Adjustments & Divisions


To discuss how the sacred authors illustrate that the demands of the disturbed world require adjustments to the ideals of the great harmony

Sin is a reality and God has determined to contend with it. Man too, must learn to contend with the situation of sin in the real world; he cannot pretend that sin does not exist and strive for the implementation of ideals as though the “great harmony” were a full reality


Gen 9:1-17 read with Gen 1:26-28

The author (P) referring to the commands of God in his account of creation, now shows God helping man to cope with the fact of sin. The high ideals of the holiness of all living things that led him to support vegetarianism must now give way to the taking of the life of animals for food. The random killing of animals for pleasure is not justified here — the ideal is adjusted, not obliterated. If the life of animals is holy, so much more is the life of man. Even the life of man can be taken, however, in order to curb violence; a murderer shall have to pay with his own life. With strong and poignant irony, the sacred author shows that the “image of God” in man now gives him authority even over human life. Even in this world of sin, man is created in the image of God.

The theme of nakedness Gen 9:18-27

The next section (vss 18-27) is basically a statement about the three main divisions of the nations which developed after the flood. In this story, however, the author (J) returns to the theme of nakedness which he introduced in his creation account (2:25)

The sons of Noah who went forth from the ark were Shem, Ham and Japheth. From these three sons the whole earth was repeopled. With Cain’s line destroyed, righteousness reigned on earth, right? Wrong again. Sin soon reared its ugly head once more.

We read how Noah planted a vineyard and enjoyed the fruits of his labor too much. He consumed so much wine that he became drunk and lay uncovered in his tent. We read that his youngest son, Ham, looked upon “the nakedness of his father” (Gn 9:22).

Our modern translations don’t seem to capture all that’s going on in this episode. After all, for Ham to “look upon his father’s nakedness” just doesn’t seem to be that big of a sin to warrant a curse, especially since Noah pronounced it upon Ham’s son, Canaan. As various scholars have noticed, the key is found in the idiomatic meaning of the Hebrew phrase “to look upon his nakedness,” since it refers elsewhere to incest (Lev 20:17; 18:6-18)

Here in Genesis 9, we see a similar case involving the Hebrew idiom (“to look upon nakedness”), that refers to a very sordid act. Without going into detail, it may suffice to summarize the matter: Ham committed maternal incest, and the accursed fruit of that union was Canaan. Interestingly, an equivalent expression (“to uncover nakedness”) is used later on by Moses in warning Israel about the perverse practices of the people of “Canaan” (Lev 18:6-18; Ex 23:23-24). Not surprisingly, what heads the list of Canaanite vices is maternal incest, followed by various other forms of incest, which were actually practiced as part of the ritual worship in Canaan.

It is also significant that the only other time drunkenness is mentioned in Genesis occurs when Lot’s daughters deliberately get him drunk precisely for the purpose of committing incest with him (Gen 19:30-35). Like the story of the drunkenness of Noah, this incident of paternal incest is recounted in Genesis for the purpose of revealing the origins of Moab and Amon (Gen 19:36-38), two of the most perverse enemies of Israel, alongside the evil Canaanites.

After discovering Ham’s evil deed, and as a reward for Shem and Japheth foiling their brother, Noah declared:

Cursed be Canaan; a slave shall he be to his brothers.

Blessed by the Lord my God be Shem; and let Canaan be his slave.

God enlarge Japheth and let him dwell in the tents of Shem; and let Canaan be his slave.

This cryptic pronouncement contains the rest of biblical history in an encoded nutshell.

According to some ancient rabbinic and patristic interpretive traditions, this oracle points forward to Israel’s future conquest and subjugation of Canaan, since the Israelites are the chosen line of the blessed Shem. Likewise, the other part of Noah’s blessing (“Let Him dwell in the tents of Shem”) is fulfilled when God came to dwell, as the Shekinah glory-cloud, within the sacred tent that Moses and the Israelites erected in the desert (see Ex 35-40)


Naturally, ancient Israelite readers would have interpreted this narrative in terms of three fundamental truths:

  • first, God’s call to Abram, as a descendant of Shem’s, to go to Canaan (see Gen 12:1-3);
  • second, God’s promise to give this land as an inheritance to Abraham’s seed (Gen 17); and
  • third, God’s command for Israel as the “seed” of Abraham in the blessed line of Shem, to conquer the land. (It’s very important to remember that Jews are Shemites, hence the term “anti-semitic,” refers to anti-Jewish sentiments).

The name, “Canaan,” is thus a negatively charged term, a sign of a long-boiling family feud. The story of Noah’s drunkenness is recounted here in Genesis so that ancient Israelites may comprehend why God delivered them from Egypt and sent them to conquer and reclaim Canaan as their own ancestral inheritance. Furthermore, it reinforces the strongly worded laws that God gave to Israel at Sinai, to the effect that they must have nothing to do with Canaanites (see Ex 23:24).Once we understand more of the family history of these warring peoples, we catch a glimpse of God’s dealings with them. Suppose someone drove you out of your own home, and off your own property. Would you be allowed to use force to reclaim it? Of course, if it were necessary. That’s apparently how the Shemites, the Israelites, the children of Abraham, were to understand their marching orders from God when they were sent to conquer Canaan centuries later. This land was meant for God’s family, from Noah and Shem through Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, all the way to Moses, Joshua and beyond.

Divisions – Background Ch 10

The Author lists the nations which have multiplied and filled the earth (Gen 10:1-32). They are disordered, speaking different languages, unable to communicate, warring against each other (a painful reality as evident to us as it was to him).Further, he provides a lens through which to view this reality —- the story of the Tower of Babel. In the author’s day, the very choice of Babylonia (Shinar) would have evoked a certain image in the mind of the reader. Babylonia had been a large empire which attempted to dominate the world. It was noted for its impressive architecture, especially for its ziggurats (towers)

Genealogical background

In the aftermath of the flood, the human race once again became one big, unhappy family torn apart by sin. As we have seen, sin begets sin. Genesis 10 tells us the names of the sons born to Shem, Ham and Japheth after the flood. Ham had four sons: Cush, Egypt, Put and Canaan. Notice that from Ham’s line springs the Philistines as well as the nation of Egypt, which would hold Israel in bondage for centuries (Gen 10:14).

Cush fathered Nimrod, “a mighty hunter before the Lord” (v. 9), who built a kingdom for himself in Babel (later called Babylon, which is present-day Iraq). This tyrant continued into Assyria and built the great city of Nineveh. So Ham’s family came to encompass Egypt, Canaan, Philistia, Assyria and Babylon.

The Israelites would look at this list and see a veritable rogues’ gallery, an ancient hall of shame, consisting of the most vile characters in history, all of whom raised their families to become Israel’s worst foes. Old Testament history offers a blow-by-blow account of Israel’s ongoing abuse at the hands of Ham’s wicked descendants: Israel was enslaved by Egypt, ensnared by Canaan, oppressed by the Philistines, annihilated by Assyria and exiled by Babylon.

In the face of such opposition, God’s chosen people needed to remain strong in faith or else perish. The elect family was growing through Shem. (He was one of the two firstborn sons in Genesis who didn’t succumb to pride and end up being passed over for a worthier younger brother; the other was Abram.) Not only did Shem not abuse his power, he even used his favored position as firstborn to serve his father and his family. Because of his righteousness, Shem was elevated and blessed in a unique way. He is said to have lived five hundred years after the flood (Gen 11:11). Not surprisingly, he was not without enemies, especially within the line of Ham.

Exegesis Gen 11:1-9

Meanwhile, the Hamite king, Nimrod, had settled in the land of Shinar, along with his offspring. They apparently wanted to outdo the architectural feats of the Canaanites: “Come,” they said, “let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name (Hebrew, shem) for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the earth” (Gen 11:4).

God quickly intervened and put a stop to this ill-conceived project by confusing their speech. He thus scattered the peoples by making it impossible for them to communicate with each other. Why was God so opposed to this tower-building project? The key is to see the subtle way in which the narrative presents their sin.

Apparently, it wasn’t just a neutral architectural enterprise. By announcing their intention “to make a shem for ourselves,” these builders were implementing Nimrod’s plan to build a counter kingdom to the godly line of Shem. It was starting to sound like a repeat performance of the pre-flood situation. Once again, the ungodly were rejecting the covenant authority structure within the Father’s family; only this time Shem was the target, as the firstborn son that Noah had blessed. Presumably, Noah had been grooming Shem to assume leadership as a new father figure after his death

But the Hamites under Nimrod didn’t go for it. They deserved divine judgment. But God had sworn a covenant oath never to wipe out the wicked with another flood. So instead of a clean sweep, build-an-ark rescue mission, God embarked on a plan to reconquer the human race with his love, through a man named Abram.

Final Impressions

In each of the previous stories a note of mercy was always introduced — God clothes Adam and Eve; he gives Cain a protective sign; he reminds us of true worship after Lamech; he saves Noah from the flood. But here, at the Tower of Babel, we are left without a clear note of mercy. The author concludes with a picture of scattered nations, unable to communicate properly and therefore divided against one another. He concludes with his eyes on the whole world and all its nations. Does God have any concern for all the nations? Will he do anything about the state of the world.

God went to work, restoring his family’s legacy by calling Shem’s great-great-great great-great grandson, Abram. “I will … make your name (shem) great, so that you will be a blessing…. and by you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves” (Gn 12:2-3).

In other words, God was telling Abram: I won’t wipe out my family again, not even the wicked. Instead, I’ll do the impossible. I will take you—a seventy-five-year-old man—and use you to bless all of the families on earth. In that way, the whole unhappy human family that has been torn apart by sin might be brought back to me, as their Father, even the wicked.

Gen 1-11 has a universalistic perspective: it begins in chapter 1 with mankind in general and ends in chapter 11 with all the nations of the earth. All that follows these chapters— from the call of Abraham on — is to be seen in the context of God’s concern for all mankind. God’s response to the problems of mankind finds its conclusion in Pentecost and its beginning in Abraham. Against all odds, as we shall see in the next scene from this biblical love story.

Kindly keep me in your prayers.

In Christ,

Steven Pais