This blog offers a meditation on the Common Lectionary daily readings along with a headline from world news:
Bodies of thousands of Assad’s victims uncovered
Good News Translation (GNT)
Noah and His Sons
18 The sons of Noah who went out of the boat were Shem, Ham, and Japheth. (Ham was the father of Canaan.) 19 These three sons of Noah were the ancestors of all the people on earth.
20 Noah, who was a farmer, was the first man to plant a vineyard. 21 After he drank some of the wine, he became drunk, took off his clothes, and lay naked in his tent. 22 When Ham, the father of Canaan, saw that his father was naked, he went out and told his two brothers. 23 Then Shem and Japheth took a robe and held it behind them on their shoulders. They walked backward into the tent and covered their father, keeping their faces turned away so as not to see him naked. 24 When Noah sobered up and learned what his youngest son had done to him, 25 he said,
“A curse on Canaan!
He will be a slave to his brothers.
26 Give praise to the Lord, the God of Shem!
Canaan will be the slave of Shem.
27 May God cause Japheth[a] to increase!
May his descendants live with the people of Shem!
Canaan will be the slave of Japheth.”
28 After the flood Noah lived 350 years 29 and died at the age of 950.
This story might be regarded as low comedy were it not for the genuine horror at parental nakedness expressed in the story. No sexual behaviour is hinted, just drunken indignity (although perhaps Noah could not be expected to know what wine would do to him) and causal disrespect, perhaps with a note of mockery, on the part of Ham. Coming so soon after the rainbow story however, this episode does not augur well for a new start to human life on earth. What’s more it is used as a reason for the relationships of the three “races” into which humanity was divided in popular Jewish estimation: The children of Japheth were the races to the North of Israel-Greece, Turkey Persia, etc; the children of Ham were the races of the southern Mediterranean, north Africa, Canaan Egypt and the Horn of Africa; while the children of Shem were Israelites. This classification has nothing to do with real racial links and everything to do with a traditional prejudice, especially towards the Canaanites who of course were as “Semitic” as Israelites. Perhaps one wouldn’t have to search too long to find similar prejudice in many modern nations.
For the original author, the story simply represents relationships amongst the peoples of the world, including the slave status of the Hamites, of which he neither approves nor disapproves.
I can’t blame the author of Genesis but as a child I was used to hearing from American and South African Christians, that black African peoples were Hamites and therefore destined by God to be slaves of white people, who were Japhethites. Brutal prejudice will find nourishment where it can, but fundamentalist interpretation of scripture must bear some responsibility for feeding it. The splendid thing abut the Christian Bible is that it ultimately moves away from all racialism towards a completely ecumenical view of the world, in which races cease to be of prime importance. All races are one “in Christ,” and Christian believers will read the Genesis story “in the light of Christ.”