The great scholar Arnold Ehrlich (1848-1919) authored Mikra Ki-pheshuto, “The Bible Literally,” in three Hebrew volumes. His ideas are frequently unconventional, but generally very intelligent and thought provoking. The following are some of his ideas on the Noah flood story and the introductory biblical statements about the patriarch Abraham in Genesis 6:9-11:32).

  1. How should we translate Genesis 6:12: ki hishchit khol basar et darkho al haaretz? The Jewish Publication Society Holy Scriptures translates it “(God decided to destroy the world with a flood) for all flesh corrupted their way upon the earth.” How did humans and animals corrupt their ways? Ehrlich offers a novel approach: humans and animals began to eat meat and even became cannibals. This, Ehrlich writes, is contrary to the biblical spirit. We read in the Garden of Eden story that Adam and Eve were only allowed to eat fruits and vegetable. The prophet Isaiah foresaw that in the ideal world of the future the lion would lie with the lamb because humans and animals would no longer consume flesh. However, realizing that human nature desires meat, God allowed Noah and humanity to consume meat, but only under certain conditions. (Ehrlich also writes that the flood obviously didn’t destroy fish who survive in water. However, we may ask why God didn’t kill fish as well, for they also eat living beings such as worms.)
  2. There is a marked difference between the flood stories of the ancients and the biblical report. The former is filled with miraculous events, such as the saved humans needing to throw stones to created people to repopulate the world, but the biblical version is told as a natural event. Noah is given time to construct the ark and gather animals, the ark’s rooms are arranged to accommodate its inhabitants. Men and women slept separately so that only two rooms were necessary instead of four for the four families.
  3. Verse 8:21 should not be translated “The inclination (yetzer) of man is evil from birth,” which fits the Christian notion that we need Jesus to save humans from their evil nature. The true translation is “The human inclination today is more evil than it was in earlier times.” People were getting worse and worse.
  4. Why does the Torah mention that Noah cursed his grandson Canaan that he would be the lowest level slave? Why do we need to know this? This tale justifies the Israelite conquest of the land of Canaan. Slaves own nothing. So the Israelites were justified in taking their property.
  5. Why are some names mentioned in the Five Books of Moses different when reported in the book of Chronicles? The author(s) of Chronicles was not careful in recording names.
  6. Scripture states in 11:5 and 18:19 that God came down from heaven to examine what was occurring on earth. This is contrary to our current notion of God not being restricted to a single place. However, the ancients thought that God dwelt in Heaven. The Greeks had a similar notion. Interestingly, after the story of the revelation of the Decalogue at Mount Sinai, this primitive notion does not reappear in the Hebrew Bible.
  7. One of the purposes for the Bible telling us the story of Abraham’s nephew Lot is to help us understand Abraham better. To fully understand something, we need to understand its opposite.
  8. The Bible states that Abraham’s father died to inform us that Abraham didn’t heartlessly abandon his father when he left his homeland, traveled to Canaan, and settled there. Since his dad died, he had no need to care for him.
  9. The Bible frequently explains the origin of names in a poetic and sermonic but not linguistic manner, even though it claims that it is giving a linguistic reason. Babylon was not called by this name because God had mixed up the languages of the people at the tower of Babel. The Hebrew word for “mix” is b-l-l, while the root of Babylon is b-b-l. These words are not related. Babylon may have been named after the word for god, Baal.
  10. Were the Israelites Enslaved in Egypt? Ehrlich was convinced that the early post-Moses Israelites knew nothing about Moses’s Torah. He even questioned the history of the Israelite enslavement in Egypt.[1] He felt that he could support his view with: (1) None of the prophets, except Micah 6:5, mention the enslavement. (2) Micah 6:5 has a different version than the Five Books of Moses. It states that God sent Moses, Aaron, and Miriam to redeem the Israelites. The Five Books state that only Moses was sent, Aaron was only an assistant to Moses, and Miriam had no role in the redemption other than gathering the women to sing praises that the Israelites were saved at the Red Sea. (3) Scholars say that the song in Deuteronomy 32 is a very old composition. In this version, in 32:40, God found the Israelites in the desert. Thus, Ehrlich feels that the original Israelites were desert nomads who conquered parts of Canaan, settled it, forgot their origin after some generations, and invented a legend that they were saved by God from slavery and brought to Canaan.

One may not agree with all of Arnold Ehrlich’s interpretations, but one must recognize that they provoke us to think.


[1] In his commentary Mikra Kipheshuto on Numbers 13–15.