Harrowing Of Hell
November 25, 2013

People of the Flood or People of Mercy and Grace?

Preacher: Charissa Bradstreet, MDiv

Genesis 9:18-28

The sons of Noah who went out of the ark were Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Ham was the father of Canaan.  19 These three were the sons of Noah; and from these the whole earth was peopled. 20 Noah, a man of the soil, was the first to plant a vineyard. 21 He drank some of the wine and became drunk, and he lay uncovered in his tent. 22 And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers outside. 23 Then Shem and Japheth took a garment, laid it on both their shoulders, and walked backward and covered the nakedness of their father; their faces were turned away, and they did not see their father’s nakedness. 24 When Noah awoke from his wine and knew what his youngest son had done to him, 25 he said, “Cursed be Canaan; lowest of slaves shall he be to his brothers.” 26 He also said, “Blessed by the Lord my God be Shem; and let Canaan be his slave. 27 May God make space for Japheth, and let him live in the tents of Shem; and let Canaan be his slave.” 28 After the flood Noah lived three hundred fifty years.

A few weeks ago I was out with Barbara Cairns, a parishioner and today’s Cross TEC speaker. As we were talking she said something like, “I’ve been reading the flood story in preparation for my talk and I find it all a little disturbing.  I mean, first there’s this massive flood and then on the other side of it, Noah plants a vineyard, gets drunk, lies around naked, and then gets up and curses the son who saw him.  What the heck is that all about?!”  I looked at her and said, “I don’t really know but I have to preach on that part of the story at the end of November.”  To which she turned and looked at me and burst out laughing.

So, what IS going on in this story?  Why it is here and what does it have to do with us?

Noah and his sons and their wives and all the animals have left the ark and Noah, a man of the soil, plants a vineyard.  One day he drinks significantly and falls asleep unclothed in his tent.  His son, Ham, sees his father’s nakedness and tells his brothers, who back their way into the tent, carrying a garment over their shoulders, and without looking at him, cover their father.  Noah wakes, learns what has happened and curses Ham (the father of Canaan), while blessing the other two sons, Shem and Japheth.  Those of you who are the oldest in your family and keeping track, it may be worth noting that this time it is the middle child who causes problems and it is his son to whom the curse is directed.

In the whole story of Noah, his first and only recorded words are these:

Cursed be Canaan, lowest of slaves shall he be to his brothers.


Blessed by the Lord my God be Shem and let Canaan be his slave.  May God make space for Japheth and let him live in the tents of Shem; and let Canaan be his slave.

As I read through commentaries the dominant interpretation is that this story serves to explain the conflict and complicated relationship between Israel and Canaan.  Ham’s family will produce the people of Babel, Ninevah, Assyria, Egypt, Philistine, Sodom, and Gomorrah.  The family line of Ham produces people groups with whom Israel will be in conflict over much of her recorded history.  Through Shem, on the other hand, will come Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and the twelve tribes of Israel.  At times they will war against the Canaanites and at other times they will intermarry with the Canaanites, adopt their gods, and pull away from the Lord.

Some commentators also suggest that perhaps Ham did more than just look on his father’s nakedness.  They say that this story hints at a deeper sexual immorality and establishes a connection between Ham’s behavior and the sexual immorality associated with the people of Canaan.

At the very least today’s text suggests that Ham looked on his father’s nakedness and vulnerability in some way that profoundly shamed his father.   Perhaps in telling his brothers he expressed disdain or invited them to go and have a look for themselves for a good laugh.  His is a violation of the deep mystery that is the body of his father.  He does not honor the image of God that is made known by Noah.  His brothers, in contrast, show deep respect.

So some commentators treat this story as story of origin:  one that explains the origin of the nations and their troubled relationship with each other.  Perhaps, even explaining why God makes a covenant with Israel, giving her the land inhabited by the Canaanites, fulfilling Noah’s curse.  But I wonder if there is something else going on here that is even more important to consider.  I am curious about how Noah used his voice, and the juxtaposition of Noah’s speech with the one from God that immediately precedes it.

The flood story talks of unmitigated wickedness across the earth, an ark that protects representatives of the entire animal kingdom, a massive flood, a long period of the earth drying out, an exit from the ark, a sacrifice, and a blessing from God.  Creation gets a fresh start and what do we see happen next?

Noah falls asleep naked and Ham treats his father with dishonor.  The first story to follow the flood shows humanity once again choosing harm over harmony.  Perhaps what we see in Noah’s response is exasperation.  Really?!  We just made it through the flood and have begun to live into a renewed call to be fruitful and multiply and this is how you choose to behave?!  Have we really regained a fresh start only to drift back into immorality once again?  Is this all we are capable of?

Possibly it is in his grief and exasperation and anger, or fear of a continued decline in humanity that Noah curses Ham and blesses the two sons who took pains to act with integrity and kindness.

Unfortunately, Noah may have followed a tendency that we also share:  to bear disappointment and grief, and to respond with anger, fear, and judgment.

To do so is to be a people who call out for the flood.  To be a people who say, “Bring on the rain.  I’ve had my limit and I want the other person to get his just reward.”   When we act out of anger and fear and seek retribution, we invoke whatever form of the flood that we believe appropriate.  This is ironic in a way, because we are uncomfortable with the notion of God sending a flood to wipe out the wicked, and yet when I sit in my car and curse a driver for cutting me off – in that moment my heart invokes the flood.  I want judgment and I pass it all too quickly and easily as I land on a name to call that driver.

As I’ve reflected on this passage for the last few weeks I have been struck by how small the crime often is when I get worked up and become a person with a flood-mentality.  A pedestrian walking against the light, an unkind email, dishes left undone, a co-worker with an annoying habit, the dog poop left in my garbage can.  What Noah missed is perhaps what many of us do as we read the flood story and choose to focus more on the flood than on the resolution of God at its conclusion.

After the flood, at the smell of Noah’s sacrifice, God is changed.  God says in God’s heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for th

the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done.  As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.”  God then declares all human life sacred – sacred because made in God’s image.

God resolves never to destroy the earth or humanity again, regardless of how humanity chooses to use its freedom.  This is a big announcement, a significant decision on the part of God.  It is a choice to embrace mercy on a large scale.  Walter Brueggemann writes that in this narrative we see the planting of the seeds that will grow into the gospel:  “The God who rules over us has turned toward us in a new way.”  God decides that the grief and trouble experienced in his own heart when humanity pulls away will not keep him from relationship with us.  And so he creates a covenant with Noah and the earth, giving the rainbow as a sign of his commitment to all flesh – present and future.

This extraordinary movement on God’s part can too easily go unnoticed.  Indeed, even witnessing it first-hand did not prevent Noah from responding to harm with a curse, to invoke his own sort of flood against his son.  Noah was not able to understand the radical model of grace that God had just offered humanity.  And so, without yet having sufficient theological imagination to do anything else, Noah doles out blessing and curses to his sons, each according to their actions.

At this point in Genesis it is still very early in humanity’s journey with God.  It will take many, many, many more stories for humanity to begin to grow in comprehension of God’s desire for mercy and grace.  Humanity will need the stories of the patriarchs, and of the evolution of Israel, and of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus to better understand God – or our own call to be agents of mercy and grace.

The Bible shows us Israel on a long, complex spiritual journey, and her stories reflect aspects of our own spiritual journeys:  common questions, common struggles, common yearnings for wholeness and redemption.  The Bible also explores God’s unfolding activity in relationship to humanity, providing rich glimpses of a resolve to love and offer freedom even when it seems unmerited.  God says, “You may cause my heart to grieve, but I have given you a rainbow as a pledge of my faithfulness.”

So I invite you to consider whether in your interactions at home and at work this week, you will be a people who invoke the flood, or a people who extend grace and mercy.

In the midst of fresh disappointments and irritations, and even in the midst of large injustices, shall we be a people of the flood or a people captivated and transformed by mercy and grace?