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Home > Bible Studies > BibleJourney > Genesis > Issue 14

BibleJourney: Genesis

Issue 14

ISSN 1535-5187

Issue 14: Noah Begins Again (Genesis 9.1-10.32)
by Winn Griffin, D.Min.

Observing the Stuff

The Story's Main Point
Moses and the children of God are in the Sinai desert where they received the covenant from God with stipulations of how to live in relationship to God and in relationship with each other. As will Lord Servant treaties in the ancient world, keeping stipulations of a covenant brought blessings while breaking stipulations brought punishment. Moses told this story to demonstrate how the of the blessings of God would begin again after receiving judgment for breaking stipulations.

It was a new beginning for Noah and his family just like Israel was in the first days of her own new beginning with God. The story is simple: God makes a promise to Noah (and all life on the earth). He commands Noah and his sons to begin the process of increasing and filling the earth again. The sacredness of life is affirmed. The rainbow becomes the sign of the covenant. The story could have ended here on a positive note, but the storyteller continues by telling a story of the weakness of Noah. He produces wine and then gets drunk. The story forewarns that sin is still couching at the door (Gen 4.7).

However, this story is not about drunkenness or the evils of wine. It is not about the African race being the descendants of Ham/Canaan and thus being cursed by which our own forefathers in America defended slavery. It is about a God who protects his own image. It is about the propensity of children to be like their parents regardless of race. It is about how God makes covenant in spite of the sinfulness of humankind. It is about a God who is faithful to his own word.

The Flood Was Over
Every living being and animal is dead except for Noah, his family, and the animals that were with him on the ark. Sin had taken its toll on the beauty of God's creation. Here the wrap-up of the story of the Flood is told. This story can be broken into two parts. Genesis 9.1-7 deals with the renewal of the world and Genesis 9.8-17 provide assurance that God will not judge the world in a similar fashion again. In the first section Noah's sons are told to "be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth." This is somewhat reminiscent of Genesis 1. In the second section the important phrase is that God will establish a covenant.

However, we must note that the world after the Flood is not exactly the same as the world as created by God in Genesis 1. As an illustration, man is now allowed to kill animals for food and add meat to his diet (Gen. 9.2-3). It is an interesting thought that even the animals will be held accountable for crimes (Gen. 9.5-6).

Interpreting the Stuff

Genesis 9:1-7
Two requirements were expected from the humankind after the flood. The first was new while the second was reinforcement. First, while now allowed to eat meat, they must drain the blood from the animal. Second, they must not take human life.

In some ways the era after the flood was much like it was in the garden, but there were also differences. Like Adam, Noah was instructed to be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth. But unlike Adam, Noah is now for the first time allowed to eat meat. This new bounty from God had one stipulation: the blood was to be first drained from the animal.

Around the ancient dinner table, meat was not a common dish. Animals were kept for hair, wool, and milk, but not for food. In ancient times blood was considered as the life force. Noah was not told that no blood from the animal was to be consumed, but that the blood must be drained which was a symbol of returning the life force of the animal back to God who first gave it. This symbol offered recognition of the bounty of God's blessing and recognition that the life had been taken with the permission of God.

The history before the flood was characterized by violence. God now institutes a strict retribution for such violence.

  Whoever sheds the blood of man
      By man shall his blood be shed;
  For in the image of God
      Has God made man. (Gen. 9.6)

The reason that man's life is precious: humankind is created as the image bearer of God.

Genesis 9:8-17
With the new beginning of humankind with Noah, God begins the process of making a covenant with him. There are two covenants mentioned and contracted between God and Noah (Gen. 6.18; 9.8-17). These covenants are a prelude to other biblical covenants where obligation and promise play an important role.

A covenant was a solemn agreement or contract between two parties. The main features of the covenant with Noah were that it was entirely instituted by God. It was universal. It applied not only to Noah and his family but to every living creature. It was unconditional. In a typical covenant there were stipulations that laid down the requirements of the parties making the agreement. In the covenant with Noah, God makes the stipulations for himself rather than imposing them on Noah and his family. The covenant was unilateral. God binds himself to a certain course of action. The covenant was everlasting. He would never again destroy the earth by a flood.

There was a visible sign, the rainbow. God would put his rainbow in the clouds. The assignment of a rainbow as a sign of the covenant does not suggest that this was the first rainbow that had ever been seen. But rather the rainbow was now to function as a sign with a special significance attached to it. In Hebrew, there is no way to distinguish between "rainbow" and "bow" which is a weapon. One word covers both. God's power is seen as a function of his grace, not a function of some military might. The rainbow would arc like a battle bow hung against the clouds and then disappear which indicated that peace was at hand.

Covenants were made in the ancient east as a step toward peace. After God made war on sin he now makes a covenant of peace with Noah and the world. We must remember that the bow is in the sky for God's benefit, not for ours. While it may be pleasing to the eye of all those who have seen one, it is a visible reminder for God to remember his covenant with Noah. The Westerner is usually surprised that the rainbow is in the sky for the benefit of God. We usually look at it in an individual context. But the text says, "Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth." Whenever it appears God will remember (an anthropomorphism) his covenant not with just humankind but with his whole creation.

Signs often remind a participant in a covenant to keep the stipulations of the covenant. The Hebrews in the desert and soon to be in Canaan would be reminded again and again as they saw the rainbow that God keeps his promises made in covenant.

Remember, we must allow the storyteller to use literary figures of speech to tell his story. God does not really need a sign to remember. After all, who would want to serve a forgetful God?

Genesis 9.18-29
The next story found in Genesis 9.18-29 is clearly independent from the Flood narrative. As an example: it takes years for a newly planted vine to give a grape harvest indicating a different time period that occurring recently after the flood. In addition to the previous clue the three sons' are named and the reader is informed that Noah now has a grandson who is named Canaan (Gen. 9.18). In the last section of this story (Gen. 9.20-28) the storyteller narrates a tale about Noah and his nakedness. Finally, in chapter 10, we have the table of nations (Gen. 10.1-32).

Genesis 9.18-19
In Genesis 10.6, we are told that Ham had four sons: Cush, Egypt, Put, and Canaan, the latter was the youngest. While no specific reference is made to it, it appears that the command of God at Genesis 9.1, "be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth," was already at work in the sons of Noah. The storyteller relates that the three sons of Noah–Shem, Ham, and Japheth–were the forefathers of the human race. The storyteller takes a break before he tells his hearers about the growth of the families of Noah's sons to tell us the story of Noah's nakedness and its resulting curse of Canaan.

Genesis 9.20-28
After harvesting the grapes and making wine, Noah falls prey to the wine's intoxicating power. However, Scripture does not pause to moralize on Noah's behavior, which is neither approved of nor condemned in this story. Wine was not a forbidden drink in later Israel. A vow to abstain by the Nazirites would be useless if Israel was a nation of abstinence. However, God did not tolerate the overuse of wine, which led to drunkenness. In the ancient world drinking wine was generally accepted and was not ever regarded as being reprehensible in antiquity. As an example, if at a celebration a person became drunk, stories were told about the incident, but no judgment was passed on the individual. The earliest evidence of winemaking comes from the Neolithic (the cultural period beginning around 10,000 B.C. in the Middle East and later elsewhere, characterized by the development of agriculture and the making of polished stone implements) like in Iran where archaeologists discovered a jar dated to the second half of the sixth millennium with a residue of wine in the bottom of the jar.

The storyteller does not tell us why Noah was nude. It is his nakedness and not his drunkenness that produces the focus of this story. Wine was believed to be able to stimulate sexual desire and increase one's power to produce children. Was Noah preparing to have intercourse with his wife when Ham saw his father's nakedness? One thing is for sure: Ham was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The ancients were well aware of the effects of intoxication. They understood the consequences that resulted as wine dulled the senses that could have left one uncovered without knowing it. Nakedness as the result of the drunkenness was believed to be disgraceful. In "The Tale of Aqht," an Ugaritic myth, a son is described as helping his father by taking him by the hand when he was gorged with wine. This was to keep the parent from bringing disgrace on the family by becoming naked in public. The Hebrews had been warned about this at Sinai in the story of building the altar (Exodus 20.26). Public nakedness in the Old Testament was believed to be the loss of human and social dignity.

For the story to note that Noah was a wine-maker was to take on the polytheistic worldview again. Wine-maker was a purely human achievement, not the achievement of a god or demigod as was usually believed in the ancient world.

Ham's sin was that he "saw the nakedness of his father." To the ancient seeing one's father naked was a breach of family ethic, so it was with Ham. The sanctity of the family could be destroyed and the strength of the father becomes mockery. While Ham may have accidentally stumbled into his father's presence, his action, i.e., telling his two brothers instead of covering his father, was not acceptable in that culture.

Several explanations have been forwarded to explain this phrase.

  • The rabbis believed that Ham castrated his father, which explains why Noah did not have any more children after the flood.
  • Some believe that the act of Cain was pederasty.
  • Others believe that Ham slept with his mother, thus uncovering his father's nakedness, and that Canaan was the offspring of that union.
  • Still others believe that Ham was the first homosexual and he was involved in a homosexual act with his father.

However, it is most likely that the phrase "saw the nakedness of his father" is not a euphemism for sexual intercourse in this passage as it is in Leviticus (18.6 where NIV translates the phrase "to uncover nakedness" with the words "have sexual relationship") and simply means than Ham saw his father lying nude in his tent.

So what's the problem? In the ancient world the continuity of life for a group of people was respect for the elders of a group. To respect the elders (older ones) in the group was necessary. This is a difficult concept for the Western individual where individualism is the ultimate goal of life and community is not. While in the ancient world, community was everything and an individual was only important within the community for what he or she brought to the community.

Why this story and the accompanying reaction of Noah? In the ancient world to be nude without knowing it was disgraceful. It was the duty of the children to take care of the parents when they were overcome with wine. In this case, to cover the parent was a sign of respect. Instead of respect, Ham did not cover Noah's nudity, but rather openly talked about it to his brothers. They, on the other hand, took great care to cover Noah. The storyteller goes to great, intricate detail compared to the rest of the narrative to describe the behavior of the two other brothers. The intention is obviously to draw attention to their pious conduct. The story is unfolded in a series of verbs: they took, put, walked backwards, covered, turned away, and did not see. They showed respect. We are often held captive to our Western mindset with these eastern stories and often make some moral judgment that is reading a New Testament morality back into the text. We need to learn to let the Old Testament storyteller have his own word without any interference from the New Testament.

When Noah woke up he realized what had happened, and he placed a curse on Ham's youngest son Canaan. Why he cursed Canaan instead of Ham is not clear and has led to may conjectures. For the ancient the behavior of Ham indicated that he in some way had triumphed over his father. What seems to be a somewhat trivial incident turned into a major incident. The oracle of Noah in Genesis 9.25-27 demonstrates that the nature of his three sons would be perpetuated in their descendants. This is not a father-son issue. It is a family/community issue. Remember, respect for family elders must be maintained from one generation to another. The continuity of the life of a group of people in the ancient world was passed on by their respect for their family elders.

The act of Noah against Ham is not the act of a father-son relationship, but was a reaction against not being respected as the elder of the family who must preserve the continuity of the family. This would serve as an illustration of the stipulation from the Mosaic Covenant that told the Hebrews to honor their parents (Exodus 21.15).

This story is a trailer for the stories (about Abraham) to come. The descendants of Shem were the Shemites from whom Abraham descended (Gen. 10.21-31).

This story has led some commentators to suggest that Ham may have had a tendency to be a voyeur which led him to experience delight in seeing his father nude and then sharing it with his brothers. This was a tendency, which Noah had observed in Canaan in whose descendants the tendency led to extreme depravity and enslavement to immorality, which eventually lead to their destruction (Gen. 18.20-21). If this be the case, and it is as good of a possibility as any other, Noah's outburst was not resentment but a prophetic pronouncement concerning the future of his descendants. We should remember that one can not be dogmatic about the actual essence of this story.

It seems odd that Canaan was cursed for the sin of his father Ham. Why is this? While there is no clear answer, there are some possibilities. It might have been a mirroring punishment, i.e., Ham was Noah's youngest son and Canaan was Ham's youngest son. It might have been because Ham's sin was a foretaste of the notorious immorality of the Canaanites (Lev. 18.3). This story has direct reference to the nature and destiny of the Canaanites whose land Israel was going to conquer and who would become Israel's greatest antagonists.

Ham's disposition toward moral abandon bore fruit in the immoral acts of his descendants, the Canaanites. The Canaanites were to be judged by God through the coming Conquest because their activities were in the same pattern and mold as their ancestor Ham. One point may be that drunkenness leads to debauchery and that enslaves people and nations.

Noah blessed God and made Canaan the slave of both Shem (Gen. 9.26) and Japheth (Gen. 9.27). We may take note that his curse of Canaan was used in the nineteenth century as a Scriptural justification for enslaving the Africans. However, not by the wildest of interpretations could the Africans be said to be the descendants of Canaan.

What we see in these verses are not prophetic words originating with God through Noah. They are patriarchal pronouncements. Though not prophetic, they were taken very seriously by the ancients and were considered to have influence in the unfolding of history and personal destiny.

The blessing of Noah is rather unusual in that it blesses the God of Shem instead of Shem himself. Of course, if the God of Shem prospered, then Shem would prosper as well.

The blessing of Noah made Canaan the slave of Shem and Japheth (Gen. 9.26-27). We note again that the curse of Canaan was used in the nineteenth century as a Scriptural justification for enslaving the Africans. There is no way possible that this interpretation of Africans being the descendants of Canaan could be true.

The descendants of Shem came to be Israel. The descendants of Japheth established the world's largest empires throughout Europe. Ham's descendants through Canaan were enslaved by sin and destroyed.

Metaphors of God in Genesis 9.1-29
What does this story teach about God?

  • God the covenant maker. This is the first covenant we discover in Scripture. It demonstrates that God was willing to enter into alliances with his creation. The main feature of the covenant with Noah was that is was entirely instituted by God. Noah had nothing to do with it. The covenant was universal in its scope. This would surely dispel the notion of local gods who warred against each other for local territory. The whole known world, every living creature, was covered by this covenant and still is. This was an act of God's own loving kindness. It would surely speak to the ancient Hebrew in the desert of a God who would keep his word in the covenants that he made.
  • God's compassion (rainbow) (anthropopathism). The sign of the rainbow was an act of God's compassion. Scripture presents God with human feelings so that humans can have a possibility of comprehending God. It is noteworthy that Israel would see God as being compassionate.
  • God's generosity (everything to eat). After the flood, meat was added to the diet of humankind. This act of God shows his generosity. It was important for Israel to understand that the God they had made covenant with was a generous God. He would bless them richly by bringing them to the land that he had promised their forefather Abraham. His bounty would be beyond their ability to embrace.
  • God as protector (cannot murder others). Humankind was created in God's image and this story demonstrates how God protects his own image. We are the image bearers of the God of the universe. It is important that we reflect that issue in our life. One of the chief ways of doing so is to protect human life and not destroy it. This was important for Israel to know, in light of the stipulation that they had received which forbid the murder of others.

The Descendants of Noah: Genesis 10.1-32
After the Flood the whole world began to branch out from the three sons of Noah. This chapter elaborates in detail this event through an intricate series of genealogies. The past genealogies in Genesis were concerned with individuals. This genealogy is concerned with nations. It is often called the Table of Nations.

The Table of Nations is a horizontal genealogy rather than a vertical one as those in chapters Genesis 5 and Genesis 11 are. The purpose of the table is not to trace ancestry, rather its purpose is to show political, geographical, and ethnic growth. The table shows which peoples in the ancient world shared in the blessing and cursing category. It stresses how these peoples spread out and populated the earth.

The table begins with a list of Noah's sons as Shem, Ham, and Japheth. However, in the sections that follow the order is reversed to Japheth, Ham, and Shem. The Japhehites (Gen. 10.1-5) are peoples who were most remote from Palestine. Most of the nations and places mentioned in the seven identified are in the Mediterranean and Asia Minor. Names like Magog and Meshech are recognizable from the Book of Ezekiel. Javan is a representation of the early Greek. Madai represents The Medes. Kittim is associated with Cyprus, while Rodanim is the island of Rhodes, which was on the southwest coast of Turkey.

The peoples in the next section (Gen. 10.6-20) are from Ham and most are Gentiles with whom Israel always had unpleasant relationships. Cush represents Ethiopia and Put is modern Somaliland. The most insight given about any of the individuals in this section is Nimrod. He was so well-known that he had established a reputation as a mighty hunter, which most likely referred to his superior martial ability. He founded four cities: Babylon, Erech, Akkad, and Calneh which all lay to the east of Canaan.

Shem fathered four sons and the last section (Gen. 10.21-32) may be the most critical for the continuing story of the Hebrews. Here we discover the name Eber, which is an obvious connection with "Hebrew." The Semitic groups were divided into two branches.

Theologically, this table affirms God's blessing on Noah's family. While special to the story of Scripture, this table demonstrates that Israel had no monopoly on attributing only their existence to God. We are reminded in the last verse (Gen. 10.32) that all families came from Noah.

Looking Toward the New Testament (Some Beginning Thoughts)

  • Matthew 24.37. For just as it was in the days of Noah, so it will be when the Son of Man comes. This passage is often used to discuss a one-to-one belief that we are now in the days of Noah because of the condition of the present world. This passage in Matthew rather suggests that people were enjoying their normal life pursuits without any awareness of imminent judgment. People were eating, drinking, and marrying. The passage's point is that because the time is unknown, people will be caught unprepared, just like they were in the days of Noah. There will only be two groups of people at the end of time: those who are prepared and those who are unprepared. The way to be ready is not by calculating the date of the return of Jesus but by being watchful, i.e., being prepared.
  • Hebrews 11.7. By faith Noah, when warned about things not yet seen, in holy fear built an ark. Noah is used as an illustration of one who inherited a new world after the flood because of his confidence in the promise of God for him. Noah reacted to God's word in holy fear or reverent submission. The corresponding noun is used of Jesus in Hebrews 5.8. Noah's faith produced his righteous behavior that was a clear demonstration that the behavior was an outworking of his faith.
Doin' the Stuff!
  • How have you discovered that in the midst of your unfaithfulness to God that he still fulfills his promises to you?
  • What is your stance on drinking wine? How Biblical do you think it is?
  • How do you show respect to your parents if they are still alive (regardless of your age)?
  • How do you expect your children to show you respect (provided you have children)?
  • Why do you think that Christians today think they have a monopoly on believing that God only cares about their existence and not the existence of other religious groups?
BibleHandbook: Resourse Stuff!

Read the following Dictionary Articles from Easton's Bible Dictionary, or the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. Easton's is about a century old, therefore, some of the information is not current with newer Bible Dictionaries. ISBE is about seventy-five years old. You might read the articles off-line in a number of different Bible Dictionaries. If you do not own a Bible Dictionary, I would recommend New Bible Dictionary 3rd Edition. If you like lots of color pictures, try The Revell Bible Dictionary now out of print but still can be ordered from amazon.com. One of these should suit your personal needs.

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Copyright © 2004, Winn Griffin. All rights reserved. BibleJourney: An Almost Weekly Bible Study is a service of SBL Ministries. Unless otherwise stated, scripture quotations are from the International Standard Version (ISV) of the Bible®. Copyright © 2001 by The ISV Foundation, 2200 N. Grand Ave., Santa Ana, CA 92705-7016. Used by permission of Davidson Press, Inc. All rights reserved internationally.

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