Saturday, September 14, 2013

Abraham in Egypt

10 Now there was a famine in the land. So Abram went down to Egypt to sojourn there, for the famine was severe in the land. 
Because Palestinian agriculture was dependent on seasonal rainfall, the region was susceptible to famine in time of drought. By contrast, the Nile gave Egypt a more dependable source of irrigation. Of course, prolonged drought can also affect river levels, but as long as it snows in the mountains or rains upriver, there's a steady source of irrigation. 
11 When he was about to enter Egypt, he said to Sarai his wife, “I know that you are a woman beautiful in appearance,
Since Sarah was about 65 at the time, some commentators puzzle at how she was still so alluring. Unfortunately, commentators can be a bit obtuse:
i) Sarah died at 127 (Gen 23:1). So in relation to her overall lifespan, she was only at the midpoint. It's like the difference between dog years and human years. A 15-year-old dog and a 15-year-old boy are the same age, but the dog is elderly while the boy is on the cusp of manhood. 
Since the patriarchs and matriarchs lived longer, this raises the question of whether they aged at a steady rate, only more slowly–or whether they remained youthful for a long time, before the aging process accelerated towards the end of life. We don't know.
ii) Also, women with high cheekbones typically retain a more youthful appearance (e.g. Marlene Dietrich, Dolores del Rio, Sophia Loren, Lena Horne). Ninon de Lenclos (1620-1705) was famously alluring into old age.  
iii) At the time of writing, most folks had a normal lifespan (Ps 90:20). The youthful longevity of Moses is considered exceptional (Deut 34:7). So Sarah's preservation would have been just as striking to the original audience as it is to a modern reader. 
 12 and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife.’ Then they will kill me, but they will let you live.
As the subsequent narrative bears out, Abraham's fears were well-founded. That's a mitigating factor. 
 13 Say you are my sister,
Since Sarah was his stepsister, this is true–but deceptive. For she was also his wife. 
Incidentally, since the Mosaic law forbad marriage between stepsiblings, this reflects the historical accuracy of the patriarchal account. The narrator didn't retroject later developments into an earlier period. 
 that it may go well with me because of you, and that my life may be spared for your sake.”
A man's sister is eligible in a way that a man's wife is not. 
 14 When Abram entered Egypt, the Egyptians saw that the woman was very beautiful. 15 And when the princes of Pharaoh saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh. And the woman was taken into Pharaoh's house.
She was so stunning that male admirers couldn't contain themselves. Kings have a habit of abducting any woman who appeals to them. Although Abraham is prescient, he didn't bank of Sarah coming to Pharaoh's attention. That puts him in a bind, for he's in no position to refuse Pharaoh. Only God can extricate the couple from their dire predicament. 
 16 And for her sake he dealt well with Abram; and he had sheep, oxen, male donkeys, male servants, female servants, female donkeys, and camels.
In effect, a dowry. 
Critics claim the reference to donkeys is anachronistic. Keep in mind that the evidence for details like that from 4000 years ago is bound to be haphazard and sparse. Even so, there is corroborative evidence (Kitchen 2003). 
17 But the Lord afflicted Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai, Abram's wife.
This is the real point of the story. Because of God's promise, he miraculously intervenes to protect the matriarch. 
 18 So Pharaoh called Abram and said, “What is this you have done to me? Why did you not tell me that she was your wife? 19 Why did you say, ‘She is my sister,’ so that I took her for my wife? Now then, here is your wife; take her, and go.” 20 And Pharaoh gave men orders concerning him, and they sent him away with his wife and all that he had.
To some extent, Pharaoh is understandably miffed. He was misled. At the same time, kings typically presume to have the first pick of any woman who catches their fancy. They have multiple wives and mistresses. So Pharaoh is a hypocrite. 
Consider, moreover, what Pharaoh would have done to the couple had he not been spooked by Abraham's God! Fear restrained him. He's used to calling the shots. Now, however, God cuts him down to size. Indeed, Pharaoh arranges safe passage for the troublesome couple. 
Excursus 1: The ethics of deception
i) Commentators usually judge Abraham harshly for his subterfuge. Perhaps they are right. However, we need to guard against the temptation of judging the account by considerations outside the account. We need to judge the action by the narrator's perspective, rather than superimposing our own scruples on the text. The narrative contains no editorial comment condemning Abraham. 
Of course, narrative theology usually teaches by showing rather than telling. So the narrator might obliquely condemn Abraham's behavior. But that needs to be exegeted from the text rather than assumed. 
Nothing in this story, or Genesis in general, or the Pentateuch generally, indicates that deception is inherently wrong. Indeed, the Israelites sometimes resort to a ruse de guerre. And Exod 1 seems to commend the deception of the Hebrew midwives. 
ii) On the face of it, Abraham is saving his own skin by putting his wife at risk. If so, that's contemptible.
At the same time, that impression is somewhat shortsighted. If Abraham is murdered, then he'd be in no position to protect his wife. Sarah would be truly defenseless at that point. So perhaps he feels that this compromise gives him some leverage. He can procrastinate with suitors, stalling for time until he and Sarah are able to leave. 
iii) Some commentators fault Sarah for colluding with Abraham. However, it's unrealistic to think Sarah would defy her husband. She's not a proto-feminist. In a patriarchal culture, this is not a marriage between equals. When Vashti defied her husband, he deposed her (Esther 1).
iv) The main point of the story is how God protects the matriarch when Abraham is at a loss.
Excursus 2: Triplets
Gen 12, 20, and 26 contain striking parallels. What are we to make of that?
i) Undoubtedly the narrator wants the reader to notice the similarities. To compare and contrast these three accounts. These are complementary accounts of independent events (Alexander 1997).
ii) There are significant dissimilarities as well as similarities. So these aren't just variations of the same event.  
iii) In terms of the two episodes involving Sarah, similar circumstances produce similar results. A beautiful woman has the same effect on men, regardless of time and place. If she finds herself in the same situation, you can expect a similar outcome. That's not artificial. That's predicable. That's realistic.
Isaac probably learned the same ploy from his father. So that's not coincidental.
iv) Coincidences do happen in real life. 
v) In addition, the narrator is recording what they have in common. So that makes them seem more alike. He's not including all of the differential details. 
Alexander, T. D. Abraham in the Negev: A Source-Critical Investigation of Genesis 20:1-22:19 (Paternoster 1997), 32-51.
Kitchen, K. On the Reliability of the Old Testament (Eerdmans 2003), 338-39.

The call of Abraham

27 Now these are the generations of Terah. Terah fathered Abram, Nahor, and Haran;
This may reflect the birth order, in which case Abraham was the firstborn. Or it may reflect their order of importance. Abraham may be in the emphatic first position because he is the central figure in the succeeding story , whereas his brothers are tertiary characters.  
and Haran fathered Lot. 28 Haran died in the presence of his father Terah in the land of his kindred,
Because Lot is orphaned, his grandfather (Terah) looks after him. After his grandfather dies, his uncle (Abraham) looks after him. This prepares the reader for the complicated relationship between Abraham and Lot. 
 in Ur of the Chaldeans.
i) The reference is disputed. Some scholars think this refers to a famous city in southern Mesopotamia while other scholars think it refers to a city in northern Mesopotamia. For interpretive purposes, there's not a whole lot riding on the correct identification. 
ii) Some scholars regard "of the Chaldeans" as a later scribal gloss. 
 29 And Abram and Nahor took wives. The name of Abram's wife was Sarai, and the name of Nahor's wife, Milcah, the daughter of Haran the father of Milcah and Iscah.
The names seem to be related to lunar deities. Both Sumerian Ur and Haran were centers of the lunar cult. Abraham was born and bred in a polytheistic and idolatrous culture. His father was pagan (Josh 24:2). 
 30 Now Sarai was barren; she had no child.
That will be both an opportunity and a burden as the narrative proceeds.
31 Terah took Abram his son and Lot the son of Haran, his grandson, and Sarai his daughter-in-law, his son Abram's wife, and they went forth together from Ur of the Chaldeans to go into the land of Canaan, but when they came to Haran, they settled there.
No explanation is given for the move. Several mundane motivations are possible. But the underlying reason is the providence of God, directing events behind the scenes.
 32 The days of Terah were 205 years, and Terah died in Haran.
That's the age given in the Massoretic text. According to Philo, the Samaritan Pentateuch, and the Pentateuch Targum, he was 145 when he died. That may preserve the original reading (Schnabel 2012; Waltke 2001).
12 Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you.
Vv4-5 raise the question of when Abraham was called. Was he called in Ur or Haran? Was his father alive or dead when he was called? 
i) It's possible that God called him when he was living in Ur. Indeed, that might be why his father moved the family. Pagan Mesopotamians were into divination and oneiromancy. Revelatory dreams (Husser 1999; Noegel 2007). If Abraham told his father that God had spoken to him or appeared to him in a dream, instructing them to go to Canaan, Terah might have taken that very seriously. 
ii) It's possible that God called him when he was living in Haran. It's unlikely that Abraham felt free to strike out on his own as long as his father was alive. But when his father died, Abraham suddenly had a decision to make. He could remain in Haran, return to Ur, or go to Canaan. 
Left to his own devices, he might have gone back to Ur or stayed in Haran. If Terah's plan was to make a new life for his family in Canaan, and he died on the way, then the incentive for the original destination would be lost. So that would be an opportune time for God to make his will known to Abram. 
 2 And I will make of you a great nation,
The seed of promise is both corporate and individual. At one level it refers to Abraham's physical posterity, through Isaac. At another level, it typifies the elect, within the biological lineage. Finally, it has a Messianic referent. This picks up from Gen 3:15, and begins to unfold in the narrative arc of Pentateuchal history (e.g. Gen 27:29; 48:8-12; Num 24:7-19). The promise is both backward looking and forward looking (Sailhamer 2008). 
 and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.
The ill-fated builders of Babel sought the same thing. But they sought it through their own strength. 
 3 I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
God blesses others through Abraham. The passive voice ("shall be blessed") is probably the correct rendering (Grüneberg 2003).
4 So Abram went,
Abraham's unquestioned obedience is striking. God is commanding him to leave behind his ancestral home and his extended family. For many people, that's their psychological center. They'd feel emotionally lost without the physical and social environment they grew up with. For many people, having kids is a compensation. But Abram and Sarai are a childless couple.
 as the Lord had told him, and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran.
If we accept the Massoretic text for 11:32, then 12:4 seems to conflict with the chronology of Acts 7:4. However, this assumes that Terah was 205 when he died, and Abraham was his eldest son. Both assumptions are questionable. And if either assumption is mistaken, then there's no conflict. See comments on 11:27 and 11:32. 
 5 And Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother's son, and all their possessions that they had gathered, and the people that they had acquired in Haran, and they set out to go to the land of Canaan. 
At this stage, Lot is the heir apparent. Later, Ishmael will be the heir apparent. Only when Isaac is born and Ishmael is banished will the promise kick in. 
When they came to the land of Canaan, 6 Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh.  At that time the Canaanites were in the land. 7 Then the Lord appeared to Abram and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built there an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him.
Oak trees were valued as shade trees. In addition, they were often incorporated into pagan rites (cf. Deut 12:2; 1 Kgs 14:23; 2 Kgs 16:4; Jer 2:20; Hos 4:13). The oak tree or terebinth of Moreh means "teacher, diviner, or oracle giver." There may be an element of syncretism in Abraham's route. The emancipation from his heathen upbringing is gradual. 
At the same time, the fact that he built his own altar, rather than using an extant pagan altar, shows that God was weaning him from heathenism.
God "appearing" to him is stock language for a theophany. A visible manifestation of God. Based on other examples in Genesis and the Pentateuch, this is probably an angelophany or apparition of the Yahweh Angel. 
 8 From there he moved to the hill country on the east of Bethel and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east. And there he built an altar to the Lord and called upon the name of the Lord.
This picks up from Gen 4:26. Abraham leads corporate worship with his small, but growing household (cf. Gen 13:4). That's a counter to his heathen surroundings.
 9 And Abram journeyed on, still going toward the Negeb.
Abraham's travels outline the borders of the promised land. As such, his journey prefigures the Conquest. 
Grüneberg, K. Abraham, Blessing and the Nations : A Philological and Exegetical Study of Genesis 12:3 in Its Narrative Context (BZAW 332; De Gruyter 2003).

Hamilton, V. The Book of Genesis: Chapters 1-17 (Eerdmans 1991), 362-65. 
Husser, J. Dreams and Dream-Narratives in the Biblical World (Academic Press 1999).
Kitchen, K. The Reliability of the Old Testament (Eerdmans 2003), 316-18.
Millard, A. "Where was Abraham's Ur? The Case for the Babylonian City," BAR 27:03, (May/Jun 2001), 52-7.
Noegel, S. Noctural Ciphers: The Allusive Language of Dreams in the Ancient Near East (American Oriental Society 2007). 
Sailhamer, J. Genesis (Zondervan, rev. ed., 2008), 151-55.
Schnabel, E. Acts (Zondervan 2012), 367n16.
Waltke, B. Genesis: A Commentary  (Zondervan 2001), 201. 

Sunday, September 8, 2013

The tower of Babel

10 These are the generations of the sons of Noah, Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Sons were born to them after the flood.…32 These are the clans of the sons of Noah, according to their genealogies, in their nations, and from these the nations spread abroad on the earth after the flood.
The Table of Nations apparently represents the known world, from the standpoint of the narrator. It seems to lack a consistent classification scheme or selection criterion. That's probably because the narrator is constrained by the facts on the ground. Real life is messy. 
In general, the descendants of Shem reside in the countryside (as pastoral nomads), the descendants of Ham live in cities, while the descendants of Japheth occupy islands and coastlines (Kitchen 2003). 
Gen 11 is bookended by two genealogies of Seth. This portends a fork in the line of Seth–between those whose orientation is into Babylon, and those (e.g. Abraham) whose orientation out of Babylon (Sailhamer 2008).
11 Now the whole earth had one language and the same words.
Some linguists deny that extant languages are reducible to a single Ur-language–although Chomsky has postulated a universal grammar. As a result, some scholars think this is referring to a lingua franca (Gordon 1971; Hamilton 1990). However, if the extant human race descends from the survivors of the flood, then at one time the language spoken by the eight passengers on the ark was the mother tongue of all humanity.
This also has some implications for dating the episode. It had to take place before widespread migration and geographical isolation led to the evolution of multiple dialects and languages.  
This account is not an etiology for the origin of linguistic diversity, but a set-up for what follows. 
 2 And as people migrated from the east,
In Pentateuchal usage, the eastern direction is ominous. Away from the Garden. 
 they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. 
Shinar is Sumer, in southern Mesopotamia. Since the ark landed in northern Mesopotamia, that's consistent with human history up to this point.  
3 And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar.
Because Mesopotamia is rich in clay, but poor in rock, settlers adapted to the natural resources.
 4 Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city
Cities have a dubious connotation in the Pentateuch. They concentrate evil, like Sodom and Gomorrah. God summons Abraham out of settled life in the city. 
 and a tower with its top in the heavens,
There's some dispute about the identity of the tower. Many scholars think this is a ziggurat (Walton 1995). A ziggurat was a sacred mountain. But that identification creates a potential problem for dating the episode. The ziggurat developed in the third millennium, which may be too late (Wiseman 1983).
The Hebrew term doesn't specify a ziggurat. It's more often used for watchtowers or citadels. So this could be referring to a fortified city (Hoerth 1998). And that dovetails with the way Canaanite cities are described (Deut (9:1). On the other hand, the setting is Babylonian rather than Palestinian. So that, along with the stereotypical terminology, may favor a ziggurat. Still, the reference is cursory. 
It's possible that the depiction is deliberately anachronistic. Perhaps the narrator is intentionally updating the past, to telescope a longer period or make it  more familiar to his audience. 
The description is reminiscent of "Jacob's ladder" (Gen 28:12), which may indicate its symbolic function. 
Due to uncertainties regarding the date of the incident and the identification of the "tower," it is prudent not to center one's interpretation on the assumption that this was a ziggurat (Mathews 1996). 
 and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.” 
To some extent their desperation is understandable. Due to mortality and dislocation, life is fragmented and fleeting. Our existence lacks continuity. We are scattered to the four winds. It's terrifyingly easy to be lost in time and space. This reflects the homeless motif in Scripture. Because our primal parents were banished from the Garden, we are born in exile–far from our ancestral home. In a fallen world, human existence is nomadic. Impermanence is our lot. Places change. Loved ones die. 
But their attitude is wrong in two respects:
i) They defy God's postdiluvial mandate to fill the earth (Gen 9:1). 
ii) They seek security in themselves rather than God. God alone is our dwelling-place in all generations (Ps 90:1). What time, space, and death have scattered, only God can regather. 
They have learned nothing from the flood. History repeats itself. 
5 And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, 
This belittles their vaulted aspirations. From a God's-eye viewpoint, their boastful city and proud tower is an anthill. 
which the children of man had built.
"Sons of men" hearkens back to Adam and his fatal legacy. Dust to dust (Gen 3:19).
 6 And the Lord said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. 7 Come, let us go down and there confuse their language,
Man proposes, but God disposes.
 so that they may not understand one another's speech.” 
Cooperation requires communication. If they can't understand each other, they can't collaborate. 
8 So the Lord dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city.
The ants are scattered, like a burning anthill. 
 9 Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth.
A play on words. 
 And from there the Lord dispersed them over the face of all the earth.
God forces them to fulfill his mandate. 
There's something almost fatalistic about this story. They achieve the very thing they fear by striving to avoid it. Poetic justice. Today's utopia is tomorrow's dystopia. 
Gordon, C. Before Columbus (Crown 1971), 107, 165-66.
Hamilton, V. The Book of Genesis: Chapters 1-17 (Eerdmans 1990), 350-51.
Hoerth, A. Archaeology & the Old Testament (Baker 1998), 196.
Kitchen, K. The Reliability of the Old Testament (Eerdmans 2003), 430-438, 592-597.
Mathews, K. Genesis 1–11:26 (B&H 1996), 470-472,476. 
Sailhamer, J. Genesis (Zondervan, revised ed., 2008), 143.
Walton, J., “The Mesopotamian Background of the Tower of Babel Account and Its Implications,” BBR 5 (1995), 155-75. 
Wiseman, D. J. Nebuchadrezzar and Babylon (Oxford 1991), 68-73. 

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.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Noah's flood

The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.
A classic statement of total depravity. Leaves little more to be said: "every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually"
 And the Lord regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.
What theologians call anthropopathism: ascribing distinctively human emotions to God. It's a vivid way of expressing God's moral disapproval. 
 So the Lord said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens, for I am sorry that I have made them.”
This is a topic sentence. The flood account is quite repetitious. So we will encounter many variations on this statement. The repetitious style is both for emphasis, and shaping the account. Repetition is also characteristic of oral literature. Something written for the ear.  
 But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord.
This introduces the theme of the remnant. 
These are the generations of Noah. Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation. Noah walked with God.
"Righteous" is a legal term while "blameless" is a ritual term. Both have religious connotations. Noah is righteous and blameless compared to his contemporaries.
11 Now the earth was corrupt in God's sight, and the earth was filled with violence. 12 And God saw the earth, and behold, it was corrupt, for all flesh had corrupted their way on the earth. 13 And God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence through them. Behold, I will destroy them with the earth.
Although "all flesh" could denote all biological organisms, here it refers to human beings. 
14 Make yourself an ark of gopher wood.
i) We don't know what kind of wood that is. Presumably a type of wood used in ancient shipbuilding. Cypress is often proposed, but that's just an educated guess.  
ii) The "ark" foreshadows the basket that the mother of Moses put her child in (Exod 1-2).
Make rooms in the ark, and cover it inside and out with pitch. 
Pitch is a sealant used to waterproof the ark. Some critics of creationism cite this as evidence of fossilized animals before the Fall. However, the Hebrew word isn't a technical term for a petroleum product. 
This is how you are to make it: the length of the ark 300 cubits, its breadth 50 cubits, and its height 30 cubits.
i) This is usually translated into feet as 450x75x45, assuming that a cubit is about 18 inches. If so, the ark would be 50% longer than a football field. Enormous for a wooden ship.
ii) Although most commentators agree on the length of a cubit, at least one bucks the conventional wisdom:
"Cubit" was a measurement derived from the length of the elbow to the tip of the fingers. It varied in length among the peoples of the Near East, including the Hebrews (e.g. Deut 3:11; Ezk 40:4; 43:13). Most scholars work with cubits measuring 50 cm. per cubit, but this cannot be verified since it is a modern approximation based on circumstantial evidence (Mathews 1996). 
Since we're dealing with cubic feet, if the cubit was smaller, the ark would be significantly smaller. Proponents of a global flood favor a larger ark whereas proponents of a local flood favor a smaller ark. 
Critics of the ark allege that a wooden ship that large (esp. lengthwise) would lack structural integrity. I'm not qualified to comment on that. If so, that would be evidence for a smaller cubit. Of course, whatever the text says is true. 
16 Make a roof [or skylight] for the ark, and finish it to a cubit above, and set the door of the ark in its side.
The wording is a bit obscure, but it seems to suggest clerestory. A skylight would be useful, both for illumination and astronavigation. Even if the ark was rudderless, a skylight would give the passengers a sense of where they were–judging by the constellations. 
 Make it with lower, second, and third decks. 
The architectural design of the ark appears to be a symbolic microcosm of the world, from a phenomenal viewpoint (e.g. Exod 20:4; Deut 4:18). 
17 For behold, I will bring a flood of waters upon the earth to destroy all flesh in which is the breath of life under heaven. Everything that is on the earth shall die. 18 But I will establish my covenant with you, and you shall come into the ark, you, your sons, your wife, and your sons' wives with you.
This is the first explicit covenant in Scripture, although there are covenantal ideas in Gen 2.
 19 And of every living thing of all flesh, you shall bring two of every sort into the ark to keep them alive with you. They shall be male and female.
i) Critics of the (global) flood raise logistical objections. There wasn't room for every species. How did animals cross natural barriers? How did species adapted to diverse ecological zones survive in the ark? 
However, that's anachronistic. It takes our current status quo as the frame of reference, then projects that back into the past. But the text itself doesn't make any particular assumptions about prediluvian biodiversity or biogeography. Critics are introducing extraneous assumptions into the text. Even on a global interpretation, the text doesn't invite that treatment.
ii) On a local interpretation, the ark would sample representative local "species." And they'd be nearby. 
 20 Of the birds according to their kinds, and of the animals according to their kinds, of every creeping thing of the ground, according to its kind, two of every sort shall come in to you to keep them alive. 
i) Noah doesn't have to fetch the animals: they come to him. Like the ravens feeding Elijah (1 Kigs 17:2-5), God guides the animals to Noah.
ii) One local flood proponent thinks this refers to livestock. Unlike wild animals, livestock would be very hard to replace if you had to start from scratch by domesticating wildlife all over again (Custance 1979). But even though that's logical, it doesn't seem to be the logic of the text. The text is hearkening back to the taxonomy of Gen 1, which doesn't single out livestock. Rather, the objective is to preserve the same kinds of animals we find in the creation account. The only distinction the text will draw is between clean and unclean animals, not between livestock and wild animals. 
21 Also take with you every sort of food that is eaten, and store it up. It shall serve as food for you and for them.” 22 Noah did this; he did all that God commanded him.
Critics of the (global) flood ask how it would be possible to meet the specialized dietary needs of some species. But, once again, that's anachronistic. And that's even less of an issue for a local flood proponent. 
Then the Lord said to Noah, “Go into the ark, you and all your household, for I have seen that you are righteous before me in this generation. Take with you seven pairs of all clean animals, the male and his mate, and a pair of the animals that are not clean, the male and his mate, and seven pairs of the birds of the heavens also, male and female, to keep their offspring alive on the face of all the earth.Noah was six hundred years old when the flood of waters came upon the earth. And Noah and his sons and his wife and his sons' wives with him went into the ark to escape the waters of the flood. Of clean animals, and of animals that are not clean, and of birds, and of everything that creeps on the ground, two and two, male and female, went into the ark with Noah, as God had commanded Noah. 10 And after seven days the waters of the flood came upon the earth.
i) Critics imagine a numerical contradiction between the single pairs in Gen 6 and the seven pairs in Gen 7. However, that simply reflects a synoptic/resumptive-expansive compositional technique in which the narrator begins with a general statement, changes the subject, the circles back to fill in details.  
ii) Critics also think this is anachronistic, because the kosher laws were not in place until the Mosaic covenant. But that objection is flawed on several grounds:
a) This probably foreshadows the kosher laws.
b) The kosher laws could simply codify a preexisting custom.
c) In any event, the distinction here is not between ritually edible and inedible animals, but sacrificial animals (Gen 8:20-21).
For in seven days I will send rain on the earth forty days and forty nights, and every living thing that I have made I will blot out from the face of the ground.” And Noah did all that the Lord had commanded him.
The flood account repeatedly uses seven, multiples of seven, or forty. The fact that the narrator constantly juggles these figures suggests the account is fairly schematic. These aren't exact figures. Real life isn't that symmetrical. So the account is a stylized history rather than a prosaic chronicle. 
11 In the six hundredth year of Noah's life, in the second month, on the seventeenth day of the month, on that day all the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of the heavens were opened.
i) The "windows of heaven" are a figure of speech for rainclouds. Ancient Jews were certainly used to seeing rainfall from clouds. 
ii) It may also invite an analogy with the "skylight" in the ark.
iii) The "windows of heaven" and "fountains of the deep" are synonyms for the "waters above" and "waters below," alluding to the creation account (Gen 1). 
iv) The water is "below" or "under" the land (not earth) in the sense that dry land is above sea level–except in case of coastal flooding or rivers at flood stage. 
v) On a local interpretation, the floodplains of the Tigris and Euphrates river valleys are suggestive:
Mesopotamia supplies a natural locale for a flood tradition. Both cuneiform documents and archaeological research provide abundant testimony to periodic inundation of the flat alluvial valley between the Tigris and Euphrates. Torrential rains coupled with seasonal cyclones, and the early melting of the snows in the mountains of Anatolia, have from time to time combined to cause rivers to burst their banks and turn the land into hundreds of miles of lake (Sarna 1989).
In the case of Noah's flood, this would be a deluge of unprecedented severity. 
vi) On a global interpretation, what's the source of water? Flood geologists propose various mechanisms. If, however, we stick with the natural resources in the narrative, Gen 1:9 is suggestive. If natural barriers to flooding were miraculously breached, then the dry land might be inundated by coasting flooding. This doesn't require extra water. And by the same token, reversing the process would drain the excess water. 
What makes the dry land dry is relative elevation. Higher than sea level. Most land is under water.  
12 And rain fell upon the earth forty days and forty nights.
The repeated accent on rainfall is more consistent with a local flood. Rainwater would make a negligible contribution to a global flood, which is why flood geologists minimize the rain factor and focus on alternative flood mechanisms. 
In addition, the waters above and below aren't necessarily, or even probably, two independent sources of water. Torrential or sustained rainfall causes rivers to overflow their banks. So the steady rain is likely the primary source of the floodwaters. The swollen rivers are a secondary source. That's the effect of rainfall and snowmelt–which turns placid rivers into raging torrents. 
17 The flood continued forty days on the earth. The waters increased and bore up the ark, and it rose high above the earth. 18 The waters prevailed and increased greatly on the earth, and the ark floated on the face of the waters. 19 And the waters prevailed so mightily on the earth that all the high mountains under the whole heaven were covered. 20 The waters prevailed above the mountains, covering them fifteen cubits deep.
What mountains are alluded to? It's important for a modern reader to guard against reassigning the ancient landmarks to modern world geography. The original audience didn't have that frame of reference.
The depth of the flood and the height of the mountains are correlative. But according to the narrative, rainfall makes a very significant, or even primary, contribution to the rising waters. So the high-water mark is indexed to the amount of rainwater. Water rises on a floodplain as rivers overflow. Rivers overflow due to rainfall from storms. The question is how high the water could rise considering the source. 
Given where the ark lands (Gen 8:4), the flood extends upward and outward to the foothills of Urartu (i.e. the Armenian tableland). It submerges the mesas. The general elevation is a mile high in relation to sea level, but ground level (i.e. the plateau) is the immediate frame of reference. 

If debris like downed trees (from mud slides) were snagged in a narrow valley, blocking the outlet, that would cause the runoff to backup like a clogged drain. So the ark could float upstream.  
By the same token, that would contain the floodwaters, representing the outer limits of the deluge. The mountain range above and behind the foothills would be a natural barrier. That's how I visualize the description, given the various clues in Genesis.  
24 And the waters prevailed on the earth 150 days.
The narrative has a 7-40-150-40-7 symmetry. To some extent that represents a literary arrangement. And the same time, that tracks the natural cycle of a flood. 
But God remembered Noah and all the beasts and all the livestock that were with him in the ark. And God made a wind blow over the earth, and the waters subsided.
i) Wind would have no effect on a global flood. If the whole surface of a spherical earth was submerged, wind would just move the water around and around. But if the flood were local, wind action in a downstream direction might facilitate drainage (cf. Exod 14:21-22). 
ii) Of course, the "wind" backshadows the "wind" in Gen 1:2 while foreshadowing the Red Sea episode (Exod 14:21; 15:10). However, commentators are frequently more interested in tracing intertextual parallels than discussing the practical function of the wind in Gen 8:1.  
 The fountains of the deep and the windows of the heavens were closed, the rain from the heavens was restrained, and the waters receded from the earth continually. At the end of 150 days the waters had abated, and in the seventh month, on the seventeenth day of the month, the ark came to rest on the mountains of Ararat. And the waters continued to abate until the tenth month; in the tenth month, on the first day of the month, the tops of the mountains were seen.
i) Notice that the scene is relayed from an observational perspective (8:5). How it would look to a passenger. So the vantage-point is local. 

ii) Gen 8:5 recalls Gen 1:9:

And God said, “Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear” (1:9, NRSV). 
The waters continued to abate until the tenth month; in the tenth month, on the first day of the month, the tops of the mountains appeared (8:5, NRSV).
The "mountains" are roughly equivalent to the "dry land." These two verses are mutually interpretive. 
How should we visualize this scene? Seems to me that where the ark ran aground would depend on whatever the ark happened to be floating above at the time floodwaters were receding. From what I’ve read, the land of Ararat is a hilly region with many narrow valleys. So, for instance, the ark might be caught in the eddy of a steep mountain cove or box canyon. The sides would ring the ark, like a toy boat in a bathtub after you pull the plug. The elevation would vary, depending on the location of the cove. 
If the ark came to rest in a steep mountain cove, Noah wouldn’t be able to see above or around the surrounding hillsides. Indeed, that would be a good reason to release the raven and the homing pigeon.

At the end of forty days Noah opened the window of the ark that he had made and sent forth a raven. It went to and fro until the waters were dried up from the earth. Then he sent forth a dove from him, to see if the waters had subsided from the face of the ground. 
These are realistic details: 
The use of birds which could be released for determining the presence and direction of land (Gen 8:6-12) is not a folkloristic invention, but reflects actual navigational practice…A cage full of homing pigeons is not a bad method of direction finding (Gordon 1971). 

James Hornell [“The Role of Birds in Ancient Navigation”] shows that several ancient peoples used birds for the purpose of finding out whether there was land within a navigable distance, and in what direction. Hornell adduces references to the practice of carrying aboard several “shore-sighting birds” among the ancient Hindu merchants when sailing on overseas voyages contained in the Hindu Sutta Pitaka (5C BC), according to which these birds were “used to locate the nearest land when the ship’s position was doubtful.” The same practice is mentioned in the Buddhist Kevaddha Sutta of Digha, written about the same period (Patal 1998). 

In traversing their seas, the people of Taprobane [Ceylon] take no observations of the stars, and indeed the Greater Bear is not visible to them; but they carry birds out to sea, which they let go from time to time, and so follow their course as they make for the land (Pliny).
One of the first Norwegian sailors to hazard the voyage to Iceland was a man known as Raven-Floki for his habit of keeping ravens aboard his vessel. When he thought he was nearing land, Raven-Floki released the ravens, which he had deliberately starved. Often as not, they flew "as the crow flies" directly toward land, which Raven-Floki would reach simply by following their lead (PBS).
Returning to Genesis:

But the dove found no place to set her foot, and she returned to him to the ark, for the waters were still on the face of the whole earth. So he put out his hand and took her and brought her into the ark with him. 10 He waited another seven days, and again he sent forth the dove out of the ark. 11 And the dove came back to him in the evening, and behold, in her mouth was a freshly plucked olive leaf. So Noah knew that the waters had subsided from the earth. 12 Then he waited another seven days and sent forth the dove, and she did not return to him anymore.
Olive oil fueled the menorah (Exod 27:20; Lev 24:2-4). 
13 In the six hundred and first year, in the first month, the first day of the month, the waters were dried from off the earth. And Noah removed the covering of the ark and looked, and behold, the face of the ground was dry. 14 In the second month, on the twenty-seventh day of the month, the earth had dried out. 15 Then God said to Noah, 16 “Go out from the ark, you and your wife, and your sons and your sons' wives with you. 17 Bring out with you every living thing that is with you of all flesh—birds and animals and every creeping thing that creeps on the earth—that they may swarm on the earth, and be fruitful and multiply on the earth.” 18 So Noah went out, and his sons and his wife and his sons' wives with him. 19 Every beast, every creeping thing, and every bird, everything that moves on the earth, went out by families from the ark.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. 21 And when the Lord smelled the pleasing aroma, 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. 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.” 
Gen 8:22 is a classic statement of ordinary providence. Human existence is characterized by a measure of natural stability and predictability, which makes it possible to plan ahead. 

Although God continues to exact mass judgment during the subsequent course of OT history, these fall short of universality until the Day of Judgment.
Custance, A. The Flood: Local or Global (Zondervan 1979). 
Gordon, C. Before Columbus (Crown Publishers 1971), 77.

Mathews, K. Genesis 1:11:26 (Broadman 1996), 364n26.
Patai, R. The Children of Noah: Jewish Seafaring in Ancient Times (Princeton 1998), 10-11.

Pliny, Natural History, 6.24.

Sarna, N. The JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis (JPS 1989), 48.