Genesis 9-11: After the Flood
Adult Bible Class Home Moravian Church. Originally broadcast Dec. 11, 2005
Introduction: This is the season of the year when children all over the country are re-enacting the Christmas story. It is good to remember that animals play a role in the Christmas story as well as the story of Noah. Through the years we’ve had hundreds of children dressing up as sheep and cows in the nativity pageant at Home Church reminding us that God’s love is for all creatures great and small. Blessings to all of the children who share in this traditional holiday tableaux that touches the child in all of us.
Before launching into today’s lesson, let me extend a special welcome to Bill Leonard, Dean of Wake Forest Divinity School, and to Nathan Hatch, the President of Wake Forest, who are worshiping with us this morning. Before we begin today’s lesson, let us take a moment to remember in prayer the Christian peace activists who are being held hostage in Iraq.
The Covenant With Noah: Last week we looked at the covenant God made with all flesh following the flood. We focused in on the idea that the rainbow was the lasting sign of the covenant that God would not destroy the earth again. Seedtime and harvest, summer and winter would continue as long as there is an earth. That is God’s promise. This week we’ll look at the human side.
When we look at Genesis chapter 9 we see there is a major change in the relationship of humans to animals. According to the P account, animals need to fear humans because God gives them to humans for food. I have found no good explanation for why this idea that humans may eat animals is connected to the flood narrative, but it is there. It sounds counter-intuitive: Noah saved all of the animals and now animals must fear humans. The best I can offer is that after the flood God recognizes that humans are violent. Giving animals to humans was a response to the reality of human violence. It is a statement of how things are rather than how they should be. But we should not overlook the effort to minimize violence in this covenant. Notice that it is strictly forbidden to eat a living animal, the way many creatures do. Cruelty such as this is consistently forbidden in the Bible. I’m amazed at the Christians who find ways to justify the torture of other living things when the Bible is consistently opposed to cruelty. Torture is against God’s covenant.
Shedding Blood: Notice also that the eating of blood was forbidden in the covenant. This is not a statement about vampirism ala Anne Rice; it is much deeper than that. The blood taboo is very ancient, and it is based on the awareness that all life belongs to God. Incidentally, this taboo against shedding blood is the reason that some Christian groups, especially Mosaic groups like the 7th Day Adventists, do not allow their members to perform surgery.
Blood equals life in the Old Testament. By having to ritually drain animals of their blood, humans acknowledged the life of the animal. This is quite different from the modern mass production of meat. The covenant with Noah was not a blanket permission for the extermination of animals nor for the unethical treatment of animals. In fact, the text says that God will demand an accounting for the death of every animal including those we eat. God demands the ethical treatment of animals according to Genesis. A lot of so-called literalists overlook this.
Unlike animals, the killing of human beings is strictly forbidden in this covenant because murder is an assault on God’s own image. This section of Genesis is discussed a lot in connection with capital punishment, but I’ve notice that people often overlook the fact that this prohibition against killing humans does not make an exemption for war. The shedding of human blood is forbidden, period.
Death Penalty: As someone in class pointed out, this prohibition in Genesis 9:6 states that those who shed blood are to be killed. Killers should be killed. This should be read as a sign of the high value placed on human life in biblical faith. One of the most important aspects of the death penalty in the covenant with Noah is that it is applied equally, which is different from other ancient law codes. The Code of Hammurabi, for instance, did not impose the death sentence on a wealthy person who killed a lower class person. The covenant in Genesis makes no distinction based on wealth or power. This is also quite different from our situation in the United States where wealth, status, race, and even region of the country make a big difference in whether a person is sentenced to death. The issue of capital punishment is too important for us to decide it on the basis on a single verse of Scripture. It requires investigation and prudence.
The covenant with Noah does not make it clear how to apply the death sentence while avoiding an endless cycle of violence. If anyone who sheds the blood of another human must be killed, then those who enact the punishment will also incur blood guilt. This is why executioners were masked in former times. Thousands of years after the writing of Genesis, we are still trying to figure out how to deal with war and murder and justice. Whatever you decide is right regarding capital punishment and war, I think we can all agree that the intention of the covenant in Genesis 9 is the protection of human life rather than the taking of human.
We’re spending some time on this covenant with Noah because it is important in Judaism. As you may know, Jews are bound by the Mosaic covenant, the 613 laws of the Torah, but Judaism teaches that Gentiles are bound by the covenant with Noah. To be a righteous Gentile is to be a person who does not shed human blood or kill animals wantonly. It is a much simpler standard of righteousness than the Torah, but it has proven very difficult for people to live up to.
Introduction to Noah and the Wine: As we discussed last week, life continued after the flood. Genesis 9-11 is marks the transition from the antediluvian period and the story of Abraham. A lot is packed into a few chapters, but we aren’t going to read and discuss all of it because I hate reading the genealogies.
Vineyards: Noah was a man of the soil, we are told, and so he planted a vineyard as soon as the flood was over. Vineyards in the Bible are symbolic of agricultural bounty and planning for the future. As some of our neighbors have learned, a vineyard is an investment in the future. It is not instant gratification. So, this simple statement that Noah planted a vineyard is an elegant way of saying that he continued to look ahead and work hard.
And apparently he played hard, too. He took the fruit of the vine and made it into wine, which was a major industry in biblical time. It takes time and planning to make wine. So, we have to recognize that Noah didn’t get to have a glass of wine for years after leaving the ark. That first wine was probably Beaujolais, I think, but it doesn’t really matter what kind of wine. What matters is that he drank too much, which is not really surprising under the circumstances. What would you do after a year on a boat with just your family and every animal on earth?
The Bible doesn’t really condemn Noah for drinking wine. He remained a righteous man. But while he was drunk, he fell asleep in an immodest fashion. I hope that was tactful but still clear. I also hope that this has never happened to you. You’d be surprised at the stories I’ve heard. I had a friend once who drank too much on a camping trip and slept too near the fire. His friends kept pulling him away, but he insisted on sleeping near the flames where it was warm. During the night he rolled over onto the coals and burned himself severely without even knowing it. He recovered, and today he is a good father and regular church-goer. He still has a scar, I think. His story, like Noah’s is a warning against drunkenness as well as evidence of redemption.
Temperance: During the Temperance Movement, Genesis 9 was preached constantly as a warning against the evils of drink. The Temperance Movement was so successful in portraying the evils of wine that many Methodists and Baptists equated Christianity with abstinence from alcohol. Many people, especially in the Bible Belt, cannot conceive of a true Christian drinking. This has in turn led to the popular joke: How do you tell the difference between a Methodist and a Presbyterian? The Presbyterian will talk to you in the ABC store. It is because of the Temperance Movements equation of abstinence and faithfulness that so many Protestant churches began using grape juice in communion instead of wine in the early 20th century. Moravians referred to this as using “unfermented wine” in communion. That is one of my favorite non-sense phrases!
In order to understand Genesis 9, we need to acknowledge that the Temperance Movement clouded our reading of Scripture. Wine in the Bible, in both the Old Testament and New Testament, is generally seen as a positive thing. From the biblical perspective, it was good that Noah planted a vineyard. It is interesting that the first mention of wine in Scripture comes after the flood. It is in the context of rebuilding the world after catastrophe. Wine is seen as one of the fruits of our labors that can lighten the heart, but this story also makes it clear that alcohol also clouds the mind. In other words, in this as in all other aspects of life, humans have to learn responsibility and moderation. That is a key part of Comenius’ theology. Noah failed that test, but that is not the central point of the story.
The Sons of Noah: This is not just a story of a righteous man of God who got drunk. The main point is that Ham saw his father in this condition and told his brothers Shem and Japheth. They covered their father without shaming him. When Noah woke up he was angry at Ham and cursed Ham’s son Canaan. We do not know what Ham did to incur his father’s wrath or why it was Canaan that was cursed. There has been much speculation on this question through the years, some of it quite lewd, but little resolution. The simplest explanation is that Ham or Canaan or both shamed Noah by telling the others what he what he had seen. Ham turned Noah’s immoderation into a public disgrace and scandal. The implication is that he mocked his father. The two other brothers, in contrast, did the decent thing. Rather than joining in the mocking, they covered their father’s disgrace.
Parents: What does this story of the sons of Noah tell us today? I think there are at least two good lessons. One is that the duty to honor one’s parents is a universal duty for all people regardless of their religious beliefs. This duty is life-long and especially important in those times when parents have lost their dignity through age, illness, or even foolishness. People assume that the commandment of honoring one’s parents is primarily directed at children, but it is really an instruction on how to treat our parents as they age and lose their capacities. We are to continue to show them respect and to assist them without violating their dignity.
Vulnerability: The second lesson involves how we deal with any person who is vulnerable. Noah was vulnerable because he was drunk and needed protection. Genesis tells us that even if persons are vulnerable because of their own actions or stupidity, we are not to shame them, mock them, or in any way abuse them. This is a message that needs to be driven home to men when it comes to the issue of date rape. Even when someone is intoxicated, you should not take advantage of them.
This message extends beyond sexual ethics, though, to all aspects of life. Those who take advantage of the poor through credit schemes, price gouging, and other rip-offs are sinful. Christians, Jews, and Muslim, who all honor Noah as a prophet and savior should join their voices in condemning those who exploit the vulnerable and weak. A nation that claims a Christian heritage should pass laws to stop exploitation of the vulnerable, even those who are vulnerable because of their own bad decisions.
Cursing of Canaan: Noah blesses some of his offspring and curses others. Clearly the story of the cursing of Canaan was used to explain why the Israelites were to have possession of the land of Canaan. This issue of the ownership of Canaan continues to be a flashpoint in Middle Eastern politics although the original Canaanites are long gone. This story of the cursing of Canaan is still told in Israel, but it has a long and painful history in America as well. The Europeans settlers in the New World used the story of the curse of Canaan to justify the enslavement, abuse, and murder of native peoples. They were depicted as the Canaanites who lived in the Promised Land reserved for European Christians.
When Europeans began enslaving dark skinned peoples from Africa, many Christians were troubled by this abuse. How could those saved by Christ enslave others for whom Christ had died? Some of the slave-holders assuaged their feelings of guilt by arguing that the Africans were the descendents of Ham, who had been cursed by Noah. These Hamites, it was argued, were destined to be slaves for all time, and their dark skin was the sign of the curse. This notion of the curse of Ham on Africans became a pillar of the white supremacy movement of the 19th and 20th centuries. This idea owes much more to the Indian caste system than to the Bible, but there are many fundamentalist churches that continue to teach that racism is a biblical concept grounded in the curse of Noah. This just goes to show just how much people can read into the Bible in order to justify their own fears, hatreds, and prejudices. There is no curse of Ham in the Bible, and that curse has no meaning any longer.
Genealogies: Though Noah cursed Ham’s son Canaan, the children of Ham were important to the history of the world. I won’t read the long genealogies in Gen. 9-11, but there are some interesting things to note. Seventy people are named in the genealogy of Noah, which is probably a number of completion (7 x 10). The whole known world was covered by the descendents of Noah. It is also instructive that the whole world in this case stretched from Libya in North Africa to Iran and Ethiopia to Armenia. It is quite a large area with people of different colors and customs and languages, but it is still only a small portion of the world we know. This is another indication that the world of the Old Testament is rather small. Though Genesis speaks in universal terms, the writer could not imagine the scope of the world he really inhabited. At the time of Genesis there were great civilizations in China and India and Central America that were not included in this account of the generations of the sons of Noah.
Another interesting point is that the genealogies are a transition from the antediluvian world of giants and heroes to the world we know. Notice that the life spans grow progressively shorter. A final point of interest is that the descendents of Ham are credited with founding the great cities of the ancient world, despite the curse. Nimrod is identified as a famous hunter and builder of cities. You may remember from the Bugs Bunny cartoons that Bugs calls Elmer Fudd a Nimrod. That was a sarcastic statement on Elmer as a hunter. Incidentally, those who hold to the theory of the curse of Ham generally ignore the fact that the Hamites in Genesis built Babylon, Ninevah, Akkad, and other great civilizations of the ancient world. Again, we see that biblical literalists tend to be selective in their literalism.
I had hoped to finish with Genesis 1-11 this week, but time has again proven to me the master rather than a slave. Next week we’ll focus on the story of the Tower of Babel and discuss Genesis 1-11 as a prelude to rest of the Bible.