As we finish the flood story, there’s a new beginning for not just humanity, but all of creation, through the favor that Noah found in God’s eyes. Let’s look, now, at how humanity used this second chance.
Noah’s Family Troubles 9:18-29
Verses 18 and 19 reintroduce Shem, Ham, and Japheth, Noah’s sons, and draw the reader’s attention to them instead of Noah for the rest of this episode. Verse 20 says either that Noah was the first person ever to plant a vineyard, or that planting a vineyard was the first thing Noah did. If you go with the “first person” interpretation, it would imply that Noah was ignorant of wine’s effects and that he should be excused for his drunkenness. I prefer that reading, because Noah is always shown in a good light up to this point, and it wouldn’t make sense for him to be given a major thumbs-down right now.
So, Noah goes out and plants a vineyard, because he is a farmer like his father Lamech before him. He drinks some wine from it, and gets drunk. He’s in his tent, presumably with his wife, and he is naked – not covered by clothes. Presumably, his wife is also there and she is naked, too. Ham (who we are repeatedly reminded is Canaan’s father) “sees his father naked” (v. 22).
So, we have two problems with this text: first, what is the nature of Ham’s offense? It seems to me that the offense is something more than just the accidental viewing of his naked father. After all, Noah woke up and “knew what his youngest son had done to him.” How he knew it was his youngest son, we are not told. It has been suggested that Ham took advantage of his parents’ blackout to rape his mother while she was passed out drunk. This would explain why the curse would be on Canaan (the son produced by this incest). Support for this interpretation is found in sections of the Pentateuch that deal with forbidden sexual relations. Leviticus 18 and 20 repeatedly use the phrase “you shall not uncover the nakedness of…” in dealing with cases of possible incest – and strictly of heterosexual incest (perhaps due to the rarity of homosexual incest). So, to uncover the nakedness of one’s father is to have sex with one’s mother (or father). The verb that is consistently used in these legal sections is “uncover,” and note that Noah was “uncovered” when this whole fiasco happened.
Even though this interpretation seems pretty reasonable, it leaves a few plot holes. First, some would say that since Ham is called the father of Canaan back in 9:18, it presupposes that Canaan was already born before this event happened. This isn’t a strong objection, though. Second, if you take this story at face value, it seems that Noah became aware shortly after recovering from his hangover of what Ham had done to him, and immediately he pronounced the curse one the grandson. So, for this incest theory to work, Noah would have to know of his wife’s pregnancy and the birth of Canaan before he could curse Canaan. Lastly, this interpretation fails to provide any rationale for the actions of Shem and Japheth. Perhaps their “walking backward and covering the nakedness of their father” with a garment should be seen as a parallel to God covering Adam and Eve’s nakedness with some kind of garment in 3:21. This could only mean that the brothers refrained from imitating their younger brother’s folly.
Now, the second mystery is why was Canaan the one who was cursed. There’s no real watertight solution for this, either. One scholar (von Rad) suggests that the words “Ham, the father of” were inserted into verses 18 and 22, and so it originally read that Canaan is the one who went in and saw his (grand)father’s nakedness. Although this would be an easy answer, it depends on subjectively deleting part of the text, and that’s not a good way to go about things. Another thought is that just as Ham is the youngest son of Noah, Canaan is Ham’s youngest son. While that may be true, I don’t see any logical grounds for Noah to curse Canaan for that. Yet, we’ve already seen instances where the innocent are punished along with the guilty: all creation was wiped out due to the sins of humanity.
This is the only negative event in Genesis 3-11 in which God says not a word. It is also the first time that one person places a curse on another person in scripture. In God’s (apparent) silence, Noah takes the place of judge, handing out curse and blessing alike. The question, then, is this: is Noah allowed to do that, or is he trying to take God’s place? It would seem to me that Noah is righteous in his pronouncements, but that’s open to interpretation.
Noah’s first word is to Shem. “Blessed be the LORD, the God of Shem.” Of special interest here is the fact that this is the first time in the Bible God is called the God of a particular individual (or the larger group that emerges from the individual). Our next occurrence of this is Abraham’s servant speaking of “the God of my master Abraham (24:12). Crucial to the interpretation of verse 27 is the identification of “him.”
The peoples of the earth scatter 10:1-11:26
Table of nations 10:1-32
In short, Noah’s sons all spread out with their children. Humanity came to be divided as our race spread. As verse 5 says, people came to be divided geographically (by territory), ethnically (by clan), politically (by nation), and linguistically (by language). In the last section we saw an immediate withdrawal into sin right after God had restored creation through Noah, but he alone was righteous and seven of each creature (including sinful humans) were saved through him.
God is so very gracious. I would not give a do-over to a group that is 7/8ths unrighteous. Yet as a testament to God’s incomprehensible goodness and unending, unfailing love, humankind prospers and spreads to subdue the earth once more.
Genealogies are fairly loose in the Bible, not as strict as we today would use, but from what we read we can tell that God did indeed “extend” Japheth (whose name sounds like the word for “extend”), because he has more first-generation sons than either of his brothers, though it is through Shem that the line of promise continues. His descendants generally fall north and west of Palestine on the Eurasian continent. He fathers 14 nations.
Ham fathers 30 nations, who generally inhabit southwestern Asia and northeastern Africa. Mizraim in particular is the father of Egypt (because his name is the word for Egypt). Canaan becomes the biblical land by the same name (later called Phoenicia by the Greeks and Palestine after that, named after the Phillistines). I find it interesting that the land named after that wayward (grand)son is the land that God redeems through Israel later on. What Noah (man) curses, God redeems.
Nimrod (possibly the Hebrew name for Sargon I, an early Akkadian ruler of great power) was a noteworthy emperor descended from Ham. It would seem to me that Ham spread the farthest, and certainly had the most notable kingdoms, advancing civilization just as Cain’s line did.
Shem, the oldest (or middle?) son, is the one through which Abram comes; Shem is the son of the promise. Now, there’s a discrepancy in the manuscripts for 10:21. Some say “Shem, whose older brother was Japheth” while others say “Shem, the older brother of Japheth.” Honestly, it doesn’t matter either way. The descendants of Shem are called Shemites, and later just Semites. Shem was special because he is the “(fore)father of all the sons of Eber” (10:21). Though a distant (third-generation) descendant of Shem, Eber is noteworthy because it is from his name that we get the word “Hebrew.” I find Eber righteous because he mourned over how divided the people of the earth had become; he was so “torn” over it that he named his son Peleg, which means “division.” His discontentment could be aimed at the division between the sons of Noah or it could be concerning Babel (which happened during the time chronicled by this genealogy, not after it).
Now, lineage of Shem produced 26 nations, which roughly spanned the Middle East and Arabia. Together, the sons of Noah produced 14+30+26 nations, totaling 70. Again I will point out that biblical genealogies are not rigidly historic as we do things today. Seventy is a good round, symbolic number, and it will appear again as the number of Jacob’s family members in Egypt. Remember also that this genealogy may not be based strictly on physical descent, but is probably somewhat generalized by territory, clan, nation, and language group.
The tower of Babel 11:1-9
This episode is not the only one in Genesis 4-11 that is bracketed by similar genealogical notes. The account of the sons of God and daughters of men (Gen 6:1-8) is sandwiched between references to Noah’s three sons, as is the flood story. Likewise, this story is sandwiched between genealogies of Shem. The purpose of doing this is to bring about a feeling of déjà vu. Noah was the new Adam (if Jesus is the second Adam, then let’s say Noah is version 1.5) and received the blessings of creation given originally to Adam. Yet, as with Adam’s three sons, there is trouble with Noah’s three sons immediately after the covenant with Noah. “Noah’s Family Troubles” echoes Genesis 4 with the Cain and Abel story. Now we have a story with the descendants of the bad son, Ham, doing something that “advances civilization” and also rejects God in an exceedingly arrogant way. Lamech took two wives, had the first real city, and boasted that he would be able to avenge himself eleven times better than God could have avenged Cain. Now, the men of Shinar (later renamed Babylonia after this incident), descendants of Ham, are going to build a big tower to “reach up to the heavens” and resist God’s purpose of scattering and confounding the peoples. They sought to make a name for themselves and gain virtual immortality through the works of their hands.
So, the men say to each other, “Come, let us build for ourselves a city… so that we may make a name for ourselves.” In response to their arrogance, God says to himself: “Come, let us go down.” These people sought to immortalize themselves through their work, but God will not allow such arrogance. His response was to confuse their language – for these peoples had a diplomatic language that allowed them to communicate with each other – and he turned Babel into mere babble. As one scholar notes, throughout Genesis 3-11 there is a correspondence between the nature of each sin and the nature of the judgment on that sin. The serpent, for tempting Eve to eat what she was not supposed to eat, will have to eat dust for all its life. Cain, a farmer by vocation, relies on being settled in an area to grow crops. Now he must wander and may no longer work the ground, since the ground opened up to receive his brother’s blood. In this incident, the peoples wanted to not be scattered over the earth but rather stay together and become mighty. God’s response to these sins is never arbitrary; he never pulls a card from a hat of all the things he can do to someone in order to decide what the punishment will be. The similarities between the crime and punishment highlight the nature of the tresspass and the nature of divine justice at work.
From Shem to Abram 11:10-26
The slice of bread on the other end of the Babel incident is the genealogy leading to the man of hope. Just as the Sethite genealogy following the Lamech incident in ch 4 brought us to Noah, a man of hope, this genealogy leads from Shem down to the next man of hope, the second Noah: Abram.
If you compare this section to the Sethite genealogy in chapter 5, a few things stick out: both go down ten generations and both have the same structured report: “When so-and-so lived X years, he became the father of such-and-such. After that, he lived Y years and had other sons and daughters.” This bloodline was blessed with prosperity, for they had “other sons and daughters” and lived a very long time. However, the lifespan continues on a downward trend as the Sethite genealogy did. Conspicuously missing is the sour note of Seth’s genealogy ending with “and then he died.” This time, Genesis emphasizes hope looking forward, whereas chapter 5 emphasizes hope despite what happened just a moment ago.
As we finish the flood story, there’s a new beginning for not just humanity, but all of creation, through the favor that Noah found in God’s eyes. Let’s look, now, at how humanity used this second chance.
The world before the flood 6:1-8
So, we just introduced Noah at the end of chapter 5, and now we get a good background picture of the world he lived in. This is one of the most cryptic readings in Genesis. The “sons of God” (whoever they are) intermix with the “daughters of men.” We see further surrender to lust, for the sons of God pick whichever girl is most physically appealing. They made this choice without any other significant consideration than to have a pretty plaything, it seems.
One interpretation is that the sons of God refer to the descendants of Seth and the daughters of men are the descendants of Cain. If this is what is meant, then we see sin take hold in the lives of the Sethites now just about as firmly as in the Cainites’ lives. This interpretation connects to the material in the past two chapters. If this is the case, then the Nephilim of v. 4 are people of Seth’s line who have fallen away from serving God (by integrating themselves into the Cainite culture).
Another interpretation is that the “sons of God” refer to dynastic kings. Kings of pretty much any nation will claim to be divinely appointed to rule (or claim to be gods in their own right). If this is what is meant, then the kings began to build harems for themselves.
A third suggestion is that the sons of God are angels who are now mating with humans. There are Hebrew myths based off exactly this interpretation, such as the book of Enoch, which tells the tale of Enoch of the Seth line, who went up to heaven then came back down to witness the events of Gen. 6-9 in great detail. Jude 6-7 specifically refers to Enoch, and yet II Peter 2:4 parallels Jude while specifically omitting the reference to Enoch. Even though it’s interesting speculation, it’s unlikely in my opinion that the sons of God are angels.
The Nephilim (“fallen ones”) could be seen as (fallen) angels, in line with that third interpretation I just mentioned. From what the text says, though, it refers to men who became warlords through skill in battle. So, human kings were building their harems of royal playthings (dooming those young ladies to never have a lifelong husband), and warlords were taking prominence in the land.
What did God say? 6:3 says: “My spirit will not contend with man forever, for he is corrupt; his days shall be 120 years.” God intends to give a 120 year grace period before destroying humanity. Alternately, this could say “My breath [of life] will not remain in man forever, for he is mortal; his days [lifetime] shall be 120 years.” However, that doesn’t really relate to the rest of the story at all, so we should reject that interpretation. The NIV mixes it to “My spirit will not contend with man forever, for he is mortal…” but this is wrong. God’s point is not mortality (which is corruption as in being subject to physical decay and death) but rather moral corruption. In vv. 5-6 God sees how utterly terrible man has become, and decides to undo all of creation because of how grieved he is, yet Noah finds favor in the eyes of the Lord.
God Warns Noah to Prepare 6:9-7:5
The story continues in 6:9-12 painting the picture of how terrible the earth was at the time. In vv 11-12 the word corrupt occurs three times, plus two mentions of violence. This is a dark picture: the earth itself is corrupt and full of violence because humans introduced corruption and violence into the world. Remember that corruption can refer to moral corruption or to death/mortality? Well, in the reference to violence we find both. Kings ruled their city-states as the sons of the gods, and went to war every baseball season. The Egyptians are a perfect example: at first their king was seen as a divinely appointed agent of Ra, then as an actual descendant of Ra. The Egyptians were quick to conquer and plunder, to demand tribute of vassals (which they demanded yearly). Also, all other people were backwards, and they were right. It is only natural that the right rule over the wrong. They called the Euphrates river backwards because it flows “upstream when it flows downstream,” referring to the fact that it flowed south instead of north. Because each people thought they were divinely appointed to rule and had the favor of the most powerful deity, other peoples were seen as not even human. Raping a Mitanni woman is no crime for the soldiers of Pharaoh’s army, for they are not even really people. Just potential slaves. Sexual aggression and bloodlust are the two sins committed in ch. 6 that truly grieve God. Both are affronts to the act of creation, by misuse of procreation and by killing what God has made; the perversion of the beginning and ending of life.
God says, “I am going to put an end to all people, for the earth is filled with violence because of them. I will most certainly destroy both them and the earth” (6:13). God’s word for destroy there comes from the same word as corruption/corrupt that we’ve been talking about. As Hamilton says: “Rather than interrupt and impede, he allows the evil started by humankind to run to its inevitable conclusion.” God is not destroying out of divine fury; it is human sin and human destruction that brought about corruption, and God seeks to destroy this death-filled creation, because he seeks a created world that is filled with life.
Note also that God is grieved and his heart suffers pain – the same word for pain appears in Eve’s childbearing and Adam’s painful toil as he works the earth. Just as childbearing is woman’s highest joy and working hard and raising crops/cattle/kids is man’s joy, God’s joy is the raising of creation. And just as the first sin (trying to take God’s place) brought on trouble for man and woman in their greatest joys, it eventually came full circle, and sin led to pain in God’s greatest joy. God’s response to such epidemic sinfulness is not rage or indignation, but brokenness.
Two other flood stories compared with Noah
I am going to stop here before moving on to 6:14. I want to contrast the biblical flood story with another flood story. The Atrahasis epic, from no later than 1700 b.c., has a similar flood story. Humans begin to multiply on the earth and become very noisy. Enlil, the chief god, becomes very agitated and develops severe insomnia because humans are so loud! So, he plans to reduce the population with a plague. Suddenly the human Atrahasis is introduced, who, with the support of his god Enki, manages to avert the plague. Twelve hundred years later, Enlil has insomnia again because the land is “bellowing like a bull.” This time he uses a drought, but Atrahasis manages to appease Enlil and stop the drought. This happens one more time, and Atrahasis stops one more drought.
Finally, Enlil orders a flood. Enki advises Atrahasis to build a boat to weather the storm, which will last seven days and seven nights. (He takes a male and a female of each animal with him as well.) Humanity is so thoroughly destroyed that even the other gods question the wisdom of Enlil’s actions. At the end of the week, Atrahasis offers a sacrifice to the gods for his preservation. And not a moment too soon – the gods were all starving without the food sacrifices of their worshipers! So, to put a fix on the human population from then on, the gods make some women permanently barren and create a demon to “snatch away a baby as soon as it is born” (i.e. the introduction of stillbirths), and creates certain classes of priestess that are celibate. So, the gods rectify the problem by restricting human sexuality and procreation, and understandably, people are less than happy about it.
Now, another story is the Epic of Gilgamesh. Here a king finds his ancestor, Utnapishtim, who has become immortal. Gilgamesh wants to become immortal as well, but finds that Utnapishtim’s story is unique and won’t be repeated. Ut tells his progeny that Ea, wisest of the gods, came to him one day and warned him that Enlil, the chief deity, was going to destroy humanity. So, Ut builds a boat with cubic dimensions, takes a pair of each animal, and hires some professional sailors to help see them through the storm. He also takes with him plenty of gold and silver. The rain falls for seven days and seven nights, and Utnapishtim’s boat runs aground on a mountaintop. Once it’s safe, he leaves the boat and worships the gods. Then the gods notice that two mortals (Ut and his wife – did all the sailors die???) escaped death, and the gods come down. To finish the job of ridding the world of humankind, Enlil bestows immortality on Ut and his wife, thus making them technically no longer human. There. No more humans.
Now that I’m through telling those stories, I’ll note contrasts between Noah’s, Atrahasis’s, and Utnapishtim’s flood stories. Right now I’ll say that God saved Noah because Noah was good and righteous. Ea and Enki warned their champions arbitrarily, and the gods either sent a flood arbitrarily or because of insomnia, whereas God sent his flood because of moral corruption. Enlil acted out of anger and selfishness; God acts out of a desire for redemption and re-creation.
A quick run-down of Noah: he was very obedient to God (6:22, 7:5, 9, 16) and he alone was righteous in that generation (6:8-9, 7:1). His faith made him a hero (II Peter 2:5; Heb 11:7) among God’s people and gave him determination to rely on God for preservation.
God warns Noah to Prepare (continued)
Now, moving on to boat talk: God tells Noah to build a boat 450’ long, 75’ wide, and 45’ high. This is a very big boat, but the dimensions are pretty reasonable for a stable ship. In the other two epics, the gods command a boat that is cubic! That would hardly float, haha. Say, have you ever looked up the word “ark” before? Its next use is in reference to the basket that kept baby Moses safe in his little sailing trip down the Nile in Exodus 2. The word for ark is, basically, a treasure chest. It’s where you keep what is precious to you. In the Old Testament, the Ark of the Covenant is the location where the copy of the Ten Commandments is placed. Yet before Moses was even born, God sealed the one he would make a covenant with into an ark – God had an “ark of the covenant” already. This ark was where God kept his precious Noah.
How many animals did Noah bring onto the ark? Was it a single pair of each? Seven of
each? Or seven pairs of each? It’s very confusing. On the one hand, God said to take a single pair of every animal – a male and its mate (6:19-20) – but it also says to take seven of every clean animal, and of every bird (7:2-3). That could also be translated “seven pairs.” While that would make things less confusing, that seems pretty inconsistent. On one hand, God mirrors the gods in other flood stories by commanding Noah to take a single pair of each animal. However, he also seems to say take seven. We must remember that in 6:18 God said he would establish his covenant with Noah. The verse says “you will enter the ark, you, and your wife, and your sons and their wives.” How many other humans were saved? Seven. How many of each animal? Seven, except for the unclean ones. The Hebrew number seven is also the word for “oath,” and I think this is used as a wordplay here since it just mentioned how God would make a covenant with Noah. The Sheba (seven/oath) wordplay shows up again in Genesis 21:27-31, where they dug a well and named it Beersheba, which means Well of the Oath (or Well of Seven) and Abraham gives seven lambs as a witness that he will keep the oath/treaty. So, while the story is saying “literally” that Noah took a single pair of each animal, in another way we could say that through Noah’s righteousness, seven others were saved (I Peter 3:20, II Peter 2:5) of not just humans but every other kind of creature. Or we could just say that he took two of each animal unfit for sacrifice, but seven of those meant for sacrifice. See how confusing this all is? Unfortunately, I can’t give a more straightforward answer than that.
Very much of the Bible is episodic – it is written in episodes, which have their own internal storyline but may not contribute to a chronological storyline in a clearly linear way. The same is true for episodes of sitcoms and most other TV shows: there’s only a rough timeline in Friends based on who lives with who and who is dating who. In the same way, some parts of the Bible don’t necessarily try to “stick” together as one straightforward storyline. The point relates not to history, but to who God is; sometimes retelling something from a different angle will reveal more about God, and it seems that this may be another example of that.
Enduring the flood 7:6-8:12
God started the flood on the seventeenth day of the second month. When it began to rain very hard, Noah loaded his family and the pairs of animals onto the ark. It was by God’s providence that the animals naturally came in pairs; Noah did not have to gather them himself WHILE building a huge ship (7:15). Then, it says, the Lord shut him in. It was the Lord’s preservation, not the hiring of professional sailors (who somehow die) that brought Noah through the storm. The rain continued for forty days and forty nights (a length of time that symbolizes a critical time in redemptive history; see also Deut. 9:11 and Matt. 4:1-11), and for 110 more days (totalling 150), the waters flooded the earth so much that even the mountains were covered. In so doing, God completely wiped out the creation he had made on days 5 and 6.
“But God remembered Noah” (8:1). God left Noah in the boat without contacting him for the entire 150 days. I think we forget how hard that would be! God remembered him, and in the Bible that means more than just calling to mind – it means to express concern for someone or act with loving care toward someone. The rains stopped on the seventeenth day of the seventh month, and the ark came to rest on one of the mountaintops in the Ararat mountain range. We see the number seven not just in the number of people/animals Noah saved, but also in the length of time. Seven, because it is also the word for oath, symbolizes faithfulness or completeness, and here the time length is being used figuratively to refer to God’s faithfulness in preserving Noah. After the waters receded and he waited forty days, he sent out a raven, which did not return. Then, a dove, which returned because it had nowhere to land. Seven days later, he sent the dove out again, and it took an olive branch back to him – a good sign. Since olives don’t grow in high elevations, it meant the water was receding quickly. Seven days later, he sent it out again and it did not return.
God’s Decides, “Never Again” 8:13-9:17
On the first day of the new year (8:13), God granted a new beginning for humanity. In 8:15-17, after it’s completely safe, God tells Noah to come out and bring out all the creatures of the earth with him. Whereas the other stories have gods who don’t realize a human survived, God planned for that to happen, saw Noah through the whole thing, and was there to comfort Noah when he came out. God rolled out the red carpet and gave a new beginning to creation: “Bring out every kind of living creature that is with you—the birds, the animals, and all the creatures that move along the ground—so that they can multiply on the earth and be fruitful and increase in number upon it” (8:17). God reestablishes the blessings he gave creation when they were first made. The world is washed clean and becomes a new creation (and this is a symbol for baptism: I Peter 3:20-21).
At the end of the flood, Noah builds an altar and makes sacrifices, just as Atrahasis and Utnapishtim did, and what does God say? “How the heck did you survive?” No; God says “welcome home.” God is pleased and promises to never again destroy creation, unlike Enlil, and God also lifts the curse on the earth and promises never to curse it again, even though he acknowledges the complete wickedness of the human heart.
Now God turns to Noah and institutes the covenant he promised he would. While God does not grant immortality here, he does give Noah and his kin the blessings given to Adam and Eve: be fruitful and multiply! One day in chapel Stafford North asked the question “what is the greatest command?” and I stood up and said that, which made the entire auditorium laugh. I couldn’t resist. While Enlil in the Atrahasis epic solved the noise problem by giving ridiculous and unfair restrictions to human sexuality, God rather encouraged it and showed that he instead wanted humans to prosper. God gives another blessing: once more humans are reinstated as the lords of the earth (9:2-3).
God gives us direction in what we shall eat: we have all living things, plant or animal, for food. Yet, according to 9:4, we may not have blood. My NIV text note says “Lev. 17:14 stresses the intimate relationship between blood and life by twice declaring that ‘the life of every creation is its blood.’ Life is the precious and mysterious gift of God, and man is not to seek to preserve it or increase the life-force within him by eating ‘life’ that is ‘in the blood’ (Lev 17:11) – as many pagan peoples throughout history have thought they could do.”
Next, God shows his great love and concern for humanity by saying that our life is precious to him, and that God will demand an accounting of any animal that sheds human blood. We are to be the undisputed masters of creation – more like managers, with God as the Owner. In verse 7, God repeats the blessings for humanity once again, then he moves on to establish his covenant with Noah (and all creation that came from the ark) that he will never again destroy creation, and as testament to the treaty, he gives the rainbow as a sign that he will keep the covenant. This covenant is the kind called a “Royal Grant,” where a king gives something to a servant for faithful or exceptional service (and his descendants, if they show loyalty). It’s an unconditional grant, so long as the servant and his descendants do not become unfaithful. The covenant is made to Noah, and affects the rest of creation by extension through him.