God’s Covenant with Humankind through Noah, 1-17
9:1 Then God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. 9:2 Every living creature of the earth and every bird of the sky will be terrified of you. Everything that creeps on the ground and all the fish of the sea are under your authority. 9:3 You may eat any moving thing that lives. As I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything.
Kidner notes that there are similarities with the opening of Genesis, but also differences. The charge given to Noah is similar to that given to Adam, 1:7, but sin now encroaches. God’s image remains, v6, and man is still God’s viceroy, but his dominion will be largely one of fear, v2, and his fellow-creatures are now his food, v3, and there will be a need to restrain violence and bloodshed, v5f.
Atkinson comments on God’s covenant with Noah:
‘The story of God’s covenant with Noah after the Flood reminds us that God’s covenant blessing is given, and his law provided, in the setting of a disordered and fallen world. Many times in this section of the Bible, we have seen how the life of faith is lived in a world of ambiguity and tension. Genesis 3 comes after Genesis 2: the created world is fallen. Adam is expelled from the Garden, but life goes on. Cain is punished by God, yet protected by God. The story of the Flood itself is a story of mercy and rescue in the very place of judgement and destruction. And now, perhaps more clearly still, in chapter 9, Noah is given God’s blessing, but God’s law is, so to speak, an “accommodation” of God’s perfect will to the conditions of a very-far-from-perfect world…The Genesis author has no illusions about the ambiguity of the world, and the struggles even for men of faith in living for God. In that context the word of blessing, the provision of God’s guiding law, and the reassurance of the rainbow are even more clearly evidences of God’s gracious covenanted love and care.’
Moltmann sees great self-humiliation here on God’s part:
‘It was a self-humiliation on God’s part when he lent his divine image to a clod of earth. But how much more God lowered himself after the Flood, in the renewal of his blessing!’
Noah and his sons covers all the human beings that were alive after the flood. God’s blessing applies to all humanity.:
‘Life in the fallen world after the Flood is a life which is intened to be expressed in a corporate and shared commitment to show in our relationships and in out mutually acepted responsibilities for the world, that we are “in the divine image.” We are to be a community of creation.’ (Atkinson)
Even in our wickedness, we are accorded the dignity of God’s image, and are given the responsibility of being his ‘estate manager’ (Atkinson again). We can avoid this responsibility through despair, through a cosmic fatalism.: the world is headed for self-destruction, let’s eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die. What is the use of my poor contribution when the problems of the world are so great? But to argue thus is to diminish our humanity.
v2 Here, the Lord re-establishes man’s dominion over the other creatures. Man has knowledge, and knowledge is power. JFB comment on this dominion:
‘This dominion, as granted anew to Noah, though expressed in stronger terms than to Adam, probably to inspire him and his family with confidence to spread over the earth, was restored only in the imperfect degree in which it was possessed after the fall, when, through his own fierce passions and cruel tyranny, man’s supremacy over the inferior creation was much impaired. Still it continues great. But the coercive rule which he now exercises, and which is often successfully resisted, is not to be confounded with that benign and complete dominion which was his critical prerogative, and which having been conferred on Christ, (Ps 8:6-8; 1 Cor 15:27; Eph 1:22; Heb 2:7-8) will in due time be the imparted privilege of his people in the restored condition of humanity.’
This verse reminds us of the creation story in ch 1, but the tone is now very different. Before, all is said to be ‘very good’, but now the world is full of fear and dread. We ourselves cannot go back to the Garden; we live this side of the Flood, and with the tensions of a fallen world. God still speaks, but in a manner suited to needs of that fallen world. The fact that all life comes from God is reflected in provisions covering bloodshed, vv3-6.
9:4 But you must not eat meat with its life (that is, its blood) in it. 9:5 For your lifeblood I will surely exact punishment, from every living creature I will exact punishment. From each person I will exact punishment for the life of the individual since the man was his relative.
9:6 “Whoever sheds human blood,
by other humans
must his blood be shed;
for in God’s image
God has made humankind.”
The blood of the animal was seen as its life force, Deut 12:23. Draining the blood signified a returning of the life force of the animal to the God who gave it life.
“Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed” – As noted by NBC,
‘Pre-flood history was characterized by violence: (Gen 6:11) Abel’s murder went unavenged, whereas Lamech overreacted. (Gen 4:23-24) Now a law of strict retribution was introduced: Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed (6). The idea that punishment must match the crime is fundamental in OT law (Ex 21:23-25) and modern notions of justice and fairness too.’
God’s law is adapted to the needs of a broken world:
‘God’s law is now a law for an abnormal world. His law comes, as it were, refracted through the disordered relationships which mark even this start.’ (Atkinson)
“In the image of God has God made man” – Commenting on Gen 3:1, Calvin says that God’s image in man has been ‘obliterated’. Here, however, he writes that
‘no one can be injurious to his brother without wounding God himself. Were this doctrine deeply fixed in our minds, we should be much more reluctant than we are to inflict injuries. Should any one object, that this divine image has been obliterated, the solution is easy; first, there yet exists some remnant of it, so that man is possessed of no small dignity; and, secondly, the Celestial Creator himself, however corrupted man may be, still keeps in view the end of his original creation; and according to his example, we ought to consider for what end he created men, and what excellence he has bestowed upon them above the rest of living beings.’ (My emphasis)
9:7 But as for you, be fruitful and multiply; increase abundantly on the earth and multiply on it.”
9:8 God said to Noah and his sons, 9:9 “Look! I now confirm my covenant with you and your descendants after you 9:10 and with every living creature that is with you, including the birds, the domestic animals, and every living creature of the earth with you, all those that came out of the ark with you—every living creature of the earth. 9:11 I confirm my covenant with you: Never again will all living things be wiped out by the waters of a flood; never again will a flood destroy the earth.”
‘A covenant is a formal agreement between two parties. The principal section of a covenant is the stipulations section, which may include requirements for either party or both. In this covenant God takes stipulations upon himself, rather than imposing them on Noah and his family. Unlike the later covenant with Abraham, and those that build on the covenant with Abraham, this covenant does not entail election or a new phase of revelation. It is also made with every living creature, not just people.’ (OT Background Commentary)
“And with every living creature that was with you” – ‘We are taught in Scripture that the most ordinary of God’s creatures are always the objects of his watchful providence, and that not even a sparrow can fall to the ground without our heavenly Father knowing about it. So far is this merciful regard of the lower animals carried, that in the covenant with Noah they are specially mentioned. This passage, and others of a similar import, open new views of the divine government undiscoverable by reason. (Ps 113:4,6) Such considerations may hurt the pride of man; but no one who believes the Bible to be a true revelation of the will of God can reflect on the fact without acquiring higher views of the duties of that relation in which he stands to the lower animals, and being inspired with the benevolence which is thus widely diffused over the creation.’ (JFB)
‘What we begin to see in this story is a recognition that the Fall of man has to some extent changed the way God deals with us. No longer is his command straightforward, as it was in the Garden. It is accommodated to the needs of a fallen world…God’s word comes to us now with this double aspect: there is the divine command expressed often as the covenant rule, that we should be holy as he is holy; and there is a provision of God’s law for the restraint of evil in a world that is disordered…The law is occasioned by and relevant to a fallen world. It is, as it were, an “emergency” provision of God’s grace, necessary because of sin.’ (Atkinson) The distinction between God’s creation intention and his ‘emergency provision’ is seen in the Ten Commandments, which summon his people to worship him, but also recognise the temptation to make graven images; to honour God’s name and Day, but acknowledge that both may be dishonoured. The distinction is seen in the teaching of Christ, who upholds the creational sanctity of marriage while acknowledging divine permission for divorce, Mt 19:8 (note the references to “your hardness of heart” and “in the beginning it was not so”). Then, again, we see the distinction in the teaching of Paul, who teaches that we are new creatures in Christ and rejoice in the power of his resurrection, but also that we are subject to the downward pull of sin, and must fight the fight of faith, protected by the armour of God. To concentrate on the first aspect leads to complacency and even triumphalism; to focus on the second aspect would be to deny the new life that is ours in Christ: we need both emphases, and to realise that we live for the time being in the overlap between two worlds, with all the tensions and uncertainties that brings.
v11 ‘The promise never again to destroy all flesh because of its wickedness is an uncnoditional promise on God’a part. It is God’s indestructible “Yes” to his creation. The history of nature, with its changes and chances, and the uncertain history of humanity, both rest on the foundation of God’s unconditional will. Natural catastrophes and the human catastrophes of history cannot annul this divine “Yes” to creation and to the human person. Not even human wickedness can thwart the creator’s will towards his creation. God remains true to the earth, for God remains true to himself. He cannot deny himself.’ (Moltmann) Atkinson adds, ‘For God, this means the suffering of divine love, awaiting the Prodigal’s return. for us, it means the confidence that despite all the chances and changes in this uncertain life, God “has the whole world in his hands.” In a world in which so many of our contemporaries are given over to a cosmic fatalism…we need to find ways of making known the fact that, despite all appearances, God has not and will not give us up.’
9:12 And God said, “This is the guarantee of the covenant I am making with you and every living creature with you, a covenant for all subsequent generations: 9:13 I will place my rainbow in the clouds, and it will become a guarantee of the covenant between me and the earth. 9:14 Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, 9:15 then I will remember my covenant with you and with all living creatures of all kinds. Never again will the waters become a flood and destroy all living things. 9:16 When the rainbow is in the clouds, I will notice it and remember the perpetual covenant between God and all living creatures of all kinds that are on the earth.”
“I have set my rainbow in the clouds” – The Heb. has no special word for rainbow. The word for the weapon is used. ‘The meaning seems to be that what was ordinarily an instrument of war, and a symbol of vengeance, became a symbol of peace and mercy by virtue of its now being set in the clouds. Against the black storm clouds God’s war-bow is transformed into a rainbow by the sunlight of his mercy and grace. God is at peace with his covenant people.’ (NBD) Developing this imagery, JFB notes that the bow is pointing away from the earth and its inhabitants, and that it has no string.
‘The designation of the rainbow as a sign of the covenant does not suggest that this was the first rainbow ever seen. The function of a sign is connected to the significance attached to it. In like manner, circumcision is designated as a sign of the covenant with Abraham, yet that was an ancient practice, not new with Abraham and his family.’ (Old Testament Background Commentary)
‘No external sign could have been chosen for this purpose more suitable, from its natural properties, than the rainbow; because its elevated position renders it visible to all; and it never appears but when there is a gentle rain with the sun shining-which kind of rain is never known to do any harm, but much good.’ (JFB)
‘The hostility is over: God hangs up his bow!…In its spectral beauty, it tells us only of the Creator – and that the light of his beauty shines through even the reminders of his watery judgement. The weapon of war itself is transformed into a delight. Here is the Creator’s overarching care: the Creator God is the Covenant God. He who made us still loves us.’ (Atkinson)
9:17 So God said to Noah, “This is the guarantee of the covenant that I am confirming between me and all living things that are on the earth.”
The Curse of Canaan, 18-29
9:18 The sons of Noah who came out of the ark were Shem, Ham, and Japheth. (Now Ham was the father of Canaan.) 9:19 These were the sons of Noah, and from them the whole earth was populated.
9:20 Noah, a man of the soil, began to plant a vineyard. 9:21 When he drank some of the wine, he got drunk and uncovered himself inside his tent. 9:22 Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father’s nakedness and told his two brothers who were outside. 9:23 Shem and Japheth took the garment and placed it on their shoulders. Then they walked in backwards and covered up their father’s nakedness. Their faces were turned the other way so they did not see their father’s nakedness.
William Gurnall comments on the dangers and temptations of prosperity:
‘Prosperity is no friend to a sanctified memory, and therefore we are cautioned, when we are full, lest we forget God. Noah, who had seen the whole world drowned in water, was no sooner safe on shore, and in the enjoyment of plenty, than he forgot God, and drowned himself in wine.’
Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father’s nakedness – Possibly a euphemism for rape. EDBT comments on a possible link with other OT texts dealing with same-sex intercourse:
‘There may be a connection here to two additional references to sexual sins involving one’s father, (Lev 18:7; Deut 23:1) since Ham is the father of Canaan, the nation traditionally associated with same-gender sex and whose impure practices are condemned in detail in the context of these references.’
O. Palmer Robertson also argues in favour of this interpretation, citing Lev 20:17-19. The action of the two brothers might in walking backwards to cover their father then be explained by their knowledge of, and extreme embarrassment of what their brother had done.
Brueggemann, while allowing for the possibility of homosexual rape, thinks it possible that the ‘uncovering’ of the father involved having intercourse with the mother. The Faithlife Study Bible also adopts this view.
Some commentators, including Cassuto and Walton, think that Ham’s sin was simply seeing his father naked and inviting his brothers to see also.
Waltke identifies the sin as homosexual voyeurism.
9:24 When Noah awoke from his drunken stupor he learned what his youngest son had done to him. 9:25 So he said,
“Cursed be Canaan!
The lowest of slaves
he will be to his brothers.”
“Cursed be Canaan!” – Mathews notes that this curse echoes other curses of the antedeluvian era:
‘against the serpent (Gen 3:14), the “ground” because of Adam’s transgression (Gen 3:17), against Cain (Gen 4:11–12), and the earth again (Gen 8:21).’
Mathews writes that if we are to treat this as a prediction, then we must look to the time of David for its fulfilment.
More fully, Skinner (cited by Wenham), states:
‘Three points may be regarded as settled: that Shem is that family to which the Hebrews reckoned themselves; that Canaan stands for the pre-Israelitish inhabitants of Palestine; and that the servitude of Canaan to Shem at least includes the subjugation of the Canaanites in the early days of the monarchy. Beyond this everything is uncertain.’
Mathews adds that the issue here is not ethnicity, but morality:
‘There are no grounds in our passage for an ethnic reading of the “curse” as some have done, supposing that some peoples are inferior to others. Here Genesis looks only to the social and religious life of Israel’s ancient rival Canaan, whose immorality defiled their land and threatened Israel’s religious fidelity (cf. Lev 18:28; Josh 23).’
Waltke and Fredricks agree:
‘the difference between the future prospects of the ancestral brothers pertains to their morality, not to their ethnicity as such. The family of the Canaanite prostitute Rahab will become part of the covenant people (Josh. 2:14; 6:17, 22–25; Matt. 1:5; Heb. 11:31), and the family of the Judean Achan will be cut off (Josh. 7). When Israel behaves like the Canaanites, the land also vomits them out (2 Kings 17:20).’
Brueggemann comments on the place and function of this passage in its broader scriptural context:
‘This narrative is an opportunity to root in pre-history the power relations between Israel and Canaan and to justify it on theological grounds. Political relations are here determined by God’s power to bless and to curse. This is an early form of the same approach which subsequently fixes the relation between Isaac-Ishmael, Jacob-Esau, and Ephraim-Manasseh.’
To Peter Enns (The Bible Tells Me So) this looks like an attempt to justify, not explain, hatred of the Canaanites:
‘Israel’s later sworn enemies, the Canaanites, are set up as failures from the beginning, and no treatment – not even extermination – is too harsh for these people who ancestor’s father saw his father drunk and naked.’
Many commentators raise the question of why the curse pertains to Canaan, Noah’s grandson, rather than to Ham, his son.
Calvin answers by saying that Ham was not excluded from the curse, but that Canaan was included to show its severity.
Some interpreters argue for an emendation to the text, such that it would be Canaan himself, and not his father, who violated Noah.
O. Palmer Robinson notes that, according to Ex 20:5, the sins of the father will be visited on their children. ‘Ham’s son would have been cursed both as a way of judgment on the father and as an anticipation of the fact that the sin of the father would be reflected in the life of his son.’ This receives some confirmation in Gen 10:19, where the descendants of Canaan inhabit cities such as Sodom and Gomorrah, later to be destroyed because of their extreme wickedness, and in Gen 15:13,16, where the Amorites (a section of the Canaanites) would not be displaced for centuries to come because their iniquity was not yet full.
As noted by LRC,
‘Wenham contends that the text’s preoccupation with Canaan (Gen 9:18, 22) even before the curse indicates its interest in portraying the Canaanites—Israel’s archenemies—as corrupt and sexually perverse from their beginning.’
Cassuto (cited by Waltke and Fredricks) agrees:
‘The Canaanites were to suffer the curse and the bondage not because of the sins of Ham, but because they themselves acted like Ham, because of their own transgressions.’
Noting that Noah is not presented as an altogether exemplary character (v21), the Apologetics Study Bible allows for the possibility that Noah was at fault in cursing Canaan. So also (noting these is no ‘Thus says the Lord’ here) does Walton (IVPBBCOT). Wenham, on the other hand, thinks that ‘Noah’s words evidently have divine authority and affect the future.’
Peter Martyr Vermigli (1569) taught that slavery, though evil, could be used by God for good ends:
‘Truly, to be a slave is a punishment, because it is opposed to the nature and position of human beings. God established humans not to be slaves but to rule. Hence, the good fathers in ancient times did not control people by force. They were shepherds of flocks, but they governed people only by love and advice. Since humans were created in God’s image, and since it belongs to God to give orders and not to follow them, it is clearly proved that it also does not belong to human nature to be a slave. Nonetheless, slavery is not to be rejected by this argument, for it may have been contrived as a bridle for iniquity and a medicine against human malice. Indeed, you may discover many things that took their beginnings from evil causes, yet they should still be retained, not utterly spurned. Hence, the apostles Peter and Paul frequently taught in their epistles that subjects and slaves were to be dutiful toward their masters and not dare to shake off the yoke of slavery.’ (Reformation Commentary on Scripture)
Goldingay (Genesis for Everyone) treats the story as an aetiology explaining the later history of the Canaanites. He suggests that
‘The ears of Israelites listening to the story prick up. They know about the Canaanites. Eventually, they have a rather subservient role in Israel. Although the Torah will say they are to be expelled from Canaan or annihilated, neither of those fates befell them. While some get killed and no doubt some make a run for it, others survive one way or another and work for the Israelites. Whereas they were once masters of the country, now they are servants (Joshua 9 relates how this happened to some of them). Here in Genesis, translations describe them as destined for “slavery,” but that is misleading. The world in which Abraham and the Israelites lived knew virtually nothing of the kind of slavery that we have known in the Western world. The Canaanites’ position more resembled that of Hispanic people in California who do the menial tasks that Caucasians don’t want to do.’
The story (says Goldingay) explains why that happened:
‘Something else the Israelites know about the Canaanites (or something they have heard people say) is that they are a people with sexual customs that Israel needs to avoid following. When Leviticus 18 talks about this, it refers to sex as “exposing someone’s nakedness.” Here Noah exposes himself, and his son sees his nakedness and then goes to tell his brothers (“Come and look at the old man!”). The story doesn’t quite speak of an act of sexual abuse, but it does point to links with the Canaanites’ reputation in the eyes of the Israelites. And for all its allusiveness, like the story in Genesis 6 it puts on the table for discussion questions about sexual abuse, here in the context of the family, where sexual abuse usually takes place.’