RSS Feed

The "Second Fall" 9-11:26

Posted by Gary Labels:

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.