According to Jewish tradition (Mishneh Torah, Melakhim 9:1), only one of the famed seven Noachide commandments was given to Noah, the others already having been given to Adam. Conceptually, this makes perfect sense – God would want all generations to be aware of the universal morality embodied by these laws, and the only way to do that was to let them be known from the beginning. As for the seventh law of not eating a limb of a living animal, it only became relevant when a man was allowed to eat meat after the flood.
Though logical, this construction would seem to be against the simple meaning of the verses. For the only commandment that Adam is given is not to eat from the tree of knowledge; whereas Noah is given several other basic laws beyond not eating the limb of a living animal. Most glaring among these seemingly new laws (otherwise, why give it again) is the law against murder. Probably partly as a response, the rabbis suggest that the law of the tree of knowledge hinted to the six universal laws that were given to Adam. But even if we grant that, why did God need to command Noah about murder once again?
In thinking about all of these different elements more carefully, I believe we can come to a more profound understanding of universal law. For perhaps when the rabbis tell us that God’s only command to Adam also taught him about the prohibitions of theft, idolatry, murder, etc., they were referring to a subliminal lesson as opposed to an overt one. That God could command not to take something – in this case, the fruit of this tree – spoke volumes about the nature of God, man and the claims on property that could be made based on the subservience of the physical to the spiritual. Ownership would not follow as a legal abstraction, but rather as a function of a given item’s proper use. God’s use of a tree to advance the spiritual world, for example, made it His; likewise, man’s use of food to advance his own spiritual journey made it his, assuming it had not yet been claimed by another spiritual being. Yet none of this was ever spoken to him. Rather, it became intuitive knowledge – once the one prohibition was given, everything else automatically fell into place.
If so, why was Noah commanded not to murder (and, likely, other old commandments) as well? Apparently, there was something not yet completely intuitive, and that was the sanctity of life.
I would suggest that up until this point, murder was seen as an extension of theft – that one should not steal the life of someone else. However, remember that theft was rooted in the assumption that the creature from which one steals is using his property for a spiritual benefit. But what if he wasn’t? What about when a man became devoid of spirituality? While killing anything living may have felt bizarre and uncomfortable, it was likely not at all clear to man that it was wrong. It could well be that Cain made such a judgement about his brother when he killed him. Hence God did not punish him with death, as Cain could legitimately claim ignorance as to the nature of his crime.
So what changed with Noah? It would seem that the first of the new prohibitions proclaimed to him speaks for itself (9:4):
You must not, however, eat flesh with its life-blood in it.
Once God permitted meat and endorses man’s understanding of theft as being limited to taking from beings that use property for spiritual advancement (and not extending to animals), He added a new dimension to it. It is true that, as purely physical beings, animals may not have property; but one must nevertheless still respect their life-force. Apparently life is so closely associated with God that it cannot be tampered with at will. Hence there is a need for God to allow man to kill animals, which He does. And He sometimes allows it with people as well, as He does two verses later with a man who kills a man. However, unless there is such a dispensation, the default is that life is inviolable due to its very essence.
It appears, however, that the right to property may often still remain more intuitive than the right to life. We see this in the Bible when Ahab is not willing to steal Naboth’s vineyard, but is willing to have him killed, so that the property will no longer be his.
And lest we think this outrageous, it may not be so different than the increasingly common type of behavior wherein we seek to silence those who disagree with us. While obviously not quite the same as murder, it reflects a type of negation that bespeaks a desire to eliminate another person altogether. This is reflected most strongly by contemporary discourse, wherein it is no longer a debate of arguments, but a shouting match that simply in which one simply tries to drown one’s opponent out – that is, to eliminate them.
Perhaps we still have something to learn.
*To hear the related podcast, Silencing as Killing – Why Trump and Biden Need to Study Parshat Noach , click here.