There is great irony in today’s story found in Genesis 9:1-28. On the one hand we see an amazing story of repentance and love from God toward the world. God had just completely wiped out all living things on the planet because of human violence. Then, God repents from this action and makes a promise to humanity. Never again will God destroy all things like this. Terence Fretheim says that God limited Godself, withholding judgment, to let humans live in relationship with God, each other, and all things on the planet. This is an amazing act of self-sacrificing love on God’s part, for the good of all things. God “hung God’s bow in the sky” as a sign. No longer would God draw the bow of the attacker and shoot arrows of judgment on the earth. The bow is retired. This is good news!
Then, on the other side, we have the ironic response to God’s promise of fidelity and support. Noah gets wasted and passes out, naked, in his tent. His son, Ham, sees him naked, then tells his brother. We don’t know exactly what happened in that tent, or what cultural taboo was violated in this story, but whatever it was, the writers of this story thought it was really bad. Noah had every right to be angry at Ham, apparently. So, what does he do? Here’s the ironic part of the story. Just after God had demonstrated mercy on humanity and made a covenant to not mete out judgment on them, Noah turns around and curses Ham and all his descendents.
We must keep something in mind when we read these stories. Each of these primordial stories are attempts to make sense out of the world in the minds of the writers. The Canaanites were descendents of Ham and sworn enemies of the Israelites. It is hard to go to war against a relative, but it is much easier to battle against someone whom you believe is cursed by God. This story justified the battles and hatred for the Canaanites. Further, this story has served to justify many other systemic forms of hatred and oppression. The most notable system for citizens of Europe and the USA is the long-standing belief that the black-skinned people of the world are descendents of Ham and the white skinned people of the world are descendents of Shem, thus justifying the slave trade and the ensuing racism in our culture.
I think the point of this story is that humanity hasn’t changed much. We were violent and hateful before the flood, and “the most righteous man,” Noah, wasn’t even able to understand God’s promise of mutual love and support. God’s promise said that all human blood is precious. All life matters to God.
May we seek to hang our bows in the sky and reverse the curse of Noah in our world.