Friday, September 6, 2013

The curse of Ham

20 Then Noah built an altar to the Lord and took some of every clean animal and some of every clean bird and offered burnt offerings on the altar.
Noah uses scarce resources to give thanks to God. 
 21 And when the Lord smelled the pleasing aroma,
That's an idiomatic expression for an acceptable offering (cf. Exod 29:18; Lev 1:9; 3:16; Num 15:3).
the Lord said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man's heart is evil from his youth.
Sin is second nature for fallen man both before and after the flood.
"Said in his heart" is anthropomorphic.
 Neither will I ever again strike down every living creature as I have done. 22 While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.”
Some take the interruption of the seasons to imply the global extent of the flood (Wise 2002). However, that argument either proves too much or too little. For by parity of argument, it would also mean the diurnal cycle ("day and night") was in hiatus during the flood. Yet the flood is measured in units of days. 
In principle, one could say it's phenomenological language. But that undercuts the global interpretation. 
In principle, one could say diurnal intervals were assigned to the flood account after the diurnal cycle was restored, like going back to correlate a past event with a calendar date. However, that explanation could be applied to Gen 1 as well. 
9 And God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. 2 The fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth and upon every bird of the heavens, upon everything that creeps on the ground and all the fish of the sea. Into your hand they are delivered. 3 Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you. And as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything.
This apparently alludes to hunting. Wild animals have no natural fear of man. But if they are hunted, they learn to keep their distance. 
By the same token, this may mean the injunction takes for granted the butchering of livestock before the flood. What is new is hunting. 
4 But you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood.
This carries over into the Mosaic covenant. No reason is given for the prohibition, so we can only guess. 
Before the age of refrigeration, exsanguination might be a safety precaution. Or it may be that the specter of drinking fresh blood inevitably carries pagan associations. That drinking blood is a way of possessing the victim's "life force," viz. vampirism, cannibalism. 
5 And for your lifeblood I will require a reckoning: from every beast I will require it and from man. From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man.“Whoever sheds the blood of man,    by man shall his blood be shed,for God made man in his own image.

Capital punishment for murder is both permissible and obligatory. It also epitomizes poetic justice. This is a transcultural norm, grounded in the nature of man. 

8 Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, 9 “Behold, I establish my covenant with you and your offspring after you, 10 and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the livestock, and every beast of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark; it is for every beast of the earth. 11 I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of the flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” 12 And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: 13 I have set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. 14 When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, 15 I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh. And the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. 16 When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” 17 God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.”
Some commentators think this is an etiology for the origin of the rainbow, because there was (allegedly) no rain before the flood. But that's a dubious inference:
i) The scope of Gen 2:5-6 is, in all likelihood, local rather than global. Concerning the conditions within the garden, in contrast to conditions outside the garden. 
ii) Circumcision is a sign of the Abrahamic covenant while the Sabbath is a sign of the Mosaic covenant. Yet that doesn't mark the origin of circumcision or the Sabbath. 
iii) When God ascribes a special significance to a preexisting custom or event, that defines or redefines it in contrast to pagan appropriations. 
18 The sons of Noah who went forth from the ark were Shem, Ham, and Japheth. (Ham was the father of Canaan.) 19 These three were the sons of Noah, and from these the people of the whole earth were dispersed.
Noah is a new Adam. All extant humans trace back to Noah (and through Noah to Adam). At a minimum, the flood was anthropologically universal. 
20 Noah began to be a man of the soil,
Although this means he was a farmer, it may also be a play on words, connecting Noah to Adam, via the "soil" motif. 
 and he planted a vineyard.
Some commentators take this to be an etiology for the origin of viticulture and viniculture. But that's unnecessary. This may well be a carryover from prediluvian husbandry. Know-how is preserved in the minds and memories of individuals. It survives physical dislocation. Handed down from the older generation to the younger generation. 
 21 He drank of the wine and became drunk and lay uncovered in his tent.
A classic exposé of the human condition. Living in a social world sunk in depravity, Noah was righteous and blameless for 600 years. And he survived the greatest natural disaster in human history. Yet after having gone through all that, he disgraces himself.
Some men fail by succeeding. Success is their downfall. Some men fail to achieve their dreams while others fail by achieving their dreams. Noah is not the last man to live too long for his own good.  
 22 And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father and told his two brothers outside. 23 Then Shem and Japheth took a garment, laid it on both their shoulders, and walked backward and covered the nakedness of their father. Their faces were turned backward, and they did not see their father's nakedness. 24 When Noah awoke from his wine and knew what his youngest son had done to him, 25 he said,“Cursed be Canaan;    a servant of servants shall he be to his brothers.”

Due to the terseness of the account, as well as the studied vagueness of a key term, it's difficult to nail down what happened. That's probably deliberate. The narrator is being about as discreet as he can be without sacrificing accuracy.

i) According to patristic and rabbinic tradition, Ham did something heinous. However, it's not clear from the account itself that Ham did anything wrong. 

Readers infer that from Noah's reaction, but Noah's viewpoint isn't normative. The narrator's viewpoint is normative. 

It's possible that he is shifting blame because he's embarrassed. 

ii) By the same token, the curse is Noah's malediction rather than God's malediction. And it is nonbinding on God. God is under no obligation to enforce Noah's rash malediction. 

iii) It's possible that Ham dishonored his father. Perhaps telling his brothers refers to lewd gossip. But the text doesn't say that. It may simply mean Ham didn't know what do to in that unexpected situation, so he consulted his older, more experienced brothers. And once he turned to them for advice, they took over. 

iv) It's also unclear what he saw. Does the "nakedness of his father" simply mean he saw his father expose himself? Or is that a euphemism for conjugal relations? Did he watch his parents making out in a drunken orgy? If so, that would be voyeuristic. But the terminology isn't that specific. 

v) After Noah begins to shake off his hangover, he is incensed with Ham, yet his curses Canaan (his grandson) instead. Why?

Forebears personify descendants. The ancestors of people-groups. To curse a man's posterity is a way of hitting a man where it hurts, insofar as he "lives on" in his posterity. That's how he leaves a mark on the world. How he's remembered. 

It may seem unjust to curse Canaan for Ham's transgression. Perhaps it is unjust. Once again, this isn't God speaking, or the narrator, but Noah. 

vi) But this also foreshadows hostilities between the Israelites and the Canaanites. Even if Noah is overreacting, God sometimes makes providential use of dubious human words and actions to further his own agenda, viz. the oracles of Balaam, Jacob's sons selling their brother into slavery. 

28 After the flood Noah lived 350 years. 29 All the days of Noah were 950 years, and he died.
Unlike the legendary hero of the Mesopotamian flood story, on whom the gods confer immortality, Noah dies of old age. 
Wise, K. Faith, Form, and Time (B&H 2002), 181.