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Was there room for whales in the ark?

The rabbis wondered how the majestic sea-creatures survived the Flood

    Hope the Blue Whale at the Natural History Museum, London (Getty)
    Hope the Blue Whale at the Natural History Museum, London (Getty)

    Last July the refurbished main hall of the Natural History Museum in London was unveiled. For almost four decades its central feature was the standing dinosaur skeleton affectionately known as Dippy, short for diplodocus Carnegie, named after the industrialist who donated it in response to a request from King Edward VII. 

    Dippy has now been replaced by the spectacular skeleton of a blue whale, suspended from the ceiling. Standing beneath, you can truly experience her immensity and grandeur as she dives towards you. The dinosaurs were never the largest beasts on our planet; that accolade has always belonged to the whales, which can grow to 30 metres in length and weigh 180 tonnes. 

    “Besides their greater size, they have longer lifespans – the Bowhead whale can live to over 200 years – and, most importantly, they are not extinct. That is why the Bible contains whales but no dinosaurs. Our Torah was given as a guide for humanity so the billions of long-extinct species are never mentioned.

    Conversely, the Creation narrative does mention just one species by name, the taninim gedolim, “large sea creatures” (Genesis 1:21), which are almost certainly whales. 

    Whales served humanity’s needs for centuries. Their meat was our food, their bones were our tools and utensils, we used their larger ribs for construction and, most precious of all, we desired their blubber. Early industrial societies predominantly used whale oil, boiled from blubber, to light their houses and street lamps. 

    We literally sacrificed this species in order to establish our modern society. Back in 1748, it was Jacob Rodriques Rivera, a Sephardic Jew from Rhode Island and Portuguese immigrant, who first worked out exactly how to manufacture candles from sperm whale heads. The enormous whaling industry only declined towards the end of the 19th century, when whale oil was replaced with cheaper, more efficient and longer-lasting paraffin.

    By then, though, we had almost hunted the whales to extinction. From an estimated global population of more than 250,000, whale numbers in the 20th century were reduced to just a few hundred. In 1966, the International Whaling Commission ended commercial whaling and this ancient beast became a protected species. Thanks to a sustained intergovernmental worldwide effort, their population has now topped 20,000.

    Did Noah really accommodate these majestic creatures on his ark? Were sea creatures part of the “two of every living creature” divine command (Genesis 6:19)?  I will never forget the brilliant comedian Eddie Izzard doing an impression of a bemused duck being invited by Noah on to the ark. “What for, exactly?” it responded. 

    According to the Talmud, humanity had succumbed to idolatrous and bestial urges (Sanhedrin 108a). There was wholesale, inter-species copulating, “for all flesh had corrupted its way upon the earth” (Genesis 6:12). But, says the Talmud (Zevachim 113b, Kiddushin 13a), sea creatures were not involved and only “all life that was on dry land died” (Genesis 7:22). This is problematic because the Flood’s inevitable mixing of freshwater and seawater would have been deadly to every aquatic species (except maybe salmon). What is more, because the Flood water partly bubbled up “from the great depths” (Genesis 7:11), the Talmud taught that it was boiling hot (Sanhedrin 108b). No fish could have possibly survived.

    The Midrash suggests a different approach. The sea creatures were indeed included among those meant to board the ark, “but they fled to the Okeanos” and survived (Genesis Rabbah 32:11). Okeanos is a Greek word meaning the “Great Sea”, or the “Outer Ocean”. This was a vast body of water, which ancient civilisations thought surrounded the known earth. 

    Of course, we now know there are different seas and separate land masses. It is true that in the ancient Paleozoic and Mesozoic eras all land was joined in a massive supercontinent named Pangaea, but that split apart millions of years ago, well before humanity even evolved. So where did the whales retreat to during the Flood?

    Solving this admittedly outlandish conundrum is actually quite informative and meaningful. The only modern answer that makes sense to me is that the Flood was a local, not global, occurrence. The sustained use of the word kol, meaning “all”, in the narrative — “all flesh” (13 times); “all life/animals/insects/birds/mankind” (29 times); “all the earth/ground” (four times) — is intentionally hyperbolic in order to emphasise the all-encompassing decline of Mesopotamian civilisation. 

    The idea of a localised Flood was first suggested in traditional Jewish sources by Rabbi Zvi David Hoffman (1843-1921) in his commentary on Genesis. More recently, Rabbi Gedalya Nadel (1923-2004), a leading student of the Chazon Ish, also proposed that the Flood only affected the human settlements of a specific geographic area. Both read the sources in thoughtful and creative ways, in order to make their cases. 

    So the whales were never harmed by the Flood. These majestic creatures — whom we have now learnt to watch reverentially rather than hunt selfishly — are our most visceral connection to Creation itself. They have been a constant during the continual ascensions and declines of humankind. They remind us of God’s Plan from the very beginning of time. Melville addressed the great philosophical significance of whales in his masterpiece, Moby Dick. In caring for them, we remember our planetary responsibilities, and so we have a future. That is why the new exhibit in the Natural History Museum is called “Hope”. Hatikvah for us all.