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 Chabad.org)
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.
- Except the last answer, because we really do not know ;) [↩]
- Make into the object of study and examination. [↩]
- 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 ;) [↩]
- Though not at all a HT ;) [↩]