A Community of Covering

There are some stories in which the ending echoes the beginning, bringing it into sharper focus—like The Sixth Sense, The Usual Suspects, or Fight Club. The story of Noah begins juxtaposing righteous Noah with wicked everyone else. Noah, at the narrative’s beginning, represents the way of faith while the rest of the world represents the way of sin. In this juxtaposition, Noah offers a glimpse of what it means to walk humbly before God and others in a world broken and undone by sin—sin that the Genesis story makes clear is deeply, irrevocably, inescapably ours. Now, at the strange concluding episode of  Noah’s story, we see more clearly the divergence of the way of faith and the way of sin. Specifically, the concluding episode reveals how we are to relate to the sin of others—how to walk by faith when those closest to us fail. The two choices these two ways offer are to expose the sins others to cover ourselves or to share in the exposure of others trusting the Lord’s covering is sufficient for us both.

18 The sons of Noah who went forth from 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 people of the whole earth were dispersed. 20 Noah began to be a man of the soil, and he planted a vineyard. 21 He drank of the wine and became drunk and lay uncovered in his tent. Genesis 9.18-21

The constant reference point of Noah’s sons within the narrative can be somewhat dizzying—something like Star Wars. Where are we in the story? Prequel? Sequel? Alternative spin off? But at the conclusion of Noah’s story, in this strange episode about getting drunk and laying naked in a tent, the author wants us to see again the paradigm that will define the remainder of the biblical story. The sons of Noah, and their actions in this story, exemplify the two ways of relating to God and one another in this new, but still-fallen world. These two ways, as will become evident, are not new. They are, in fact, old—representative of the way of God and dependence on him and the way of sin and self-righteousness.

The pattern of the verses mimics the pattern of Adam. Where God had planted a garden for Adam, Noah likewise plants a garden—a vineyard. Where Adam (and Eve) foolishly eat of the garden’s forbidden fruit, Noah foolishly (as opposed to wisely) approaches the fruit of his garden and falls into sin. Where Adam and Eve end up knowing their nakedness in the garden, Noah likewise ends up naked. These parallels proclaim that despite his being rescued by God, Noah is no different than Adam. Rescue from the judgement of sin has done nothing to purge sin from Noah’s heart. What is needed to mend our plight is not simply to escape the judgement of sin but to purge sin out of our hearts and plant righteousness in its place. As Christians, Noah’s story warns against what Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls cheap grace. To claim the benefits of Jesus’ salvation without being changed by him does nothing to free us from the curse of Adam. We have only to repeat the story and folly of Adam.

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 backward, 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;
    a servant of servants shall he be to his brothers.”

26 He also said,

“Blessed be the Lord, the God of Shem;
    and let Canaan be his servant.

27 May God enlarge Japheth,
    and let him dwell in the tents of Shem,
    and let Canaan be his servant.”

28 After the flood Noah lived 350 years. 29 All the days of Noah were 950 years, and he died.

Rewinding back to Genesis 3, when Adam and Eve ate of the fruit which God had commanded them not to eat, they immediately realized they were naked. Their nakedness is their shame—shame they try desperately to cover with fig leaves. As we’ve seen, Genesis invites us to see their story as our story—to see their shame as ours. We are no different than our first parents, and no attempt of our own can rewrite or redeem our story.

Here, Ham sees his father’s nakedness and exposes it his brothers. There are two important themes in play here—nakedness, as mentioned before, and dependence. Ham, instead of seeing his own shame in his father’s nakedness, instead of recognizing his dependance on his father, choses to expose his father’s nakedness to his brothers. In doing so, Ham distances himself from his father, the one who gave him life and whose image he bears. He is denying that he is anything like his father and that he is somehow dependent on his father. This is not to dignify Noah’s actions. The narrative parallel between this episode and Adam’s story extends the verdict against Adam’s actions onto Noah’s as well. Both have sinned and fall under the just judgement of God. This episode does, however, invite us to see Ham’s actions as a refusal to see his own nakedness in the mirror of his father’s nakedness and to see his exposing his father as a refusal of his father’s likeness. It is, in this light, an attempt to determine his own identity and fabricate his own righteousness—both apart from his father. Ham, it seems, believes that exposing the sin and nakedness of his father removes his dependence and fabricates a covering for his own righteousness.

Where Ham exposes his father’s nakedness, Shem and Japheth cover it—actions reminiscent of God’s covering Adam and Eve’s nakedness. Their actions are God-like. In so acting, Shem and Japheth are willing to absorb the shame of their father knowing that they, too, share in his shame. They do not expose their father and distance themselves from him. Instead, they cover him and honor him as their father—an act of humble dependence and an act of undeserved grace. 

When Noah wakes from his drunken stupor, Noah curses Ham’s son, Canaan,and blesses Shem and Japheth in relation to Canaan.The Canaanites will be the paradigmatic enemy of God’s people throughout the first chapter of Israel’s story. In this ways, Ham’s actions serve as the paradigm of behavior that defies God’s will and ways. Conversely, Shem and Japheth’s actions are the exemplary paradigm of behavior that God commends and blesses. In other words, Noah’s words reveal the divergence of the way of salvation and blessing from the way of sin and curse.

This story exhorts us to posture ourselves humbly before one another—to see first our own sin in the mirror of the sin of others. Certainly, we are not to excuse sin—either in ourselves or in others. However, as Jesus instructs us, there is a good and right order to exposing sin—first the plank in our eye, then the speck in others. It is only when we have identified our own sin that we are postured appropriately to identify the sin in others. Interestingly, the act of laying the cover of grace on the nakedness of another is a communal project. It was the communal act of two brothers, Shem and Japheth. On the contrary, exposing the nakedness of another is an individual enterprise. It was the act of the one brother Ham. Acting God-like and covering the nakedness of others is the way of Jesus in which the community of the church should walk. It is an act of faith trusting the sufficiency of Jesus’ sacrifice for our sin. The contrary is an act of individualistic self-sufficiency that attempts to fabricate garments of self-righteousness out of the shame of others.

This is the wonder of God making Jesus sin. Jesus did not simply identify with our sin to save us from it. He became sin and absorbed the full brunt of its consequences in his body on the tree. In the same way as Shem and Japheth did not expose their father but covered him, Jesus, in a greater way, once and for all, covers us and takes our shame on himself that we might receive a covering of righteousness that usher us unashamed into the presence of the Father.