The early rabbis, ever creative, imagine the raven arguing with Noah when he tries to send it out of the ark. Understandably reluctant to face the waters, it asks why Noah does not instead send one of the clean birds, of which seven pairs of each kind are happily aboard the ark.
As an unclean bird, the raven argues, it is one of a single pair, and if struck down by the weather, this will mean the end of the species. “You hate me and your Master (God) hates me,” the raven claims (Talmud Sanhedrin 108b).
In one respect, the accusation is not far from the truth. The function in the narrative of an unclean, wild raven is as a counterpoint to the clean, gentle dove. The useful, lovable bird ultimately brings good news to Noah, not a bird that, we must assume, survives while waiting for the waters to recede by living off carrion. In the account in Midrash Genesis Rabbah, Noah is brutal. He replies to the raven’s accusations, “What need does the world have of you? You are no use for food or for sacrifice.”
But the Noah of this midrash is wrong. God does not instruct him to preserve every species because of their potential value to human beings. Rather, the purpose of the ark is simply to preserve the diversity of the natural world. Similarly, we are not to cherish life only because of what it can do for us, but because all life is of inherent value.
It may be easier to care about animals that are useful or which are attractive — the recently publicised plight of the truly hideous blobfish is a reminder of that. But the message of Noah is the opposite. We are duty bound to preserve life in all its forms. Even the ugly and the unclean. Even the argumentative.