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Why is the Story of the Flood Doubled, Like the Story of Creation?

  • Rav Yoel Bin-Nun
Dedicated in memory of Rabbi Jack Sable z”l and
Ambassador Yehuda Avner z”l
By Debbi and David Sable
In memory of David Yehuda Ben Shaul z”l (Mr. David Goldstein)
whose shloshim fell this week


       The story of the flood actually begins at the end of Parashat Bereishit, and we will therefore begin reading from there:

And it came to pass, when men began to multiply on the face of the earth and daughters were born to them, that the distinguished men saw that the daughters of men were fair, and they took them wives of all whom they chose.

And the Lord (Hashem) said, “My spirit shall not always strive on account of man, for that he also is flesh, and his days shall be a hundred and twenty years.”

There were Nefilim in the earth in those days, and also after that, when the distinguished men came into the daughters of men, and they bore children to them, the same were mighty men of old, men of renown.

And the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that all the impulse of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the Lord repented that He had made man on the earth, and it grieved Him at His heart. And the Lord said, “I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth, both man and beast, and creeping things, and the birds of the air, for I repent that I have made them.”

But Noach found favor in the eyes of the Lord. (Bereishit 6:1-8)



These are the generations of Noach:

Noach was a just man and perfect in his generations, and Noach walked with God.

And Noach had three sons: Shem, Cham, and Yefet.

The earth also was corrupt before God (Elokim), and the earth was filled with violence.

And God looked upon the earth, and behold, it was corrupt, for all flesh had corrupted its way upon the earth.

And God said to Noach, “The end of all flesh is come before Me, for the earth is filled with violence through them, and behold, I will destroy them with the earth.

Make yourself an ark of gofer wood; rooms shall you make in the ark, and shall pitch it within and without with pitch.

And this is the fashion of which you shall make it: The length of the ark shall be three hundred cubits, the breadth of it fifty cubits, and the height of it thirty cubits.

A window shall you make for the ark, and to a cubit shall you finish it above, and the door of the ark shall you set in its side; with lower, second, and third stories shall you make it.

And behold, I will bring the flood of waters upon the earth to destroy all flesh in which is the breath of life, from under heaven; and everything that is on the earth shall die.

But with you will I establish My covenant, and you shall come into the ark – you and your sons and your wife and your sons’ wives with you.

And of every living thing of all flesh, two of every sort shall you bring into the ark, to keep them alive with you;

They shall be male and female.

Of birds after their kind, and of cattle after their kind, of every creeping thing of the earth after its kind; two of every sort shall come to you, to keep them alive.

And take you for yourself all food that is eaten, and gather it to you that it may be for food for you, and for them.”

So Noach did according to all that God commanded him; thus he did. (6:9-22)

And the Lord said to Noach: “Come you and all your house into the ark,

For you have I seen righteous before Me in this generation.

Of every clean beast you shall take to you by sevens, male and female;

And of beasts that are not clean by twos, male and female.

Of birds of the air, also by sevens, the male and the female, to keep seed alive upon the face of all the earth.

For in another seven days I will cause it to rain upon the earth forty days and forty nights, and every living substance that I have made will I destroy from off the face of the earth.”

And Noach did according to all that the Lord commanded him. (7:1-5)



       The story of the Flood starts twice, just like the story of Creation recorded in Parashat Bereishit. As in the case of the story of Creation, one account uses the name “Elokim,” while the other uses God’s holy Name (the Tetragrammaton).[1] The main difference between these Names is the linguistic distinction between a general name and a personal name,[2] a distinction that precedes the distinction between the “attribute of justice” and “attribute of mercy.”[3] The name “Elokim” is a general, objective name indicating authority (and hence, “the attribute of justice”): “For God (Elokim) is in the heavens, while you are upon the earth; therefore let your words be few” (Kohelet 5:1). The Tetragrammaton is a personal name that expresses a direct and personal connection (and hence “the attribute of mercy”). God (referred to by the Tetragrammaton) first speaks to man in the Garden of Eden.

       In the description of the background to the flood using the Tetragrammaton, there is emotion; there is lust after beautiful women and exploitation of power and authority, and there is unmediated contact between God and man, with God contemplating the failure of His Creation and “repenting” His work. The beginning of the objective description (at the beginning of Parashat Noach) notes the corruption of the earth in objective and general terms: “And the earth was corrupt before God.” No primal, sexual drives are mentioned here, nor any direct relationship between God and man. The description of Noach is likewise different. The description at the end of Parashat Bereishit (the “personal perspective”) tells us that “Noach found favor” in God’s eyes, while at the beginning of Parashat Noach (the “objective perspective”), he is described as a perfectly righteous man in his generations and as walking with God.

       The sin is also described in two different ways. From the perspective of the Tetragrammaton, we find, “And they took them wives of all whom they chose” – a combination of sexual immorality and violence, for they snatched women from their husbands. The description speaks to the world of emotions, desires, and urges. From the perspective of “Elokim,” however, “The earth also was corrupt before God, and the earth was filled with violence.” Here the text makes no mention of the lust after beautiful women.

       In the objective description, the ark is described with all its details and measurements, while in the earlier account, at the end of Parashat Bereishit, in which the Tetragrammaton is used, mention is made only of the ark itself, with no details.

       Ramban writes (commentary on 6:19) that the ark had to contain every type of living creature in the world, as well as food for every different species for a year, and from a natural perspective this would be impossible. But if the ark contained all its cargo in a miraculous manner, why does the Torah specify its measurements and other practical details of its construction? Ramban explains that a basic principle in Divine service is that whatever can be done through natural means, according to natural laws and in accordance with the objective perspective, should be done. A person may not say, “I’ll just make a small ark, and somehow, by some miracle, it will hold everything.” Miracles are not meant to replace nature, but rather to take over or complement our efforts where and whenever the limitations of nature would stop us.

       This insight of the Ramban explains the duality in the description of the ark. In the objective description of the animals that are to be brought in, Noach is told to take a male and female of each species. This reflects the basic principle of survival and preservation, and later on, the text notes that the animals indeed arrived – on their own initiative – two by two, in order to survive the flood and be saved: “And they went in to Noach into the ark, two by two of all flesh in which is the breath of life” (7:15). In the description using the Tetragrammaton, in contrast, Noach is told to take seven of each of the pure animals and of the pure birds. In nature, there is nothing “pure” or “impure;” it is only by virtue of God’s manifestation in the world, through His holy Name, that something can be “pure” or “impure.” The “pure animals” are not a natural phenomenon; Divine service, comprising prayer and sacrifice, does not belong to nature.

       The raven and the dove (8:7-12) dispatched by Noach are appropriate reflections of the two sides of the story. The raven sets out, going “to and fro,” in the natural sense. The dove, which is a pure bird (mentioned in the Torah as a sacrifice), leaves from Noach’s hand and eventually returns with an olive leaf as a symbol of salvation.

       After the flood, upon leaving the ark, Noach offers sacrifices to God, “of every clean beast, and of every clean bird” (8:20). In the Torah, there are no sacrifices to “Elokim,”[4] nor would this be appropriate, since in the natural order there is only natural birth and death.

       How does God’s Name express a direct relationship?

       The Tegragrammaton is in fact a form of a verb, expressing an active presence,[5] both harming (“Behold, the hand of the Lord is [hoya] upon your cattle which is in the field… a very grievous plague” – Shemot 9:3) and delivering (“For I shall be [ehyeh] with you… Ehyeh asher ehyeh” – Shemot 3:12-14 and Rashi ad loc.). Therefore, God addresses us and we address Him in the second person: “And God said to Noach: ‘Come, you and all your house, into the ark, for you have I seen righteous before Me in this generation’” (7:1).

       From the objective perspective (third person, “I-it”), Noach is a righteous man, perfect in his generation, but the Tetragrammaton indicates the unmediated, “I-Thou” relationship: “You have I seen righteous before Me.” When we speak of questions of faith in the general sense, we can speak of God only in the general sense and in the third person.

       These two perspectives, the objective and the subjective, the general and the personal, are mutually complementary. The Torah cannot describe a situation only from a general perspective or only from the personal perspective. The description that uses the name “Elokim” gives rise to fear of God, while the description using the Tetragrammaton leads to love of God, and there can be no Torah without both components. In the absence of fear or awe, there is no faith; in the absence of love, there is no connection.

       There is one single verse in the entire story of the flood in which the two Names converge, the general merging with the personal:

And they went in to Noach, into the ark, two by two of all flesh in which is the breath of life. And they that went in, went in male and female of all flesh, as God had commanded him; and the Lord shut him in.” (7:15-16)

The first part of this description is objective. Noach did not need to gather “two by two of all flesh,” since the animals themselves sensed the danger and made their way to the ark; the survival instinct is inherent to the nature of Creation. But sealing the opening is something that Noach cannot do. It is a difficult operation – technically, since he is inside, but principally psychologically. God must intervene personally and seal the ark; without this intervention, the ark is of no value. Noach is not capable of sealing the ark, as this act represents a death sentence for the entire world that remains outside. He has no right to do this, and so “the Lord shut him in.”[6]

The Timeline of the Flood and the Hebrew Calendar

       There is a duality in the calendar as well. There is the solar, agricultural calendar and the lunar calendar according to which we fix the date. Both these “aspects” combine to produce the intercalated Hebrew calendar, which integrates a solar year with a period of 12 months and 10 or 11 days, and a cycle of 19 solar years with 235 lunar months (19 x 12 + 7).


And Noach was six hundred years old when the flood of waters was upon the earth. (7:6)

And it came to pass after seven days that the waters of the flood were upon the earth. (7:10)



In the six hundredth year of Noach’s life, in the second month, the seventeenth day of the month, on that same day all the fountains of the deep were broken open, and the windows of heaven were opened. (7:11)

And the rain was upon the earth forty days and forty nights. (7:12)


And the flood was forty days upon the earth… (7:17) 


And the waters receded from the earth continually, and after the end of a hundred and fifty days, the waters were abated. (8:3)



And the ark rested in the seventh month, on the seventeenth day of the month, upon the mountains of Ararat. And the waters decreased continually until the tenth month; in the tenth month, on the first day of the month, the tops of the mountains were seen. (8:4-5)

And it came to pass at the end of forty days, that Noach opened the window of the ark which he had made. (8:6)


And he sent forth the dove from him, to see if the waters were abated from the face of the ground. (8:8)


And he waited yet another seven days, and again he sent forth the dove out of the ark. (8:10)


And he waited yet another seven days, and sent forth the dove, which did not return again to him anymore. (8:12)



And it came to pass in the six hundred and first year, in the first month, on the first day of the month, that the waters were dried upon from off the earth… And in the second month, on the twenty-seventh day of the month, the earth was dried. (8:13-14)

While the earth remains, seed time and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease. (8:22)



       The Torah presents the calendar of the flood – the only place in Sefer Bereishit which mentions dates and hints to the yearly calendar. The flood as a whole lasted exactly a year, but the details are presented in two different formats: numbers of days and seasons of the year, on the one hand, and dates of months on the other.

       Many commentators have attempted to match and unify the two counts. The first mentions forty days, a hundred and fifty days, another forty days, and groups of seven days (as well as six seasons); the second records calendrical dates (according to lunar months).

       The story of the flood is recounted in dual format, and there are two aspects to the periods of time as well. Dates give an “objective” description, while groups of days have conceptual, spiritual significance. Seven days and forty days point to the connection between Noach and Moshe. The forty days of rain correspond to the forty days that Moshe spent atop Mount Sinai.[7]

       The table of dates presents us with a complete year.[8] This is how Rashi understands the text, following Chazal’s teachings, and it is in fact clear from the dates themselves: From the 17th of the second month until the 27th of the second month is a year, since the months counted in the Torah are lunar months, and the discrepancy between 12 lunar months (354 days +/- 1) and a solar year (365 days + slightly less than ¼ day) is about 11 days, which is the time between the 17th of the second month and the 27th of the second month a year later. In other words, the dual calendar – the lunar monthly calendar adapted to match the solar calendar, which is the calendar of the festivals of the Torah – is also the calendar of Parashat Noach.

       This sits well with the seasonal calendar that appears in the conclusion: “While the earth remains, seed time and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease” (8:22). For an entire year of seeding and harvesting and cold and heat and summer and winter, everything rested; for one complete year, the system ceased to function, and then everything returned to its place.

       This complete year, calculated in accordance with the calendar of the Torah, was not accepted by many scholars at the time of the Second Temple,[9] especially the supporters of the Sefer Ha-Yovelim and the Yachad cult, who tried to follow a purely solar calendar (or, more precisely, 364 days in a year of 52 complete weeks), arguing that this was what was actually written in the “heavenly calendars.” However, other writings from the Second Temple period testify (against their claims) to the truth of our tradition.

       The first piece of evidence is found in the Septuagint,[10] which introduces a “correction” into the Torah and documents the flood as having started on the 27th of the second month and ending on the 27th of the second month a year later. Clearly, this correction/corruption testifies to the fact that the writer had a solar calendar in mind and did not wish to accept that the date for the start of the flood was the 17th of the second month; he viewed it as a “mistake,” since this date testifies to a dual lunar-solar calendar.

       The second pieces of evidence comes from the opposite direction: the fascinating texts found in Qumran (near the north-western shore of the Dead Sea), among hundreds of scrolls (mostly from Cave 4, which appears to have served as a sort of storehouse of texts). Some of these are biblical, while the rest are “midrashic” texts belonging to the Yachad cult. One of the documents, a sort of “midrash” on Sefer Bereishit[11] that fills in dates in the sefer, notes the beginning of the flood as the 17th of the second month and the end of the Flood on the 17th of the second month the next year. This represents a “correction” (corruption) of the tradition in the other direction, but for the same reason.

       Both of these false witnesses testify to the truth of our tradition. Both authors understood the significance of the biblical text as proof of the dual calendar, and neither would accept the year produced by the dual calendar, with lunar months and an addition of 11 days, such that a year would start on the 17th of the month and end on the 27th of the same month a year later. They therefore “corrected” the text, each in his own direction, seeking to conceal and falsify the true tradition.

The Dual Covenant – The Sacrifice and the Rainbow

And Noach built an altar to the Lord [Tetragrammaton] and took of every clean beast, and of every clean bird, and offered burnt offerings on the altar. And the Lord smelled the sweet savor and the Lord said in His heart, “I will not again curse the ground any more for man’s sake, for the impulse of man’s heart is evil from his youth, neither will I again smite any more everything living, as I have done.” (8:20-21)



And God (Elokim) spoke to Noach and to his sons with him, saying, “And behold, I establish My covenant with you, and with your seed after you, and with every living creature that is with you, of the birds, of the cattle, and of every beast of the earth with you, from all that came out of the ark, to every beast of the earth. And I will establish My covenant with you, neither shall all flesh be cut off any more by the water of the flood, neither shall there anymore be a flood to destroy the earth.” And God (Elokim) said, “This is the token of the covenant which I make between Me and you and every living creature that is with you, for perpetual generations: I have set My bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between Me and the earth. And it shall come to pass, when I bring a cloud over the earth, that the bow shall be seen in the cloud, and I will remember My covenant…” (9:8-17)


       The duality of the story of the flood is carried through to the dual covenant. On the one hand, there is God’s promise to Noach not to smite all living things and to maintain the world and its natural rhythms, by virtue of the sacrifice offered to God – a religious act of worship on the part of man. This, of course, is a continuation of the pure animals and pure birds which God had commanded Noach to take into the ark, seven of each.

       On the other hand, the rainbow is part of the natural world, a Divine creation, a sign of a covenant testifying that there will be no more “flood to destroy the earth.” The covenant of the rainbow is given using the name “Elokim,” as a continuation of the natural Creation and the general belief in a single God Who created everything.

       Here the question arises: Was it only now that the rainbow was created? This question was addressed by R. Sa’adia Gaon, Ibn Ezra, and Ramban. Ibn Ezra explains the words “Today I have set it in the cloud” as meaning that the rainbow was a new creation that appeared only after the flood. R. Sa’adia Gaon and Ramban understand the words “I have set My bow in the cloud” as a reference back to the time of Creation; what was new, to their view, was the significance that was now attached to it. Ramban adds:

We are therefore forced to believe the Greek claim that it is the heat of the sun in the damp air that causes a rainbow to be formed, for even in a vessel containing water which stands in the sun there is the appearance of the rainbow. Close inspection of the language of the text shows this to be so, for God says, “I have set My bow in the cloud.” He does not say, “I am setting… in the cloud,” even as He says, “This is the sign of the covenant which I make.” Moreover, the word kashti (My bow) [in the possessive form] indicates that He possessed the bow previously, such that the verse should be understood as follows: “The bow which I set in the cloud at the time of Creation shall be, from this day onwards, a sign of the covenant between Me and you.” Whenever I show it, I shall recall that there is a covenant of peace between Me and you.

Ramban’s commentary here conveys an important principle: If scholars and philosophers propose a theory, it should be treated with caution, but if they present facts, an experiment can establish their veracity. Ramban accepts what the Greek scholars say on the basis of facts, and he interprets the covenant of the rainbow accordingly, since the Creator of the world gave us the Torah, and the Torah cannot contradict the facts of Creation.

       Therefore, the appearance of the rainbow is also part of the appearance of God’s glory, as we find in Sefer Yechezkel, when God’s glory is manifest both as Creator of the world and as its Ruler. God’s revelation to Yechezkel expresses the distancing of the Divine Presence. The Creator of the world is revealed as a King upon His Throne, Whose rule over the world will be expressed from this point onwards (temporarily) in the form of the rule of the King of Babylonia. The description of his vision concludes on a note of future consolation and hope:

As the appearance of the bow that is in the cloud in the day of rain, so was the appearance of the brightness round about. (Yechezkel 1:28)

The “day of rain” recalls the flood, as does “the appearance of the bow that is in the cloud” which came afterwards. Similarly, Am Yisrael will know that there is a sign of a covenant of consolation even after the destruction of the Temple, and it resembles the sign of the rainbow after the flood. In other words, God will preserve the remnant of His people through the long exile, just as He maintains Creation, through nature and through miracles, through the name Elokim and through His holy Name.


Translated by Kaeren Fish




[1]  In recent generations, this duality has become both a source of faith and a source of heresy, since belief in a Divinely-revealed Torah depends on explaining such duality. See, for example, R. Mordechai Breuer’s introduction to his book, Pirkei Bereishit (Alon Shvut, 5759), pp. 11-19. We shall not elaborate here.

[2] A general name may be preceded by the letter heh, indicating the definite article (ha-Elokim), and may be declined (elokei, elokekha; elokeinu, etc.), while a personal name cannot be preceded by the definite article, nor can it be declined. The Tetragrammaton, by linguistic definition, is a personal name. This fundamental distinction alone already nullifies the scientific basis of the “biblical criticism” approach, since a general name and a personal name are not parallels that can replace each other, but rather distinct references that complement one another, as we find in the second account of Creation. See the work of my late father and teacher z”l, Yechiel Bin-Nun, Eretz Ha-Moriah – Pirkei Mikra Ve-Lashon (Alon Shvut, 5766), pp. 10, 43-49.

[3]  Herein lies the fundamental difference between the “aspects approach” developed by R. Breuer z”l (n. 1 above, pp. 48-72) and the “aspects” to which I refer. The aspects to which I refer are based on the linguistic distinction and may therefore be read as mutually complementary in the plain sense, as opposed to the view of this textual structure as a miraculous phenomenon beyond the capability of human speech, testifying to its Divine origin, as R. Breuer explains it. 

[4]  See Ramban’s commentary on Shemot 22:19.

[5]  See my article, “Havaya Pe’ila Ve-Kiyumit Ba-Mikra – Perusho Ha-Leshoni shel Shem Hashem,” Megadim 5 (Nissan 5748), pp. 7-23, and

[6]  At the age of 16, I first read a book on biblical criticism, and there for the first time I saw this text read as two accounts that are joined together. I was quite astounded by the thought that the Torah could be read in this way. I checked over and over again, and I found that the text was indeed quoted accurately – until I reached this single verse, which includes both names of God. Then I saw that those who would wish to divide the story of the Flood into two separate texts were helpless when it came to the words, “the Lord shut him in,” since they did not seem to belong to either account. And thus God shut me in.

[7]  In one of my many discussions with R. M. Breuer z”l, I told him that the two main “aspects” of the Torah (the aspect that uses the name “Elokim” and the aspect that uses the Tetragrammaton) parallel the two aspects of the dual calendar of the Torah – the months according to the lunar calendar and the seasons according to the solar calendar – and it is clear from the Torah itself that both these aspects combine to form the dual calendar. R. Breuer grew quite angry and rejected this explanation out of hand, retorting, “Where does it say ‘moon’ or ‘sun’?!” I was unable to answer him, because he did not want to listen. It was then that the gap between us hit me with full force. The “aspects,” according to R. Breuer’s view, cannot be integrated by any exegetical effort, whereas I see them integrated within the Torah itself (as within the calendar) quite naturally. For this reason, it is impossible, according to my approach, to read the Torah as a combination of separate “literary sources,” and the “critical” method therefore falls away.

[8]  See further in my book, Zakhor Ve-Shamor – Teva Ve-Historia Nifgashim Be-Shabbat U-Ve-Luach Ha-Chagim (Alon Shuvt, 5775), pp. 209-221.

[9]  See further in my book, n. 7 above, pp. 293-320.

[10]  See M. Tzippor, Targum Ha-Shiv’im Le-Sefer Bereishit (Ramat Gan, 5766), pp. 137-140, and the table of comparison there, p. 140.

[11]  “Pesher Bereishit;” see A. Kimrun, Megillat Midbar Yehuda – Ha-Chibburim Ha-Ivriim II (Jerusalem, 5773), p. 252; see also my book (above, n. 7), p. 315.