Genesis 9-12: Curse of Canaan, Tower of Babel

God blesses Noah and his sons, giving them all animals to eat.  God establishes a covenant with the humans and animals: he promises never to destroy them by flood again.  As a sign of the covenant, he creates a rainbow; every time the rainbow appears, God will remember the covenant.  Noah then exits the ark and plants a vineyard.  He gets drunk and naked.  Ham, the father of Canaan, sees Noah’s nakedness and tells his brothers.  The brothers take a cloth and, walking backward to avoid seeing the nakedness, cover Noah.  Noah finds out what happened and curses Canaan: “Cursed be Canaan; the lowest of slaves shall he be to his brothers.”

Descendents of Shem, Ham, and Japheth, according to their nations and languages.  Everyone on earth have the same language.  They migrate from the east, settle in Shinar, and decide to build a tower with its top in the sky.  God, feeling threatened, confounds their language and scatters them over the whole earth; the tower was called Babel.  Genealogy of Shem through to Abram.  God tells Abram to leave his house, which he does, and arrives in Canaan; he promises to make Abram’s descendents into a great nation.  During a famine, Abram leaves for Egypt, but is kicked out for deceiving Pharaoh into thinking Abram’s wife Sarai was his sister.

Commentary:

  • It is unclear what Ham did that deserved Noah’s curse.  Perhaps his crime was simply to see his father naked, even though it was accidental; perhaps there is an allusion to a more serious crime that is lost on modern readers.  The fact that Canaan was cursed in the place of Ham seems to be an attempt to justify the Israelites’ enslavement of Canaanites.  Whereas Israelite slaves had to be freed after 7 years, non-Israelite slaves did not (Lev. 25:39-46).
  • Babel is probably Babylon.  Perhaps the author heard about the magnificent buildings in Babylon, including ziggurats that reached high into the sky.
  • The genealogy in chapter 10 contains many men, most of whom are also the names of nations.  These nations include Asshur (Assyria), Lud (Lydia), Canaan, and Shem (Arabia), among others.  They are said to be separated “according to their clans and languages”, but 11:1 claims that “everyone on earth had the same language and the same words”, probably because the two passages come from different sources.
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