Genesis 9:18-29's post-Flood (part 2) and Noah vs. Abraham
Gen 9:18-29 is an oft-overlooked story: brief, ugly, and not understood well in its context (most recently, the post-Flood law/covenant to Noah). Kass notes that “the founding of civil society, based on rudimentary but explicit notions of law and justice, rooted in the idea that all human beings are created equally in God’s image. Humankind now faces a new prospect, founded on the hope for an enduring human future protected against natural cataclysm, thanks to God’s covenant—and the hope for a peaceful social order protected against the violence of other men, thanks to the Noahide code.”
So, the story is both domestic and political/social. Will the new order succeed? Is this law and covenant sufficient?
Gen 9:18-19 reintroduces us to Shem, Japheth and esp. Ham as Noah’s three sons. As such, this is the Bible’s first [prototypical] story about a father and his sons (or perhaps more broadly, parents and their children). Again, in context, the timing of this narrative is not surprising: wrestling with the ability of Noah to pass on Law/Covenant to his sons—the next generation.
As Kass notes, this “depends decisively on paternal authority and filial piety.” If you have neither, individuals and society will be a mess. If you have one or the other, things can turn out ok, but that will be the exception rather than the rule. To be successful more often than not, you hopefully have both. Of course, mothers are important too! But Biblically and in terms of the sociological evidence, we know about the importance of fathers AND the need for fathers to be exhorted. (See: the sin of Adam’s silence, the likelihood that men will seek esteem outside the home, etc. See also: Eph 6:4, Col 3:21.)
Why? Kass: “because [the father] is capable of inspiring awe as well as security, shame as well as orderliness, distance as well as nearness, emulation as well as confidence, fear as well as hope, [he] is able to do the fatherly work of preparing boys for moral manhood, including, eventually, their own fatherhood.” Of course, this can certainly be abused; and even with good intentions, it is difficult to balance encouragement and discipline.
Already, we have two clues that something might be unusual here. First, check our Gen 8:16’s command vs. Gen 8:18’s disobedience. (See also: Gen 6:18’s command on how to enter—i.e., the old world’s model!) Kass again: “Noah, a new man rescued from the Heroic Age, nevertheless apparently still holds to a heroic model of family structure: it is only the men who count.” Remember also that there has been little mention of women since Eve (we don’t even know Noah’s wife’s name!) until their vital (and ironic) role with the patriarchs.
Second, the sons are not listed in order. It’s not unusual Biblically to have two siblings reversed. But here, Shem is the middle son (given 5:32, 7:11, 11:10)—and the model son, and thus, always mentioned first. In other words, virtue trumps birth order. Ham is the youngest (9:24)—the central character, mentioned in the middle here.
In Gen 9:20-21, we read about 20's vineyard. Here, he follows Cain into agriculture—not a good sign. And he moves into wine—portrayed as man’s invention vs. divine gift (as in pagan myths)—and thus, a mixed bag.
Then, it gets quite ugly with 21's drunk and naked. (See: Gen 19:30-35’s Lot with his daughters and Pr 23:35.) Is this a one-time slip or a recurring problem? Maybe he doesn’t know its potence or just makes a mistake. Maybe he had “PFSD” (post-Flood stress disorder)—after seeing a desolate landscape littered with animal and human corpses &/or he’s overwhelmed with his responsibilities. Perhaps all of this is related to more idle time for all of them! In any case, this robs him of (some of) his dignity and authority.
Notice also how Noah's account parallels Adam's account: 20's vineyard vs. God's garden in 2:8; 21’s sin from the fruit of the vine/tree; 21's nakedness of degradation vs. Gen 2:25 for Adam's innocence and Gen 3:7’s recognition of guilt; Adam sought cover for his shame, but Noah is not even conscious of his; and in both cases, the nakedness is a pivotal event/revelation.
In Gen 9:22-23, we see the sons’ responses. In 9:22, Ham sees—and then, tells his brothers. The first may have been accidental (although what was he doing in his dad’s tent?). But the second is clearly purposeful—and both are a breach of family/cultural ethic (see: 24's “done to him").
Contra Cain, Ham is asking “am I my father’s keeper?” Kass: “What sort of human being is Ham? What sort of person delights in rebelling against…law and authority?...Most often, he is the would-be tyrant, a man who seeks self-sufficiency.” Interestingly, Ham had enough faith/respect for Noah to get on the ark, but not enough to respect his father here. (Had Noah gone downhill post-Flood?) In any case, the big picture is that Ham implicitly rejects the new law/covenant.
There are all sorts of applications here in terms of how we handle others who have shamed themselves—from pop culture to colleagues who do something stupid at work. Do we work to restore or do we delight in those who have fallen? What’s the difference between public and private shaming? What about when the damage is mostly borne by self vs. others?
In 9:23, Japheth and Shem are surely shocked to hear of the event—or at least, Ham’s account of it. What to do? Go and see; disbelieve; ignore/wait; proactive benevolence; confront Ham. (And where’s Noah’s wife?) They decide not to look and they covered Noah—an act of mercy and then grace.
Kass: “We readers are touched by this display of loyalty and filial piety…the perfect way they found delicately to correct the problem without participating in it…but they cannot erase the memory of their deed or of what made it necessary for them to perform it.” This probably made things weird with Dad—from here forward. But again, the big picture: both embrace authority and law/covenant.
Of course, this is all quite sobering (pun intended). Cain/Abel is the first sibling story—and it ends in rivalry. Here, we have the first parental story—Dad stumbles and struggles to pass on law/covenant with noteworthy conflict. Kass points to “fundamental and troublesome aspects of the natural relationship between father and sons…not how things ought to be but rather how they are, absent some additional, corrective teaching [or other intervention]”.
In Gen 9:24-29 we find Noah’s response. Kass quips: “Noah does not take his shame lying down”—before observing “for the first time in the biblical narrative, we hear Noah speak…Noah’s anger is surely expected, as rage is the usual response to being shamed.”
Anger seems to stir Noah to rare words (and perhaps action—at least, in dealing with his sons).
How did Noah know who did what? Some combo of 24’s asked around and reasonable inferences given what he knew of his sons’ character.
Noah opens with 25's “curse” for (Ham's son) Canaan and his descendants. A “curse” communicates severity of the offense (Gal 1:8-9) and along with blessings, are analogous to prayer (see: Psalms): a supernatural petition—or at the least, what one hopes/wishes for another.
Did Noah over-react (kicking the dog and continuing his sin)? Why curse Canaan vs. Ham? First, presumably, in context, this is the last straw. Second, it’s fitting: a breach in the father's family would result in a curse on the son's family. Putting it another way: Ham sought to be free from parental authority and will be held responsible by his own son; as Ham had responded to Noah, so Canaan would respond to Ham. Moreover, slavery (9:25,27) is appropriate since “might makes right” follows naturally without law/authority (what ch. 9’s law/covenant was trying to prevent and what Ham is militating against).
But is it fair/just? In fact, things don’t turn out too well for many of Canaan’s descendants. But, although curses/blessings seem somehow effective at times within the divine economy, they are not so in a deterministic sense (see: 26, 27’s “may”). We also know that Canaan will not be punished for his father's sins (see: the crucial passage in Ez 18:2-4, including an ironic grapes/wine reference!). Instead, one can take this as God’s pre-destination and foreknowledge: a nation He knew would be wicked (vs. their future being actively cursed). And one can certainly point to the impact of nature/nurture—that Ham's nature would be transmitted to his descendants—the practicality of the sins of the fathers.
In fact, life is communal/relational rather than purely individual. (And turn the coain over: Do we count the blessings of family/generations as unfair?) Whatever the justice, it’s almost inevitable that there will be some curse/blessing from one generation to the next. To note, what kind of son would Ham likely raise? But practically, Noah is prophesying more than causing or wishing.
An important side issue: some of Ham's sons settled Africa, BUT unfortunately this verse has been used incorrectly to argue for the enslavement of blacks. But this contradicts NT teaching; Canaan didn't settle in Africa; and the Canaanites were Caucasian. (See also: Moses’ Cushite wife—and God’s defense of inter-racial marriage in Num 12:1,9-12.)
Meanwhile, Gen 9:26-27 results in an indirect blessing for Shem and a direct blessing for Japheth. Shem is the father of Shemites/Semites—the Jews. And note that Noah seems to attribute greater righteousness to Shem. Japheth is to become the father of non-Arab/European Gentiles. They lived on friendly terms with each other—with the “tents” indicating that the Gentiles will share in and be sheltered by the Jewish people and God’s blessing. In inheritance terms, Shem receives priesthood/birthright, while Japheth receives double blessing (27's "extend territory").
In sum, Kass argues that Noah’s three sons represent tyrannical man, noble/decent man, and pious man.
Why is this story in here? First, as is common elsewhere, the Bible depicts most of its “heroes of the faith” with warts. Second, this sets up the choice of the Semites as the people with whom God would choose to work with more explicitly. Third, after the flood, evil reappears in a "godly man"—not a good sign! Big picture: this continues to point us toward the Old Covenant—and eventually, the New Covenant.
And what happened to Noah? He started off so strong (Gen 6:9) and he completes an amazing task, but he has a rough finish. Is this just a bad ending or something larger?
Jewish scholars argue that it’s the latter. (This is at first surprising to a Christian, since we’re used to thinking of Noah and Abraham as roughly equivalent heroes of the faith. But of course, to Jews, Abraham is a far more important character! They point (as Genesis does) to “the silence of Noah”—as we saw with Adam (Gen 3:6) and will see with the patriarchs!
No words are recorded for Noah except his post-drunk curse/blessing. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points back to the flood narrative and is pretty rough on Noah. What does Noah say to God when it’s time to build the ark and save his family? Nothing. Silent obedience—but maybe obedience is not enough? What did Noah say to those around him? It’s unknown, except for Heb 11:7’s vague reference “by his faith he condemned the world”. To note, there is no explicit intervention with God on behalf of those to be destroyed.
Sacks: “God seeks from us something other and greater than obedience, namely responsibility...the hero of faith was not Noah but Abraham”—fought a war for his nephew and prayed for the people of the plain, even challenging God: “What might an Abraham have said when confronted with the possibility of a flood?...Abraham might have saved the world. Noah saved only himself and his family. Abraham might have failed, but Noah—at least on the evidence of the text—did not even try…Noah’s end—drunk, disheveled, an embarrassment to his children—eloquently tells us that if you save yourself while doing nothing to save the world, you do not even save yourself…”