Friday, October 19, 2007

Noah (Mitzvot)

“He who spills man’s blood, by man shall his blood be spilled”

The first mitzvah, in Bereshit, is to multiply and increase life. Its counterpart in this parasha, albeit not formally counted among the mitzvah, is the injunction not to destroy live. In a sense, this is the very first and most self-evident moral imperative: if God loves life, revels in the sheer fecundity of the species He has created, and blesses both fish and fowl, man and beast, with the blessings of ever increasing life, then surely murder, bloodshed, and violence are abhorrent in His eyes!

After the Flood, once the ark comes to rest and Noah and his entourage go out into the world again after a confinement of nearly a year, we are told two interesting things: first, that Noah offers a sacrifice—not as a mandatory act, but as an act of natural piety, an expression of the innate human impulse to worship God. Secondly, God blesses Noah and his clan, who represent a new beginning; as such, they are again given the blessings of “be fruitful and multiply” (twice! In 9:1 and 9:7) and dominion over other creatures, in language similar to, if not stronger than, that in Genesis 1.

But there is an interesting addition: “He who spills man’s blood, by man his blood shall be spilled, for in God’s image did He make man” (9:6). One might say that these verses appear here as a reminder that the sins of the Generation of the Flood included, not only theft and social injustice, but violence and bloodshed, the total lording of the strong over the weak without any restraints (as is more or less implied in 6: 11 ff.). (In general, Jewish tradition has an abhorrence of bloodshed. It has been suggested that there is a connection among the prohibitions against murder, that against the consumption of animal blood, first stated here in 9:4, and that against having sex “on the blood,” so to speak: i.e., the menstrual rules—each with their elaborations.)

But more than that, we have in these verses at least a rudimentary hint of the Noachide code—the universal code of ethics incumbent upon all human beings as such, which I would define as a code of natural law, in the sense that these rules are self-evident to man’s innate moral conscience, without any external command. The reference to man being made in the Divine image merely reinforces that insight with a theological argument.

But if this is self-evident in theory, it is among the most difficult laws for human society to follow. From the day that Cain killed his brother, wars have been fought, murders committed, ceaseless acts of brutality and cruelty and violence have been perpetrated because we somehow fail to perceive the Divine image in the Other. There are even religions that have made the murder of non-believers or heretics into “holy acts” rather than the obscenities they are—and religious wars, which we thought were a thing of the past, are once again upon us.

I have much more to say on this important subject, but will hold the rest for a supplement on violence and aggression.


Sefer ha-Hinukh is attributed to R. Aharon of Barcelona (1235-ca. 1290); there is some dispute about its actual authorship. One reader suggested that it may have been written by an unknown medieval woman, who used this persona to enable her work to be accepted. An interesting theory, thus far not widely accepted by the world of scholarship.


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