Parashat Noach: The Covenant with Noah
This Shabbat, dear friends, we will look at the middle of this week’s parasha, Noach (Genesis 6:9-11:32). We are all familiar with the start of the story of Noah and the ark. But things can get a bit hazy when it comes to the events immediately following the receding of the waters. Together, let’s examine the text starting at Genesis 8:15, and through the end of chapter 10 (we’ll look at the Tower of Babel next year).
Here, we encounter God’s promises to Noah, including what God requires from Noah and his descendants. It is important to remember, in these early stories, that we are not yet telling the Israelite story. Rather, we are learning about the origins of all of humanity. Adam and Eve, their children, and those who lead eventually to Noah – none is Jewish. None is an Israelite. Hence, the traditional understanding of the covenant made with Noah is that it is one between God and ALL of humanity.
The seven Noachide laws are thus:
- Do Not Deny God
- Do Not Blaspheme God
- Do Not Murder
- Do Not Engage in Incestuous, Adulterous or Homosexual Relationships.
- Do Not Steal
- Do Not Eat of a Live Animal
- Establish Courts/Legal System to Ensure Law Obedience
Under Jewish rule, therefore, most commentators believed that non-Jews living in our midst were required to observe these laws:
A conversation in tractate Sanhedrin assumes that Jewish courts should enforce the Noahide laws. Therefore, later authorities, most notably Maimonides, understood these laws as describing what Jews should require of non-Jews living under Jewish rule. Since Maimonides saw revelation as the clearest form of reason, it would be folly from his perspective, for non-Jews living under Jewish rule to rely upon their own inadequate reasoning powers to determine law when they have access to the superior reasoning of revelation.
Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the venerated leader of Lubavitch-Chabad Chasidism, went even further:
We must do everything possible to ensure that the seven Noahide laws are observed. If this can be accomplished through force or through other kinder and more peaceful means through explaining to non-Jews that they should accept God’s wishes [we should do so]…Anyone who is able to influence a non-Jew in any way to keep the seven commandments is obligated to do so, since that is what God commanded Moses our teacher (“Sheva Mitzvot Shel Benai Noach,” Hapardes 59:9 7-11, 5745)
It is very common today to speak of moral relativity, but might these laws serve as a starting point for what we humans could agree upon as a fundamental set of laws? What would you change, add, or subtract from these seven laws?
(Also, please note – we are observing Rosh Chodesh Cheshvan this Shabbat! Our Haftarah portion is therefore Isaiah 66:1-24).