Two ways to read: suspension of disbelief

Until more complex theories of aerodynamics were developed accepting the possibility of "the flight of the bumblebee" required a suspension of disbelief - Photo by by stuant63

Yesterday I was asked: If Noah lived before the law was revealed to Moses, how did he know how to distinguish “clean” and “unclean” animals?

It is still holiday time (it’s the summer in NZ, though with all the rain and cold in recent weeks you wouldn’t believe it) so my answer was less full than it ought to have been:

Hmm… on Noah, Moses and the animals, there are two likely lines for an answer (a) the story of Noah is being told after the delivery of the law and so the telling reflects those categories; (b) there was perhaps a cultural practice of distinguishing clean and unclean animals even before the law was revealed to Moses (as there was already such a practice of not eating pork).

Of course the short simple answer is “we really don’t know” but people don’t like that one ;)

But it’s not as simple as that1 behind any attempt to answer such a question lie two fundamentally different ways to read.

One way looks at the text from the outside, and reads as a “critic”. For a couple of centuries, in academic biblical studies, the most frequent way to thus “objectify”2 the text has been to examine it historically to see where it came from and how it got to us. Such an approach noticing that there seems to be a “continuity error” here suggests that the text was written at some time later than the events described, and uses this and other signs to work out when and by whom. We could objectify the text in other ways, by examining it as an example of a particular genre or class of texts, against its sociological background…

The other way enters the “world” of the text, and reads it from the inside. This is to behave like a “reader” for this is how we read novels and other stories, indeed it is how we read physics textbooks too ;) In the case of Noah’s distinction my second answer (though it depends on a historical hypothesis and so perhaps looks like the same kind of answer as the first) tends in this direction. It is asking how we might explain this, not as a continuity error (the critic’s approach), but within Noah’s world (a readerly approach).

The great medieval Jewish commentator Rashi took a different readerly approach he explained it thus:

Of all the clean animals: that are destined to be clean for Israel. We learn [from here] that Noah studied the Torah. (From

Each basic direction of reading offers several different options or styles. But the basic question facing a reader of any text whether to read as critic or as reader. “Readers” must offer the text a willing suspension of disbelief3 Indeed the idea of a need to suspend disbelief can be helpful in thinking about the reading (as opposed to the criticism) of all narrative. For in a laboratory report also there are elements of the narration of the experiment that are omitted, or poorly described, where the reader must suspend disbelief. Despite the variety of both critical and readerly approaches, and despite the fact that they can even share approaches (as above either can examine the text historically), on the suspension of disbelief they differ fundamentally.

[Incidentally,4 Rabbi Yaakov Asher Sinclair has a really interesting meditation for Purim on “The Willing Suspension of Disbelief“.]

  1. Except the last answer, because we really do not know ;) []
  2. Make into the object of study and examination. []
  3. The phrase is Coleridge’s from the Biographia Literaria of 1817, to explain how readers might approach the fantastic or supernatural elements in his work, but has been widely used in thinking about how readers can read many sorts of fiction. (( JRR Tolkein has also nuanced it speaking about “secondary belief” based on an inner consistency to the reality described in the narrative. But that’s getting too complicated for a short blog post ;) []
  4. Though not at all a HT ;) []

6 comments on “Two ways to read: suspension of disbelief

  1. James Snapp Jr

    About the clean-unclean distinction in the era before Moses: my understanding is that before the flood, clean animals = fit for sacrifice, and unclean animals = not fit for sacrifice.

    1. tim

      That’s pretty much what the word means, in connection with animals. But the question is how did Noah know which were which before the rules were revealed to Moses?

  2. Questeruk

    Technically, Noah didn’t need to know what was clean or unclean.

    Genesis 6v20 shows that God told Noah that the various animals would ‘come unto him’.- in other words, God would bring the animals to the ark.

    As the clean were coming in ‘sevens’, as against a pair of unclean, it would be pretty obvious to Noah exactly what God was designating clean, and what was classified as unclean.

    This would also be the realistic way an ark could be supplied with animals – the alternative was Noah spending his life ‘on safari’ traveling the known and unknown world, looking for specimens to take aboard the ark.

    1. tim

      Thanks, Questeruk, that’s a nice way of dealing with the issue :)

  3. Deane

    When you say your “insider” approach requires entering into “Noah’s world”, are you talking about the world created by the text (a world involving Noah, an ark, Yahweh, various birds, covenants, etc), or about the world of some real person called Noah? The consequences could be quite different: e.g., while the world created by the text assumes no problem in making distinctions based on the divine-law-to-come, “the world of Noah” may have viewed it simply as a “cultural practice” as you phrased it. Which world precisely should a reader inhabit?

    I understand you distinguish between a “critic” and a “reader”, on the basis that only the latter suspends her disbelief. But does this not assume that a critic never suspends disbelief? Is it not possible to read the Bible both with some critical facility, and yet also to suspend disbelief? Are critics never readers, in your sense of the two terms?

    1. tim

      The only Noah (apart from a friend’s child and such) that I have any access to is the one in the text of Genesis. This is true whether or not you (or I) believe that a “real” person called Noah experienced events very like those in the text at some time in our past. The case of characters like Omri is different, since there is attestation from somewhere near the time of the existence of such a person giving us potentially another source of access to them (if we think we can identify the textual Omri with the one in the Assyrian inscription. The case of characters like David (forgetting for the moment the possible reading of the Tel Dan Stele as “house of David” and so not asking whether this is a reference to the same “David”) is different again, since there are numerous other references to (presumably) the same David both within the same corpus, and beyond it. Though none (unlike Omri, but like Noah) from a source roughly contemporaneous with the character.

      Those questions, like the ones you pose add complications to my over simple picture above :) But the “issue” of possible hypothetical “real” Noahs does not. Unless the question is rephrased in terms of whether a “reader” of the Genesis text might be expected to know and (therefore?) read intertextually with differently named characters who experienced somewhat similar floods…