Tuesday, October 17, 2017

A Look at the Raven

With its sharp black feathers and piercing ebony eyes, the raven could be seen as a much maligned bird. It is often considered a harbinger, or even a minion, of evil. The root of the raven’s reputation is quite probably Genesis 8:6-7. Two seemingly simple verses: “At the end of 40 days, Noah opened the window of the ark that he had made. He sent forth a raven, and it went forth to and fro, until the waters were dried up from the earth.”

On a basic reading, it seems quite puzzling that what the raven did could be seen as wrong. According to one understanding of the text, Noah sent the raven to test the living conditions of the world, and, upon finding it uninhabitable, the raven stayed outside of the ark waiting to fulfill its mission. Its mission is clarified by the next verse: “Then he [Noah] sent the dove to see whether the water had decreased from the earth” (ibid 8:8). The dove went out, found no place to perch and returned to the ark until it was sent out again and then returned with the olive branch. The dove and its olive branch became an eternal symbol of peace.

The Talmud, however, includes an aggadic (non-legalistic, legendary) passage that sheds a very different light on the verse concerning the raven. According to Resh Lakish, the raven concluded that Noah was sending him out of the ark as a sign of hatred. “You hate me, since you are sending me, instead of one of the species of which there are seven. If I die, there will be no more of my kind.” Next, the raven actually accused Noah of desiring his mate. (Talmud Sanhedrin 108b).

The Talmud further states that the raven was one of three creatures that had relations while on the ark (which was forbidden while humanity was drowning).

This anthropomorphic dialogue is meant to demonstrate how deeply the raven identified with the corrupt creatures of society. According to tradition, civilization has been wiped out because of reckless self-absorption. People not only took what they wanted, but they presumed that everyone around them must have the same deprivations that they did. Deep selfishness is the behavior that facilitates evil, and thus the reputation of the raven was affected “evermore.” (Reference to Edgar Allan Poe’s poem, "The Raven")

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