After the Flood
3 ‑ Noah's Vineyard
"Noah was the first tiller of the soil. He planted a vineyard".
The transition from food-gathering to agriculture seems to be referred to in the rather strange narrative in Gen. 9.18-27. Vines grow plentifully in the Zagros mountains up to about three thousand feet (1000 metres) altitude, and the gathering of wild grapes had probably been going on since the beginning. But now they were producing the cultivated variety and probably appreciably improving the strain in consequence. Noah drank of the resultant wine, and was found by his youngest son Ham intoxicated and in a state of nudity in his tent. In consequence Noah uttered a curse against, not Ham, but Ham's son Canaan. One might quite reasonably enquire why so apparently trivial an incident should share with the story of the Tower of Babel the distinction of being the only two important happenings in the twelve hundred years that elapsed between the Flood and Abraham. And why should Canaan, the son of Ham, be the recipient of Noah's curse when his father was the offending party? Read literally, as it stands in the Authorised Version, the story seems pointless and tasteless, having no conceivably useful purpose, and one is perhaps justified in wondering why it was there at all.
Commentators usually content themselves by suggesting that fermentation was unknown before the Flood and Noah did not know that the wine he had made would have an intoxicating effect. It is also suggested that in the East it is considered a serious misdemeanour to see one's father or ancestor in the nude. Canaan was cursed instead of Ham since the latter was one whom the Lord had saved in the Ark and thus to such extent had the Lord's favour, which seems a little hard on Canaan. All these are guesses without foundation and the commentators normally finish up with a little homily on the evils of strong drink which thus overcame even so godly a man as Noah and pass on quickly to the next subject. Nevertheless the story is there and from the historian's point of view at least, was recorded for a purpose. Something more fundamental than the apparent nature of the incident must lie beneath the surface and this needs to be elucidated. For this reason it must be examined in detail. The expression "Noah began to be an husbandman" (ish adamah ‑ man of the land) means that the time of subsisting on the wild products of the mountains was giving place to the arts of agriculture ‑ the planned growing of food. It is absurd to suppose that Noah was ignorant of the art; he must have been familiar with it in pre-Flood days and in fact Gen.5.29 implies that fact. The position was that Noah and his sons now applied themselves to work on the land, and probably stock-breeding as well, to provide for their rapidly growing families. The time might have been any time during the first century after leaving the Ark.
The vineyard had been planted and the vines yielded their first crop. What more natural than that there should be a family celebration to mark the event? This was, after all, a major step forward in the programme of re-settlement. A number of children had probably already been born and the prospects were looking distinctly rosy for this new world of theirs. So the celebratory feast was planned. As so often happens, things got a little out of hand. "Look not on the wine when it is red" said the Wise Man in Proverbs; "at the last it bites like a serpent, and stings like an adder" (Prov.23.31-32). That is what it did on this occasion. Noah, we are told, was "drunken". The word is sachar, which means literally "to be drunken to hilarity", and is used in Gen. 43.34 where Joseph's brothers "drank and were merry". It is in the highest degree unlikely that Noah was the only one in this condition, but being more than five hundred years older than the others, he may have been more seriously affected, to the extent that he was no longer conscious of what was going on. The next step was that Ham walked into Noah's "tent" (probably his house ‑ 'ohel' means either tent or house) "and saw the nakedness of his father" (v 22). The key to the story lies in this expression. The Hebrew word for physical nudity is 'erom' as in the Garden of Eden story, with some twenty-four occurrences in the O.T. The word used here in Gen. 9 however, is not 'erom', it is 'ervah', which has a very different connotation. 'Ervah' in its fifty-nine occurrences, always implies sexual relations with a woman. When, as in this case, the expression is "the nakedness of his father", the reference is to that father's wife, as in Lev.18.8 "the nakedness of your father's wife you shall not uncover; it is your father's nakedness", and in v 16 "you shall not uncover the nakedness of your brother's wife; it is your brother's nakedness". The verb rendered "saw" in this verse is 'raah', which has a wide range of meanings and is translated by many different words in the AV. Gesenius defines it, "to look at or to view with a purpose, especially to be pleased with the sight, as with objects of pleasure; to enjoy, or procure for oneself". In Eccl. 1.16 'raah' is rendered "my heart had great experience of wisdom and knowledge" and in 2.1. "1 said . . . therefore enjoy pleasure". The implication is that Ham was guilty of incest with his mother following a general family partaking of wine to excess, and the birth of Canaan was the outcome. He might possibly have been somewhat inebriated and not fully conscious of the enormity of his action. Verse 22 goes on to say that he "told his two brothers outside" where 'told' is 'naged', meaning to show, declare, confess, profess openly, to celebrate with praise. The use of this word could imply that Ham boasted of his deed to his two brothers. The consequent action of Shem and Japheth recorded in v 23 could be a figure of speech indicating that they did what they could to "cover up" or conceal from Noah the wrong done to him, perhaps in the hope that nothing more would be known about it. If so, the hope was frustrated by the eventual birth of Canaan, which would be when Noah found out about it (v 25). The Douay Bible at this point has it "Noah...when he had learned what his younger son had done to him, he said, Cursed be Canaan... ". If in fact this is how the matter went, it provides a reasonable explanation of the rather strange insistence in this chapter that Ham was the father of Canaan. No other names of the three patriarch's sons are so defined; the complete genealogy is left to chapter 10 which is probably a much later document. Here Gen.9.13 reads "And the sons of Noah, that went forth of the Ark, were Shem, Ham and Japheth; and Ham is the father of Canaan". Why pick out this one name from the four recorded sons of Ham, and the many sons of the other two, if there was not something special about the birth of Canaan? It is almost as if the historian, in recording the sons of Noah, was at pains to make it plain that Canaan was the son, not of Noah, but of Ham. There is also the fact that in vv 25-27 Noah refers to Shem and Japheth as being Canaan's 'brethren' (achim, normally used for brother or half-brother, as, compared with ach ben, brother's son or nephew). On this showing, of course, Canaan would be half-brother to the other two through their common mother, although nephew through their own brother.
Assuming this to be the true explanation of the story, there is no possible means of assessing the degree of culpability of Noah's wife or even if she was to any degree a willing party. One has to remember that the laws of Moses that regulated such relationships (as in Lev.18) were still fifteen hundred years in the future. There is no doubt that the greater virility of the human race, so much nearer its commencement in the perfect first pair, detracted a great deal from the necessity existing in later times which led to those laws. Abraham and his brother Nahor more than a thousand years later, married their nieces without any thought of impropriety. In this case, it was the violation of the primal law instituted in Eden, that a man should cleave to his own wife, "and they two shall be one flesh" which led to Noah's words of condemnation and judgment.
The fact that Noah was five hundred years old before any of his sons were born may give colour to the supposition that his wife was very much younger, perhaps even a second wife, so that she could be considered a relatively young woman at the time of this incident. Ham could have been as young as 100 and his mother 200, equivalent to 20 and 40 respectively in more modern times. The birth of Canaan brought the affair into the open. It is popularly supposed that Noah uttered a curse upon Canaan and doomed him to perpetual slavery ‑ which would have been quite unjust since on any showing the child was an innocent party. Closer inspection of vv 25-27 shows that what Noah did do was voice a prophecy of things to come which were going to involve Canaan. It was not the displeasure of Noah that was at issue here; it was the displeasure of God. The Holy Spirit, through Noah, revealed something of what the future held for these men who were to be the progenitors of all who would later live upon the earth. It was the Lord who cursed and Noah only stated the fact as it was revealed to him.
The gist of the prophecy was that Canaan ‑ in his descendants ‑ was to occupy a position of servitude to his half-brothers, in their descendants. The people destined to spring from Japheth were to be 'enlarged', spread abroad in far distant lands, while those from Shem would have God dwelling among them. The true meaning of v 27 is "God shall dwell in the tents of Shem." Shem, represented now chiefly by Jews and Arabs, has long been recognised to be the most spiritually perceptive and receptive of the three great races. It has given the world its three great religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The Sons of Japheth, the Aryans, have spread all over the world and dominate it. Those of Ham, at first the most intellectual and artistic, founders of the first civilisations, have progressively changed as they migrated into the tropical and sub-tropical regions and to a great extent have been absorbed by Semitic peoples. The descendants of Canaan, a heterogeneous assembly of tribes collectively known as Canaanites, have ceased to be representative of their forefather. Noah's forecast of the future came to pass, even as he said.
So ended the first century after the Flood with perhaps a hundred grandchildren of Noah and possibly two hundred great grandchildren growing up in this new world, never having known the old world of sin and death. They probably stayed near the mountain and built their first dwellings on its slopes, having no urge to explore farther until increasing numbers would make more living space desirable. The time was yet far distant when their descendants would find it possible to enter the Plain of Shinar as narrated in Genesis 11 and begin to enjoy its luxurious fertility.
(to be continued)