The following interpretation of Parshat Noach comes by way of the book of Vayikra, and specifically Mary Douglas’s great work of biblical analysis, Leviticus as Literature. Douglas’s book emerged from her work as an anthropologist studying various cultures and their sacred taboos. This in turn piqued her interest in the food restrictions listed in Leviticus 11, and she began to explore the question of what makes certain animals prohibited for consumption. One of her many insights is that cultures don’t only prohibit things that are bad, unclean or disgusting – sometimes taboos exist for the purpose of preserving or protecting a revered entity. Douglas cites the example of “winged swarming things” (שֶׁרֶץ הָעוֹף), which are forbidden by the Torah for human consumption, yet their description suggests a kind of overflowing or “teeming” quality that is associated with fertility and expansiveness. In Parshat Noach, the Torah echoes this language in God’s command regarding reproduction shortly after the flood recedes: “Be fertile, then, and increase; abound on the earth and increase on it” וְאַתֶּם, פְּרוּ וּרְבוּ; שִׁרְצוּ בָאָרֶץ, וּרְבוּ-בָהּ. (Gen. 9:7)
According to Douglas, the challenge of what to do with this fertile abundance – how to nourish it, protect it, but also contain it and keep it from “taking over” – is part of what it means to establish a covenant with God. Fertility is something that is addressed by the covenant but is also separate from it. The boundless and expansive spirit of procreation that is represented by the swarming creatures is precious to God and to humanity/the Jewish people, but the covenant is necessary to order and restrict this overflow.
There is an obvious connection between this tension and the story of the deluge in Parshat Noach. In this story, water – typically associated with blessing – takes over the world. When God eventually restricts these waters humanity is presented with a covenant, a concrete sign that God has contained this overflow in order to leave room for humans and animals to live.