Reflections on Genesis: Noah’s Sons & Babel

Two final small stories, who’s length belies how much they have to offer. The first is on Noah’s sons and considers the problem which vexed many a Medieval King. Passing on a legacy and temperament from father to his sons. The second, a problem becoming far more important in today’s world, the relationship between man, God, and our technology. The notes for my final discussion group session on early Genesis read from a philosophical point of view below the fold.

Fathers and Sons

The Text

18 The sons of Noah who went forth from the ark were Shem, Ham, and Japheth. (Ham was the father of Canaan.) 19 These three were the sons of Noah, and from these the people of the whole earth were dispersed. [2]

20 Noah began to be a man of the soil, and he planted a vineyard. [3]
21 He drank of the wine and became drunk and lay uncovered in his tent. 22 And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father and told his two brothers outside. 23 Then Shem and Japheth took a garment, laid it on both their shoulders, and walked backward and covered the nakedness of their father. Their faces were turned backward, and they did not see their father’s nakedness. 24 When Noah awoke from his wine and knew what his youngest son had done to him, 25 he said,

“Cursed be Canaan;
a servant of servants shall he be to his brothers.”

26 He also said,

“Blessed be the Lord, the God of Shem;
and let Canaan be his servant.
27 May God enlarge Japheth, [4]
let him dwell in the tents of Shem,
and let Canaan be his servant.”

28 After the flood Noah lived 350 years. 29 All the days of Noah were 950 years, and he died.

Beginning Clue

We get a first clue as what this passage is about, form the first verse. Shem, Ham, Japeth … note the order. Japeth is the eldest, Shem the youngest. But the order in almost every listing in the accounts of these sons is Shem, Ham, Japeth. In fact, if one reviews primogeniture is “violated” or not follewed ever in Genesis. Note for example Caine, Isaac and Judah. As we see in the following, this principle follows here as well.

Paternity Released, the “unFathering of Noah”

Then, in the account, we find, that Noah in his farming … plants a vineyard and makes wine … and gets drunk. Relinquishing (if for a time) his leadership role. Perhaps the burdens of having to distribute and inform the spreading humanity of their responsibilities with regards the Noahide codes discussed last week. Whatever the reason he is drunk and his nakedness exposed in his tent.

The impious son

One interpretation, submitted of late (?) is that the phrase, “uncover the nakedness” of which sometimes means in later texts to be a euphemism for “have sexual relations with” is almost certainly wrong. A key point to support that is that Shem and Japeth enter, “with faces turned backwards” so that they cannot see. This supports the idea that the phrase can be taken literally.

But there remains an important point. It can be pointed out (Robert Sacks), that Ham’s seeing and telling is an act overturning and rejecting the new covenant and parental authority. This anticipates the pagan rites introduced by Ham’s ancestors (and it matters little whether this pagan ancestry is meant literally or figuratively).

What has Ham done? Kass finds “shame” too broad a term. The Greek has two terms, aischyne and aidos. The former refers to dishonor from violation of man-made codes and mores. The origin of aidos is awe, for those things which naturally inspire reverence or awe. This is felt entering or encountering majestic forces of nature, or in the presence of human greatness, i.e., a Churchill, Einstein, and so on. We feel this (or should) with regard to sex.

Ham lacks a sense of aidos. Is that all? Does he also lack a sense of aischyne? This also leads to our later ancestry notes wherein Ham is the forebear of the Egyptian, of Sodom (Canaanites). Those peoples which most offend the Hebrew concepts of purity. This pairing is almost certainly not an accident.

Still, was it Wrong?

The founder of virtue ethics, Aristotle, did not regard aidos
as a virtue. Post-modernism and modern proponents of shedding our taboos think much the opposite. However, note as well, Ham’s delight in telling his brothers about what he has seen. This denotes a certain vicious personality trait.

Noah’s other son’s have a more respectful and proper attitude toward their father. One might admire the way they handled this problem. But note, their piety toward their father includes a certain willing blindness. They choose consciously not to witness their fathers shame and nakedness embracing his authority.

Two Questions on the Response

There is a certain fitness in Noah’s response (which is a curse). Ham showed disrespect to his father. Noah curses not Ham, but his son … which would be likely to engender bad feeling between Ham and Canaan, which has a certain fitness in that it is a response to a lack of filial respect toward Noah by Ham.

On the other hand, is it ever right to punish a son for the crime of the father?

Man and his Technology: Babel

The Text

The Tower of Babel

11:1 Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. 2 And as people migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. 3 And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. 4 Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.” 5 And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built. 6 And the Lord said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. 7 Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.” 8 So the Lord dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. 9 Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confused [1]
the language of all the earth. And from there the Lord dispersed them
over the face of all the earth.

Man’s Point of View

Telling what occurs in this story. Men, (man?), came together with one language. They found themselves not fearful of nature (and God?). Recall from our discussion of Genesis 2 that language (Adam’s naming) is a thing which reflects not just the world but that it reflects perhaps more man’s view of the world not the world as it “really is”.

These men, use not stone, but constructed brick, fired by their artifice to build.

Then the story shifts.

God’s Point of View

God comes down and takes this project down. Why?

Some possibilities:

  1. Lack of piety. These men do not look to God but to their own potency.

  2. Lack of diversity. One language might also imply a homogeneous world view. A natural consequence might be blindness to their own error. Look on our diverse world and how hard it is for people to look through other’s eyes.

  3. Could God’s foiling man’s unity of language and purpose be a way of not thwarting the Babelites but to inform man that this project, man’s salvation cannot be achieved by man’s actions.

Is Mathematics the language that today is returning man to a people with one language, fueling technology and fooling men into thinking once again that Man will be his own salvation without God?

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