I know I’ve mentioned before how I don’t always know why some stories are included in the Bible. They just seem strange, and particularly not like the family-friendly, clean-cut, very moral, straight-laced version of Christianity that is so often presented in our weekly gatherings. Genesis 9:18-29 is one of these passages.
What is in this passage you may ask? Well the title above kind of says it all. Noah and his sons have survived the flood, but we get this last little story before moving on to the next generations. During this time we have Noah planting a vineyard, drinking a bit too much of the wine that vineyard produced, and next thing you know he’s naked in his tent.
Things become a bit stranger though as one of Noah’s sons, Ham, sees Noah naked in his tent and runs off to tell his brothers. Unlike Ham though, Shem and Japheth go to great lengths both to cover Noah’s nakedness and not look at it themselves. When Noah awakes, he curses Ham (well truthfully he curses Canaan, Ham’s son, but there seems to be a connection here) and blesses both Shem and Japheth. Then with little in between Noah dies.
So what is all this about? I wish I entirely knew. It just seems like a very strange story. Let’s look at some possibilities. Is it focused on Noah’s indiscretion with alcohol as some kind of indication that even righteous men fall? Potentially, but I see very little to center this story being about Noah’s failure. I mean he did get drunk which is viewed negatively at other places in Scripture, but at the same time if we’re reading Genesis as a whole there has been no prohibition against this so far.
Plus, we see little negative response directed towards Noah here. Some want to compare him to Adam that after the new creation that the flood has produced we see another sinful action showing the taint of sin in the world. I understand the desire to do this, but a few things make me uncomfortable with using this logic.
We were never told that human sin is gone in the first place, just that God won’t destroy the world because of it. We are given no introductory comments on how drinking wine is a sin or any confrontation afterwards to indicate Noah was wrong as we do with the Adam narrative. Sure later on drunkenness is indicated as sinful, but we have to go quite a bit further along in the Bible to see that spelled out.
In addition to this, Noah is naked in his own tent. Now maybe his tent was wide open or something that made it every easy to Ham to see, but still Noah’s not exposing his nakedness outside where anyone could see. What we are given is that he’s naked in his tent, which I’m guessing happened at times even without alcohol. Do I think Noah showed wisdom in getting drunk? No, but I’m not sure this is a place to pile on Noah and launch into a talk about how the Bible speaks against drunkenness (as if getting naked and passing out in your tent is the worst thing alcohol could bring).
So I’m just not convinced that we’re supposed to be focused on Noah sinning some great sin and ruining his reputation. Not to say there isn’t parallels between the Adam story and Noah story, the planting of a garden/orchard, the eating of that garden, and the presence of nakedness. However, there seems to be a different focus in these stories. Unlike in the story of Adam the focus seems to be on the behaviors of the sons in response to Noah’s nakedness, not on Noah’s sin itself (if his action is being considered sinful).
Now honestly Ham seeing Noah’s nakedness doesn’t seem like that big of a deal. Even if the situation is that Noah and his wife were having sex as I’ve heard proposed before, it still makes it hard to think that such an incident is worthy of cursing. This has led to speculation that something more was done to deserve this punishment or that because sins against ones parents and family were more serious at that time.
I’m not sure about either view, but I like the way that John H. Sailhamer puts in in the Expositors Bible Commentary on Genesis. He says that, “Whatever the details of the actual act might have been, taken at face value the sons’ actions suit the author’s purpose quite well. What he apparently wants to show is simply the contrast between the deeds of Ham and those of Shem and Japheth. This contrast becomes the basis for the curse and the blessing that follow.”
So we’re supposed to be looking at the deeds of Ham and the deeds of Shem and Japheth. Ham saw his father’s nakedness and proceeded to tell his brothers. We have no words on Ham’s part to know what was said or how it was said in this story, but we can gather it was not positive. After all he is not included in the deeds of Shem and Japheth. All we know for certain is that Ham points out Noah’s compromised position.
When Shem and Japheth hear this they take a garment of clothing into Noah’s tents with their backs turned and cover the nakedness of their father. Instead of simply spreading news of Noah’s state they take steps to cover it. If we’re wanting to focus on parallels between Adam and Noah it is interesting to note that God covers Adam’s nakedness and Shem and Japheth are the ones to cover Noah. It’s hard to say if that is intentional or not, but it is clear from the blessing and the curses that Ham did not do what was right and Shem and Japheth did.
This has made me wonder how often are we like Ham? We find someone who we don’t agree with, who fails, who is sinful, or who is simply found to be an imperfect human and we point it out to anyone who will listen. When we look at this passage and want to deride Noah for his sin aren’t we doing exactly what Ham did? Noah’s potential sin here is really very minor, but some point it out with great enthusiasm and many words.
If you compare this to the action of Shem and Japheth, they are part of the solution to this problem not just mockers on the sideline. They covered Noah with a garment and went on their way. It is so easy to point out the shortcomings and sins in people, it can be much harder to go in and be part of a solution to the issues (including sin) they may be facing.
I’m not saying that there is never a place to call out sin. We are all sinful, we are all imperfect, and the truth is we need to have it called out. There are people who are abusive and manipulative and they need to have their sin addressed personally and even publicly. I guess what I wonder is what do we do after we tell others about somebody’s sin?
Do we simply exit the story like Ham did or go on our way to find the next person to expose? Do we actively seek to cover the exposed sin with garments like Shem and Japheth? These garments may not be real clothing or covers like in Noah’s story. They may simply be garments of love, grace, and forgiveness, but those can be powerful garments. This isn’t always easy, because sometimes the one who needs these garments are people we can easily label as an enemy.
I know I can simply want to point out the sins or imperfections of other people. To sit on the sidelines and point it out. However, I don’t just want to just be a mocker. I want to be able to cover the shame and sin of those who I encounter with grace and love. Primarily because that is what I claim, the grace, love and forgiveness of God. This may not be what this passage was trying to get at, but it’s where it took me. What do you think?