Abraham, a life in motion: Genesis 12-23

In the first parts of Genesis, the narrative is extremely sparse; there is little characterization. From genealogical trees, characters come into view, do one or two things, and then recede into the background, once more a mere node in a genealogical tree. Now, we enter a new sort of narrative: the lives of the fathers and mothers. The Torah spends about as many words describing the doings and sojournings of a man named Abram (literally, High Father) as it does on the stories of the creation of the heavens and earth, garden of Eden, flood and subsequent adventures of Noah and his sons, and tower of Babel combined. We get enough information about Abram to judge his character in some detail.Continue reading →

Babel and the danger of togetherness: Genesis 10-11

After the genealogical confusion over Ham’s son Canaan is resolved, we are told more about the offspring of Noah’s three sons: Shem, Ham, and Japheth.

Shem is the supposed ancestor of the Semites, prominent among them the Assyrians and the Hebrews. The sons of Ham include many of the nations that were the most important influences on the Israelite story. Egypt and Canaan are perhaps the most prominent, but the city of Babylon is founded by a descendant of Ham. So in practice, many important Semitic-speaking peoples are described as Hamites. Japheth seems to be the ancestor of the fair-skinned peoples about the Black and Aegean seas.

This genealogy from three sons, like the prior one, at first glance appears to contain a confusion of ancestry. Ham’s grandson Nimrod the hunter founds the great cities of Babylon, Uruk, Akkad, and Calneh in the land of Shinar. We are then told that “from that land Asshur (Assyria) went forth and built Nineveh, Rehoboth, Kalhu, and Resen.” But Asshur is also Shem’s son!

However, the apparent genealogical confusion is better explained by the story of the tower of Babel.Continue reading →

Civilization and coverup: Genesis 9

After the events of the flood, Noah and his three sons – Shem (spelt the same as the Hebrew word for “name”), Ham, and Japheth – come out of the ark, with their wives, to start repopulating the world. But first, there’s a story that is terse even by Biblical standards – short enough that I’ll just quote it here:

Noah began to be a man of the earth, and planted a vineyard. And he drank of the wine, and became drunk; and he was uncovered within his tent. Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers outside. Shem and Japheth took a garment, laid it upon both their shoulders, and went backwards, and covered the nakedness of their father; and their faces were backward, and they did not see their father’s nakedness.

Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his small son had done to him. He said, Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be to his brothers. And he said, Blessed be Yahweh, God of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant. May Elohim increase (Yaphth, יפת) Japheth (Yapheth, יפת), but he shall dwell in the tents of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant.

There are a few puzzles here. What is the significance of Noah’s vineyard, drunkenness, and nakedness? What did Noah’s “small son” do to him? What was Ham’s involvement? Why did Noah curse Ham’s son Canaan, instead of Ham himself? (Canaan is later listed as Ham’s fourth and youngest son.) Who is the “small son”? And why are Ham’s brothers Shem and Japheth referred to as Canaan’s brothers?Continue reading →