The Miraculous Nature Of Covenant

God's covenant with Noah showed him and us the possibility of transforming the human condition of loneliness into the miracle of connection.

Print this page Print this page

Provided by the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel, a summer seminar in Israel that aims to create a multi-denominational cadre of young Jewish leaders.The following article is reprinted with permission from The Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel.

An interesting element in the story of Noah and the flood is the amount of time spent by Noah preparing for the big event. All the steps of the building of the ark, the collecting of the animals, and then bringing them into the ark are described in some detail. According to a Rabbinic tradition, Noah spent 120 years building the ark and getting everything ready for the crucial moment.

Unwilling To Repent

The Midrash has an explanation for this protracted period of preparation: Noah used this time to warn his fellows, and to try and convince them to repent of their evil behavior, and thereby turn away the wrath of God and avert the flood. Sadly, he failed, and, in spite of 120 years of his best efforts, they all refused to listen, and to change, and were ultimately destroyed.


In one of the verses dealing with this period of preparation, there is an interesting statement that God makes to Noah. After dictating to him the measurements of the ark, and its structural features, God tells him: "And I shall establish my covenant ('brit') with you, and you shall enter into the ark, you and your sons and your wife and your sons' wives with you." In this entire section, God has been very clear and precise about the instructions he gives to Noah, in terms of the ark and the saving of the animals. The precise nature of this covenant, however, is unclear. If God is giving Noah all the technical information needed in order to save himself, his family, and the animal species, what is the need for this covenant, the first ever mentioned in the Bible? What is its nature, its content?

The Covenant

Some of the commentaries (Chizkuni, Radak) understand the covenant as simply being a promise, a guarantee, as if to say, I promise you that you and your children will live through the deluge, that you will survive it.

Rashi feels that this is superfluous; after all, he's got the boat, built according to God's specifications, he's been warned, what does he need a covenant for? Rashi's answer is this: OK, the ark will float, Noah will not be drowned, but what will he eat for the many months in the ark? Any food he brings with him now will rot over all that time, and he's got to feed his family AND all the animals! Rashi's answer is this: The covenant was needed to guarantee that the food would not go moldy, and Noah and his passengers would not starve. Rashi, reminding us of another problem we forgot about, tells us that the covenant was also needed to prevent the evil people of Noah's generation (everybody!) from losing patience with Noah the nudnik (120 years of 'God is going to kill you all, you better be good, repent, a flood is coming') and simply killing him.

It would seem that, for Rashi, covenant denotes something supernatural, some divine intervention designed to prevent natural processes (rot, people getting angry at someone who annoys them, and then leaves them to drown) from occurring. For the other commentaries, covenant simply means a guarantee, a promise, and does not necessarily imply any special divine intervention in the natural order of things.

Why does Rashi feel compelled to see covenant as being something that implies a divine, supernatural intervention in the way of the world? Or, if we look at it from the other direction, and recognize that Rashi has raised a couple of good technical problems which the Biblical narrative does not, and which Noah must deal with, why is a covenant the necessary vehicle for dealing with the rot and the nasty neighbors? Why do these problems need the apparently miraculous solution of covenant?

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Rabbi Shimon Felix

Rabbi Shimon Felix is the Israel Director of the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel. He lives with his family in Jerusalem, and has taught in a wide variety of educational frameworks in Israel and abroad.