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Idan Dershowitz





Noah, Hero of the Great Primeval Famine





APA e-journal

Idan Dershowitz





Noah, Hero of the Great Primeval Famine








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Noah, Hero of the Great Primeval Famine

Noah’s name expresses his father’s hope that Noah will bring comfort from the pain of the curse of the land, and before he plants his vineyard, he is called “a man of the land” (איש האדמה). These and other verses point to an older core narrative which spoke not of a flood but of a primeval famine that Noah brings to an end.


Noah, Hero of the Great Primeval Famine

Noah makes a sacrifice to YHWH, Elisha Kirkall, 1682–1742. CC BY 4.0

The Age of Invention

Genesis 4:17–22, a J text, lists several generations of Cain’s descendants and the skills they introduced. In describing Lamech’s children, Genesis 4 notes:

בראשית ד:כ וַתֵּלֶד עָדָה אֶת יָבָל הוּא הָיָה אֲבִי יֹשֵׁב אֹהֶל וּמִקְנֶה. ד:כא וְשֵׁם אָחִיו יוּבָל הוּא הָיָה אֲבִי כָּל תֹּפֵשׂ כִּנּוֹר וְעוּגָב. ד:כב וְצִלָּה גַם הִוא יָלְדָה אֶת תּוּבַל קַיִן לֹטֵשׁ כָּל חֹרֵשׁ נְחֹשֶׁת וּבַרְזֶל...
Gen 4:20 Adah bore Jabal; he was the ancestor of those who dwell in tents and amidst herds. 4:21 And the name of his brother was Jubal; he was the ancestor of all who play the lyre and the pipe. 4:22 As for Zillah, she bore Tubal-cain, who forged all implements of copper and iron…[1]

This passage is difficult to reconcile with the following cataclysmic deluge that kills off all humans except Noah and his immediate family.[2] In fact, to solve this problem, the Book of 2 Enoch (ch. 33) has all antediluvian knowledge written down and given to the angels “so that they might preserve them so that they might not perish in the future flood.”[3]

The problem has led a number of scholars to suggest that an early form of J did not have a flood story, and this was added into J by later scribes. (The P account reads smoothly with a flood story.)[4] Remnants of this earlier form of J can be found in other verses that appear to refer to the flood, but upon closer inspection, have a different calamity in mind.

Cursing the Land

Following the Flood, J has Noah offer sacrifices, after which YHWH proclaims:

בראשית ח:כא לֹא אֹסִף לְקַלֵּל עוֹד אֶת הָאֲדָמָה בַּעֲבוּר הָאָדָם
Gen 8:21 I will not again curse the ground any more for man’s sake.

This promise is out of place in the context of the Flood,[5] since throughout the Bible, cursed land relates to parched land. Thus,

ישעיה כד:ו עַל כֵּן אָלָה אָכְלָה אֶרֶץ וַיֶּאְשְׁמוּ יֹשְׁבֵי בָהּ... כד:ז אָבַל תִּירוֹשׁ אֻמְלְלָה גָפֶן נֶאֶנְחוּ כָּל שִׂמְחֵי לֵב.
Isa 24:6 That is why a curse consumes the earth, and its inhabitants pay the penalty… 24:7 The new wine fails, the vine languishes, and all the merry-hearted sigh.”
ירמיה כג:י כִּי מִפְּנֵי אָלָה אָבְלָה הָאָרֶץ יָבְשׁוּ נְאוֹת מִדְבָּר
Jer 23:10 The land mourns because of a curse; the pastures of the wilderness are dried up.

The reverse is also true; a blessed land is a verdant one, as in Moses’ blessing to Joseph:

דברים לג:יג מְבֹרֶכֶת יְ־הֹוָה אַרְצוֹ מִמֶּגֶד שָׁמַיִם מִטָּל וּמִתְּהוֹם רֹבֶצֶת תָּחַת.
Deut 33:13 Blessed of YHWH be his land, with the bounty of dew from heaven, and of the deep that couches below.

In other words, a curse of the land should refer not to a flood but to a drought that causes plant life to perish.

Day and Night

YHWH continues his promise to Noah in v. 22, but the text here has an important variant. The Masoretic Text (MT) reads:

עֹד כָּל יְמֵי הָאָרֶץ זֶרַע וְקָצִיר וְקֹר וָחֹם וְקַיִץ וָחֹרֶף וְיוֹם וָלַיְלָה לֹא יִשְׁבֹּתוּ
As long as the earth endures, seedtime, harvest, cold, heat, summer, winter, day and night shall not cease.

The reference to day and night is enigmatic. In context, it has been generally understood as a proclamation heralding the end of nature’s upheaval, the end of the Flood,[6] suggesting that during the deluge, even the cycle of days was suspended.

This interpretation dates back at least to Genesis Rabbah, where R. Yohanan (3rd cent. C.E.) is reported to have inferred that לא שימשו מזלות כל י"ב חדש “the constellations did not serve during all twelve months [of the Flood].”[7]

But this cannot be the meaning, for in the same source, the Flood’s duration is given in days and nights.[8] Noah also sends out a dove at seven-day intervals.[9]

SP and LXX—Perpetually

The text of the Samaritan Pentateuch (SP) has a slight variation:

עד כל ימי הארץ זרע וקציר קור וחם קיץ וחרף יומם ולילה לא ישבתו
As long as the earth endures, seedtime, harvest, cold, heat, summer winter, shall not cease by day and night.

The variant is small, יומם instead of ויום, but the meaning is quite different. The phrase יומם ולילה, literally “by day and night,” is an adverbial idiom meaning “perpetually.” This is apparent from the parallelism in biblical passages such as:

ישעיה לד:י לַיְלָה וְיוֹמָם לֹא תִכְבֶּה / לְעוֹלָם יַעֲלֶה עֲשָׁנָהּ / מִדּוֹר לָדוֹר תֶּחֱרָב / לְנֵצַח נְצָחִים אֵין עֹבֵר בָּהּ.
Isaiah 34:10 It shall never (lit: by night and day) go out; its smoke shall rise for all time; through the generations it shall lie in ruins; for all eternity none shall traverse it.
ישעיה ס:יא וּפִתְּחוּ שְׁעָרַיִךְ תָּמִיד / יוֹמָם וָלַיְלָה לֹא יִסָּגֵרוּ
Isaiah 60:11 Your gates shall always stay open; they shall never (lit: by day and night) be shut.

The SP text is supported by the Septuagint’s Greek translation (LXX) of this phrase, ἡμέραν καὶ νύκτα. While English and Hebrew typically use prepositions and word order to indicate which words reflect the subject of a sentence, which reflect the object, and so on, Greek conveys grammatical function chiefly by modifying the form of words. It is this feature that sets apart the phrase “day and night” from the other three pairs. Only these two nouns are marked as belonging to the “accusative” case, whereas the others all have “nominative” forms, suggesting that they reflect the subject of the sentence.

For this reason, The New English Translation Of The Septuagint adds a preposition to its English version of this passage in the LXX: “during day and night.” What all this suggests is that the Septuagint, like the Samaritan Pentateuch, construes the last pair in the sentence adverbially.[10]

Only Seasons

While MT has a list of eight restored natural phenomena—seedtime, harvest, cold, heat, summer, winter, day, and night—SP and LXX have only the first six, with the final pair being an expression meaning “forever.” Thus, according to the SP and LXX texts, day and night had never been stopped in the first place.

Instead, it was the other six phenomena, all of which relate to the regular cycle of seasons, that had been stopped, and which God is now allowing to once again follow their natural course “by day and by night,” i.e. perpetually. Implied in YHWH’s promise is that, until that moment, summers had been cold, winters dry, seedtime and harvest perverted. This describes well a drought and famine, not a flood.

The Masoretic text suggests that day and night themselves had been disturbed, which paints the picture of a cataclysmic upheaval—apt for a universal deluge.

“Nor Will I Ever Again…”

Another attempt at making God’s promise cohere with a flood story is the second half of v. 21, which looks like a supplement (in italics):

בראשית ח:כא לֹא אֹסִף לְקַלֵּל עוֹד אֶת הָאֲדָמָה בַּעֲבוּר הָאָדָם כִּי יֵצֶר לֵב הָאָדָם רַע מִנְּעֻרָיו וְלֹא אֹסִף עוֹד לְהַכּוֹת אֶת כָּל חַי כַּאֲשֶׁר עָשִׂיתִי.
Gen 8:21 I will never again doom the earth because of man, since the devisings of man's mind are evil from his youth; and I will never again destroy every living being, as I have done.

Verse 21b begins by repeating the opening phrase (in bold), though it comes after what appears to be the conclusion (“since…”), and is thus, a syntactically awkward Wiederaufnahme (resumptive repetition). As this phrase appears in all text forms, it is evidence of an early intervention to make YHWH’s promise fit a flood context as opposed to a drought/famine context.

Noah and the Cursed Land

Noah’s naming in Gen 5:29 (J) also references a curse upon the land:

בראשית ה:כט זֶה יְנַחֲמֵנוּ מִמַּעֲשֵׂנוּ וּמֵעִצְּבוֹן יָדֵינוּ מִן הָאֲדָמָה אֲשֶׁר אֵרְרָהּ יְ־הוָה.
Gen 5:29 This one will provide us relief (ינחמנו) from our work and from the toil of our hands, out of the soil which YHWH placed under a curse.[11]

The affliction or “curse” to which Lamech refers cannot be the future Flood; Lamech speaks of an existing curse on the ground, which is likely the same one that YHWH promises not to renew in 8:21.[12] What curse is this then?

The curse of the land in the story of Adam and Eve.[13]

Adam’s Curse

In response to Adam[14] eating of the forbidden fruit, YHWH curses the ground:

בראשית ג:יז …אֲרוּרָה הָאֲדָמָה בַּעֲבוּרֶךָ בְּעִצָּבוֹן תֹּאכֲלֶנָּה כֹּל יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ. ג:יח וְקוֹץ וְדַרְדַּר תַּצְמִיחַ לָךְ וְאָכַלְתָּ אֶת עֵשֶׂב הַשָּׂדֶה. ג:יט בְּזֵעַת אַפֶּיךָ תֹּאכַל לֶחֶם עַד שׁוּבְךָ אֶל הָאֲדָמָה כִּי מִמֶּנָּה לֻקָּחְתָּ כִּי עָפָר אַתָּה וְאֶל עָפָר תָּשׁוּב.
Gen 3:17 Cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; 3:18 thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall consume the plants of the field. 3:19 By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground from which you were taken, for you are dust and to dust you shall return.

This curse has generally been understood as speaking of a permanent change in man’s relationship with nature: In Eden, man did not work the land; from this point on, he would have to toil for sustenance. In the words of John Martin:

[The curse] marks the difference between man’s lost age of ease and his whole future age during which he must earn his bread in the sweat of his brow. That curse is irrevocable.[15]

The conventional interpretation is problematic, however, given that man did labor in Eden. In fact, YHWH created Adam specifically for this purpose, placing him in Eden לְעָבְדָהּ וּלְשָׁמְרָהּ “so that he may work it and maintain it” (Gen 2:15).[16] Similarly, the story opens with:

בראשית ב:ה וְכֹל שִׂיחַ הַשָּׂדֶה טֶרֶם יִהְיֶה בָאָרֶץ וְכָל עֵשֶׂב הַשָּׂדֶה טֶרֶם יִצְמָח כִּי לֹא הִמְטִיר יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהִים עַל הָאָרֶץ וְאָדָם אַיִן לַעֲבֹד אֶת הָאֲדָמָה.
Gen 2:5 no shrub of the field was yet on earth and no grasses of the field had yet sprouted, because YHWH God had not sent rain upon the earth and there was no man to till the soil.

If so, this curse does not describe a permanent shift from paradise to ordinary conditions. In its initial context, it spoke of a degradation from ordinary conditions.[17] The earth would no longer yield fruit as usual, and little would come even of arduous labor. In other words, the curse describes famine-like conditions.[18]

On account of Adam, a curse of famine had been put upon the land, making life on earth miserable.[19] Lamech gave his son a name symbolizing the hope that Noah would bring the Great Famine to an end. And, in the continuation of this original narrative, Noah did just that. YHWH not only ended the Famine on Noah’s account but promised that humankind would never again suffer a similar affliction.

In other words, in the older version of J, humanity went through three stages.

Phase 1: Edenic life—Humanity is created to work the garden but live comfortably.

Phase 2: Curse of famine—After Adam’s curse, humanity must work extra hard for a meager yield.

Phase 3: Return to Edenic life—After Noah’s sacrifice and YHWH’s promise, humanity returns to a pre-curse life of work with sufficient return.

This account of humanity’s primordial history made no reference to a flood.

Man of the Land

Further support for the contention that J contains an alternate Noah tradition is found at the conclusion of the flood:

בראשית ט:כ וַיָּחֶל נֹחַ אִישׁ הָאֲדָמָה וַיִּטַּע כָּרֶם.
Gen 9:20 Then Noah, man of the land, planted a vineyard.[20]

Noah’s appellation as “man of the land” rather than “man of the ark” or “man of the Flood,” is surprising. Gordon Wenham, for example, writes: “‘The man of the land’ is an unusual phrase. If ‘tiller of the land’ were meant, עבד האדמה would be the normal expression (cf. Gen 4:2; Isa 30:24).”[21]

Due largely to the epithet’s incongruity, several scholars have attempted to read the phrase creatively, to avoid its plain meaning.[22] Nevertheless, if Noah is the first person to grow produce from the ground upon God’s ending of the curse, “man of the land” is a perfect epithet.[23]

The protagonist of J’s original narrative is the man who appeased YHWH and brought an end to the curse on the land.[24] In fact, as the ending of the curse follows Noah’s bringing of sacrifices, Noah is part of the reason if not the reason that the curse ends. In the redacted J text, however, Noah’s sacrifice comes only after the Flood abates. He does not bring the Flood to an end; he is only credited with convincing God not to bring another one. But in the original text, he does bring the famine to an end.[25]

It is then fitting that our alternate Noah, the man of the land, should plant a vineyard. This detail serves not only to set the stage for the next scene, but also to credit Noah with the first post-famine land cultivation, planting grapevines, a classic symbol of fertility.[26]

Supplementing J

Once we appreciate that J’s Primeval History once lacked the Flood and instead included the Great Famine, it becomes clear that the Yahwistic passages that conflict with the Flood derive from an earlier, cohesive—if imperfectly preserved—narrative. It is possible that the supplementer of J removed an action that, along with Noah’s offering, contributed to YHWH’s change of heart. One might expect Noah to have conveyed the suffering of his starving brethren, but any such statement could not coexist with the new Flood narrative. It is also likely that the Famine’s end was originally punctuated by a period of abundant rain, allowing Noah to cultivate his vineyard.[27] Here too the Yahwist would have been compelled to remove the passage when forming the new Flood narrative out of the Great Famine story. It would certainly be peculiar for the Flood to conclude with a rainstorm![28]

Why a Flood Story?

So why did this early J redactor add a Flood episode at all? The answer to this question may be that the Flood came to be considered an integral part of the Primeval History. The Babylonian Flood narrative—independently, and as a section of the Gilgamesh Epic—was exceptionally popular in the ancient Near East. Fragments were found in the Ugaritic corpus in Ras Shamra, as well as Megiddo in Canaan proper.[29]

Several characters from the Epic of Gilgamesh are mentioned in the Book of the Giants, fragments of which were found in Qumran, further illustrating the prevalence of this family of texts in Palestine.[30] And, of course, the Priestly source in Gen 6–9 contains yet another version of the Flood story.

To include this story, Proto-J’s supplementer needed to dramatically rework his source text, rather than simply introduce new material into the existing framework, since it would have been absurd to end a flood story with the gift of rain. Ending a famine story with an apocalyptic flood would not have been much better, as it would suggest a cynical, malicious god.[31] It is therefore understandable that J’s supplementer opted to pave the way for his new addition by expunging the Great Famine from the biblical record, transforming Noah from the hero of the primordial famine to the Flood survivor we all know so well today.[32]


October 30, 2019


Last Updated

May 22, 2024


View Footnotes

Prof. Idan Dershowitz completed his undergraduate and graduate training at the Hebrew University, following several years of study at Yeshivat Har Etzion. In 2017, he was elected to the Harvard Society of Fellows. Dershowitz is currently Chair of Hebrew Bible and Its Exegesis at the University of Potsdam. He is the author of two books: The Dismembered Bible: Cutting and Pasting Scripture in Antiquity and The Valediction of Moses: A Proto-Biblical Book.