My wife is currently leading a Bible study through Genesis for a group of insatiable Bible students. Because she is a deep thinker and has a high view of inspiration, there is no passage she is unwilling to face head on, seeking the interpretive clues that will give meaning to an otherwise bewildering narrative. This kind of interpretive determination certainly meets a fearsome challenge in more than one Genesis passage, and none more so, perhaps, than Genesis 9:20-27.
The questions raised by this little story are rampant and daunting. They include: (1) Why did Noah decide to get drunk?; (2) Why is it shameful to be drunk and passed out in your own tent?; (3) Why does God never say Noah is wrong for his actions?; (4) What did Ham do to Noah?; (5) Why is Canaan cursed instead of Ham? Such questions are answerable, though not in the way that might be arrived at by a literal, historical interpretation.
As Christians, we submit to a single hermeneutic that supersedes all others. Jesus himself told those close to him (as well as those who did not accept his message) that it is through him that understanding of the Scriptures is achieved (Luke 24:27, 44-47; John 5:39, 46). Jesus’ disciples passed along this message both verbally and with virtually unending examples in the New Testament (Acts 2:25, 34; 26:22-23; 28:23; Romans 16:26; 2 Corinthians 3:14-15; Hebrews 1:13; 2:13; et. al.).
Noah is the savior of the human race, chosen by God for his blamelessness and righteousness. As such, he is a type of Christ. Like Enoch, Noah walked with God (Gen. 6:9; cp. 5:22, 24). He has just disembarked from a year-long voyage and ratified a covenant with God. The waters have separated to reveal a new land and Noah’s family is now instructed to repopulate the earth and rule over the pristine re-Creation. This is strikingly similar to the first imperatives given to mankind (9:1-2; cp. 1:28).
The first action the reader finds Noah setting his hand to do in light of the new covenant is to plant a vineyard (9:20). Once already, we have seen “planting” done in Genesis 2:8 where the Lord “planted a garden.” Many times in the Old Testament, God will speak of “planting” Israel (2 Sam. 7:10; 1 Chr. 17:9; Ps. 44:2; 80:8, 15; Is. 5:2; Jer. 2:21; 11:17; 12:2; 24:6; 31:28; 32:41; 42:10; 45:4; Ezek. 36:36; Amos 9:15). God is spoken of as planting a vineyard which is interpreted as Israel (Isaiah 5:7; Jer. 2:21). Likewise, Jesus speaks of Israel as a vineyard (Matt. 21:33-44; Mark 12:1-12; Luke 20:9-16).
In Genesis 9 Noah has just foreshadowed the Christ story brilliantly—though likely ignorantly. Through him humanity has gotten a fresh start (complete even with new eating regulations; cp. Gen. 9:3, cp. 1:30, Mark 7:19). In this new beginning, Noah mirrors God’s earlier planting when the world was in its infancy. Yet, as we have said already, it would be silly to fail to see Noah as the Savior-type as well as God-type. We might say Noah seems to be playing a kind of dual role here—he symbolizes both God who plants the vineyard and the Savior who drinks from its fruit.
Just two verses into the short account, we already find Noah “drunk” on the wine of his own vineyard and naked “in his tent” (9:21). Interestingly, God has the cup of wine of his wrath that he forces upon nations with whom his patience is finally exhausted (Ps. 60:3; 75:8; Is. 51:17, 22-23; Jer. 13:13; 25:15ff; 51:7; Lam. 4:21; Ezek. 23:33; Hab. 2:16). The drunkenness it causes leads one to be exposed, naked before the world, so that all can see how unrighteous the judged nation has become (cf. Israel [Lam. 4:21]; Babylon [Hab. 2:16]; cp. Assyria [Nah. 3:5, 11]).
Certainly, many will recall quickly that Jesus spoke to the Father about a “cup” from which he would rather not have partaken (Matt. 26:39; Mark 14:36; Luke 22:42), and yet to which he willingly submitted (John 18:11). This can be none other than the cup of wrath of which we read in the prophets. He takes upon himself the just punishment for our sin (Isai. 53:4-11). Instead of being passed to us so that our great abominations would be exposed, the cup has been passed to Jesus.
As with all crucified criminals Jesus would have been naked on the cross, displayed for all to see. Nakedness, sin, and shame have been equated since Genesis 3. In fact, the connections between Genesis 3 and 9 are many and James Jordan has noted that Noah’s “drunkenness” is quite possibly just a feeling of warmth and drowsiness that comes with drinking wine in reasonable amounts and is related to the rest he is prophesied to bring. World-saver Noah has become a God-type in planting this new creation, and the wine from a vineyard would symbolize clearly, to an ancient audience, the leisurely rest of a king.((James Jordan, The Sin of Ham and the Curse of Canaan, Part 2, http://www.biblicalhorizons.com/biblical-horizons/no-97-the-sin-of-ham-and-the-curse-of-canaan-part-2/ (July, 1997).)) This even happens in his tent—a place one would expect to be safe and unashamed, even if unclothed. Surely of all places to be discovered “naked,” one’s tent would be acceptable. To mock someone of authority, one who has become (slightly?) inebriated in a completely acceptable setting, is petty at best and egregious at worst.
Just as God pronounces judgment on the disobedient children of Genesis 3 (Adam and Eve), Noah pronounces the same upon Canaan—the child of Ham who is likely already living in the likeness of his authority-hungry father. This is borne out by the fact that no other child of Ham is singled out for judgment as Canaan even though Canaan is clearly the youngest (Gen. 10:6) and so moral patterns have certainly already been established by his older brothers, also. Just as Adam and Eve sought the authority of God to make their own choices long before their moral and spiritual maturity could validate such authority, Ham now seeks to usurp his father’s authoritative role in the new creation, likely in favor of his own, and Canaan likely shows similar tendencies. The emphasis on Canaan resonates with the original audience of the Torah, having recently been freed from captivity and now ordered to enter the land of Canaan and eradicate the Canaanites because of their evil ways. From a forefather (and likely his son) who mocked his own father in an awkward moment because of desire for personal authority, an entire people has sprung up who sets their own rules and live as they wish, leading to idolatry, immorality, and unabashed cruelty toward God’s people.
Lest we think this too far a stretch, Jordan has noted the punishment instituted against Canaan by God fits this scenario perfectly.((http://www.biblicalhorizons.com/biblical-horizons/no-97-the-sin-of-ham-and-the-curse-of-canaan-part-2/)) Canaan is to become not a ruler over, but a servant to both of his brothers (Gen. 9:26-27). Though he desired the authority which was attained by Noah through righteous walking with the Lord to an age of over six-hundred, Canaan would be only a servant.
Noah—again like God in Genesis 3 (and with the dominion bestowed upon man in Genesis 1, now properly exercised)—forcefully pronounces judgment on those who would seek to establish themselves as judge of their own lives and actions over their father. Just as Adam and Eve were given dominion by God yet failed to exercise it as he would have and, therefore, were cursed for wishing to become their own arbiters of right and wrong for themselves, so now Canaan is cursed in a parallel circumstance in the new creation and by the one who is mature enough to exercise his God-given role of dominion wisely.((James Jordan, The Sin of Ham and the Curse of Canaan, Part 3, http://www.biblicalhorizons.com/biblical-horizons/no-98-the-sin-of-ham-and-the-curse-of-canaan-part-3/ (August, 1997).))
Remembering Jesus’ own claim to be the hermeneutic by which all is finally understood, we overlay his story upon the Genesis 9 account, as well. Jesus takes the cup and becomes naked considering the shame of little account (Heb. 12:2). Of all places, this great travesty occurs in Jerusalem, the place of God’s temple on earth. This is the very place one would least expect Yahweh to be debased and ridiculed by his own people—his very sons and daughters. One would think, surely in his own home on earth, built for him and prayed for by all his people (2 Chron. 6:17-40), there would never be such an ignominious display of rejection and callous disdain. And yet here is God, in Christ, and in “his own tent,” experiencing drunkenness, shame, and mockery by those who should esteem him the highest.
According to the Hebrew text, Noah’s being “drunk” could easily have been considered more what we could call “impaired.” Jesus’ taking of the “cup” does not result in impairment at all. As noted above, it is a symbolic reference to the drunkenness forced upon the guilty who must drink the cup God gives as a precursor to punishment, i.e., to be exposed before and plundered by enemies and foreigners. It was God, in Christ, who drank of the very fruit from the vineyard he planted, namely, his people, which includes his people of all time—even us.
But not all mock Jesus on the cross, of course. There are those, both Jew and Gentile, who show deference to Jesus as Messiah and/or King. Many Jews revere him as God’s coming Davidic King, even right to the end, though they are generally scared to come forward in this way (Mark 14:50; Luke 22:57-60; et. al.). However, it is men of God like Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, both members of the ruling council of the Jews, who take Jesus’ naked body down from the cross and treat him with respect, wrapping him for burial (John 19:38-40). The Roman centurion at the foot of the cross calls Jesus the “Son of God” (Mark 15:39).
In these circumstances, we find Noah’s three sons are represented in their clearest form. The one who sees the father “naked in his own tent” and chooses to mock him before the other two is plainly the religious leadership, associated with Ham in Genesis 9. They see Jesus—God in the flesh—naked and debased, but instead of coming to his rescue they revile him openly and vociferously. The youngest offspring of Ham (Canaan, i.e., he who would choose to walk in the likeness of Ham) is cursed by Noah (our Christ-figure) upon his discovery of the son’s actions.
By Moses’ time, the people of the land of Canaan were far from God and deserving of punishment for their evil, showing themselves to be the same kind of people as their forefather—mocking God’s people rather than extending grace in a time of distress. They have walked in the ways of their father and sought to throw off the leadership of proper godly authority in favor of their own immature judgment. The rebellious natures of Ham and Canaan are displayed figuratively in the action of Ham to mock his naked father (not covering him with a proper symbol of dominion—his cloak [see below]) and take a position of authority before his proper time. So, too, the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, as a whole, show themselves to be far from God in their failure to extend grace and respect in the time of God’s greatest humiliation. The figurative association of the Jewish leaders with Ham’s bloodline which leads directly to the Canaanites sends a powerful spiritual message.
On the other hand, the other two brothers show proper deference to their Father in his time of dishonor. They do not look upon their father’s nakedness and instead they place his garment (presumably the very one he has already been wearing) on their shoulders and re-clothe their father, in a sense, covering him again and acknowledging his proper place as leader among them. (The instance of being in an unseemly or desperate position followed by a bestowal, or re-bestowal, of clothing and acknowledgement of a role of honor and/or authority is also found in Gen. 41:14, 40-43; 2 Ki. 25:29; Esth. 7:9; 8:15; Zech. 3:5-6.)
The two good sons are not difficult to connect to their symbolic representation. Shem is the easiest. Even to this day, Jews are known as Semites, coming from the same word as Shem, meaning name, in Hebrew. Hence, the people of the Name, or the Jews. Shem represents the Jews who stay true to their Father, honoring him even through a time when he is mocked by their brothers.
Japheth is the son who will be enlarged, and yet will dwell in the tents of Shem (Gen. 9:27). The interpretation of this brother is made quickly once the others are in place. It can be none other than believing Gentiles, as a whole. Even though they will be greatly enlarged, they will come into the tents of their blessed brother, Shem. In other words, believing Gentiles will be incorporated into the plan first initiated by God among and through the Jews, becoming part of the same tent/household (Eph. 2:11-22; 3:6, et al). These brothers will come together in a unity and respect for their Father in a time that seems most distressing, and yet is actually a time of greatest fulfillment. Together, they will honor the Father, in the Son, who has become drunk and naked by partaking of a cup that rightly belonged to them.
Even though all descendants of Shem are not Jews, technically, just as all descendants of Japheth do not become people incorporated into the promise of Israel through Abraham and all literal descendants of Canaan are not destined to be slaves to the lines of Japheth and Shem, the figurative nature of the symbolism through Christ is clear. There are three kinds of people in the world: (1) The Semites who honor the Father in his most humiliating moment; (2) the Gentiles who join their (Jewish) brothers in showing honor for their Father; and (3) those of any line who mock the Father during the time of his humiliation, even though said humiliation is in perfect harmony with the plan to bring rest to creation.
This early Bible story is not intended to portray the moral downfall of one of the earliest champions of faith. As with the entire biblical narrative, it points God’s people to a time and place where God’s cup will be passed to the One who will become naked in his own tent, displayed before all his sons, who will then have to make a choice about how they will align themselves. Will it be with those who jeer and mock the seeming futility and tragedy of the would-be savior’s inglorious downfall? Or will it be with those whose honor for their Father causes them to react with grace and deference, exhibiting the utmost respect in a time of surprising ignominy.
To see Noah—the righteous and blameless one who walks with God and whom the reader has only just learned is the one through whom God grants a new beginning to a depraved humanity—as nothing more than a vindictive drunk in his final biblical scene is shortsighted at best. As with all stories in scripture this one, too, speaks primarily about Jesus. There is still a divine story of rest and judgment to be told. Ultimately, the Father is telling One Story, and it is a story of grace, hope, peace, love and rest. This rubric for reading the Scriptures is not an optimistic suggestion for how to make the distasteful passage more palatable. (Such passages are hardly rare.) It is a submission to the greatest interpretive advice given in Scripture itself by the very one who wrote it through His Spirit (Luke 24:27; John 5:39).
To see only moral depravity in Genesis 9:20-27 is to fail to take into account the full story of the One who restarts humanity after its tragic fall into disgrace, and to—at least unwittingly—dismiss the Savior’s admonition that all of God’s Word is about him.
Eric Robinson lives in Lubbock, Texas, and is the author of Jesus in the Shadows.
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