The story of Noah reminds us how far humanity has come from the days when we were crawly creatures emerging from the water — and of how easy it is to slip back to where it all began.
Noah’s generation does just that. It is evil incarnate; it saturates the earth with violence. So it is left to sink into the mud, as the flood returns the world to its primeval origins.
The Bible captures eternal truths through stories, and this story’s message is the need to persevere in our evolutionary climb to moral maturity. At one extreme there is Sinai, the pinnacle of the climb. At the other, there is Noah’s generation, dragging the world down to disaster, and in between, there is Noah: mostly moral, but hardly a saint, precariously afloat in an ark.
Noah personifies the human struggle to resist the undertow of evil lest a single generation wash out every trace of the human climb from mud to mountain peak.
At the end, Noah dispatches a dove (yonah, in Hebrew) to find land. The dove is symbolic, for birds fly; they are not dragged down, they herald hope, they remind us, the ordinary Noahs, that we need not sink back into the sea.
The same symbolism recurs later in the prophet Yonah (Jonah, in English).
Jonah, too, inhabits a storm-tossed ship that threatens to spill its human cargo into nothingness. He too faces evil: the Ninevites. But he too is only human, hesitant to fulfill his moral promise, to the point of being swallowed by a fish that drags him into the very depths of the sea. As if replicating human evolution, the fish spits him onto dry land insisting he fulfill his human mission. “Humanity” is a moral category; if we lose our moral center we lose our humanity.
Yonah the bird, and Yonah the man are metaphors, the rabbis say, for Israel, charged with the struggle to retain that moral center. When the sailors ask after his identity, Jonah says, Ivri anochi, “I am a Hebrew” (Jonah 1:9). The Tosafot tell us, “The dove is Israel,” and for proof, direct us to Song of Songs 2:14: “My dove, in the crags of the rocks.”
That dove, they say, is Israel, waiting to hear God’s voice in the mountains, the metaphoric moral peak that humans must climb. Noah’s dove, the idealized Israel, flies off in search of an echo of God, a rumor that evil can be overcome and life persists beyond it.
In all three of the Bible’s sections — Torah, Nevi’im (Prophets), Ketuvim (Writings) — there are reminders of the centrality of the yonah, the dove of moral hope. The story of Noah is in the Torah, Jonah is a prophet, and Song of Songs comes from the Writings. The Jewish people left Egypt for Sinai and became a yonah, a dove perched in the mountain crags to hear God’s moral voice. Sometimes (like Jonah the prophet) we relapse into the primal waters. But sometimes, we manage to be Noah’s yonah, the dove that strives to fly higher, there to confirm the news of a better moral day.