By Aian Macpherson
Noah was born back in chapter 5 – the first recorded birth to take place after the death of Adam his seven times great grandfather whose genealogy Noah first appears in. In the story this is now at least 602 years ago. At that time Noah’s father Lamech prophesise that Noah will bring comfort to the painful toil caused by the cursed ground. This recalls the loss of rest and the cursing of the ground which began with Adam. Noah’s name itself means rest.
Now the flood is over and God has promised never to curse the ground again. The sun is shining and when it rains there is the hopeful sign of the rainbow hung up in the sky. With Noah, working the soil, were his three sons Shem, Ham and Japheth. Noah himself is called a man of the soil. This tells us what he is doing, but also reminds us that Noah is descended from Adam, and Adam from the Adamah – the earth – the earth is Noah’s distant kin, Noah is an earthman.
Noah is fulfilling the prophesy of his father. Noah plants a vineyard and produces the first wine mentioned in the Bible. As it is written in Proverbs 31 ‘Give beer to those who are perishing, wine to those who are in anguish’ and in Ecclesiastes 3 ‘there is nothing better for men than to be happy and do good while they live. That every one may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all his toil – this is the gift of God.’ Noah does bring comfort in toil through a cup of wine.
On the other hand proverbs 20 says ‘wine is a mocker and beer a brawler; whoever is led astray by them is not wise.’ This too proves true of Noah who became drunk and lay naked in his tent. It is worth considering that the last time we heard someone was naked was the man and the woman as they felt shame for the first time (Genesis 3). Back then God covered them with clothes of skin.
Ham is less generous. Seeing his father naked Ham goes and tells his brothers. May be he is jealous of his father’s authority – don’t many of us still love to see the powerful fall? Or maybe Ham is fed up with his father’s righteous standards. Some people feel that they are elevating their own status when they pull others down. Whatever the reason for Ham’s actions, Shem and Japheth take a different course, they take a garment to cover their father and then, strangely, walk in backwards. The text stresses this point by repeating that ‘their faces were turned the other way so that they would not see their father’s nakedness.’
In an age of ‘reality TV’, ‘sexting’, and tabloid journalism, Ham’s crime is no stranger. Ham used the nakedness and vulnerability of another for entertainment. Ham saw a weakness and exploited it. He gossiped, and presumably laughed at his father’s expense. Thinking back to princess Dianna in the weeks and months before her death, how many who went on to be mourners where first her voyeurs? How short is our collective memory as her son prince Harry recently went through the same mill? How edifying is it to watch TV shows with the desire to gossip and glimpse someone else’s weakness, venerability or even nakedness? Ham is, to use a vulgar phrase, ‘slut shaming’ Noah.
Shame can be destructive; this is why God covered the man and woman. In the words of Carol Nagy, who preached on this passage at St Philip’s, Shame “can be the reason people commit suicide, when so called friends or ex partners post embarrassing photos or sex tapes on social media. I would hate to be at school today, it was difficult enough back in the day when someone asked you out for a joke and the humiliation that you felt when the whole class heard about it. Now it’s a totally different level. It’s not uncommon for children to be encouraged by other children to send a nude selfie, only to find it’s been shared with the whole school. But then it doesn’t end there and these kids have no idea what the consequences will be when they press the ‘send’ button.”
Ham is the first in a long line of people who shame others for their own ego. And even more than that Ham specifically breaks what will be the 5th of the ten covenant commandments of God, honour your father and mother.
Shem and Japheth on the other hand not only refrain from entertaining themselves at Noah’s expense, they show their father honour and kindness. Their strange backwards entry into the tent and their averted eyes are a deliberate honouring. That they cover him with a garment recalls the kindness of God, in whose image they are made, who covered their ancestors with clothing.
Shem and Japheth are an example of showing honour to another, as the care professions might say, ‘they preserved Noah’s human dignity’. They protected their father, and ‘restored him gently…’ carrying his burdens for him a while (Galatians 6:1-2). It is a practical demonstration of being non-judgmental, refusing to seek fault in another. (This should not be confused with covering up for someone –which is dishonest- or with protecting anyone who is abusing and harming others – which is collusion). Shem and Japheth literally look away from the metaphorical speck in their fathers eye (Matthew 7).
Again from carol “Don’t we all want to be surrounded by the likes of Shem and Japheth. None of us is without sin or so spiritual that we can’t fall from grace. Please God if I stumble, that it is a Shem or Japheth who is close by to help me up.”
Then Noah wakes up! When he found out what his sons had done, he blessed Shem and Japheth, but first he cursed Ham’s son Canaan!
Why Canaan and not Ham? May be Noah knew as even Balaam’s donkey knew that you can’t curse what God has blessed. God has blessed Noah and his son’s, Noah can’t curse him so he vindictively passes on the curse. So the tragedy continues, Noah’s shame rebounds into a curse on his own grandchild.
We know that ‘parents are not to be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their parents; each will die for their own sin’ (Deuteronomy 24). We know you are to forgive seventy times seven. We know that Noah should have, as a righteous man of God blessed the ones who cursed him with shame. We also know that every thought of the human heart is evil even from childhood. That includes Noah. Noah responded to God, obeyed God, worshiped God, and by human standards was just in an unjust and violent time. Noah was also a fallen man. That is why he received God’s grace through promise, he needed it!
Noah’s curse of his grandson has a long shadow. The Canaanites eventually have a subservient role in Israel. They were to be expelled from Canaan or annihilated, neither of these fates befell them. Some get killed, some run away and some work for the Israelites. Millennia later because some of Ham’s descendants, not in fact Canaanites but Cushites, are listed in the next chapter as settling Africa, a bizarre reading of Noah’s curse combined with early scientific notions of race led some to say that God ordained the slavery of Black people. One curse leads to another. One curse can have a very long shadow. How true it is that we should bless and not curse.
Through Tamar and her father in law (Judah), and no doubt through others unrecorded, Canaanite blood flows in the veins of Jesus the Messiah, Noah’s curse on Canaan was never the final word. But it is still tragic and a demonstration of how wide the destructive power of shame can be if forgiveness and reconciliation do not forestall it.
Noah does bless the LORD God because of Shem and Japheth and prays a blessing on them. (Even here Noah can’t resist digging the boot into Ham by praying that Canaan’s decedents be slaves of the children of Shem and Japheth). Ironically Shem and Japheth’s action was worth blessing because it did not curse one person in order to bless or please another. They did not inflate their egos or entertain themselves over the nakedness of their father.
Hopefully when we fall we will be surrounded by people like Shem and Japheth who will cover nakedness with grace and kindness. People who when faced with shame in other people give only honour. You see having honour, being honourable, is mostly a matter of guarding the honour of others and protecting those who cannot protect themselves.
All Photos courtesy of Pixels unless otherwise stated