The Family of Noah (Genesis 9:18-29)

When Noah was born, his father said, “At last! This one will comfort us in the labor and painful toil of our hands caused by the ground the Lord has cursed.”

For many generations — perhaps even thousands of years — mankind had lived under the tyranny of the sons of Cain. The sons of Cain were a race of mighty men. They were city builders, civilization builders, and their quest was to colonize the whole world, and use all the world’s resources to support their own extravagant empires. They believed that the best way to lift yourself up…is by pushing everyone else down. And by the time Noah was born, that mindset had become universal. Violence began to consume mankind as the subjugated people tried to lift themselves up through rebellion, and the rulers pushed them back down by crushing rebellion — it looked as if there was no way out, no way to break the cycle.

But there were a few people left who had preserved an ancient tradition, an ancient memory passed down faithfully through the generations. And this memory was a memory of peace and rest, of a time before greed and selfishness and violence and war. These people believed that once, long ago, mankind had lived with God in a garden, protected by the high walls of a valley in the mountains, a valley bursting with life, with rivers flowing out of it that carried a foretaste of that life outward into the lands at the foot of those mountains. And these people believed that God’s presence was still there, in that garden, in that valley. And they could prove it because, if the conquering armies of Cain tried to climb that mountain and enter that valley, they would find their way blocked by monstrous angels armed with the judgement of God.

And these people also preserved another tradition, another memory — not quite so ancient — of a prophet who had risen up from among their own people. This prophet’s name was Enoch, and he had promised that one day the Lord himself would descend from his holy mountain, with his entire army of angels, and would deliver his people from Cain’s tyrannous civilization. Enoch had told his people that the solution to Cain’s rebellion and violence is not more rebellion and violence! — no, the solution to Cain’s rebellion and violence…is God’s judgement alone. God alone will deliver his people. God alone will give his people rest.

Noah’s father was one those people who preserved the ancient traditions. And it seems that he, too, was a prophet, because when he looked at his newborn son he saw that the promise of God’s rest was about to be fulfilled. Noah’s father saw that somehow his son would be involved in bringing God’s rest to God’s people.

And that is why he named his son Noah: because “noah” means rest.

And over the last few weeks we have seen how Enoch’s prophecy was partially fulfilled: God did come down from his holy mountain — but only to enter the ark and close the door behind him. It was not an army of angels that destroyed Cain’s civilization, it was the outer chaos of the universe that came pouring in and flooded the entire world.

And we have seen how Moses drew these strong parallels between the flood and the original creation: how God rebuilt the world after the flood using the same pattern and structure that he used in the beginning with creation. God even renewed his covenant with Noah, using the same pattern and structure that he used in the beginning with Adam.

There is just one last element from the creation story that is still missing, one last thing that needs to be done before the re-creation story is complete.

What is that missing element?

Well, let me answer that question by asking another question: where is the garden of God’s presence now? Or, to ask that question in another way: where is the rest that God promised to give his people?

Ahhhh. And so that is why [20] Noah, a man of the soil, proceeded to plant a vineyard.

In the beginning, God planted a garden. Here, Noah plants a vineyard. And what this means — what Moses is telling us — is that Noah is the second Adam. His job is to work the soil and protect it!

So this little sentence is actually the capstone to the whole flood story. This wonderful moment of triumph is what we have been working toward ever since that moment way back in Chapter 5 when Noah’s father made his great prophecy of rest and comfort. Finally, at long last, after thousands of years of exile from the garden of God, a new garden has been planted by a righteous man! Now, surely, God himself is going to come and pour out his living presence upon the earth, and live side-by-side with Noah and his family?

Well…I’m sorry to get your hopes up and then dash them back down to the ground, but — ummmm — it’s not going to work out quite the way we hoped. Noah’s father’s prophecy is fulfilled here in Noah…but it is only fulfilled for a moment.

Apparently Noah was a vintner — a wine-maker — before the flood, and he returns to his old business after the flood. And rightly so! He is the second Adam. It is his job to work the soil, and to bring peace and rest to the earth.

Unfortunately, Noah is the second Adam in more ways than one: he reaches out, he takes some of the fruit of the garden…and he uses it inappropriately:

[21] When he drank some of its wine, he became drunk and lay uncovered inside his tent. And then [22] Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father naked and told his two brothers outside.

So…mankind’s moment of triumph was very short-lived. We had hoped — everyone had hoped! — that the re-planting of the garden signalled the beginning of the new heavens and the new earth, the eternal home of righteousness and peace.

But it was not to be. The ancient pattern of sin repeats itself exactly. And Moses makes that clear by repeating the same words and concepts. After Adam and Eve sinned, they hid “in the middle of the garden”; here, after Noah sins, he lies uncovered “in the middle of his tent” — the exact same words. After Adam and Eve sinned they “saw that they were naked”; here, after Noah sins, his son Ham “saw that his father was naked” — the exact same words. After Adam and Eve sinned, God confronted them and asked, “Who told you that you were naked?” Here, after Noah sins, his son Ham “told his two brothers” that their father was naked — the exact same words.

So what Moses is showing us here is that Noah is exactly like his father Adam. And Moses is showing us that Noah’s son Ham is exactly like his father…the Serpent.

And this is where you all say, “Wait…what? The serpent is Ham’s father? I thought Noah was Ham’s father?”

Well, let’s compare the stories once more, shall we?

In the original story, Adam and Eve were naked and they were unashamed. Now: what character highlighted the fact that they were naked and shamed them for it? The serpent.

Now in this story, Noah is naked and unashamed. What character steps forward and highlights the fact that he is naked, and shames him for it? Ham.

Moses is showing us that, even though Cain’s civilization has been wiped out, the dark spirit that animated Cain’s civilization has survived God’s flood judgement — and has already started to work in the heart of Ham, Noah’s son.

Now, to be clear, Moses is not saying that Ham is possessed by Satan or anything like that. But he is pointing out that Cain’s idea — that the best way to lift yourself up is by pushing everybody else down — this idea is alive and well within Ham. Cain murdered his brother in a fit of jealousy. Here, Ham tries murder his father’s reputation.

For what purpose? for what reason? Moses does not tell us because, ultimately, the details of what is going on in Ham’s heart doesn’t matter. The point Moses wants to make here is that Ham is actually the latest offspring of the serpent, and the serpent is still engaged in trying to poison mankind.

In other words: the war that God prophesied back in Chapter 3 — the war between the children of the serpent and the children of Eve — that war is not over yet.

So that is bad!

But…it is too early for us to despair. Remember what happened in the original story, just when it looked like all hope was lost?

God showed up and redeemed the situation.

So I think that if continue in this story, we are going to find that the same pattern of redemption repeats itself here:

[23] But Shem and Japheth took a garment and laid it across their shoulders; then they walked in backward and covered their father’s naked body. Their faces were turned the other way so that they would not see their father naked.

In the beginning, God provided garments to cover Adam and Eve’s nakedness. Here, again, God provides a garment to cover Noah’s nakedness.

And he provides this covering through Noah’s two other sons: Shem and Japheth. Shame came to Noah through one of his sons, but redemption from that shame now comes from his other sons. So that should be an encouragement for us. It is bad news to discover that the children of the serpent are still alive and well and ready to continue the war. But it is good news to find out that the true, faithful children of Eve are also still alive and well and ready to fight. All is not lost!

So the pattern of redemption is repeating itself here. Which means that, if the pattern holds true, there must also be a prophecy pointing forward to the end of the war with the serpent.

And…sure enough, there is a prophecy: [24] When Noah awoke from his wine and found out what his youngest son had done to him, [25] he said, “Cursed be Canaan! The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers.”

[26] He also said, “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Shem! May Canaan be the slave of Shem. [27] May God extend Japheth’s territory; may Japheth live in the tents of Shem, and may Canaan be the slave of Japheth.”

Huh! The pattern has repeated itself exactly.

In the original, the serpent tried to lift himself up and take Adam’s place as God’s king over creation. So God cursed the serpent through his offspring by promising that his descendants would live out their lives as the lowest of all creatures. And then God promised that in the end, mankind would be given rest from the serpent’s tyranny by one particular Son of Eve.

Here, Ham has just tried to lift himself up and take his father’s place. So Noah curses Ham through his offspring — through Canaan, Ham’s son — by promising that Canaan’s descendants will live as the lowest slaves of all mankind. And then Noah promises that in the end, the rest of mankind will find rest within the tents of one particular family: Shem’s family.

Now, I do want to pause here for a moment and address something: many people over the years have looked at Noah’s curse here  and thought, “How is it fair for Canaan, the son, to be cursed because of his father’s sin? That does not seem right!”

And that is quite correct. In fact, later on in scripture God makes it clear that he does not punish the sons for the fathers’ sins.

But there are a few interesting things happening here that should clarify what is happening:

The first one we have already noticed: Moses is following a distinct pattern in order to make it absolutely clear that Ham is essentially a direct spiritual descendant of Cain who was the first spiritual “son” of the serpent. And everyone knows that if the father is a poisonous serpent, the son will grow up to be a poisonous serpent. In essence: the dishonor of the father is always passed down to his descendants, that was just a fact of life in ancient cultures.

The second thing we need to notice is that the punishment actually fits the crime. See, Noah has just been dishonored by his son, Ham. So it is only fitting that Ham should be dishonored by his son, Canaan. And one of the most dishonorable things that could happen to your descendants in those days was for them to fall into slavery. In essence: the dishonor of the descendants is also cast backwards onto the father. This was also a fact of life in ancient cultures, and a concept we understand very well here in Asia.

The third thing we have to notice is that Canaan is not Ham’s only son. We won’t officially find this out until Chapter 10 next week, but Canaan actually has three older brothers: Cush, Egypt, and Put. Canaan is the youngest of his brothers — just like Ham is the youngest of his brothers. So again there is a balance and a fairness to this curse: it is very tightly focused. Noah was just dishonored by his youngest son.Now, in his anger, Noah could have over-valued his own honor and cursed all of Ham’s sons — but he does not. He remembers the constitution God gave him right after they got out of the ark: the constitution that set upper and lower limits on the value of human life: it is a one-to-one exchange rate, one life for one life. So since Noah was dishonored by his youngest son, he declares that Ham’s destiny is to be dishonored by his youngest son.

And this third point — that there are other sons and grandsons running around — actually helps us understand what exactly Ham did and why Noah reacted so strongly to it. See, over the last few thousand years, there have been many readers who thought that Noah’s response to Ham’s disrespect was too strong. And so many scholars have tried to suggest that what Ham did was actually much much worse than just seeing Noah naked and telling his brothers. Some have suggested that Ham did something sexual to his father. Others have suggested that Ham actually slept with his mother, because later on in the bible the phrase “uncover your father’s nakedness” is a euphemism for sleeping with your father’s wife.

But really, none of that speculation is necessary when we realize that this incident actually happened many years after the flood. As Chapter 10 will show us, Shem, Ham, and Japheth all have a bunch of kids already, and possibly even those kids have had kids. In other words, Noah is the patriarch of a small town by this point, a small tribe. So for Ham to tell his brothers about their father’s incompetence…this is not just a personal insult, this is also a political move. It is a way of saying, “Hey, guys, the old man is losing it! Maybe it’s time for someone else to take leadership.” Ham’s actions are not just a personal dishonour against Noah, they are also a bid for power which will inevitably result in division and strife within the community.

So Canaan is not being punished for his father’s sin. Noah’s prophecy here is really nothing more than most of the prophecies we find in scripture: it is a simple description of reality. Sins have consequences that reverberate down through the generations…unless God steps in and brings the cycle to rest.

So what all this means is that Ham really is just like his spiritual father Cain — who was just like his father the serpent. Ham is a potential tyrant, just like the ancient king Lamech, who used violence to push other people down and lift himself up. The only difference is that Ham is using words — politics — to do it instead of the sword.

And ultimately, what we are finding here, in Noah’s curse and blessing, is that God has just repeated his original curse and blessing: his promise that one day the children of Eve will be delivered from the serpent’s tyranny and brought back into the garden presence of God.

But this is not just a repetition — this is also a development. In God’s first prophecy, we learned that mankind’s deliverance would come through one particular son of Eve. And clearly, Noah’s father thought that Noah himself was that son of Eve. But here, God focuses the prophecy a little more sharply: mankind’s deliverance will come through one particular Son of Eve, who is also descended from the line of Shem. It is within the tents of Shem that mankind will come and find rest from the curse and from the tyranny of the serpent.

So, in a way, Noah’s father was right: Noah will bring rest and comfort to mankind — but not by planting a new garden of God. He will bring rest and comfort by being the father of Shem, who will be the father of the promised Messiah.

And then Moses brings Book 4 of Genesis to a close: [28] After the flood Noah lived 350 years. [29] Noah lived a total of 950 years, and then he died.

This is the end of the Book of Noah — but it is definitely not the end of the redemption story. Next week, Moses is going to begin Book 5 of Genesis: the Book of Noah’s Sons, which is just the beginning of the rest of the story of mankind.

So now, as we do every week, we’ve come to the point where we want to ask: what are we supposed to learn from this closing episode of Noah’s life? How does this apply to us, so many thousands of years later?

Well, as always, the best way to answer that question is to ask what this episode meant to the original audience, the ancient people of Israel. As always, Moses writes with a very practical purpose in mind. He is wanting to guide and encourage God’s people as they face various challenges; he want to turn their eyes always back to who God is.

And what Moses has done here is actually set the pattern for all of future history. We don’t know this yet — because we are going to discover it next week — but the sons of Ham are going to become the sworn enemies of the sons of Shem. The sons of Ham are going to become the founders of every tyrannous people-crushing empire in the world of Moses’ time, and the sons of Shem are going to be the victims of that tyranny for many hundreds of years — and the people of Israel are descended from the sons of Shem. They have just escaped from slavery in Egypt — one of Ham’s sons — and now God has called them to invade the land of Canaan — another one of Ham’s sons. And they are not confident that they can do it!

That is why Moses has carefully recorded Noah’s prophecy here. He is trying to encourage the people of Israel. He is trying to say, “Look, I know that we have been bullied by the sons of Ham for a long time. But that time is over now! Noah prophesied that one day the tables will be turned: the sons of Canaan will be brought down from their high position, and the sons of Shem will be lifted up — and now is the time for that prophecy to be fulfilled! You are not the solution to Canaan’s rebellion and violence — God’s judgement is. God alone is going to deliver the land into your hands. God alone is going to give you rest.”

And really, this idea of God’s people finally finding rest from slavery, and rest from their wanderings in the wilderness — this idea of finally finding rest has actually been the central idea of whole flood story. I haven’t really pointed it out until now, but from the first mention of Noah’s birth until this last mention of Noah’s death, Moses has been using variations of the word “noah” — the Hebrew word “rest” — all the way through the story. He has been using puns, he has been using homonyms and homophones and all kinds of fancy Hebrew wordplay in order to make sure the idea of “rest” pops up every few sentences.

The whole point of the story of Noah’s flood, is this: God alone gives rest to his people; God’s people can only ever find rest in God alone. He is the God of the covenant: he is the God who makes promises and keeps them even though he know that his people do not deserve his faithfulness.

Moses wants the people of Israel to know that they are going to inherit the land of Canaan, not because they deserve it — because they don’t! — but simply because God promised that they would.

And that is great for them; but what does it mean for us? We are not descended from Shem — at least, I don’t think any one of us here has any Jewish heritage. Nor are any of us descended from Canaan, because that people group went extinct a long time ago. So, how does Noah’s curse — or, hopefully, Noah’s blessing — apply to us?

Or, for another way to ask this question: where is our rest supposed to come from?

Well, we are not descended from Canaan, nor are we descended from Shem — but Noah had a third son, didn’t he? And what did he say about that son? [27] May God extend Japheth’s territory; may Japheth live in the tents of Shem, and may Canaan be the slave of Japheth.”

Are we the descendants of Japheth?

Yes, we are. Once again, we don’t know this yet — because we are going to discover it next week — but some of the sons of Japheth are going to settle the islands of the Mediterranean Sea: they are going to become the Greeks and the Romans. And about 1500 years after Moses, a prophet is going to rise up from among the sons of Shem. His name will be Jesus of Nazareth, and he is going to turn out to be the Messiah, the Son of Eve that Noah’s father hoped Noah would be.

And this Jesus is going to go to war against the ancient serpent and win. He delivers the sons of Shem from tyranny and slavery: he finally gives them rest.

But then something funny happens: some of Jesus’ followers travel northward and westward, preaching this Good News to every son of Shem they can find — and then some of them begin to preach this Good News to the sons of Japheth: Greeks and Romans. And it turns out that this Good News is exactly what these sons of Japheth have been waiting to hear! And they begin to join Jesus’ movement by the thousands! In fact, so many of them join that they soon outnumber the sons of Shem — and it has remained that way ever since.

In other words, friends, just as Noah prophesied, the sons of Japheth ended up finding their rest in the tents of Shem. And they did this by joining themselves to Jesus the Jewish Messiah and calling him their king.

But we aren’t Greeks or Romans! So how does this blessing apply to us? This is how: just as it was possible for Ham to be the spiritual son of the serpent even though he was the physical son of Noah — so also it is possible for us to be the spiritual descendants of Japheth even though we are the physical descendants of other ethnic groups. This is how it works: if you have accepted Jesus as your Lord, if you have come to believe that Jesus has delivered you from the slavery and tyranny of the serpent’s empire — then you are a spiritual descendant of Japheth. You now live in the tents of Shem; you are now covered by God’s covenant of salvation: God has promised that he is going to save you even though he knows you do not deserve it!

And is very Good News, isn’t it? We do not need to be physically descended from Shem or even physically descended from Japheth in order to be covered by Christ’s covenant of salvation! And we are going to talk a lot more about this concept next week.

But in the meantime, what practical effect should all this have on our daily lives?

Well, here is the first practical effect:

If you are here today, and you are not a Christian, and you are frustrated by the injustice in our world, if you are frustrated that the rich and the strong are always lifting themselves up by enslaving the poor and the weak — then, you know, that is good! Because that means you are angry at the same things God is angry at.

But, if you are not a Christian, then there is a 100% guarantee that you are still part of the problem. Let me explain: if you have not yet accepted Christ as the solution for this cycle of injustice and violence…then that means you still think the best way to end the cycle of violence is by inserting your own violence into the situation.

Now — hear me out! — I am not saying that everyone in the world is physically violent. But, as Noah’s son Ham has demonstrated today, there are many kinds of violence: political violence, verbal violence, emotional violence. Even the most peaceful and passive and soft-spoken people in the world believe that the best way to fix any given problem is by lifting themselves up and pushing others down.

Not convinced yet? Here is a way you can test yourself: have you ever caught yourself saying or thinking, “If I was in charge — if my people, my philosophy, my political party was in charge — we would bring an end to this tyranny and injustice. We would make this world a better place!”

Friends, that is just another way of saying that you think that you are the solution to the cycle of violence. What you’re really saying is this: “I need to lead one last rebellion against the status quo. But once I’m in charge, that will be the end of all violence, because everyone is going to love having me in charge so much that no one is ever going to want to rebel ever again!”

And, friends, I want to be fair and admit that this a human problem — it’s not just a problem for non-Christians. We are all, by nature, the spiritual descendants of Ham and Cain and the serpent. We are all born believing that if we were in charge, we would finally have rest, and the whole world would finally have rest! We all think like that.

The only advantage that Christians have is this: we know that we are not the solution to the cycle of violence in this world. More than that: we have admitted that we are part of the problem — and that the only real solution is Christ.

And the very practical effect this has had on our lives…is that now we are at rest. By admitting that we cannot bring rest to ourselves — much less to the rest of the world! — we have been set free from that internal tyranny that drives us to take over the world. We can’t! And we have accepted that. And so we are actually enjoying, right now, what the bible calls the first-fruits of peace and rest.

So if you are here today, and you are not a Christian, and you are frustrated by the tyranny of the world, and frustrated by that driving tyranny within yourself that never lets you rest…! — then good: you are angry at what God is angry at, and you are actually angry at yourself, because you know that you are not really helping, despite all your best efforts. If that is you, friend, then this is your practical application: join yourself to Christ. Give up your efforts to save yourself by saving the world; let Jesus give you rest.

Now, if you are here and you have already joined yourself to Christ, then this the the practical effect all this is supposed to have on us: rest! We really have been set free from the internal tyranny that drives us to take over the world —

— except that we haven’t really been set free from that impulse, right? We look around at the injustice and tyranny of the world, and we often think, “Oh, if only we Christians were in charge, then everything would be great!” But then, later on, during one of those rare honest moments, we look around and we think, “Ohhhhhh…we are not helping this situation at all!

Yeah, friends, brothers and sisters, the truth is: we are still part of the problem. More often than not we do not act like the children of God, we act more like the children of the serpent. And we have to be honest about that, we really do! because our non-Christian friends can see that truth for themselves. So there is really no point in trying to convince others that we are better people than everyone else. If others see good in us, that’s great! — but we shouldn’t go around trying to convince everyone. After all, as Jesus himself once pointed out, “It is better to be humble and take the lowest place at the table and let someone else lift you up. Because, if you seat yourself at the head of the table someone else might come along and prove to the world that you don’t deserve that seat!”

So…what is the practical Good News for us, then? Well, this is it: our rest does not come from our performance. We are still disobedient children! But here’s the Gospel: we are God’s disobedient children. Our rest does not come from our obedience, it comes from our identity. Many times we may act like the children of the serpent, but the reality is this: we are the children of God. And this really does set us free from the internal tyranny that drives us to take over the world. Sometimes we do not feel like we are free from that driving tyranny — but we really are free.

And what this means, brothers and sisters in Christ, is that this freedom and rest that we struggle to make real in our daily lives…really is becoming real. Our growth in grace is hard to see sometimes; sometimes we look at our lives, we look at the world, and we despair of ever making progress. But this is the gospel truth: we really are making progress. Each one of us is making progress. And so is Christ’s Church.

And — interestingly enough — so is the world. Sociologists are telling us that something very strange has been happening over the last 70 years. The world’s population has doubled! — from 4 billion to 8 — and yet for the last 70 years we have been enjoying the longest un-interrupted peace in the recorded history of mankind. Yes, there are still wars going on in various places in the world — but they are fewer and smaller than ever before. The world’s population has doubled! — and yet the number of people living in abject poverty has plummeted. Yes, there are still very poor people in the world — but they are fewer and less poor than they were 70 years ago. The world’s population has doubled! — and yet the number of people dying of incurable disease has plummeted. Yes, the incidence of cancer is on the rise — but that is probably because more people are living long enough to get cancer.

Now, what does all this mean? Is this Christ finally fulfilling his promise to peace and rest to this earth? Well, it is interesting to notice that all of this progress has grown out of the scientific soil first ploughed by the Romans and the Greeks. In other words: the roots of these blessings can be traced back to the sons of Japheth, most of whom had chosen to live within the tents of Shem. In other words: the roots of these blessings can be traced back to the Middle East, to this strange religion called Christianity. And a number of sociologists have pointed out that our modern conception of science could only have grown out of a trinitarian monotheism; no other system of philosophy can actually support it and justify it. So, in a way: yes, the peace and rest our world is enjoying today does come from Christ.

However, many sociologists believe that these last 70 years are just the calm before the storm, and that it will not be long now before our global society is convulsed again by war and poverty and disease. And you know what…this is the pattern scripture predicts as well. It happened to Cain’s civilization before the flood; it happened to Roman civilization; and the New Testament says that it will happen again: mankind will become so powerful, so wealthy, so well off, that they will actively deny the existence of God. They will turn against the Church, because our continued existence will be an irritating reminder that there is a God. And finally they will turn against each other…

Now, is this going to happen soon? Will this be the final cycle of rebellion and judgement? Or might the world go on for many more generations? We don’t know. But this we do know: in the end, Enoch’s ancient prophecy will finally be fulfilled in its entirety. He prophesied that one day the Lord himself would descend from his holy mountain, with his entire army of angels, deliver God’s people once and for all from the tyranny of Cain’s civilization.

Now, God did destroy Cain’s civilization, he did deliver his people of that time — but he did it with a flood. And unfortunately, Cain’s civilization sprang back into full tyrannous life. We are living in the midst of it now.

And is why, next time God comes to deliver us, it is going to happen exactly as Enoch described it. The tyrants of the earth will be brought down and destroyed: they will pay the penalty for all they have done; there will be justice. And there will be rest for all those who have come to live within the tents of Shem.

That is how Jesus is going to bring peace and rest to this world. This is our hope: that Christ alone can bring rest to this world, that Christ alone will bring rest to this world.

So does this mean we do nothing? Not at all. What this means is that we do everything! We do everything! knowing that everything we do is going to be redeemed in the perfect rest of the world to come.

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