This blog at present is following the book of Genesis and the Gospel of Mark in tandem. The series began on 1st January 2015 and can be accessed from my archives. I’m using the Schocken bible translation of Genesis and the Darby translation of Mark, both of which are very literal.
GENESIS 9 from verse 18
Noah’s sons who went out of the Ark with him were Shem, Ham and Jefet. Now Ham is the father of Canaan.
These three were Noah’s sons and from these were scattered abroad all the earth-folk.
And Noah was the first man of the soil, he planted a vineyard.
When he drank of the wine he became drunk and exposed himself in the middle of his tent.
Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father’s nakedness and told his two brothers outside.
Then Shem and Yefet too a cloak, they ut it on the shoulders of the two of them,
and walked backward to cove their father’s nakedness.
– Their faces were turned backward, their father’s nakedness they did not see.
When Noah awoke from his wine, it became known to him what his littlest son had done to him.
Damned be Canaan,
servant of servants may he be to his brothers!
And he said:
Blessed be YHWH the God of Shem
but may Canaan be servant to them!
May God extend (yaft) Yefet
Let him dwell in the tents of Shem,
but may Canaan be servant to them!
After all the drama of the Deluge this little domestic incident serves to show that humanity has not improved. “Seeing a parent’s nakedness” was taboo amongst Jewish people, as amongst others. Of course the nakedness is Noah’s fault, and it’s hard to see how Ham could have avoided seeing it if he entered the tent. Perhaps there is a hint that Ham took the matter too lightly, mentioning it to his brothers without concern. In any case the story is less a condemnation of Ham, than of his son Canaan, the ancestor of the Canaanites, whose sexual habits were detested by Israelites. Indeed it may be that this incident is being used to justify the Israeli takeover of the land of Canaan. Just a little incident recounted in a holy history book can lead to political prejudice. As we should know, for the inclusion of this same story in the Bible was used by the Dutch Reformed Church to justify Apartheid in South Africa. They identified black-skinned Africans as descendants of Ham, who were destined to be servants to the descendants of their brothers.
Holy books are a problem if they are used uncritically. That’s why they are so dangerous. Literalist interpretation is not in itself the problem. The problem is that prejudiced people can use a holy book for their own purposes through supposedly authoritative interpretation. Even the text itself, as in this incident, may have been constructed out of prejudice. And any unbiased person can see clearly that condemning African blacks to servitude is not “the plain meaning of the text.” The people who are truly dangerous are prejudiced and authoritarian interpreters. “Extremist Islam” is not a literal reading of the noble Qur’an, but the work of prejudiced Ayatollah’s and Imams. Vicious neo-conservative religion in the USA is not a literal reading of the Bible but the work of media-supported right – wing zealots. I can see very clearly the force of Richard Dawkins argument that religion is evil because it encourages people to accept views which have no rational basis, opening them to ever more irrational prejudices.
The only answer to Dawkins is for believers to commit themselves to rational use of their holy books, and never to use an interpretation of them to justify an unjust attitude. “The Bible tells me so” is never a justification for an attitude which damages my neighbour. Indeed if I think that a biblical text promotes injustice, I must denounce it in God’s name. That’s what I’m doing in this instance; this narrative has the smell of prejudice, beware!
Mark 5 Darby Translation (DARBY)
5 And they came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gadarenes.
2 And immediately on his going out of the ship there met him out of the tombs a man possessed by an unclean spirit,
3 who had his dwelling in the tombs; and no one was able to bind him, not even with chains;
4 because he had been often bound with fetters and chains, and the chains had been torn asunder by him, and the fetters were shattered; and no one was able to subdue him.
5 And continually night and day, in the tombs and in the mountains, he was crying and cutting himself with stones.
6 But seeing Jesus from afar off, he ran and did him homage,
7 and crying with a loud voice he says, What have I to do with you, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.
8 For he said to him, Come out, unclean spirit, out of the man.
9 And he asked him, What is your name? And he says to him, Legion is my name, because we are many.
10 And he pleaded with him that he would not send them away out of the country.
11 Now there was there just at the mountain a great herd of swine feeding;
12 and they pleaded with him, saying, Send us into the swine that we may enter into them.
13 And Jesus immediately allowed them. And the unclean spirits going out entered into the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep slope, into the sea (about two thousand), and were choked.
14 And those that were feeding them fled and reported it in the city and in the country. And they went out to see what it was that had taken place.
15 And they come to Jesus, and they see the man possessed of demons sitting and clothed and sensible, the one that had had the legion: and they were afraid.
16 And they that had seen it related to them what had happened to the man possessed by demons, and concerning the swine.
17 And they began to beg him to depart from their coasts.
18 And as he went on board ship, the man that had been possessed by demons pleaded with him that he might be with him.
19 And he did not allow him, but says to him, Go to your home to your own people, and tell them what great things the Lord has done for you, and has had mercy on you.
20 And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis what great things Jesus had done for him; and all wondered.
This is one of Mark’s great stories. Jesus and his disciples are entering the territory of the Decapolis, the ten-town country where the successors of Alexander the Great had established proper Greek towns with Greek buildings and customs. Subsequently conquered by the Romans it was viewed by Israelites as heathen territory.
The identity of the “evil spirit” possessing the man is important. Translators and interpreters have traditionally ignored the fact that “Legion” primarily refers to the Roman Army. There are many of them but they represent the power and brutality of the Roman invader. We can therefore see that the man’s madness comes from his or his people’s experience as the victim of Roman power. We might say that the man has introjected the brutality of conquest so that he harms himself in his distress.
Jesus’ pointed question is important because it uses the traditional skill of the exorcist in forcing the evil spirit to give its name, thus allowing the exorcist to command it. We can say that the man is able to name his illness. The story shows Jesus using the weapons of the traditional healer.
The story of the pigs may belong in the tradition Mark received or it may be a narrative riff created by him. Pigs are of course unclean in Jewish eyes; so for the “spirit of the Roman Army” to be consigned to unclean animals who make a suicidal rush into the sea, is clearly a cartoon-style denouement to this drama. “Legions belong with pigs and pigs belong in the sea” is the not very hidden message. Some have suggested that the Legion in Palestine at the time was the Boar Legion, which if so, would simply reinforce this message.
After the manga cartoon of the pig-incident, Mark returns to the fear which comes on the superstitious residents of the area: Jesus’ capacity to heal, to combat the powers of evil, frightens them and they ask him to go away. Things were tidier the way they were. As for the restored man, who wants to be a disciple, he is given the unenviable task of proclaiming the good news of God to his own people, Perhaps this makes him the first “apostle to the gentiles.”
The whole story adds to Mark’s picture of Jesus as the bodily presence of God’s goodness. Even before he engages with the demon-possessed man, the demons recognise him and plead with him.
I recently read the accounts of some of the nurses who had gone from Scotland to Sierra Leone to help fight Ebola. They’d had to counter stories that their medicines would kill their patients, and persuade fearful people to accept their help. They also spoke of their own pain at not being able to touch their patients. Mark’s old story is very close to these experiences.