tracking back, tracking forward

Genesis 9

 18 The sons of Noah who came out of the ark were Shem, Ham and Japheth. (Ham was the father of Canaan.) 19 These were the three sons of Noah, and from them came the people who were scattered over the whole earth.

 20 Noah, a man of the soil, proceeded to plant a vineyard. 21 When he drank some of its wine, he became drunk and lay uncovered inside his tent. 22 Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father naked and told his two brothers outside. 23 But Shem and Japheth took a garment and laid it across their shoulders; then they walked in backward and covered their father’s naked body. Their faces were turned the other way so that they would not see their father naked.

 24 When Noah awoke from his wine and found out what his youngest son had done to him, 25 he said,

   “Cursed be Canaan!
   The lowest of slaves
   will he be to his brothers.”

 26 He also said,

   “Praise be to the LORD, the God of Shem!
   May Canaan be the slave of Shem.
27 May God extend Japheth’s territory;
   may Japheth live in the tents of Shem,
   and may Canaan be the slave of Japheth.”

 28 After the flood Noah lived 350 years. 29 Noah lived a total of 950 years, and then he died.
I‘ve begun to think of the bible having trackbacks, or backlinks. Of course we would normally say cross-references, but to me that feels like our own connecting of things.  Some things, the bible connects for itself.  And ‘back’ is not always helpful…there are forward links (trackforwards?).  In a narrative that includes so many different authors and editors, writing about different times, for different times and in different times, this seems hardly surprising.
Echoes of the future here, then.  Verse 18 makes it clear that something is about to be said about Canaan.  Canaan, the father of the Canaanites, the inhabitants of Canaan, aka the promised land.  Aka the Canaanites who were renowned for their latter ‘pollution’ of the land – their evil deeds in the eyes of Yahweh – their idolatry and the acts that constituted it (fertility rites, sacrificing children to the flames etc., etc).  The land ‘vomited’ them out – but I’m getting beyond Genesis here.  (Ever click on a cross reference or backlink and forget to finish the article you were reading?)
And, now another story.  Focusing on Noah – but is it really about Noah?   Does Noah ever really have a starring role?  Or is he the all time Best Supporting Actor?  It’s the actions of his sons that take centre stage here.
Noah, a man of the soil.  Of the the ground (adamah).  Like Adam.  Like Cain.  He plants a vineyard. He gets drunk. He gets naked.
There’s no comment from the narrator. No judgement applied, no sermon given. But the story is told.  

Story-telling – a most subtle way of making a point. Sometimes so subtle that people spend hundreds of years trying to work out what the story was saying, or even if it was saying anything at all.

Noah’s drunkenness and nakedness is the setting of the story, the background of a wider plot.
Ham sees him naked1. Instead of doing the honourable thing (track forward – honour your father and mother) he goes outside and tells his brothers.  Not only does he take no steps to protect his father’s dignity, he goes outside and tells the other two.  No respect for privacy.

Shem and Japheth don’t stand around to gossip about it – instead they take the necessary measures and cover their father up, protecting him from indignity, showing him respect and honour.  They don’t even look at him – so they cannot see him naked. He’s comatose and sprawled out but they take care not to do what they know he would find offensive.  They honour their father’s body, they also honour his wishes.

Sometimes, we know what someone would wish without them telling us.  Do we say something about someone to somebody else, knowing that they would be mortified that we had?  That, however unimportant it seems to us, they would be terribly hurt if they knew? Do we lay them bare before others, uncaring, sure they’ll never know? How, then, do we honour them?

Noah’s reaction when he finds out is clear.  Ham’s actions are appalling.

And so, he utters a curse and a blessing.  He curses Canaan. He curses Ham’s son!

I’m aware that this may well be because this story is at least partially acting as a polemic against the inhabitants of Canaan.  But in my own mind-meanderings I consider the mirroring of the action – Ham takes away his father’s honour.  Noah takes away the honour of Ham’s son.

Cursed be Canaan!  The lowest of slaves…

Slavery. That great thud of implication, that first mention of enslavement. A destiny is carved here, a destiny of oppression. Canaan is still a brother – but he will be a slave to his brothers2.

What have we seen in Genesis? Changes of relationships between humanity and God, between man and woman, between siblings, between parent and child, between entire races. The dismantling of that original oneness and unity seems complete.

Humanity is at odds – with God and within itself.  On a private scale and a public one.  Every relationship is marred by tension, misunderstanding, oppression.

The cursing of Canaan is countered by a blessing for his brothers – those who honoured Noah will in turn be honoured.  They are the ones who will rule over Canaan.  The curse and the blessing affect each other.

The dividing lines are drawn.

There are disagreements over what this actually means. I tend to take this at face value – as Ham ‘sees’ Noah’s nakedness but does not actually do the uncovering, and the situation seems rectified when the others cover him up again.

2 These verses have been used in awful, unjustifiable ways in human history – apartheid comes to mind.

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