Genesis 9

There is something curious at work in this chapter. The Great Flood is over, Noah and his family emerge from the ark and have the task of starting human society over again from the beginning, and towards this they are instructed by God/“God” to increase in number and fill the earth (9.1, repeating the command from Genesis 1). Yet verse twenty-one of chapter eight – the second to last and hence right there on the page just above where we start now – and its condemnatory divine statement “the devisings of man’s mind are evil from his youth” remains fresh in our memories. (If only this really were a comment purely about men rather than all of humanity!) What might God/“God” be up to? What is the purpose in having us sweep across the planet if we have nothing in our brains but ill? Moreover, what is the connection between that ascertainment and another repetition from the creation account that we have been made in God’s/“God’s” image (verse six; see also 1.27)? There seems to be a rather large disconnect here.

The lesson perhaps is in might. Take this charming story, from verses twenty to twenty-three:

9.20-23: “Noah, the tiller of the soil, was the first to plant a vineyard. He drank of the wine and became drunk, and he uncovered himself within his tent. Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father’s nakedness and told his two brothers outside. But Shem and Japheth took a cloth, placed it against both their backs and, walking backward, they covered their father’s nakedness; their faces were turned the other way, so that they did not see their father’s nakedness.”

Ham – evidently by chance – got a good laugh out of Noah’s unplanned and sloppy nap (twenty-four has: “When Noah woke up from his wine…”) and wanted to share the joke with his brothers. They, however, used the cultural information they had been raised in which dictated that one shows respect for one’s parents by keeping to certain boundaries (perhaps we think these prudish, perhaps not; the point here is of course elsewhere) and thus undertook to cover up dear old dad in such a way that they would not themselves see what Ham had beheld. Three brothers, two responses: might.

We read in verse six of chapter six that God/“God” regretted having made humanity and therefore decided to destroy everyone, inclusive of all other animal, insect, and bird life on land. The determination had been that (6.5) “The LORD saw how great was man’s wickedness on earth, and how every plan devised by his mind was nothing but evil all the time.” The Flood ensues, death and destruction are total save (somehow) plant life and those in the ark, and then once more – immediately after this horribly extreme corrective had been completed – comes the judgment that (8.21) “the devisings of man’s mind are evil from his youth”; there is no escaping that the Flood failed in its design, it did not meet its objectives, in short it was a failure, a mistake. God/“God” acted in error? A close reading makes this conclusion unavoidable; but it also makes it precious.

Ham made a bad choice (and in the following verses his son ends up cursed for it, something the rabbis have been creative in explaining), Shem and Japheth made a good one. God/“God” apparently made a bad choice too: both initially and then in trying to make up for that. In this at least we are certainly “made in God’s/‘God’s’ image” (and in thinking about calamities like climate change we heartbreakingly even approach God’s/“God’s” scale in havoc); but also I think in this: That the option is always there to do right, or if not “right” then better. Might: We learn as we go along, and these literary heritages we have received from our forebears (in this tradition but naturally in every other too) present opportunities for reflection and conceptual realignments. We read, notice and meditate on what the text does to us, and then move out into the world. Call it a phenomenological hermeneutics, call it an exegetical interaction, call it simply an intelligent and open approach; however one wishes to label such, there it is within and alongside the text, whether taken as “scripture” or otherwise.

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