Noah with the Dove, mosaic from the south barrel vault of the west narthex of St. Mark’s Basilica, Venice, 1215-1235 AD.
One of the literary techniques that classical studies has called to scholarly attention in the last 20 years is the method of focalization. It is a category within the field of narratology, the study of storytelling methods and techniques. Irene F. DeJong’s Narrators and Focalizers: The Presentation of the Story in the Iliad and A Narratological Commentary on the Odyssey are the works that first introduced me to this method. I have found it fruitful for explaining how stories work on us (for instance, in the parable of the prodigal son). It is a method that novelists use all the time, and it is all the more effective because it often escapes our notice. Where the audience might notice a blatant switch into quoted character-speech, or a bald-faced declaration that a character “thought to himself…” or that “he noticed that…”, focalization is more subtle: without switching voices or telling that a character is perceiving things, the narrator describes or narrates, sua voce, things that could only be seen or known by one of the characters. The effect is often to cause the audience to sympathize or adopt the judgments or perceptions of one of the characters.
This technique is used to striking effect in Genesis 8. We are effectively placed inside the ark with Noah. There is no description of what the raven sees during its flight over the earth; we are only told that the raven “found no resting place for the sole of her foot, and she returned into the ark to [Noah], for the waters were on the face of the whole earth. So he put out his hand and took her, and drew her into the ark to himself.” (8:9) Though the narrator might have described the land or water beyond the ark from the perspective of the bird, he chooses not to, confining our perceptions to those of Noah himself. We share his sense of isolation.
The subsequent description of the dove’s flight and return is likewise narrated with Noah’s focalization: “Then the dove came to him in the evening, and behold, a freshly plucked olive leaf was in her mouth; and Noah knew that the waters had receded from the earth.” (8:11) The exclamation “behold” (wehinneh) conveys Noah’s surprise and delight, and the deduction that the waters had receded, though an objective fact that might have been expressed by the narrator directly – e.g. “…an olive leaf was in her mouth, for the waters had receded…” – is deliberately phrased as a thought of Noah (“and Noah knew…”).
By contrast, when Noah makes burnt offerings in 8:20-22, the scene is not narrated with Noah’s focalization. For instance, there is no description of the process of building of the altar, or of the process of slaughtering and burning the animals. Instead, the burnt offering is focalized from YHWH’s perspective: “The Lord smelled a soothing aroma. Then the Lord said in His heart…”
These shifts of focalization serve to accentuate for us the suffering of Noah on the one hand – his isolation, his inability to know the state of the wider world except through the indirect means of birds – and the restoration of God to a state of favor with the world.