30. Genesis 9:18-29

II.  continued

C. Life under the Covenant of Preservation

1.  Noah’s Drunkenness (Genesis 9:18-29)

And so the Flood was over, the Covenant had been made, and life returned to “normal”. The information about dates, ages, and people given here is all approximate. Noah was just over six hundred years old when the Flood ended, and according to Genesis 5:32 Shem, Ham, and Japheth were all born in the century before the Flood. We must assume they had no children of their own until after the Flood. This is consistent with the genealogy in chapter 5 in which most of the men born are to fathers over a hundred years old. That Shem, Ham, and Japheth were born so late in Noah’s life is unusual and raises the possibility that Noah had older children who had families of their own and who had moved away. It’s all speculation of course. If they existed and moved far enough they may have been out of the region of the Flood, of course.

We must go on now to a story that is difficult to interpret from any viewpoint: the story of Noah’s drunkenness, the sin of Ham, and the subsequent curse placed on Ham’s son Canaan. Clearly, a lot of time had passed between the burnt offering and this episode with the wine. At least one son, and probably four, had been born to Ham. Canaan is listed in the position of the youngest son in Ham’s genealogy, but he might have been the oldest and demoted to a lower rank for an unspecified reason. There are other problems connected to Ham and Canaan and this genealogy that we will consider later. The story makes a bit more sense if Canaan were grown up, to some extent, rather than a child. Further, it would take a good number of years for a vineyard to grow up and become fruitful. Thus the span of time between the Flood and this episode of drunkenness was probably a matter of two decades, possibly more.

Since this is the first description of drunkenness in the Bible, and in an effort to protect Noah’s reputation as an exemplary character, some have hypothesized that the yeast that causes fermentation did not exist before the Flood and that Noah got drunk at this time because alcohol was new to his experience. This suggestion is made by those who cannot imagine a man “blameless in his generation” drinking wine at all, and so they imagine him thinking he was only drinking grape juice as usual. Quite a surprise, but the hypothesis gets us into as much real trouble as it gets us out of imaginary trouble. It would be odd that God gave him no warning about the change he would find in his beverage of choice. If Noah did not intend to get drunk, if Noah did not even know that he could get drunk, then either God did not consider it a problem or else it was a serious oversight on God’s part not to warn him about it. This is the sort of difficulty caused by trying to be holier than God.

On the other hand, if it were the case that fermentation was something new in nature after the Flood, a side effect of the changes in physical law that I  hypothesized, then the invention of alcohol could be considered as another step God took to prevent the spread of evil. It may seem strange to say so considering how much evil all around us is caused by “demon rum”, how many marriages are ruined and how many children are damaged just by alcohol. Obviously alcohol does cause a whole spectrum of evil, but I think that the most horrendous evil deeds are nearly invariably done by sober people.

I do not wish to minimize this evil: the violence and foolishness and damage to the families of alcoholics. But for large scale mischief there is just no substitute for a man in his right mind with violence and hatred and greed in his heart. The pain caused by drunkenness tends to be localized rather than global. It would have been better for the whole world if Hitler, for example, had been an alcoholic. None of the notorious serial killers or mass murderers were drunk when they killed their victims. Terrorists do not drink. Much of the evil done in the world today is done by CEO’s in board rooms acting on greed alone untinged by scotch. By all means, let all those of evil heart drink and be drunk, and let the rest of us keep our distance; the world will be a safer place.

However, it seems doubtful that alcohol made its first appearance at this point. Wine has been such a central fact and force in history that if it had made its first appearance here it would almost demand some comment. Occasional drunkenness is not inconsistent with Noah being blameless in his generation, but it is inconsistent with God’s character to pop something as powerful as alcohol out of the hat with no warning. It seems much more likely that Noah knew all about alcohol and its effects from his own experience.

Noah was at least discrete in his drunkenness; he was inside his tent. His nakedness was not public, though there was presumably not much public to be had at that time. Noah did live another 315 years after the Flood so we could believe the event occurred after perhaps hundreds of years. A tent, of course, does not provide much privacy. And the one who is drinking usually does not think about the consequences when he begins to drink, or remember the consequences of the last time he was drinking.

And so Ham went to visit his father and encountered him in a rather compromising and embarrassing state. And then Ham just went away. Could this have been done to save Noah the embarrassment of knowing that someone had found him naked in his tent? Could Ham have just gone away and done nothing about it thinking no one would be hurt? It doesn’t seem so. The main danger for embarrassment to Noah would have been if he had been conscious enough to wander outside but not conscious enough to know better; or that someone else would have wandered into the tent. Ham either did not think of these possibilities or did not care. It would seem that Ham was not concerned with protecting Noah from embarrassment. He told his two brothers who were outside the tent and seemingly not far off. Why did he tell them? The only reasonable explanation is that he thought the situation was hilarious and thought they would too. It was as if he had opened the tent door and invited everyone else to come and see. The way this story plays out, it is impossible to attribute any good motives to Ham. It was Shem and Japheth who did what Ham should have done to protect their father from the possibility of future shame. They took care not to look at him so that he would be spared any embarrassment on that account as well.

It is not at all clear how Noah ever found out what Ham had done, nor what Shem and Japheth had done. Perhaps the alcohol had only made him unable to speak or move about, but had not totally robbed him of his sensibilities, or perhaps Shem or Japheth told him. And so he recovered from his drinking and knew what Ham had done. Naturally he was angry. The puzzling aspect of the account is: why did his natural anger toward Ham cause him to curse Canaan – not Ham himself or the sons of Ham in general, but only the youngest son?

Several theories have been advanced, all of them, I think, inadequate. One suggestion is that Noah was speaking prophetically at this point, that God opened a window to him to see both what Ham had done and what the descendants of Canaan would become, as if Ham’s sin was symbolic of the moral and spiritual condition of the descendants of Canaan in the future. Several times in Genesis, the future of a tribe is linked to some event in the life of its progenitor. In essence this is the “sins of the fathers visited on the children”, the idea that not merely the sinful nature but also the behavioral  consequences of sin were passed on to succeeding generations.

Perhaps this is the most straightforward understanding that we can find for this strange passage. The name “Canaan” means “submissive one”, and Noah picked up on the meaning when he made Canaan the “servant of servants”. However, this answer becomes more puzzling when we consider some of the other descendants of Ham. One of the later descendants of Ham through his son Cush was the man Nimrod, the founder of Babel. The Philistines, a major future oppressor of Israel and enemy of God, also are listed as descendants of Ham through his son Mizraim. Clearly Canaan would not be the only problematic line descending from Ham. Why would the consequences of Ham’s sin be bequeathed only to the youngest son and not to the others?

Others have suggested that this story was inserted by later generations of Hebrews who wanted some excuse for the extermination of the Canaanites as they were entering the Promised Land. At first the theory might sound plausible (if you set aside the question of the Scripture’s integrity). But this interpretation has more problems than the preceding one. It projects a modern dilemma back on to ancient peoples. When the Hebrews did enter the Promised Land there was no qualm of conscience concerning the violence involved. In fact, the invasion of Canaan is more offensive to the modern mind than to the ancients. Western people, despite the recent history of Europe, are offended by other people’s butchery, perhaps to escape thinking of their own. The ancients regarded it as unsurprising, the typical way  of nations. The idea that this story was inserted by later generations of Hebrews is wishful thinking on the part of some who want people, particularly the “good guys”, to be more delicate in their feelings than the ancients were, or who want God to judge ancient lives by modern standards, and put it in writing so we can hold Him to it. It means that we feel we can judge God, both what He says and what He doesn’t say.

But ultimately I have no more satisfactory alternative interpretation to propose. The idea of a prophetic word about the future role of the Canaanites in revelation history may be the best we can do for now. But there is one other problem with the descendants of Ham listed here. Linguistically, it is wrong. The Canaanites spoke a Semitic language, a language that was most like the languages spoken by the descendants of Shem, and not like the languages that are called Hamitic. We will get to the confusion of languages in the next section, but for now it is enough to point out that the languages need not to have been arranged according to family, at least not at the beginning.

If this episode was recorded simply to teach us a lesson, then surely it teaches that God wishes us to protect each other from exposure. We will be exhorted later in Scripture to protect each other’s reputations, to avoid gossip, to refrain from the stories that only hurt the standing of someone. Ham’s betrayal of his father was exactly the kind of betrayal that is so common in daily life; it is exactly what we do to each other whenever we gossip; it is exactly what those vicious magazines do whose only purpose is to expose the shame of the famous or to invent shame if there is none to expose. Whenever we take delight in someone’s embarrassment, even if the person is not our parent, we are committing the sin of Ham. The most infamous example of the sin of Ham in recent years was the Congress of the United States acting to publicly expose and humiliate the President of the United States when he was caught in a compromising situation. That Congress was not content to snicker to the American people that the President had been caught in his tent; they brought the whole country, the whole world, into the tent itself to see it, to revel in it. And they did it all in the name of “righteousness”. Politics makes sinners of us all.

It is the godly thing to do to protect other people from the consequences of their own foolishness and sin. So often God is portrayed as the One who is the great Muckraker, the One who searches out sin and turns on the lights, making sure that no scandal goes unexposed, that no fool goes un-humiliated. It is true that God does sometimes expose shameful deeds for the whole world to see, but this is not His general practice. Perhaps we imagine Him being like this because that is the way we would be if we were Him. God only exposes foolishness when He must. Normally He is the great Concealer, intent on covering up the shame of the sinner as He covered up the shame of Adam and Eve, intent on making clothing to hide them, intent on patching up what can be patched and avoiding the humiliation otherwise. God takes no pleasure in the death of a sinner, we will be told, and that means that He takes no pleasure in their embarrassment either. In this respect Shem and Japheth behaved like God and Ham behaved like a snake.

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