Genesis 9-Scandal, Wrath, and Justice

Genesis 9:18-28

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[a] 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[b] 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.

A Heart That Condemns or a Heart That Protects

I find my thoughts on Chapter 9 of Genesis relating to much of what we spoke about in terms of Adam & Eve and the Fruit of Knowledge of Good and Evil.

We read here how Noah takes up cultivating a vineyard and happens to have too much wine. It’s not a proud moment for Noah that he should end up naked after drinking so much–I admit this story conjures up images of frat parties and the poor decisions made when one is under the influence.

We hear that one of Noah’s sons catches sight of this poor state his father is in. His first response is to tell his brothers about it, though we don’t hear the tone nor do we know exactly what he said. What we do know is that his first action is to share this vulnerable sight with others and that he is nowhere to be found in the next part of the story…

Noah’s sons, Shem and Japheth, take action with this news…a very prudent and careful act. Not only do they take a garment to cover up their father, but they put forth the extra effort to walk into the tent backward, to not catch sight of their naked father. They cover him and leave without scandal.

Somehow Noah gains insight into what Shem and Jepheth have done for him, and of what Ham spoke of. Noah speaks curses against his son.

Is this fair?

This is perhaps a hard story to read, especially when we are employing some guesswork as to what exactly has transpired. We could reason in this story that Ham was trying to spur his brothers into taking some action of decency or perhaps prepared to host an intervention for their father. But these details and assumptions are missing, just as much is the tone of gossip from the story. 

That being said, Ham’s only action in this story is to tell his brothers what he has seen–he does not help with covering his father. Conversely, the brothers take specific action to cover his father, not to investigate to see if it is true but to cover their father’s shame. Ham’s lack of action to protect his father, to cover his father, and only to share this information versus his brothers’ actions to cover, respectfully, their father is a stark difference.

Another thought we might have reading this story is that the two brothers are conspirators and that only Ham is an agent of truth. Ham looks to expose his father’s shame by telling of this news, and perhaps the two brothers look towards sweeping this under the rug by covering their father, so no further accounts of their drunk, naked father might be shared. In this light, is Ham the hero of truth, a just reporter looking to expose filth?

This sentiment I believe harkens to our current feelings towards scandal. Whatever your political leaning, when a figure on the opposite side of the aisle is caught having spoken or acted indecent, our immediate reaction is to blast the truth, to put a spotlight and microphone to the scandal, to become indignant as though that person personally attacked us. We have a secret craving for these stories and scandals, an appetite for dirty laundry that I think is worth us calmly sitting down and reflecting on.

The Passions

This appetite for such truth and “gossip” comes from a passion: wrath. We should note here that the passions are innately positive motives in our being, things that move us towards something that is necessary or good. Gluttony is actually a healthy appetite, a realization we need to nourish ourselves. Lust in its purest form is communion and sociability, a need to find intimate and meaningful relationships with others, not necessarily carnal. Even pride, the highest and riskiest of all passions, is a holy drive to behold the image and likeness we are sculpted in, and to therefore treat our bodies, our minds, our image with dignity and respect. Any of these passions, when out of check or indulged in, spike into their namesake, into their vice that is detrimental to us and to others.

Take wrath for example. In its wholesome and proper form, wrath is justice, a righteous indignation against things that are unholy, cruel, or abusive. The proper action of wrath is one that intervenes, one that protects the abused, one that deposes unrighteousness, one that speaks the truth to power. That being said, wrath obviously has a dark side, and although we typically see it through the lens of violence, it manifests in other ways as well. Wrath can be wielded with our words, using our disappointment of others’ actions to humiliate, to expose, to chastise. 

Consider the adulterer brought before Jesus who was to be stoned. The men who brought her to Jesus to be stoned were likely none of those offended by this woman, though they were indignant with her unchastity, hungering her defamation, chastisement, and death. Jesus does not respond to the crowd’s indignation, but rather looks for this woman to be restored, for her shame to cease, seeing within her the weakness that had led her to be unfaithful as well as seeing her potentiality of repenting and becoming someone new. Jesus counters the crowd by writing their sins in the sand and says, “go ahead, any of you who is without sin: cast the first stone and get on with it.” The crowd is trapped, realizing they themselves have shameful deeds, and as they consider their own imperfections and embarrassing secrets, they drop their stone, as though petitioning for the rest of society to drop their stone against them should their shame ever be exposed.

Another place we might look in the Gospels to this end is how Jesus instructs us to correct one another and settle disputes from Matthew 18

15 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.

The Lord instructs us to a kind of progression of redemption and accountability. He does not inform us to proclaim the sin to the court or broadcast at all in the first step. The sin, the shame, is to be handled with discretion first with the individual. It is only when the person does not listen that another witness is brought into the fold, but this step is really only done as a proper intervention, as a means of providing more objectivity for the sake of that person’s repentance. Should this intervention not work, it is brought to the “gathering” or church, but it should be noted that this was a religious community to be aware of the sin as an act of helping that person transform rather than to indict. Only after those steps have been navigated and not proved to save that individual are they treated as a “gentile or tax collector” which perhaps implies legal action.

I imagine there is some hesitation seeing this passage of the Gospel presented next to this topic, especially the story of Noah. Would Jesus have informed Ham to speak to Noah first before speaking to Noah’s brothers? Perhaps, though it’s hard to say if Noah would have listened in his current state. Still, to address the problem immediately before broadcasting the shame would perhaps help Noah see his error instead of his shame being multiplied.

The Fine Line: Justice Vs Wrath

There is a fine line between exposing someone’s sins and giving truth and justice its proper podium. Casting light on the abuses of organizations and individuals is important so that we do not repeat the sins of the past. Doing so to demand a pound of flesh in return goes beyond the scales of justice. To imprison someone who is a threat to society for their deeds is an opportunity for society to heal and an opportunity for the individual to repent. To incite the population towards disgust and dehumanizing an imperfect individual by stoking the fire of said scandal does not progress humanity at all, but rather makes us into appetitive beasts.

Again, there is a very fine line between justice & truth vs wrath & gossip.

For us to return to Noah, we can see in his weakness–perhaps out of despondency or stress from enduring the crisis of the flood–turned to strong drink to ease his pain; this is not an excuse, but rather some perspective so we can understand Noah rather than put him at our feet for his shameful deed. Noah gets drunk and gets naked, and this weakness does not deserve to be broadcast. 

Yet too often we see the poor decisions of our youth being broadcast, text chains, and online bullying that makes one bad photo or post into a lifetime of regret…and that person and their shame is devoured like hyenas on a fresh carcass. Don’t our hearts break for our youth who are pressured into such compromising situations and make poor decisions in the crisis of their circumstances, and if we are inclined to feel pity, mercy, and compassion for them can we not do the same for Noah and for all our neighbors?

Our culture seems fixated on justice and broadcasting the shame. But which of any of us, were we to become a public figure, would not have a skeleton waiting to be shown the light of day? Which of us would come clean after the scrutiny of a reporter, after immense pressure of whatever flood we have endured?

Our culture continues a witch hunt against the drunk and naked Noahs, though it does not at all care to examine the times it has been drunk and naked. We salivate over scandal, but we are all starved of mercy, shivering for a cloak of empathy.

Today, consider the following:

  • Who is the drunk and naked Noahs of our time, and of our own lives? Who do we gossip?
  • Who do you think is in need of a cloak of dignity/compassion? How would you extend this?
  • Who have you gossiped about this past week and to whom? What did speaking about this help you with? What could be a productive way of sharing with someone else your feelings without tearing someone else down?
  • What do you find yourself focusing on the most? Do you look for shame, nakedness, or scandal? 
  • What is your drunk and naked secret (contemplate that to yourself)? What skeleton do you keep locked hidden up? Can you think about that next time you consider lashing against someone else for their poor decision?

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