Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Noah 5764/ November 1, 2003

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.
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Parashat Noah 5764/ November 1, 2003

I am about to destroy them with the earth (Gen. 6:13)
Prof. Moshe Zippor
Professor Emeritus, Dept. of Bible

The above verse in the original Hebrew, Ve-hineni Mashhitam et Ha-Arez
is unclear. Several explanations have been offered for it, the main ones being:

1. et ha-arez- meaning "from the earth", like ke-zeti et ha-ir (Ex. 9:29), i.e. "from the city" (see also Gen. 44:4; Deut. 14:22). The meaning would be, "I am destroying them off the face of the earth." But the example ke-zeti et does not apply, because the preposition et refers there to the verb, not the object as in our case. Further, a combination like lehashkhit min ha-arez - "to wipe out from the earth" is not found.

2. et ha-arez- "Together with the earth", meaning that the land was wiped out and destroyed together with its inhabitants. Again this explanation fits the context of the events only with difficulty.

3. et ha-arez- "Drags himself and another with him". This rule of medieval Hebrew grammarians means we must read the verse as if the word mashitam were doubled: "I am about to destroy them and to destroy the land." And still there is a difficulty understanding "to destroy the earth" as compared with "to destroy them"; Who does "them" refer to? No wonder bible scholars proposed various emendations and "corrections" to the text.

Our sages already taught that one way to resolve problematic words or phrases in the Bible is to draw on other languages, not just sister languages such as Aramaic but even languages that obviously have no connection with the biblical text. The explanation of the word totafot (phylacteries) in the Talmud, also cited by Rashi on the Bible, is well known: "tat in the language of Katfi means two, pat in African (sic) means two"(Sanhedrin 4b) [tat and pat are the consonantal 'roots' of the word totafot, teaching that the phylacteries contain four portions from the Torah]
We can assume that had additional languages related to biblical Hebrew, such as Akkadian, Moabite or Ugaritic, discovered in the past century or so, been accessible to our sages, and certainly if they had been familiar with texts in those languages, they would have used them to explain difficult biblical passages. We will now attempt just such a comparative study.
To understand our opening verse, we will look at Psalm 29 with its unusual structure, including the special structure of individual verses. So, for instance:
(5) Kol Hashem shover arazim va-yeshaber Hashem et arze ha-Levanon
(8) Kol Hashem yahil midbar yahil Hashem midbar qadesh.
The voice of the Lord breaks cedars; the Lord shatters the cedars of Lebanon.
The voice of the Lord convulses the wilderness; the Lord convulses the wilderness of Kadesh.
Verse 6 requires explanation. The common interpretation is in accordance with the phrasing expressed in the division of the cantillation signs:
Va-yarkidem kemo egel Levanon ve-Siryon kemo ben re'emim
He makes them skip like a calf Lebanon and Siryon like a young wild ox.
Va-yarkidem - He makes them skip. To what does this refer? Common sense would say, the previously mentioned cedars of Lebanon in verse 5 (see above). Now one form of parallelism in biblical poetry is the "missing" parallel (generally in the second stich, or half-line). We complete the missing part in our thoughts according to the first stich. Following is an example from Psalm 114; the words that have to be supplied by the reader are in brackets:

(1)Be-zet Yisrael mi-Mizraim [Be-zet] beit Yaakov me-am lo'ez
(3)Ha-yam ra'a va-yanos ha-Yarden [ra'a] yisov le'ahor
(4)He-harim rakedu ke'elim geva'ot [rakdu] ki-vne zon

(1)When Israel went forth from Egypt/
the house of Jacob[ went forth] from a people of strange speech,
(3)The sea saw them and fled/ Jordan [saw them and] ran backward
Mountains skipped like rams/ hills [skipped] like sheep
Following this poetic convention, the second stich in Ps. 29: 6 is generally explained in this way: "[He made] Lebanon and Siryon (= Mount Hermon) dance like the sons of rams." This interpretation raises some questions: (a) Contrary to all the other verses of Psalm 29, in which the parallel stichs are of equal length, here, according to this conception, the first stich is shorter, the second very long. (b) Regarding the images appearing in the chapter, each verse depicting "the voice of G-d" presents one image, while here we have a mixture of images. In verse 5, the voice of the Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon; in verse 6 the voice of the Lord makes the mountains of Lebanon and Siryon dance like sons of rams (after He broke them?). In other words, the cedars of Lebanon are given one and a half verses, the mountains of Lebanon and Siryon only half a verse. This is also unusual.

In Ugaritic literature, which has a close affinity with the language and idioms of the Bible, we find the suffix mem (enclitic mem) for reinforcement. [1] On this basis we can alter the phrasing of our verse:

Va-yarkid [m] kemo egel Levanon ve-Siryon - kemo ben re'emim
He made Lebanon dance like a calf / Siryon like a young wild ox

The voice of the Lord in this verse has a unified image - it causes the mountains of Lebanon and Siryon to dance, not the cedars of Lebanon which, as described in the previous image, He breaks. We have already come across the image of the dancing mountains and hills, in Psalm 114, compared by the poet to the hopping and skipping of rams and sheep. The suffix of va-yarkidem is not an accusative suffix, it does not refer to an object - "He made them dance". It is a suffix ( in Ugaritic, mem with a vowel , perhaps ma) added for reinforcement.

Apparently, this is the correct interpretation of the phrase mehatz motna'im kamav (Deut. 33:11). In fact, it is mehatz motne kamav, "Smite the loins of his enemies" in the construct, and the mem is the enclitic mem. Another example of this style appears in Is. 10:5

Hoy, Ashur shevet api u-mate hu be-yadam za'ami
Ha! Assyria, rod of my anger/ In whose hand, as a staff, is My fury

The above translation, reading in effect "my anger is a staff in their hand," is shaky, because the idea expressed does not parallel the idea of the first stich, "Ha! Assyria, rod of my anger". However, if we explain the mem as the enclitic mem, be-yad[am], the verse becomes clear and the parallel is satisfactory:
Ashur shevet api/ u-mate hu be-yad za'ami.
The word hu (he) in the second section refers back to Ashur; Assyria serves the Lord as a staff (shevet/mate) through which He expresses His anger.
Assyria is the rod of my wrath/ the staff of my fury.
Looking again at our opening verse, if here also we consider the final mem of mashhitam as enclitic mem rather than as an accusative suffix (i.e. destroys them), our verse (Gen. 6:13) will be interpreted thus:
Ketz kol basar ba lefanai, ki mal'a ha-arez hamas mi-pnehem, ve-hineni mashhit [m] (= mashhit - destroy, not destroy them) et ha-arez.

God said to Noah, I have decided to put an end to all flesh, for the earth is filled with lawlessness because of them: I am about to destroy the earth.
The meaning of et ha-arez is not "the earth" but rather "mankind", exactly as in the first section of the verse: ki mal'a ha-arez hamas and as in verses 11-12: Va-tishahet ha-arez lifne Elokim et ha-arez ve-hine nishhata. Ha-arez is a metonym for kol basar, "all flesh". (see also verse 17).

This makes our verse perfectly clear. This is "measure for measure": the land was destroyed - nishhata (in the ethical sense) by its inhabitants ("all flesh"), and therefore the Lord will destroy - yashhit (in the physical sense) the land, i.e. its inhabitants ("the end of all flesh").

[1] See Y. Avishur, "Psalm 29", Iyyunim Bashira hamizmorit ha'ivrit ve-ha-ugaritit, Jerusalem 5749 (1989), pp. 25-75.