Noah’s dove-with-the-olive-branch has become an icon, carrying positive associations if also sometimes a hint of naivete. But the dove was not the first bird Noah reached for when he opened the Ark’s window; that distinction went to the raven:
Genesis 8:7 reads:
וַיְשַׁלַּח, אֶת-הָעֹרֵב; וַיֵּצֵא יָצוֹא וָשׁוֹב, עַד-יְבֹשֶׁת הַמַּיִם מֵעַל הָאָרֶץ.
He sent out the raven; and it went to and fro (yatso va-shov) until the waters had dried up from the earth.
Why did Noah send out the raven? What did the raven do, and why? Although the verses are silent as to the reason for sending the raven, it seems that the bird does not fulfill whatever mission it may have had, leading Noah to send out a dove “to see whether the waters had decreased.” The dove first returns with nothing, then with an olive branch, and finally does not return, signaling that the earth is habitable again.
The absence of a stated reason for sending the raven led the ancient Jewish allegorist, Philo of Alexandria, to suggest that the raven, a symbol of vice, was in fact being sent away not on a mission but simply to purge evil from the ark.
The rabbis also interpret the raven symbolically on Sanhedrin 108b, where a baraita asserts that the raven was one of three creatures that violated the ban on copulation in the ark. The raven, in this reading, is identified with sexual sin.
The prior segment of the same talmudic passage also presents the raven in sexual terms. Perhaps reading the root shuv in the phrase yatzo va-shovas related to teshuvah, an answer, Resh Lakish has the raven “retorting” to Noah: “Your master hates me and you hate me” — God hates the raven and therefore told Noah to bring only two ravens, as opposed to seven of the “pure (tahor)” animals (including doves) – and Noah hates the raven too because he then chose an impure animal to send out, imperiling an entire species. The raven therefore accused Noah of intentionally trying to kill him, asking, “maybe you are after my wife?”
The idea that the Noah would be sexually interested in Mrs. Raven may sounds strange, but it does fit well into a larger tradition that identifies cross-species mating as one of the forms of corruption that precipitated the flood. According to various midrashim (e.g. Tanhuma) the animals that were saved were the ones that had not engaged in such violations. So to say that the raven suspected Noah of desiring Mrs. Raven identifies the raven with the antediluvian lack of boundaries rather than with the attempted new world order after the flood.
The combination of passages in Sanhedrin presents the raven as an animal that sees itself as a sexual rival of man, one that is lusty, that disobeys orders with triumphant retorts (teshuvah nitsahat). This characterization echoes another tricky, sinister animal who, according to the rabbis, desired a man’s wife (the mirror image of the raven’s suspicion of Noah): the snake.
The snake set off the chain of events that led from the initial bliss of creation to human exile from Eden and the world’s eventual near destruction. It’s therefore noteworthy if the first animal to be singled out after the waters begin to subside, the raven, is in fact a snake-like surrogate. While the post-flood world may be a clean slate in some ways, the same challenges and potential for sin that caused downfall the first time are still there, and will require vigilance to overcome.
A non-symbolic reading of the raven episode by medieval commentator R. David Kimhi (Radak) generates a similar impression. Radak suggests that the reason for sending the raven was the same as for sending the dove, namely, to check whether the waters had subsided. Ravens and doves share many features of habitat and diet, and both are known as land-sighting birds. But the reason Noah initially chose a raven was that ravens, unlike doves, eat carrion, and Noah assumed that the subsiding waters would expose the corpses of the humans and animals killed in the flood. If the raven came back with flesh in its mouth, Noah would know the waters were low. Instead, however, the raven did not provide useful information because it would go in and out of its nest, looking for a place to land, but would not fly far enough to actually encounter whatever the waters might be exposing.
Radak’s explanation is simultaneously pragmatic and shocking. A simple reading of the story does not encourage us to ask what was left over. “All existence on earth was blotted out (va-yimah)” (Gen. 7:23) — erased, perhaps, without a trace. Later we learn that Noah saw that the earth had dried, but we never hear of him seeing anything else left on its surface.
And yet, even if the new world was truly new, without a trace of the old, Noah didn’t know that it would be that way. He sent the raven because he quite reasonably thought he might be greeted by piles of corpses when he left the ark.
The raven’s mission was unsuccessful, however, and instead Noah got his information from the dove, not in the form of strings of carrion but an olive branch. As one of my students at Drisha pointed out to me, the sign Noah originally sought was one that looked backwards to the destruction, but the sign that comes through is the one that looks forward, to new growth.
The harbinger of Noah’s exit from the ark must come from not from an animal that harkens back to the sins of the past – and that literally feeds on the destruction they caused – but from one that helps Noah and his family begin afresh.
And yet, we can’t forget the raven that is still flying around out there.