Academic journal article Jewish Bible Quarterly

The Book of Jubilees and the Midrash Part 2: Noah and the Flood

Academic journal article Jewish Bible Quarterly

The Book of Jubilees and the Midrash Part 2: Noah and the Flood

Article excerpt


The Book of Jubilees is a retelling of Genesis and the beginning of Exodus in the form of an angel speaking to Moses. It was written by a Jew in Hebrew some time around the early second century BCE, perhaps even earlier. The original Hebrew is lost to us today; our translations are based primarily on Ethiopic texts. Like the Midrash, Jubilees often supplements the Biblical narratives with additional information; at other times, Jubilees provides a resolution to a difficulty in the biblical text, another concern of Midrash. As such, the Book of Jubilees may be categorized as an early form of midrashic literature. (1) Some of the interpretations in Jubilees are in fact preserved in the later midrashic literature. The title, "Book of Jubilees," reflects the author's particular way of viewing the chronology of the world as a series of 49-nine year cycles, but it was also sometimes referred to as "The Little Genesis" (Bereshit Zuta in Aramaic), (2) since it is an abbreviated retelling of Genesis. (3) Jubilees was not incorporated into rabbinic literature, as it differs in some very fundamental legal points--most famously the insistence on a purely solar calendar, as opposed to the rabbinic lunar/solar model, (4) and stringencies regarding Shabbat observance. (5) In a previous article ("The Book of Jubilees and the Midrash on the Early Chapters of Genesis", The Jewish Bible Quarterly, 41:3, July 2013) we saw how the Book of Jubilees dealt with various difficulties in the text of the early chapters of Genesis in ways occasionally similar and sometimes very different from the later rabbinic midrashic literature. In this article we will focus on how Jubilees dealt with the narratives of Noah and the Flood, as compared to the rabbinic Midrash.


The Bible first introduces Noah's sons in the order of Shem, Ham and Japhet (Gen. 5:32), the order followed in Genesis 9:18 and 10:1. However, when the three sons and their offspring are listed, Japhet comes first (Gen. 10:2), followed by Ham (Gen. 10:6) and lastly Shem (Gen. 10:21). Genesis 10:21 refers to the relative ages of Shem and Japhet in an ambiguous way: And to Shem, also to him [sons] were born ... ahi Yefet ha-gadol. This last phrase can be understood as either the brother of Japhet the elder or the elder brother of Japhet. Jubilees gives a detailed account of the birth of Noah's sons and states that Shem was the firstborn, being three years older than Ham and seven years older than Japhet (Jub. 4:33). Josephus also lists Shem as the eldest in his Antiquities (1:108-111). The standard syntax of Genesis 10:21 and its cantillation indicate that Shem was in fact the oldest of Noah's children. (6)

A problem arises from the assertion that Shem was the eldest of Noah's children. We are told that Noah was 500 years old when he began having children (Gen. 5:32), and that the Flood began in the 600th year of his life (Gen. 7:11). We are further told that Shem was 100 years old when he begot Arpachshad, two years after the Flood (Gen. 11:11). If Shem was the oldest, he should have been 102 (not 100) years old two years after the Flood. Thus the verses listing the names of the brothers indicate that Shem was the oldest, but the calculation based on these verses would indicate that he was not the oldest. However, as Ibn Ezra points out in his commentary to Genesis 10:21, there are a number of ways to interpret these figures so as to preserve Shem as the eldest, an approach also followed by Abrabanel.

In contrast, Genesis Rabbah 26:3 explains that Japhet was actually the oldest; however, Shem is written first when the brothers are listed because he was chosen by God, born circumcised, and the ancestor of Abraham, and because the Temple was built in his land. While Japhet was born first, Shem was more holy and significant. This approach is followed in Genesis Rabbah 37:7 and is the conclusion in TB Sanhedrin 69b. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.