Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Noah 5770/ October 24, 2009

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar- Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar- Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,


The Origin of Ethnic Variety

Dr. Amos Bardea

The Goodman Faculty of Life Sciences

Parashat Noah is the borderline between the world of Creation and the new world, between the Creation that was spoiled by man, himself the crowning glory of Creation, and the new world that emerged on the ruins of the one that had been created in the primordial six days.  The Torah describes the turning-point after the flood at the end of chapter 8:   “So long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night shall not cease.”   At this point the world began to exist as we know it, a world governed by the laws of nature established in it after the flood. In this world human life was organized in national groupings, nations ( goyyim) or peoples (le’umim): [1]   “These are the lines of Shem, Ham, and Japheth, the sons of Noah:  sons were born to them after the Flood” (Gen. 10:1).  The Torah gives a detailed list of the nations that descended from each of the brothers, and at the end of this survey the Torah sums up with an equivalent formulation:  “From these the maritime nations branched out … by their lands – each with its language – their clans and their nations” (Gen. 10:5, and a similar formulation in 10:20, 31).

From the lives of individuals the lives of nations were formed.  Nationality constitutes the kernel of most individuals’ primary identity.  Unlike secondary identities that can be formally defined, such as citizenship or official position, the concept of a people or a nation runs into difficulty because it is primal.  Indeed, throughout the ages much philosophical and sociological thinking has been devoted to the question of defining nationality. [2]   A number of thinkers have attempted to characterize nationality by means of several objective elements, and surprisingly these elements are all found in the verses from Genesis 10 cited above.  Here are some of the prevalent characteristics of nationality:

1.      Ethnic basis or genetic origin:  a people can be defined as a large extended family, having shared genetic origins. [3]   Now, in the verses under consideration the nations were said to have branched out “by their clans,” or as Onkelos translates, “by their seed.”   A good example is provided by the family of our patriarch Jacob, which grew and became extended to the point of the descendants viewing themselves as a people.  The Torah first uses the term “people” with respect to the children of Israel when they are still a limited family.  After Jacob leaves Laban’s house, as he is preparing to meet his brother Esau, it says:  “Jacob was greatly frightened; in his anxiety, he divided the people with him, and the flocks … into two camps” (Gen. 32:8).

2.      Historical basis:   a people takes shape when human beings gather together and live in the same area for a long time.   Several families that are different from one another in ethnic origin might band together, but when they dwell in a given area for a long time they come to form a national consciousness that draws them together.  In the above verses the territorial element is represented by the words “maritime nations” and “by their lands.” [4]

3.      Linguistic basis:   a branch of humanity has a national language, both written and spoken.  The linguistic element produces a national consciousness even if the members of that people are different from one another in origin and even if they are not situated in the same region.  The linguistic element is present in the verses of this week’s reading in the words “each with its language.”  Language does more than provide a way of spoken communication; it expresses the culture as built on codes of behavior that are specific to one or another nation.

4.      Political basis:   a people forms around a political apparatus that it creates in order to regulate its life.  For example, the American people is a nation of immigrants that emerged on the foundation of the American constitution, whose fundamental idea is that of liberty and which provided the foundation for political and civil life.

The story of the dispersal of peoples in chapter 11 describes nationalism based on the elements mentioned above.   Language:  “Everyone on earth had the same language and the same words” (v. 1); territory:  “And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there” (v. 2); political power:  “They said to one another, ‘Come, let us build us a city, and a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name for ourselves; else we shall be scattered all over the world’” (v. 4).  G­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­-d counteracted the might concentrated in the national consciousness by confounding their language and dispersing them over the face of the earth, thus toppling their language, territory, and political entity as elements establishing national might:  “‘Let us, then, go down and confound their speech there, so that they shall not understand one another’s speech.’  Thus the Lord scattered them from there over the face of the whole earth” (Gen. 11:7-8).

Empirically there have been peoples who lacked the elements characteristic of a nation and a people, and conversely, there have been human groups that have had all the objective elements yet did not coalesce to form a single people.  Thus a subjective approach developed, ascribing the characterization of nationality not only to objective characteristics but also incorporating, as an integral part of the factors constituting national consciousness, the subjective sense of belonging to a unit with a common identity.

At the end of chapter 11, the biblical narrative moves on towards the great man of faith, Abraham, and his origins.   Abraham discovers his Maker and sees himself as serving Him.  By chapter 12 of Genesis, which begins Parashat Lekh Lekha, Abraham is required to pay the first price for his belief.  Abraham is called upon to break up the components of his primary national identity:   “The Lord said to Abram, ‘Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you’” (Gen. 12:1).  Abraham quits the place from where he came, the territory in which he grew up, and leaves his family and native land for the sake of an ideal that in the fullness of time will establish the national identity of his offspring.   The children of Israel grow into a nation out of their origins as a family, and as an extended family they crystallize into a nation.  It is actually an external factor that characterizes the children of Israel as a national body; Pharaoh says to his own people, “Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us” (Ex. 1:9), for the Israelite people were facing the Egyptian people and posing a threat to them.

The Israelites leave Egypt as a national group established on an ethnic foundation.  But the objective in the exodus from Egypt was to establish a nation standing before G-d and accepting His covenant, precisely as a people formed on a foundation of the land, and thus to make Truth come forth from the land.   This nation, arising from an extended family, transforms the kernel of its national identity to a religious identity that is tied to a covenant with G-d:  “Moses went and repeated to the people all the commands of the Lord and all the rules; and all the people answered with one voice, saying, ‘All the things that the Lord has commanded we will do!’” (Ex. 24:3).  On the eve of their entering the land, the Israelites are called upon to shape their national way of living as a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”  Moses proclaims that standing before the Lord and accepting His covenant is what establishes the people:   “Moses and the levitical priests spoke to all Israel, saying:  Silence! Hear, O Israel!   Today you have become the people of the Lord you G-d” (Deut. 27:9). [5]   Thus religion and nationality become two sides of the same coin:  there is no such thing as a Jew who is not a member of the Jewish faith, and there is no member of the Jewish faith who is not defined as belonging to the Jewish people. [6]   Faith is the founding element of the nation, as Saadiah Gaon wrote in his book, Emunot ve-De‘ot:   “Our people do not constitute a nation except through their Torah.” [7]

After the fall of the Temple the people of Israel were dispersed in foreign lands and there they lost the natural elements of people-hood – ethnic, territorial, linguistic, and political – nevertheless they survived as an independent national entity on the basis of their religion.  Movements attempting to erode the inseparable bond between the people and its religion arose in modern times, beginning with the Emancipation in the 18th and 19th centuries, through to the 20th century.   On one hand, attempts were made to put Judaism on a purely religious foundation,undermining the national component, [8] and on the other hand, in the era of national awakening attempts were made to put Judaism on a national basis as the main component of Jewish identity.   A further attempt was made by secular Zionist thinkers to change the core of Jewish identity from religious to civil-political. [9]

The message in the description of the evolution of Israeli national consciousness, developing from the geographical to the religious, from being based on the land to being based on serving G-d, gives good reason for Parashat Noah to deal with the origin of nations, for the last part of this week’s reading is the preface to the story of the founding fathers of our nation.    

[1] This was identified by Aristotle, the first taxonomist of the living world, who distinguished between animals that are anti-social individuals and those that live in herds or schools.  In his view, human beings fall into the category of those who live in groups:   “Man is a political animal by nature” ( Politika I, 1253a).

[2] Unlike citizenship or religion, which can be changed, nationality cannot be changed.

[3] In classical Latin ‘am is translated as gens.

[4] As Nahmanides interprets this verse:  “The reason it says, from these the maritime nations branched out, is that the sons of Japheth are maritime peoples and they branched out, each of his sons dwelling by on a separate island and their lands being far one from another.”

[5] According to the Oral Law, the laws of conversion, converts are required to accept the burden of obeying the commandments of the Torah in order to join the Jewish people.  See Maimonides, Hilkhot Issurei Bi’ah ch. 13.4; Shulhan Arukh, Yoreh De‘ah, par. 268.2.

[6] Unlike other monotheistic religions, where there is no dependence between religion and nationality.

[7] Torahs in the plural, meaning the written and the oral law.

[8] This was the approach of assimilationist Jews and also of the Reform movement in Germany.

[9] This is not the place to go into a lengthy discussion of contemporary Jewish identity, after the process of secularization of the Jewish people and the establishment of a state of the Jewish people in which Jewish identity is a complex of civil, national, and religious elements.