Sunday, November 23, 2014

Genesis 9

At the end of chapter 3, the human beings were separated from the tree of life. But they were not separated from God. In the chapters that followed, we hear again and again of God coming to human beings, as he had done to Adam and Eve; and of human beings, in all their complexity, approaching God. Whatever needs to be resolved in the wake of chapter 3, separation from God is not it.

As before, after a flood, God blesses life, with a particular blessing on the human beings. All other life – that life rescued by Noah – will experience the fear and dread of the human resting on them. To our ears, this sounds like a curse – the animals will be afraid of us. But here, and throughout the story, fear and dread refer to a right or appropriate reverence: animals will fear and dread humans because Noah saved them, and humans will fear and dread God because of his saving actions.

Again in the story we hear that blood is special.

God makes a binding covenant with Noah, his family, and every living thing, that there will never again be a flood to cut off all life and destroy the earth. The covenant comes with a sign – in this case, the rainbow – a reminder to both God and all life on earth.

After this we hear that Noah plants the first vineyard, produces wine, and gets drunk. In introducing this story, we are specifically reminded that Noah is a man of the soil. Not only a farmer, but one taken from the soil, alone in his generation deeply rooted in the soil when everyone else was behaving as sea-creatures on land. Yet we recall that the soil from which human beings were taken was, itself, soaked by the first flood. Noah, then, extracts liquid from the fruit of the soil, and is intoxicated. But the story does not condemn drunkenness. Rather it is an example of the complex human exercising mastery (in producing wine) over chaos in order to lessen the impact of having lived through the end of the world. What would that experience do to a man? This is self-medication. And this is the human – following in God’s footsteps – co-opting chaos to limit greater chaos.

The images of the vineyard, the vine, and wine will be recurring motifs within the story.

Noah is discovered, naked, by his son Ham. Unable to help his father, Ham tells his brothers, Shem and Japheth. It takes both of them to cover their father’s nakedness (echoes of Genesis 3 here). When Noah discovers what his sons have done, he curses Ham to be the slave of his brothers, whom he blesses.

We assume that Ham’s action is considered ignoble and this is his punishment. But we might recall that a curse is a particular form of blessing: a blessing that places enabling constraints on life; a blessing that is, unusually, time-limited and revocable.  (At a later point this will come to be expressed as curses lasting for three generations and blessings lasting for a thousand generations.) Ham turned to his brothers. Noah ratifies this dependence, with limits.

What this curse looks like in its outworking, we shall see in the next two chapters.

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