A Biological Perspective on Parshat Noah

By David Haymer

The story of the flood and its aftermath in Parshah Noah represents, in many respects, another creation event. The flood wiped out much of the life existing at that time. From a biological perspective, this was a mass extinction event, and we know that such events have occurred in history. Millions of years ago, for example, the Permian extinction wiped out most of the life on earth. Each of these events is, however, always followed by a flourishing of new life. This too is reflected In Parshat Noah in that immediately after the flood, God again tells us to be “fruitful and multiply”, and that there will animals, birds and fish on the earth. For us in particular, this commandment is fulfilled through a lineage from Noah’s son Shem that goes all the way to Terah, the father of Abram (later Abraham). Finally, in what first may seem like an interruption, we are also told here, through the Tower of Babel story, how our lineages will spread throughout the world into new habitats created by the subsiding of the flood.

Another of the important biological lessons to be gleaned from the Noah story is that we can prepare for mass extinction events by preserving either whole individuals, or at least material from them, in order to reestablish life after an environmental catastrophe. Noah did this by building an ark to bring his wife, their sons, and their sons’ wives, along with males and females of other living things to repopulate the world. For animals, Noah was told specifically to bring one pair of the “unclean” animals and seven pairs of the “clean” animals (Genesis 7:2) to help maintain a diverse collection of living things in the world to come. In part because of this description, Noah’s ark has been thought of as something akin to a zoo. But this analogy is weak in that zoos are primarily designed to exhibit animals, and they have had only limited success in saving or replenishing forms of living things threatened by extinction. Perhaps a better way to think of this part of the Noah story is that it inspired us to create modern versions of the ark in the form of repositories designed to preserve the “germplasm” or genetic material of different organisms. Such germplasm repositories have been built around the world. They store frozen sperm, eggs, cells, and whole embryos of different living things with the idea that in the event of environmental catastrophes, this material can be used to reestablish these forms of life for the future.

The rainbow is another important element of the flood story. A rainbow is a beautiful thing to behold, and it is described as the promise of God that such a catastrophic flood will not occur again.  But the rainbow also contains material for biological lessons. What do you need to form a rainbow?  At a minimum it requires light and water, both of which are essential for life. The water comes in the form of rain. This is important because although vast oceans on our planet may be the crucible where life began, its waters must be cleansed through rain cycles to provide for our continued sustenance. The other essential ingredient, the light, comes from the sun. This light warms the earth and drives photosynthesis, the biological process that is the basis for most of the food chains on our planet. Finally, when we look up and see a rainbow, we also see projected in the sky an incredible spectrum of colors contained within the sunlight. This effect is produced by filtering the sunlight through rainwater droplets in the same way that a prism separates visible light into different wavelengths. Many of the diverse plants and other living things we have on our planet utilize these differing wavelengths of sunlight to maximize photosynthesis. In these ways, the rainbow can also serve as a reminder that we will continue to have what is needed for life to flourish.

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