November 29, 2013
Commentary on the Book of Genesis
By: Tom Lowe
Lesson I.E.3: Noah Predicts the Future of His Sons. Gen. 9:18-29
Genesis 9.18-29 (KJV)
18 And the sons of Noah, that went forth of the ark, were Shem, and Ham, and Japheth: and Ham is the father of Canaan.
19 These are the three sons of Noah: and of them was the whole earth overspread.
This is the final chapter in the life of Noah, and verses 18 and 19 form the index for this chapter. The main characters are listed—Noah, Shem, Ham, and Japheth—and the main theme of this chapter is announced: how this family multiplied and scattered over the earth. All the people who ever lived since the Flood came from these three sons of Noah (Ge. 10.32[i]). The “one blood” of Acts 17.26[ii] is that of Adam through Noah. All the physical characteristics of the whole race were present in the genetics of Noah, his sons, and their wives. A contemporary reader of the Bible is tempted to skip over these lists of obscure names, but that doesn’t minimize their importance. These obscure people founded the nations that throughout Bible history interacted with each other and helped to accomplished God’s purposes on this earth. The descendents of Shem—the people of Israel—have played an especially important part on the stage of history. The descendents of Shem were the Semites (Shemites) from whom Abraham descended (Ge. 10.21-31; 11.10-26). Shem is mentioned first due to his place of leadership and prominence in God’s plans for mankind. His descendents were to be the spiritual leaders of men. God’s chosen ones of that line would teach the religion of Jehovah to the world. We know that the Messiah was to come from Shem’s line. Japheth was to be the father of one large branch of the Gentile world. His descendents would spread far and wide in their search for material gain and power. They would be prosperous and exceedingly powerful. Ham was to be the father of the other branch of Gentiles, including Egyptians, Ethiopians, Abyssinians, and similar groups.
Notice should be taken that one particular descendent of Ham is mentioned—Canaan the father of the Canaanites—Israel’s idolatrous antagonists. Why is he mentioned here? For two reasons. One reason we will see in a moment. Another reason is that when Moses wrote this record, the people of Israel were traveling to the land of Canaan, a land Abraham’s descendents would later take (Ge. 15.13-16[iii]), and it was encouraging for them to have this information regarding God’s judgment upon the people of Canaan—the focus of Genesis 10.
20 And Noah began to be an husbandman, and he planted a vineyard:
21 And he drank of the wine, and was drunken; and he was uncovered within his tent.
In becoming a farmer, Noah followed the occupation of his father Lamech (Ge. 5.28, 29[iv]). While the Bible condemns drunkenness (Prov. 20.21[v]; 23.19-21, 29-35; Isa. 5.11; Hab. 2.15; Rom 13.13; 1 Cor. 6.10; Eph. 5.18), it doesn’t condemn the growing or eating of grapes, or the drinking of wine. Grapes, raisins, and wine were important elements in the diet of eastern peoples. In fact, in Old Testament society, wine was considered a blessing from God (Ps. 104.14, 15[vi]; Deut. 14.26) and was even used with the sacrifices (Lev. 20.13[vii]; Num. 28.7).
This is the first mention of wine in Scripture, but winemaking was practiced before the Flood, and Noah certainly knew what too much wine would do to him. Noah had picked the grapes, crushed them in the wine-press, put the juice in skins, and waited for the juice to ferment.
Both his drunkenness and nakedness were disgraceful, and the two often go together (Ge. 19.30-38; Hab. 2.15, 16; Lam. 4.21[viii]). Alcohol isn’t a stimulant, it’s a narcotic; and when the brain is affected by alcohol, the person loses self-control. At least Noah was in his own tent when this happened and not in public. But when you consider who he was (a preacher of righteousness) and what he had done (saved his household from death), his sin becomes even more repulsive. Though wine is said to cheer the heart (Jud. 9.13[ix]; Ps. 104.15[x]) and alleviate the pain of the curse (Prov. 13.6[xi]), it is also clear that it has disturbing effects. Here Noah lay drunk and naked in his tent. Intoxication and sexual looseness are hallmarks of pagans, and both are traced back to this event in Noah’s life. Man had not changed at all; with the opportunity to start a “new creation,” Noah acted like a pagan (Ge. 6.5[xii]; 8.21[xiii]).
Noah was described originally as a righteous man, and with good cause. He stood out conspicuously for his integrity in the midst of a corrupt generation. His virtue was not merely in avoiding the prevailing sins but in positive acts of courage and in consistent faithfulness to God. It took courage to build an ark when everyone around him thought it was foolishness, and to warn his neighbors about a looming flood when it had never rained before. Noah had to be in dead earnest in those days, a man of purpose, and a man of prayer.
I don’t think it is possible to ascertain why Noah committed this sin, but certainly he is not the only man who has lived uprightly and kept himself unspotted from the world so long as the eyes of man was upon him, but when alone in his tent has become drunk and naked. There is no indication in the story that Noah had ever been drunk before, nor is there mention of any sin that he committed afterwards. I would assume from the character this man displayed for most of his life that he repented and was immediately forgiven. This was confirmed when the Holy Spirit spoke of his faith in the eleventh chapter of Hebrews (Heb. 11.7[xiv]). Noah was definitely a righteous man.
The Bible doesn’t excuse the sins of the saints but mentions them as warnings to us not to do what they did (1 Cor. 10.6-13). As Spurgeon said, “God never allows His children to sin successfully.” There’s always a price to pay.
Twice Abraham lied about his wife (Ge. 12.10-20; 20.1), and his son Isaac followed his bad example (Ge. 26.6-16). Moses lost his temper and as a result lost the privilege to enter the Promised Land (Num. 20.7-13). Joshua jumped to conclusions and ended up defending the enemy (Josh. 9-10). David committed adultery and arranged for the woman’s husband to be killed in battle (2 Sam. 11), and the sword plagued his family for years to come.
Noah didn’t plan to get drunk and shamelessly expose himself, but it happened just the same. The Japanese have an appropriate proverb: “First the man takes a drink, then the drink takes a drink, and then the drink takes the man.”
22 And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brethren without.
Ham shouldn’t have entered his father’s tent without an invitation. Did he call to his father and receive no answer? Did he wonder if Noah was sick or perhaps even dead? Did he even know that his father had been drinking wine? These are questions that the text doesn’t answer, so it is useless for us to speculate. One thing is certain: Ham was disrespectful to his father in what he did.
How people respond to the sin and embarrassment of others is an indication of their character. Ham appears to have been a bad character, and probably enjoyed finding his father in an unbecoming situation, and by exposing him he might retaliate for some scolding he had received from him in the exercise of his parental authority. Ham could have peeked into the tent, quickly sized up the situation, and covered his father’s body, saying nothing about the incident to anyone. Instead, he seems to have enjoyed the sight and then told his two brothers about it in a rather disrespectful manner. He may even have suggested that they go take a look for themselves.
There is no reasonable support for the notion that some perverse activity, in addition to seeing nakedness occurred. But clearly the implication is that Ham looked with some sinful thought, if only for a while until he left to inform his brothers. As I said, perhaps he was glad to see his father’s dignity and authority reduced by such weakness. Maybe he thought his brothers might share his feelings so he eagerly told them. If so, they did not share his attitude (v. 23).
Moses hadn’t yet said, “Honor your father and your mother” (Ex. 20.12), but surely the impulse is natural to children and should have been present in Ham’s heart. Why would a son show such disrespect for his father? Though Ham was the youngest of the three sons, perhaps he was an Old Testament “elder brother” who was angry with his father because of something he didn’t receive (Luke 15.25-32). By what he did, Ham revealed a weakness in his character that could show up in his descendents.
It is said of Noah that he was perfect in his generation (Ge. 6.9[xv]); but this concerns his sincerity, and does not indicate sinless perfection. We know that the only one who ever lived a sinless life was Jesus Christ!
Noah, who kept sober in drunken company, is now drunk in sober company. Let him who thinks he stands take heed, lest he fall.
23 And Shem and Japheth took a garment, and laid it upon both their shoulders, and went backward, and covered the nakedness of their father; and their faces were backward, and they saw not their father's nakedness.
To the ancient people, even seeing one’s father naked was a breach of family ethics, which could lead to the destruction of the sanctity of the family and make a mockery of the father’s strength. Ham evidently stumbled upon this scene by accident, but then he went out and jubilantly told his two brothers, as if he had triumphed over his father. Some people find satisfaction in gossiping and discrediting others, because it makes them feel that they are better than them.
Instead of laughing along with Ham and going to see the humiliating sight of their father’s nakedness, Shem and Japheth showed their love for their father by practicing Psalm 10.12, “Love covers all sins.” (Also see 1 Pe. 4.8.[xvi]). The brothers stood together and held a garment behind them, backed into the tent with their eyes averted, and covered Noah’s naked body. By covering their father’s naked body they would prevent others from seeing him in this condition, and make it possible for him to think they had not seen it either. “He who covers a transgression seeks love” (Prov. 17.9), and “a prudent man covers shame” (Prov.12.16).
Love doesn’t cleanse one of sin, because only the blood of Christ can do that (1 John 1.7[xvii]); nor does love condone sin, for love wants God’s very best for others. But love does cover sin and doesn’t go around exposing sin and encouraging others to spread the bad news. When people sin and we know about it, our task is to help restore them in a spirit of meekness (Gal. 6. 1-2[xviii]). Instead of severely judging them and seeking to cut them off from fellowship, seek lovingly to lead them back from their fault. It’s been said that on the battlefield of life, Christians are prone to kick their wounded; and too often this is true. But before we condemn others, we’d better consider ourselves, since all of us are candidates for conduct unbecoming to a Christian.
The consequence of Noah’s sin was shame. Here we can see the great evil of the sin of drunkenness. It reveals the frailties of men and when they are drunk any secrets they have been entrusted with are easily got out of them. Drunkenness disgraces men and exposes them to contempt from even their family and friends. Men say and do things when they are drunk that they would never think of doing when they are sober (Hab. 2.15-16[xix]). Friend, I have seen the shame of drunkenness first hand—my father, brother, and son are alcoholics—as I type this on my computer my son is in the hospital due to a severe binge. He has damaged his liver and will likely lose his job. My heart is broken!
This is one of those stories that we may wish were left out of the Bible since it shows the failure of a great godly man. But the Holy Spirit has put it here for what I believe is a good reason—to show that even the best men cannot stand upright, unless they depend upon Divine grace, and are upheld by it. Personally, I sometimes shudder at the thought of what I might have become without the Grace that God extended to me, and the Holy Spirit He put into this tabernacle.
24 And Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done unto him.
When Noah awakened from his drunken stupor he was probably ashamed of what he had done; but he was also surprised to find himself covered by a garment. Naturally, he wondered what had happened in the tent while he was asleep. The logical thing would be for him to speak with Japheth, his firstborn; and he and Shem must have told him what Ham had done.
Ham is thought to have been Noah’s second son, and if that’s true, the words, “knew what his younger son had done unto him,” refer to Canaan, his grandson. Canaan may have discovered Noah’s condition, and told Ham about it. In any event, Noah must have considered his grandson guiltier than anyone else, since he pronounces a curse on him.
25 And he said, Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren.
Because of this incident Noah prophesized about his son’s descendents. He began with the direct words, “cursed be Canaan!” However, Noah was not punishing Canaan for something Ham had done. Instead, Noah’s words referred to the nation of Canaanites that would come from Ham through Canaan. Ham’s act of pretentiousness could not be permitted to stand without repercussions. A humiliation in like manner was needed, according to the principle of retributive justice. Ham had made an irreparable breach in his father’s family, thus a curse would be put on his son’s family. It has been suggested that Ham may have tried to seize leadership over his two brothers for the sake of his own line. This would be the same as other ancient traditions where a son replaced his father. But if he did attempt a take over his attempt failed, and his line through Canaan was placed NOT in leadership over them, but under them.
If Noah had wanted to pronounce a curse, it would have been directed at Ham, the son who had sinned against his father; but instead, he named Canaan (Ham’s youngest son; Ge. 10.2) three times. It was a principle in later Jewish law that the children could not be punished for the sins of their fathers (Deut. 24.16[xx]), and it’s likely that this principle applied in patriarchal times, as well.
Looking down the centuries, Noah predicted three times that the descendents of Canaan would become the lowest servants. The Canaanites are listed in Genesis 10.15-19 and they are the very nations Israel conquered and whose land they inhabited (Ge. 15.18-21[xxi]) It is difficult to describe the moral decay of the Canaanite society, especially their religious practices; but the laws given in Leviticus 18 will give you some idea of how they lived. God warned the Jews not to compromise with the Canaanite way of life and to destroy everything that would tempt them to go in that direction (Ex. 34.10; Deut. 7).
The doom predicted by Noah was fulfilled in the destruction of the Canaanites, in the degradation of Egypt, and in the slavery of Africans, the descendents of Ham. It should be noted that though I have given here my opinion, Scripture does NOT provide any explanation of why Canaan and not his father was cursed. But obviously he had done something despicable. The use of this passage to justify Negro slavery and the superiority of the white race is an evil misuse of Scripture.
26 And he said, Blessed be the LORD God of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant.
Noah didn’t bless Shem, he blessed “the LORD God of Shem.” In other words, Noah gave glory to God for what he will do with the descendents of Shem. Noah acknowledged before his sons that whatever Shem possessed would be God’s gift, and whatever blessing Shem brought to the world in the future would be because of the grace of God.
Shem, of course, is the ancestor of Abraham (Ge. 11.10-32) who is the founder of the Hebrew nation, so Noah is talking about the Jewish people. That the Lord would enrich the Jewish people spiritually was promised to Abraham (Ge, 12.1-3[xxii]) and later explained by Paul (Rom. 3.1-4[xxiii]). It’s through Israel that we have the knowledge of the true God, and the Savior, Jesus Christ, who was born in Bethlehem of the tribe of Judah. In the Hebrew “Shem” means “name,” and it’s the people of Israel who have preserved the name of the Lord.
Shem was Noah’s second-born son (v. 24), but wherever the three sons are listed Shem’s mane is first (Ge. 5.32). It is another instance in Genesis of the grace of God elevating the second-born to the place of the firstborn. God chose Abel instead of Cain (Ge. 4.4-5), Isaac instead of Ishmael (Ge. 17.15-22), and Jacob instead of Esau (Ge. 25.19-23). Paul discusses this profound theological truth in Romans 9.
Noah predicted that the Canaanites would be in servitude to the Shemites (v. 26) and the Jephethites (v. 27). But this was because the Canaanites lived degrading lives like Ham, not because of what Ham did. The point is that nationally, at least, drunken depravity enslaves a people. That is why, in God’s program to bless Israel, the Canaanites were condemned. They were to be judged by God through the Conquest because their activities were in the same pattern and mold as their ancestor Ham.
The enslavement of Canaanites is seen in many situations in the history of the Old Testament. Such a case turned up fairly soon; the Canaanites were defeated and enslaved by eastern kings (Ge. 14). Another example was the Gibeonites who later under Joshua became wood choppers and water carriers for Israel’s tabernacle (Josh. 9.27). Conquered peoples were called servants, even if they were not household or private slaves. Shem, the ancestor of Israel, and the other “Shemites’ were to be masters of Ham’s descendents, the Canaanites. The latter would surrender their land to the former.
Through a long period of history the people of Israel hated the Canaanites. It is an ironic fact, that the Jews themselves have been victims of race prejudice and persecution. What is the reason for race prejudice? I can think of some reasons and you may add some yourself:
Dislike of those who are different. To be different is to be suspect.
A feeling of superiority. The race that prides itself in its own excellence, real or supposed, is apt to despise others.
The “haves” and the “have not’s” are two classes that always seem to be at odds, because of jealousy and suspicion.
As I have said before, when Moses was given this revelation from God, he was leading the nation of Israel to the land of Canaan. The Israelites were descendents of Shem. The blessing of Shem suggests that Noah knew that he, more than his brothers, had accepted the knowledge of Yahweh which was passed on by his father. In spite of this, by the time of Terah and Abram, his descendents seem to be idolaters (Josh. 24.2[xxiv]). Japheth would enter into blessing in proportion to his acceptance of Shem’s knowledge of God.
27 God shall enlarge Japheth, and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant.
Japheth was the ancestor of what we generally call the “Gentile nations.” I believe what we may have here is a play on words, because in the Hebrew the name Japheth is very close to the word that means “to enlarge.” The Hamites built large civilizations in the east, and the Semites settled in the land of Canaan and the surrounding territory, but the descendents of Japheth spread out much farther than their relatives and even reached what we now know as Asia Minor and Europe. They were a people who would multiply and move into new territory. Noah’s prophesy, “God shall enlarge Japheth” was fulfilled in the vast increase in posterity and possessions that came to his line. Accordingly his descendents have been the most active and enterprising, and they have spread over the best and largest portion of the world.
However, while the descendents of Japheth were successful in their conquests, when it came to spiritual things, they would have to depend on Shem. God is the God of Shem and the descendents of Japheth would find God “in the tents of Shem.” Israel was chosen by God to be a “light to the Gentiles (Isa. 42.6[xxv]; 49.6) for “salvation is of the Jews.” Sad to say, for the most part, the nation of Israel failed to witness to the Gentiles so that they might believe in the true and living God (Isa. 52.5[xxvi]; Rom. 2.24).
When Jesus came to earth, He brought light to the Gentiles (Luke 2.32[xxvii]), and the disciples and early church carried that light to the nations (Acts 1.8[xxviii]; 13.47). The descendants of Noah’s three sons were represented in the early church: the Ethiopian treasurer, a descendant of Ham (Acts 6.26); Paul, a descendant of Shem (Acts 9); and Cornelius and his family, who were descendants of Japheth (Acts 10).
The line of Shem will be blessed and the line of Ham in CANAAN will be cursed. This blessing-cursing theme is crucial in Genesis. The Canaanites would have to be disposed from their territory by Israel under Joshua in order for the blessing to come on Shem (v. 26) and for the Jephethites to dwell “in the tents of Shem.” This meant that the Jephethites would dwell with the Shemites on friendly terms, not that the Jephethites would dispossess the Shemites. So verses 24-29 actually set the foundation for Israel’s foreign policy in the land (Deut. 20.16-18[xxix]).
28 And Noah lived after the flood three hundred and fifty years.
29 And all the days of Noah were nine hundred and fifty years: and he died.
Noah lived another three-and-a-half centuries, and we have every reason to believe that he walked with God and served Him faithfully. As far as the record is concerned, he fell once; and certainly he repented and the Lord forgave him. In our walk with God, we climb the hills, and sometimes we descend into the valleys. As Alexander Whyte used to say, “The victorious Christian life is a series of new beginnings.”
Finally, note that Noah lived to see two worlds; but being an heir of the righteousness which is by faith, when he died he went on to a world that is better than either.
[i] These are the clans of Noah's sons, according to their lines of descent, within their nations. From these the nations spread out over the earth after the flood.
[ii] From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live.
[iii] When they finished, James spoke up: "Brothers, listen to me. Simon has described to us how God at first showed his concern by taking from the Gentiles a people for himself. The words of the prophets are in agreement with this, as it is written: " 'After this I will return and rebuild David's fallen tent. Its ruins I will rebuild, and I will restore it,
[iv] When Lamech had lived 182 years, he had a son. He named him Noah and said, "He will comfort us in the labor and painful toil of our hands caused by the ground the LORD has cursed."
[v] Wine is a mocker and beer a brawler; whoever is led astray by them is not wise.
[vi] He makes grass grow for the cattle, and plants for man to cultivate—bringing forth food from the earth: wine that gladdens the heart of man, oil to make his face shine, and bread that sustains his heart.
[vii] together with its grain offering of two-tenths of an ephah of fine flour mixed with oil--an offering made to the LORD by fire, a pleasing aroma--and its drink offering of a quarter of a hin of wine.
[viii] Rejoice and be glad, O Daughter of Edom, you who live in the land of Uz. But to you also the cup will be passed; you will be drunk and stripped naked.
[ix] "But the vine answered, 'Should I give up my wine, which cheers both gods and men, to hold sway over the trees?'
[x] wine that gladdens the heart of man, oil to make his face shine, and bread that sustains his heart.
[xi] Righteousness guards the man of integrity, but wickedness overthrows the sinner.
[xii] The LORD saw how great man's wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time.
[xiii] The LORD smelled the pleasing aroma and said in his heart: "Never again will I curse the ground because of man, even though every inclination of his heart is evil from childhood. And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done.
[xiv] By faith Noah, when warned about things not yet seen, in holy fear built an ark to save his family. By his faith he condemned the world and became heir of the righteousness that comes by faith.
[xv] This is the account of Noah. Noah was a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time, and he walked with God.
[xvi] And above all things have fervent charity among yourselves: for charity shall cover the multitude of sins.
[xvii] But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.
[xviii] Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other's burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.
[xix] "Woe to him who gives drink to his neighbors, pouring it from the wineskin till they are drunk, so that he can gaze on their naked bodies. You will be filled with shame instead of glory. Now it is your turn! Drink and be exposed! The cup from the LORD's right hand is coming around to you, and disgrace will cover your glory.
[xx] Fathers shall not be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their fathers; each is to die for his own sin.
[xxi] On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram and said, "To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates--the land of the Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, Hittites, Perizzites, Rephaites, Amorites, Canaanites, Girgashites and Jebusites."
[xxii] The LORD had said to Abram, "Leave your country, your people and your father's household and go to the land I will show you. "I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you."
[xxiii] What advantage, then, is there in being a Jew, or what value is there in circumcision? Much in every way! First of all, they have been entrusted with the very words of God. What if some did not have faith? Will their lack of faith nullify God's faithfulness? Not at all! Let God be true, and every man a liar. As it is written: "So that you may be proved right when you speak and prevail when you judge."
[xxiv] Joshua said to all the people, "This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: 'Long ago your forefathers, including Terah the father of Abraham and Nahor, lived beyond the River and worshiped other gods.
[xxv] I the LORD have called thee in righteousness, and will hold thine hand, and will keep thee, and give thee for a covenant of the people, for a light of the Gentiles;
[xxvi] Now therefore, what have I here, saith the LORD, that my people is taken away for nought? they that rule over them make them to howl, saith the LORD; and my name continually every day is blasphemed .
[xxvii] A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.
[xxviii] But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth.
[xxix] But of the cities of these people, which the LORD thy God doth give thee for an inheritance, thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth: But thou shalt utterly destroy them; namely, the Hittites, and the Amorites, the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites; as the LORD thy God hath commanded thee: That they teach you not to do after all their abominations, which they have done unto their gods; so should ye sin against the LORD your God.