About That Time Noah Got Drunk And Naked And Started Cursing People

The book of Genesis tells us that God saw the evil of humankind and decided to kill  everyone in a cataclysmic flood—everyone, that is, except Noah and his family. Then, after the flood, Noah gets off the boat, grows a wine vineyard, gets astoundingly drunk on his wine, and passes out naked in a tent. Finally, Noah wakes up, finds out that his son saw him naked, and curses his grandson. The end.

Haha, what?

Setting aside the disturbing fact that the God of all justice apparently decided to wipe out all of humanity (and then later declared that justice would never again require doing that—even if humankind became equally evil), there are still many bizarre things in this story.

First, if someone saw me naked—especially because I’d kicked back about ten or twenty too many the night before—l can imagine all kinds of reactions that I might have when I woke up.

But, no matter how hard I try, I can’t imagine cursing that person’s child being one of them.

That said, let’s suspend all familiar. Let’s just pretend that I had no sense of direction or proportionality. Let’s pretend my reaction would be to curse a man’s child. Let’s say my waiter tonight spills a drink in my lap. And let’s say I immediately stand up, look him in the eye, and proclaim, “Cursed be your child! The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers.”

Again, there would be all kinds of not normal in that situation.

But I can confidently say that God would not curse the man’s child.

So when God actually does grant Noah’s really odd curse on Ham’s child, I think it’s in bounds to ask all sorts of questions. Specifically, is there something happening below the surface that we don’t see?

This is not a story about why it’s bad to drink alcohol (yes, I’ve heard that many times).

What’s really going on here is much more dark.

And we need to talk about it.

It tells us a lot about the kind of thing we are reading when we are reading the Bible that I agree is inspired.

So, let’s go back to the story and look at it in detail. When Noah gets off the boat, we are told that his three sons got off the boat too. But the story begins with an interesting detail.

And it’s oddly specific.

The sons of Noah who came out of the ark were Shem, Ham and Japheth. (Ham was the father of Canaan.)

Whoever Canaan is, he is not in this story, and Noah’s three children had lots of children. So this odd story only get more odd when it begins by the specific information that Ham was the father of Canaan. Perhaps that was just an accident (spoiler: I wrote this whole thing because it’s not), but let’s read on.

Next, we are told that Noah gets drunk on the wine from a vineyard that he planted (as a side note, as a former Californian I can confidently tell you that it takes a LONG time for a vineyard to become wine producing, but never mind), and Ham happens to see him passed out drunk and naked in his tent. But notice that the writer provides that same strange detail a second time:

When he drank some of its wine, he became drunk and lay uncovered inside his tent. Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father naked and told his two brothers outside.

Again, let me repeat: Canaan is still not in this story. In fact, there is not a single story in the whole Bible about a man named Canaan. Yet, here his name comes back for a second random appearance.

At this point, you would be in the right if you are beginning to suspect that whoever wrote this story might have been obsessed with Canaan. If you’ve ever had a conversation with someone who, no matter what the topic, always brings the conversation back to something about someone they used to date, I think you’ve experienced what’s happening here. This story isn’t about Noah or his sons or nakedness or wine.

But Shem and Japheth took a garment and laid it across their shoulders; then they walked in backward and covered their father’s naked body. Their faces were turned the other way so that they would not see their father naked.

This story is about Canaan.

And why Canaan is different from his brothers.

Specifically, why his brothers are superior to Canaan.

And what that might mean to a people who have been exiled from the land that their traditions have long held came from Canaan.

And why Yahweh might not look so favorably on a people who took them away from the land that Yahweh took from those evil Canaanites.

BUT, is accidentally seeing Noah passed out naked in his tent . . . evil? No. But that’s probably not what happened. This part of the story is probably a euphemism for Ham sleeping with Noah’s wife. The Bible often tells whole stories as euphemisms like this. For example, when the book of Ruth tells us that Ruth went to the sound asleep Boaz and “uncovered his feet”, trust me she wasn’t uncovering his feet.

“Ah, yes,” I hear people thinking, “that’s what this story is about. This story is about why it’s bad to have sex with your father’s wife.”

But, haha, no. Ham sleeping with his father’s wife isn’t the point of this story either.

Later the Bible will tell us that God commanded the sons of Shem to wipe out the sons of Ham. But who are the sons of Shem? Why, they are the semitic people. Have you ever heard someone say that so-and-so was anti-semitic, and you knew that meant “anti-Jewish”, but wondered where that word came from? Well, here it is.

This story is about them.

And their land.

Which they took from the Canaanites.

And why they believed God gave it to them.

This is a story told centuries after a genocide, and by the people who committed it.

Notice what we are told at the very beginning of the story:

These were the three sons of Noah, and from them came the people who were scattered over the whole earth.

First of all, it should be said that anthropologists are very confident that the spread of humanity throughout the earth did not happen the way Genesis describes (which is a comforting thing if you aren’t fond of following a God who orders genocides). But, as I have argued extensively, Genesis was written thousands of years after the events it describes. It was written a thousand years after Moses’s time, a time when the Semitic people had just returned after being exiled from their land. And since the writer is trying to explain why everything is the way it is now, he starts with a clean slate. He starts with three people from whom all humanity will come. It’s as if to say: If you want to understand why things are the way they are now, just compare us to the people from whom God gave us this land.

Notice everything Noah says when he wakes up:

When Noah awoke from his wine and found out what his youngest son had done to him, he said,

Cursed be Canaan!
The lowest of slaves
will he be to his brothers.”

He also said,

“Praise be to the Lord, the God of Shem!
May Canaan be the slave of Shem.

If you are wondering why Noah got so mad and decided to take his anger out on Canaan of all people, it’s because this story never happened. It’s a myth.

What did happen is that when this story was written the sons of Shem—that is, the Israelites—had just returned to the land they had lost and so constructed a narrative to support their never-ending claim to their land.

The Semite’s claim to their land is what you are reading when you read the entire book of Genesis.

Notice what happens immediately after this story in one of those “boring” genealogies.

This is the account of Shem, Ham and Japheth, Noah’s sons, who themselves had sons after the flood.

….

The sons of Ham:

Cush, Egypt, Put and Canaan.

….
Cush was the father of Nimrod, who became a mighty warrior on the earth. 9 He was a mighty hunter before the Lord; that is why it is said, “Like Nimrod, a mighty hunter before the Lord.” The first centers of his kingdom were Babylon, Uruk, Akkad and Kalneh, in Shiner. From that land he went to Assyria, where he built Nineveh, Rehoboth Ir, Calah and Resen, which is between Nineveh and Calah—which is the great city.

….

Canaan was the father of Sidon his firstborn, and of the Hittites, Jebusites, Amorites, Girgashites,  Hives, Arkites, Sinites, Arvadites, Zemarites and Hamathites.

Later the Canaanite clans scattered and the borders of Canaan reached from Sidon toward Gerar as far as Gaza, and then toward Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah and Zeboyim, as far as Lasha.

These are the sons of Ham by their clans and languages, in their territories and nations.

If you’ve spent as little as an hour in the Bible, you would know that every virtually every single people group who would later become an enemy of Israel—not to mention the Canaanites—came from Ham. But, then notice who came from Shem:

Sons were also born to Shem, whose older brother was Japheth; Shem was the ancestor of all the sons of Eber.

The sons of Shem: Elam, Ashur, Arphaxad, Lud and Aram.

The sons of Aram: Uz, Hul, Gether and Meshek.

Arphaxad was the father of Shelah, and Shelah the father of Eber.

It is from Shem that we get Eber.

And who is Eber?

It is from Eber that we get the name, and the ethnic group, Hebrew.

Now, go back to the text and notice how prominently Eber and Canaan are placed in the genealogy. It’s not an accident. The drunk Noah story and the genealogy are all about them.

The entire Old Testament is the story of the Hamites against Semites. 

This is why I found it important to miss out on normal young, single adult life and spend six months writing a caution against Christians basing their whole faith on the inerrancy of the Bible. It’s easy today for me to say that God never really commanded the things you see written in Joshua and Judges. My reading of the Bible doesn’t force me into that position. And I feel bad for people who still live their lives trying to explain how the justice and wisdom of God required that the Israelites kill the newborn children of the people living in Jericho.

If you realize that the books of the Old Testament are nowhere close to telling what we today think of as “history”, you begin to see that these genealogies are less history and more ancient arguments in support of a claim to nice land.

Arguments that Jesus Christ would later come and kill on a Roman cross.

I certainly believe the Israelites looked from Babylon back at the land from which they were exiled and believed God had commanded this. That their land was their divine right.

But our faith in God doesn’t require that we believe this too.

Unless you are prepared to say that God gave the Israelites the right to kill people for land because Noah got drunk and his son happened to walk into a tent.

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Why I Spend My Free Time Reading the Old Testament

AUTHOR’S NOTE: This post, like many old things I’ve written, reflects a “this world is not my home” view that I don’t affirm anymore. Nevertheless, I’ve kept it to show where I come from.

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I spend most of my free time either hiking or studying the Old Testament. That’s kind of weird.

The other day a friend of mine took me out to lunch, and he made a statement I get a lot: “I get why you love the Old Testament. It’s because you’re a lawyer and the Old Testament is full of laws.”

Yes, because as a lawyer I love nothing more than converting to long-term memory the intricate, never-ending instructions for cutting open bulls and heifers and waving their internal organs before an altar, quarantining people with skin diseases, what you can and can’t do on the Festival of Unleavened Bread, and who or what you can’t have sex with. Like most lawyers, it tickles my fancy that the atonement cover is only two and half cubits long instead of a full three cubits.

And can you believe the curtains of the tabernacle are all the same size and dyed red? I know, you only live once, right?

No, I don’t get excited to read details like that.

Guys.

I like football.

I like beer festivals.

I like Bass Pro Shops.

But I don’t like reading about that kind of stuff. There are too many things to distract me, such as, well . . . anything.

“I think Chris secretly wants to make us all Jewish.” That’s another thing I hear from time to time.

Several centuries before a Jewish rabbi named Jesus was born, a prophet named Jeremiah foretold the coming of a new covenant. Sometime later, a Jewish Pharisee named Paul wrote that “apart from the Law, the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify.” When he wrote that—and I’m glad he did—he no doubt had in mind Jeremiah. I firmly believe we live under that new covenant today and that the new covenant is better than the old one.

Why? Because Jeremiah described the new covenant being “written in our hearts,” as opposed to an endless list of rules and regulations we would have to memorize. It’s no wonder that when Jesus described his yoke (all rabbis had “yokes,” which were their interpretations of how to live out the Torah), he said it was “easy.”

Because the Torah is not easy. I have no desire to rack my brain over the Jewish controversies concerning when, whether, and how to wear a Tzitzit. Or how much electricity I can use on the Sabbath.

Also, I like bacon.

I simply want to love God and treat my neighbor as I would like to be treated, which I get to do as a follower of what the New Testament calls “the Way.”

So, if I don’t follow the law of Moses, why do I read the Old Testament? Why do I teach the Old Testament? Who puts themselves through so much torture? I do, and for two reasons.

Jewish Authors, Jesus

First, Jesus was Jewish. Not just Jesus, but everyone who wrote anything in the New Testament. And most of the people they were speaking and writing to were Jewish. Take a moment to let that sink in. These people did Jewish things, said Jewish things, thought Jewish things, debated Jewish controversies, and told jokes that everyday Jews were telling. Meaning, to understand what did or didn’t push Jesus’s buttons, you sometimes need to step into the world of ancient middle-eastern poets.

If you don’t know what people did all week during the Jewish Festival of Tabernacles, you probably will miss at least half of Jesus’s message when he shouted at the top of his lungs to a boisterous and inebriated crowd, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as [Jeremiah 17] has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.”

See what I did there? Got your interest, didn’t I?

Power

The second reason is this satellite photograph of Egypt and Israel.

Egypt.001There are two visibly green spaces along the Mediterranean Sea in this picture. The left one is Egypt; the right one is Israel (formerly called “Canaan”). As you can see, Egypt has the Nile River Valley and so does not rely on rainfall, but Canaan does not have that luxury and is extremely vulnerable to the rain seasons. When four thousand years ago Abraham settled in Canaan, he was told that he and his descendants would be given that land forever. Only problem was every time Canaan had a drought, either Abraham or his descendants would have to decide whether to leave Canaan and go to Egypt because Egypt would be the only place with grain. There are three droughts in the book of Genesis. It turned out well for Isaac when he braved the drought and stayed in Canaan.

But it never turned out well for anyone who sought the comfort of Egypt.

Four generations later, after abandoning Canaan and settling in very good land near the Nile, the Egyptians forcibly enslaved them and would hold them as slaves for more than four centuries. Of course, slavery is terrible. And the work they did was terrible. But the thing you can’t miss is that while they were slaves in Egypt they never went thirsty. They never went without food. Their food source was the Nile, a thing they could see.

So, when this mysterious God named YHWH sent Moses to free them and bring them back to Canaan (the “Promised Land”), the problem was that getting their freedom meant going back to a land where they would once again be vulnerable to the seasons. As odd as it may seem, not many of them were happy about leaving slavery and returning to Canaan, especially since getting there required living in the Sinai desert for a long time.

So, at the end of Moses’s life, just as they were about to resettle Canaan, God gave through Moses this promise:

The land you are entering to take over is not like the land of Egypt, from which you have come, where you planted your seed and irrigated it by foot as in a vegetable garden. But the land you are crossing the Jordan to take possession of is a land of mountains and valleys that drinks rain from heaven. It is a land the Lord your God cares for; the eyes of the Lord your God are continually on it from the beginning of the year to its end. So if you faithfully obey the commands I am giving you today—to love the Lord your God and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul— then I will send rain on your land in its season, both autumn and spring rains, so that you may gather in your grain, new wine and olive oil. I will provide grass in the fields for your cattle, and you will eat and be satisfied.

I read the Old Testament because I believe Hebrews 10:1 (and many other scriptures) says that the purpose of the Old Testament—in all its weirdness—is a physical picture of the invisible world of YHWH. For the Egyptians, the Nile meant that the weather didn’t control their fortune; they did. The Nile gave the Egyptians a lot of power. And our lives are a lot like that. We like power, and we like control.

Like Abraham and his descendant, we  have a way of abandoning things that rob us of control. We even have a way of wanting to return to things that enslave us, but feel safe.

We behave this way, and yet what the Bible really is all about is living life in sync with the power structures of the invisible world and not this one.  The first covenant was entirely about the physical provision and security of the Hebrew ethnic group in Israel (see Deuteronomy 11 and 28). In the same likeness, the new covenant is about spiritual provision and power.

I teach the Old Testament because I see far too many people who profess to be followers of Christ and yet they live in lock step with the power structures of this world. Jesus demonstrated the new way when he said to Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.”

This means that the things we do to be powerful here on the Earth demonstrate our lack of faith in God’s power in the spiritual world, and ultimately separate us from God. We’re stingy with our resources; we’re greedy; we’re prideful; we give our time and energy to people and things that benefit ourselves, but not to those who cannot; we avoid danger; we’re hyper-sensitive to our safety; we retaliate when people wrong us; we tell mistruths to manipulate people and get what we want . . .

I could go on and on, but I think you get the point.

If you want to see what living in a kingdom not of this world looks like—if you want to follow Jesus—read the Old Testament.