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?

On the grapevine

Noah was named for the hope of respite from the curse of Cain. Now that the corruption of the earth has been washed out, a new covenant has been made, lifting the curse of Cain, and humanity can, for the first time, experience the curse of Adam instead: to toil, working the earth for food. Noah’s crop of grapes is the first crop since Abel. Noah the first man of the earth (ha’adamah, האדמה) since Adam (אדם).

Agriculture is one mark of a settled civilization. It means staying in one place, and doing work with compounding gains. Each seed you harvest today can be eaten now, or planted to yield many more in the next harvest. Another characteristic practice of settled civilization, and another exponentially expanding process, is fermentation. So Noah was doubly engaging in paradigmatically civilized, or citified, behavior. And he was incapacitated by the resulting exponential explosion of abundance.

Civilization is a potentially incapacitating drug that leads to complacency and confusion.

On nakedness

Nakedness is at once civilized and uncivilized. Forager peoples often wear little in the way of clothing, and animals and feral humans wear none. Adam and Eve did not cover themselves until they ate of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. And yet, if Herodotus is representative, the Greeks thought that exercising clothed was barbaric, only a short step away from exercising in full armor. When clothing is the norm, nakedness is a sign of closeness and trust, because it makes you vulnerable.

Boundaries differ, but civilizations tend to have an idea of an interior and an exterior – sometimes more than one level – calling for different levels of dress or undress. If you cannot be naked anywhere, if you cannot ever let your guard down, this implies a complete absence of interior spaces – the war of all against all. So, Noah’s nakedness is also doubly a civilized behavior – he has clothing to take off, and he does so inside his own tent.

Small son, what have you done?

The simplest construal of Ham’s behavior – and what was wrong with it – is that he saw his father doubly vulnerable – drunk and naked – on the interior of a private space. He then brought this information outside that private space, by telling his brothers.

There are a few problems that this is inadequate to explain:

  • Ham seems to be described as Noah’s “small son” when he seems to be the middle son.
  • Noah curses Ham’s youngest son, Canaan, instead of Ham himself.
  • Noah seems to refer to Shem and Japheth as Canaan’s brothers, not his uncles.

One explanation is merely narrative confusion – in one source, Canaan and not Ham made the private public.

A more promising explanation is that narrative confusion is driven, yet again, by the confusion of lineages. Canaan is Shem’s and Japheth’s brother; they share a mother. Ham came into Noah’s tent, while Noah was in a compromised state, and impregnated Noah’s wife.

There is some textual support for “saw the nakedness of his father” as an euphemism for intercourse with his mother; in the middle of a section full of admonitions against confusing lines of descent, Leviticus 18:8 says, “The nakedness of your father’s wife you shall not uncover: it is your father’s nakedness.” And the lack of any direct reference to Noah’s wife is consistent with the genealogical narratives in this part of the Bible. Neither his wife nor his sons’ wives are even named in the text.

This doesn’t quite explain “what his small son had done,” but does resolve the other difficulties, including why Canaan is the target of the curse.

Consider Noah’s perspective. Yahweh has just finished wiping out the rest of humanity, to get a clean start tracking lineages. He had selected Noah’s line to survive specifically because Noah was “a righteous man, perfect in his generations.” Then Noah’s son fucks up and impregnates someone of the prior generation. Noah is too incapacitated to prevent this, and his sons’ response is to cover him up, to preserve appearances, so that no one’s feelings get hurt. But Noah is very anxious to show that he can clear this one up without divine intervention. So he corrects the records. He makes it common knowledge that Canaan is not his son, and therefore not equal to his other sons. Canaan will not inherit like an equal, but will be beneath his half-brothers.

God of Shem

Readers who were not educated by the legacy of Yahweh may not realize quite how transgressive the title of this blog is. Jewish custom forbids us from even speaking aloud the tetragrammaton (YHWH, יהוה). The exact pronunication has been lost. Paper on which it is written is sacred, and not to be destroyed.

When the name must be read as part of religious practice, Jews instead pronounce a different word: Adonai, meaning “my Lord”. But this gives even the name “Adonai” too much sacredness to be used when referring to the one named by the tetragrammaton, so orthodox Jews say “Ha-Shem”, which means “the name.” In this context, Noah’s blessing of Yahweh reads especially oddly. Blessed be the Shem, God of Shem. Blessed be the Name, God of Name.

The plain meaning of the text is that Noah blesses Yahweh, god of Shem. But Yahweh is supposed to be Noah’s god as well. Perhaps Shem is recognized as the truest exemplar of the Yahwist tradition.

Maybe you thought this was a process curated by an already-perfect Yahweh? Well, maybe – but from another point of view it’s a search for Yahweh. Noah is not yet adequate to the challenges of preserving information under conditions of civilized abundance, but names Shem as the son whose seed will find Yahweh. Yahweh is only guiding the process via outcomes – via selection for Yahwist virtues.

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