When Family Fails
(Artwork by James Best, 2019. Used with permission.)
CONTEXT = We generally have a high opinion of Noah. This opinion is well-founded, as the Bible testifies to Noah’s standing in the eyes of the Lord. Here are some examples of biblical testimony about Noah.
Genesis 6:8-9 = BUT NOAH FOUND FAVOR IN THE EYES OF THE LORD. THIS IS THE ACCOUNT OF NOAH. NOAH WAS A RIGHTEOUS MAN, BLAMELESS AMONG THE PEOPLE OF HIS TIME, AND HE WALKED WITH GOD.
Genesis 7:1 = THE LORD THEN SAID TO NOAH, “GO INTO THE ARK, YOU AND YOUR WHOLE FAMILY, BECAUSE I HAVE FOUND YOU RIGHTEOUS IN THIS GENERATION.”
Genesis 9:1 = THEN GOD BLESSED NOAH AND HIS SONS, SAYING TO THEM, “BE FRUITFUL AND INCREASE IN NUMBER AND FILL THE EARTH.”
Noah is mentioned in the “Faith Hall of Fame in Hebrews 11:7, where it is written, BY FAITH NOAH, WHEN WARNED ABOUT THINGS NOT YET SEEN, IN HOLY FEAR BUILT AN ARK TO SAVE HIS FAMILY. BY HIS FAITH HE CONDEMNED THE WORLD AND BECAME HEIR OF THE RIGHTEOUSNESS THAT COMES BY FAITH.
And so we find today’s passage a little shocking and disconcerting.
Please read Genesis 9:18-29.
Now be careful. There’s good information here even if it comes from a cracked pot.
One proof that the Bible is true is that it is completely honest about its heroes. They are not paragons of perfection, but are fallible human beings. They sin and are forgiven again and again, just like we are. This fact alone should make them more accessible to us, more relatable as people.
More good news - God forgave Noah and blessed Noah just as He’d promised He would. We all mess up. We fall into sin, have errors of judgment, and often inflict our worst behavior on our family members. God is not done with you, so get over yourself, get forgiven, and get moving forward!
When we fail at being family, there must be room for forgiveness and restoration that causes our relationships to improve. Today we look at a negative example, people who failed as family. May we learn from their mistakes and not repeat them in our own family!
Our family deserves our best behavior.
1. Noah got “three sheets to the wind,” minus the sheets! (18-21)
In vs. 18-19 we are re-introduced to Noah’s three sons (first mention: 7:13). The author takes pains to point out two important facts. One, Ham was the father of Canaan. (This fact may be a reason this account is included in the Bible.) These three sons are the “fathers” of all the people who were - in ch. 11 - SCATTERED OVER THE EARTH. There are elaborate theories about the dispersion of the peoples across the earth - suffice it to say everyone alive is a descendent of one of the three sons of Noah.
Noah is described as A MAN OF THE SOIL in v. 20. This is new information. Previously, we’ve only seen his carpentry skills. This item is offered to explain why he planted a vineyard in the first place.
Apparently some time passed between verses 20 and 21. According to an article on Inc.com, it takes two years for vines to bear fruit and four years before the first bottle of fermented wine is available. This is not a spur-of-the-moment decision by Noah, it was something into which he poured a lot of time and effort. I mention this only because it puts the full weight of responsibility on Noah. This was not a reaction to the stress of the whole ark incident. It was a genuine, full-fledged mistake. No excuses.
After four years of toil and waiting, Noah finally got to enjoy the fruit of his labors and enjoyed it too much (21). First sin: HE BECAME DRUNK. Drinking wine is not a sin. For example, Psalm 104:14-15 says that God gave wine to gladden the hearts of men. But drunkenness is a sin. Ephesians 5:18 condemns drunkenness as it lead to all other kinds of sin. Proverbs 20:1 calls wine a MOCKER.
Second sin: Noah passed out and LAY UNCOVERED INSIDE HIS TENT. Recall that just six chapters earlier (2:25) Adam and Eve were both NAKED in the garden but they FELT NO SHAME. Then they disobeyed God (3:7) and those days of innocence were replaced with shame over their nakedness. The two situations are parallel; Noah, as were our original parents, in a garden paradise. They both sinned against God and were ashamed by their exposure. Biblically, to get drunk and be exposed in this way was a disgrace (see Habakkuk 2:15 and Lamentations 4:21). The grammar of the Hebrew makes it clear that Noah uncovered himself before passing out. This was no accident; for whatever reason, Noah chose be naked. That’s what makes this a sin, not an accident.
The three brothers reacted to the news in different ways. We start with Ham, the troublemaker. The Hebrew implies there was more to Ham’s reaction than mere amazement at seeing his father lying naked in his tent. It implies Ham was somehow happy to see his father uncovered. Medieval Jewish scholars theorized that Ham mutilated Noah or committed a homosexual act with him. It could be Ham thought the whole episode was funny.
However you explain it, Ham went and told the “whole world” what Noah had done (22). This is the only explanation the text supports: Ham was guilty of the sins of gossip and of disrespecting his father. Had he simply not said a thing, this whole event would have passed peaceably.
Shem and Japheth had a more respectful attitude and devised a means to cover up their father without embarrassing him further (23). That’s why they got the blessing and Ham got the bane.
2. Noah got up angry and cursed Ham. (24-29).
In verses 24-25 Noah launched into a curse. Given the usual state of a hangover, we can understand a certain amount of crankiness. What’s not understandable is why he named Canaan, not Ham, as the object of the curse. This is odd because the text does not name Canaan as having had anything at all to do with disrespecting Noah.
This discrepancy can be a clue into the purpose of including this account in the Bible. The name “Canaan” should sound familiar to Bible readers. Canaan was the set of people nations who settled on the east side of the Mediterranean Sea. They would were a people of great wickedness.
Obviously, they are descendants of Noah’s grandson Canaan, the person Noah cursed. Canaan was the region God gave to the Hebrews as their Promised Land. It was the Canaanite people whom God commanded be utterly destroyed. Therefore, a purpose of this event is to explain why God made that choice; why he took the newly-founded nation of Israel to take the Canaanites land and their lives. Not only were they a wicked people (their sexual deviance has been revealed many times over by the archaeologist’s shovel), but they were also descended from the son Noah had cursed.
We need to look at the context to see another explanation for this discrepancy. In verse one of this chapter it is written, THEN GOD BLESSED NOAH AND HIS SONS, SAYING TO THEM, “BE FRUITFUL AND INCREASE IN NUMBER AND FILL THE EARTH.” Noah was aware of this blessing and knew it was folly to curse Ham when God had already blessed him. Canaan had not enjoyed God’s blessing and could be cursed.
Verses 26-29 deal Noah’s blessing of his other sons and the end of his days. He blessed Shem. One of Shem’s descendants was Abram, the man whom God called into the territory of the Canaanites. He would become known as Abraham. The offspring of Shem have come to be known as “Semites,” a name we use as synonymous with Jews.
As later chapters in Genesis will testify, God promised Abraham all the territory occupied by the Canaanites. In the books of Exodus, Joshua, and Judges, we read how, after 400 years of slavery in Egypt, the Israelites got that land. Incredibly, the sons of Shem were to triumph over and enslave the sons of Canaan, bringing Noah’s curse into being.
Noah also blessed Japheth, but under the blessing of Shem: “MAY JAPHETH LIVE IN THE TENTS OF SHEM.” In the curse and blessings Noah spoke predictively; foreshadowing world changing events that started with a disrespectful son. It’s a shame that after having cleansed the world with a flood, humanity immediately returned to its sinful ways.
In spite of all the family drama, Noah lived a supernaturally long life (28-29). This would be a good place to clarify; just because Noah’s curse and blessings came to pass throughout the course of history, it would be a mistake to say Noah “caused” all this. Each person and each generation makes their own choices. Neither God nor Noah’s offspring were in any way “fated” because of Noah’s words. Noah’s blessing and curse were as much prophecy as they were disciplinary.
This passage may seem like a poor choice of texts for Father’s Day; a sad chapter of biblical history best forgotten. However, this text has historically been misused to justify some horrible things by making them seem biblical.
This text was used to justify African slavery. Without any biblical reason to do so, people said that Ham and his sons were dark-skinned; therefore the curse of slavery was applied to the Negro race by Noah and was therefore legitimate.
If that sounds superficial, unbiblical, and just plain stupid, it should. Especially on Father’s Day, I’m ashamed to say it was someone who shared my family name that first popularized this so-called “Curse of Ham.” In 1578 a sailing captain named George Best published an account of his travels in the southern hemisphere and attempted to justify his work as a slave trader. In that book he set forth this false teaching.
I mention this so you understand why this goofy little passage everyone overlooks needs to be scrutinized and understood. It’s also important for us to see that choices have consequences. Sometimes the consequences are temporary and personal; sometimes they are intergenerational and universal.
Noah sinned by getting drunk and being uncovered. Ham sinned by gossiping and disrespecting his father. The immediate consequence was Canaan being cursed. The long-term consequence was all of Canaan’s descendants being enslaved by the descendants of Shem.
We tend to trivialize things, especially when we are the guilty party. We say things like, “It was a little white lie. Why are you making a big deal over it?” This passage should impress us with the seriousness of all sin and the deadly consequences it can have even generations after us.
Look at it another way. Consider something a parent or some other adult you trusted did or said that hurt you. Forgiveness may have been offered and received, but the words are not forgotten. Whether you repeat them or not, they affect your behavior and your behavior is repeated or avoided in the next generations. Families are serious business!
All of this to explain and motivate us to adhere to this simple truth: Our family deserves our best behavior. I tell you this not on the authority of an expert practitioner. I have failed my family too often. Instead, I tell you this on the authority of the Word of God and my calling to tell you the truth, no matter how unpleasant and unpopular it may be.
I have never preached on this passage and I would venture to say most preachers go their careers without bringing it up. It’s like one of those “skeletons” in the family “closet,” the story we know but ignore because it’s embarrassing. However, we ignore things like this at our peril. We need to face it, confess it, be forgiven and do better. That’s what we do when family fails.
More Hard Sayings of the Old Testament, Walter C. Kaiser, Jr.
Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 2, John H. Sailhammer.