Torah is Not a Book of History
By Rabbi Rami Pavolotzky
This week we read parashat Noach, the Torah section that tells the famous story of the universal flood. The main character of this parasha is, of course, Noah, the leader God chose to rebuild humanity. The fact that this parasha bears the name of Noah only adds to his remarkable figure.
According to the Torah, Noah lived 950 years (Genesis 9:29). However, how much do we know about Noah, apart from we are told regarding the story of the flood? Almost nothing! We are only told about a dark episode that apparently occurred right after the flood ended, when Noah got drunk (Genesis 9:20-27). We are also told that he had three children and that he was 650 years old when the flood started (Genesis 7:6) and that he lived 350 years after the flood (Genesis 9:28).
At first sight, this is puzzling. Considering that Noah was a remarkable Torah leader, the man God chose to save humanity, we would have expected to know a little bit more about him than how he behaved during the time of the flood! Even during the approximate year that the flood lasted, we are not told a lot about Noah in the two chapters the Torah dedicates to this story. Didn’t he do any exciting things during the first 650 years(!) he lived before the flood? How did he live for the rest of his life (350 years!) after the flood ended? The Torah does not tell us, so we simply do not know. If you follow the Torah telling, you can write Noah’s biography in a couple of lines.
The fact that the Torah tells us so little about Noah can indeed be puzzling. However, for rabbis, scholars, and people who study Torah seriously, it is not but additional proof about one of the essences of Torah, which is that Torah is not a book of history.
If you want to understand a book, you surely want to know what is the genre of that book. Is it history or fable, chronicle or myth? These are very different kinds of books, and every one of them (every genre classification) answers a different question. A history book answers the question: What happened? A science book answers the question: how did it happen?
The Torah is clearly not a history book. Torah is about stories, law, instruction, teaching, guidance. Torah is an answer to the question: How shall we live? Torah is not a book of history, even though it includes some history. It is not a book of science, even though you can find some scientific ideas in it. Everything it contains, precepts and narratives, is there solely for the sake of ethical and spiritual instruction.
Specifically, regarding Noah, the Torah was not interested in the biography of his long life. The Torah was interested in the story of the universal flood and the many teachings it conveys. That is why we are only told a couple of details about Noah’s life. With only those details about Noah’s life, the Torah is able to teach us great lessons for our life. What lessons? Come to Shabbat services this week, I am sure you will learn a few of them!