Everyone who reads the Bible finds hard texts in it. They are texts that upset our notions of the nature of God and morality. Can a moral God condone what some of the righteous do? One text in particular is difficult for me. I have wrestled with the sense of it for two decades. And I find no good way of dealing with the implications. The hard text for me is Genesis 9:24-27.
The Hard Heart of Noah
The story of the Great Flood, especially the story of the components of it, is the fascinating. There are flood traditions recorded in many Middle Eastern texts. Two different stories are woven together to make the Biblical one. The great symbol of the dove with an olive branch (or leaf) comes from this narrative. But the narrative concludes with Noah planting a vineyard, making wine, and indulging in too much of it. While Noah was in a stupor, his son Ham sees the shame of his father and tells his brothers. The brothers hide their father’s naked body from any other eyes including their own.
When Noah woke from his wine and knew what his youngest son had done to him, he said, ‘Cursed be Canaan; the lowest of slaves shall he be to his brothers.’ He also said, ‘Blessed by the LORD my God be Shem; and let Canaan be his slave. May God make space for Japheth, and let him live in the tents of Shem; and let Canaan be his slave.’
There it is, not once but twice, a statement declaring Canaan to become the slave of Shem. Canaan is cursed for what Noah’s “younger son” did. We learn earlier that Canaan is the son of Ham. He is listed fourth among the sons of Ham in chapter 10 after Cush, Egypt, and Put. Ham broke a taboo it seems. But why is Canaan singled out in this way?
Justifying the Unjustifiable
The writer uses this story to justify the enslavement of people. We can see a line of reasoning from this text through Numbers, Deuteronomy, and Joshua. The Canaanites are to be enslaved. Righteous Noah placed a curse on their ancestor. It’s not us saying it. It is torah saying it. Commentators recognize this text as a family narrative being used to explain a political reality. The same method is employed in chapter 19 to explain the beginnings of Moab and Ammon. A sexual taboo is broken within the family to explain the distinctions between Israel and the Canaanites. But these distinctions are not merely describing differences.
If this was the case, sharing the land would be possible. Japheth living among the tents of Shem explains the sharing nature of the land with the Philistines. The sea peoples occupying the coastal areas cannot be overcome. Explaining the situation as a decree from a common ancestor apparently justifies the situation.
The power dynamic between Israel and the Canaanites was not static. Comparing the books of Joshua and Judges shows that to be the case. Israelites in service to Canaanites (or Egyptians) knew something was wrong with that order. But to tacitly accept that some group of people will be over another group of people is a problematic attitude. The assumption behind this text in Genesis is that the world will now be a sequence of hierarchies among tribes and peoples.
A Hard Truth
A friend once asked, “Who do you want to be in charge of the world?” He assumed what all imperialists do. One State among all the rest will be the reigning superpower. Christian nationalism, like all such doctrines, destroys every liberty in the pursuit of the freedom to pursue power. Attitudes that seek to dominate others need religious fervor. We hear this is a “hard truth” of the world. But, like all such assumptions, it’s based on flawed reasoning.
Noah does not bless Shem or Japheth. He blesses Yahweh the god of Shem. The curse on Canaan as a slave is based on the difference between the root this name and that of Ham. Canaan represents humility while Ham is a hot-tempered type of person. Taken this way, the narrative is a warning against the attitude of domination. Ham (hot) becomes Canaan (humiliated). This problem shows the inherent flaw of lex talonis. As has been observed by others, an eye for an eye eventually leads to blindness.
Living Life Without Domination
My interpretation leaves me unsatisfied. But it at least gives me the challenge to approach life by letting go of domination oriented theologies and political philosophies. More importantly, the challenge is to give of patterns of domination over other people and everything else in the created order.
Martin Luther King Jr. Day was yesterday. We reflect on the legacy. And we commit again to anti-racism, tolerance, and nonviolence. How can we overcome an attitude of domination that gives us violence, racism, and intolerance? The root is fear. Perfect love overcomes fear. Perfect love means we can live without desiring to protect ourselves by dominating other people.