one, it is of course necessary to examine the specific merits and weaknesses of each, noting how well it accounts for the linguistic usages and the narrative logic of the scriptural text.
And yet, as we saw in this example, there are often ulterior motives that influence exegetes in their work. These motives are not usually stated explicitly, and the authors might not even be consciously aware of them.
But like the hulls of sailing craft, they are often lying beneath the surface.
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