Posted on November 27, 2010 by Pious Antic
This is a cross-post from my personal blog.
Earlier this week, in Judy Klitsner’s Bereshit class, we were looking at the issue of Noah’s naming. When he names him, his father Lemech explains the name, saying “this one will give us relief from our work and the toil of our ands from the land which the Lord cursed.” While the name Noah (נח) is superficially similar in sound and spelling to the word for “he will give us relief” (ינחמנו), the words are not actually related etymologically. Noah comes from the root נ-ו-ח / N-W-X, which means rest, while the word for “will give us relief” comes from the root נ-ח-ם / N-X-M, meaning comfort. So although the words sound the same, they are not etymologically related. So what do we do with the apparent contradiction between linguistics and the biblical text?
Our teacher presented us with three possible solutions to the problem, two from the medieval commentators Rashi and Ibn Ezra, and one of her own.
The commentaries of Ibn Ezra are so rational and worldly that it is almost surprising to find them included in the cannon of classical biblical commentators. On the verse in question, he offers a variation of his oft-repeated trope that the Torah speaks in the language of human beings. The words sound the same, and they have similar meanings- that should be good enough for us as readers. After all, this is far from the only place in the bible where the explicitly stated reason for a name fails to stand up to strict linguistic scrutiny. In other words, it’s just not worth worrying about.
Contrasted with Ibn Ezra, Rashi has a rather rigorous idea of the Torah’s perfection, and refuses to accept the idea that there is any dissonance at all between the linguistic reality and the stated meaning. According to Rashi, the verb ינחמנו doesn’t mean “He will comfort us”, but rather “He will bring rest from us”, so that the מ in the word is not part of the root, but rather part of the suffix, and in fact the root of the expression is נוח N-W-X after all, just like Noah’s name. So Rashi manages to harmonize the meanings, but in order to do so, resorts to proposing a grammatical form that fails to make idiomatic sense and doesn’t seem to have strong precedent elsewhere in the bible.
Our teacher, not satisfied with either Ibn Ezra’s cool dismisal of the problem or Rashi’s rather creative solution, suggests instead that the dissonance of meaning in text is a deliberate literary choice, giving the reader a dual sense of Noah’s role. On the one hand he is the means of humanity’s salvation from divine wrath, a true comfort (נחמ N-X-M) while on the other he only manages to save his own family leaving the rest of the world to perish, providing mere rest from punishment (נוח N-W-X), a respite without full relief.
In general, I like Klitsner’s underlying methodological assumption that difficulties and contradictions in the text of the bible serve a literary purpose, which lead her to look for a double meaning in this verse. However, I am not convinced by her conclusion in this case of what that double meaning is. “Comfort” and “Rest” are too close to one another in meaning to support the contrast in significance that she seems to be drawing between them.
My humble opinion
It was only at the next meeting of our class, when were were looking at the problematics surrounding the statement “And the Lord regretted that he had made man on earth and His heart was saddened” in Genesis 6:6 (e.g., “Does God have human emotions like regret?”, “If God is omniscient, shouldn’t he have forseen the consequences of previous actions that lead to this?” – questions beyond the scope of this post), that Lemech’s strange explanation of Noah’s name became clear to me. Noting the fact that the word meaning “and he regretted” in 5:29 (וינחם / Vayinaxem) comes from the root (נחם / N-X-M) which had given us so much trouble when it came up in the context of Noah’s name, it occured to me to look at the two verses side by side. They turn out to have striking parallels.
Compare Genesis 5:29
This one will PROVIDE US RELIEF (ינחמנו / Yenaxameinu) FROM OUR WORK (ממעשנו / mima&aseinu) AND FROM THE TOIL (ומעצבון / umei&itsevon) of our hands, from THE SOIL (האדמה / ha’adamah) which the Lord had cursed.
with Genesis 6:6
And the Lord REGRETTED (וינחם / vayinaxem) that HE HAD MADE (עשה / &asah) MAN (האדמ / ha’adam) on earth, and His heart WAS SADDENED (ויתעצב / vayit&atsev).
Each verse contains the roots נחם / N-X-M, עשה / &-S-H, אדמ / ‘-D-M, and עצב / &-Ts-B. Moreover, if we leave out the root אדם / ‘-D-M (“man” and “soil”, respectively) the roots appear in the same order, in both verses. This, together with their proximity in the biblical text (only 9 verses apart), tells me that they must be commenting on each other. Lemech cites relief (נחם) as the source of Noah’s name, a word linguistically unrelated to Noah, even though the actual root of rest (נוח) would have conveyed essentially the same meaning, because נחם / N-X-M serves as a little hyper-link to the issue of God’s regret at the creation of humanity.
This explanation solves not only the textual problem of Lemech’s etymological error, but it also solves another more conceptual problem, namely, that Lemech’s prediction for Noah’s future seems to correspond to the story that follows only vaguely and obliquely. He predicts that Noah will bring relief from our work and the toil of our hands, when in point of fact, both the the biblical text and in the reality we know, humanity still knows no relief from the work and toil of our hands.
In light of the correspondence between Genesis 5:29 and 6:6, we see that this dissonance of meaning, like the linguistic dissonance we looked at earlier, serves a literary role. Noah does provide rest/relief, as Lemech forsees, but it is not rest or relief from “our work and the toil of our hands”. Rather, it is a respite and relief from God’s regret (נחם / N-X-M) and sadness (עצב / &-Ts-B) at having made (עשה / &-S-H) man.
After fleshing this out for myself, I still need to consult with my teachers to find out if I’ve stumbled upon a hiddush (a novel insight), if I’m merely reinventing someone else’s wheel, or if there’s some glaring flaw in my reasoning that I’ve overlooked.