Friday, September 23, 2011

Abraham, Noah, Pain and Suffering

Some people listen to music while at work. I've never been very musically inclined, but I like to listen to Radiolab while doing something that doesn't require my full attention. I was listening to Robert Krulwich's sermon on Abraham, Isaac and Mount Moriah this afternoon while putting together an FE model, and something struck me: well, lots of things actually. His telling of the story is probably the most thoughtful and impassioned I have ever heard in my life. While a Christian could not but say that Mr. Krulwich misses something by not being able to shed the light of Hebrews on the telling of the tale, still, it is moving, thoughtful and the best I've ever heard. Along the way, when telling the story of Abraham and Isaac on Mt. Moriah, he mentions a bit of the story of Noah that really caught my attention.

He tells of how Noah was the holiest man on the earth, how God spoke to him and told him to build an ark, and how Noah obeyed. Noah obeyed God in a way that I doubt I would ever have the faith to do. He obeyed in the midst of mocking from his peers while doing something that appeared to all rational creatures as a totally ludicrous and even stupid act. And he kept it up for a hundred years or so (I forget the exact amount of time). Anyway, then, with Noah and 2 or 7 of every animal in the ark, God kills everything else on the earth. If we think of the pleading that Abraham did for Sodom and Gomorah, and if we think of the pleading that we would do for our relatives and loved ones who have turned their backs on God, that had to have hurt. Noah had to have hurt. Robert Krulwich posits that you can't be a good man and not question "Why?!?!" at a time like that. No matter how much we trust in the omnipotence of God, he has made us to seek understanding, and a mark of the goodness of our humanity is to hurt and question why in times like that.

And so, it is that light which helps bring understanding to another of the most puzzling passages of Scripture I've run across in all my life. What did Noah do after he got out of the ark? Well, the first thing he did after sacrificing to God in thanksgiving for saving him and his family was to plant a vineyard. And with the grapes from that vineyard he made wine. And with the wine he went and got wasted. Not just drunk, but sloppy drunk. Not just sloppy drunk, but hammered, wasted, blasted, bombed and tanked: he passes out half naked in his tent. The holiest man on the earth. A man far holier and better than I will ever be. A man willing to obey God to a degree I doubt I ever will got hammered and passed out half naked on the ground: committing a sin that I swore to myself long, long ago I would never commit. How could he fall like that?

And then one of Noah's sons comes along, sees Noah passed out in his indecency and makes fun of him to his brothers. Noah, upon finding out about it, curses him. And apparently, God agrees. This was another part of the story that I've never understood. I mean, the man was hammered. I don't know how many readers out there have ever seen their own father drunk, but speaking for myself, I have never hated my father more, nor respected him less, than when he was drunk. Now, I know being disrespectful to one's parents is bad, but was it really that bad? Did it really deserve a curse not just for himself but for his descendants. I mean, look at what Noah did. The guy got drunk and made a darn fool of himself. He sinned, for crying out loud. Doesn't Scripture say that drunkards won't go to heaven? Doesn't it say that we are not to get drunk but to be filled with the Spirit? Doesn't it say, "Do not drink wine to excess or let drunkenness go with you on your way." Yes, it does. So, from my perspective, in my experience, the punishment does not fit the crime. At all. If God is a just God, if Noah was a just man, how could his son and all his son's descendants get cursed for one lousy slip, when his dad had so grievously sinned himself? The double standard invokes a palpable sense of outrage in so many people, especially those whose parents have struggled with drink.

So, for me, this is where Krulwich's sermon helps make sense of the story in a way that I had never seen before. Noah didn't just go out and get hammered one day. He saw and experienced the death and destruction of the entire world. He watched as his neighbors and relatives made fun of him for decade upon decade upon decade as he built the ark. Then he watched as they were all put to death by God via drowning or starvation: them, and their teenagers, and their toddlers, and their babies and their children in the womb, and their pets and every friggin' animal on earth that wasn't in the ark. He sat there in his safe little boat while they all suffered and died: every blasted one of them. Innocent or guilty. Past the age of reason, below the age of reason and incapable at any age of reason. He watched as God killed them all, and almost the first thing he did after he got out of that ark was to plant a vineyard. And the first thing he did after harvesting those grapes was to make wine and get wasted.

And that brought to mind another passage of Scripture that has always bothered me.

[4] It is not for kings, O Lemuel,
it is not for kings to drink wine,
or for rulers to desire strong drink;
[5] lest they drink and forget what has been decreed,
and pervert the rights of all the afflicted.
[6] Give strong drink to him who is perishing,
and wine to those in bitter distress;
[7] let them drink and forget their poverty,
and remember their misery no more.
Proverbs 31: 4-7

Is there anyone with more misery to forget than Noah?

Yesterday, I thought Noah acted like a stupid fool and sinned against God when he went and got wasted. I thought his son got a pretty raw deal when he and all his descendants got cursed for mocking the old man. Today, I'm not so sure. Today, I'm wondering if whether the reason Noah went and got wasted was precisely because he was a good and holy man who suffered unimaginable anguish when God killed all his neighbors and relatives, guilty or innocent. Today, I'm wondering of the reason his son was cursed was because he wasn't a good and holy man and his own anguish at the suffering of others was shallow or nonexistent. Perhaps, he was bitter and angry for all the times he had been mocked for obeying his father and helping him out in the crazy task God had given to Noah. Whatever the case, it is certainly true that he didn't understand the depths of his own father's misery and pain.

And so I thank Robert Krulwich for helping to shed light on a series of stories which had always puzzled me. It is hard to make sense of the pain and suffering in our lives. Even in the light of the suffering of God's own Son, it is hard. And it is helpful for me to realize that even the Giants of the faith, whom I could never measure up to, struggled with the same things.

What do you think?


Kevin said...

Good post, Doug. I enjoyed reading this for many reasons. Chuckling how you described Noah's single mindedness in growing a vineyard to crush grapes to ferment them to get drunk. :) To blunt his sorrows of losing the world. :( And the dear analogy to your father. I sympathize. It is hard.

I haven't listened to Krulwich's sermon, but I think that "uncovering nakedness" was probably an idiom for incest, as Leviticus 20:11 (KJV) implies: "And the man that lieth with his father's wife hath uncovered his father's nakedness: both of them shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them."

Google has a bunch of links regarding that meaning. Among them is a good summary by Peter Leithart who I recognize from Scott's many posts.

Somewhere in my head I suspect there's more exegesis (or at least theories) on Noah that I've been exposed to, but I just recall pieces of it. It is quite an interesting story for all the moral reasons you list. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

Douglas said...


Thanks for sharing what you learned. I obviously should have dug a little deeper before posting. Krulwich didn't get into the curse of Ham/Canaan aspect and instead focused on Noah's actions, so it appears I misunderstood the text regarding Ham's actions.


Kevin said...

It's an easy mistake to make! Krulwich should have mentioned it. It's ridiculous how much contextual knowledge is required to understand parts of the Bible (not that I do; it's a tough book), and the ramifications it can have. If the Bible should be instructive, why is it so hard to understand in places? There's probably a "plain English" translation that would translate this idiom better, but it wouldn't be as authoritative or common a translation and it'd get other stuff wrong, as we all do.

But my rather odd point of this reply is to say that you don't need to dig deeper before posting. At least, that's what I tell myself when I think about writing something and then get overwhelmed by the research required to make a well supported post! :-) It's a surprisingly bad habit that I'm trying to break; "it is beneficial to learn in public, especially among friends" is my mantra. Plus, your excellent post was about more than just the idiom: it was about the morality of Noah and God and how it affected and relates to you, which is still valid and worth discussing.

But I'm clearly projecting here, so maybe it doesn't apply to you. In any case, thanks for keeping the blog going, Doug. :)

And to answer the final question in your original post which I never did, I agree with you -- it is remarkable how the Giants of our faith are so flawed. The OT doesn't often tell of paragons of perfection, as Jesus and even the Saints might be portrayed in the NT, but rather of repeatedly wrong people whose deepest failures often come AFTER their glorious realization and cooperation with God on various matters. The transformation is incomplete. It's hard to accept and understand; we fight against our own flaws so fiercely and we see those very same ones and maybe even other ones we think are simple in those we otherwise admire.

Reading the Bible, I think, "boy, Israel was stupid, look at all the miracles God did and they still grow apart from him," but it is so much more complex than that. And we can see that same complexity in our lives today and sometimes even the same clarity of hindsight. And, strangely, that makes the Bible and even God more real to me.

steviepinhead said...

I heartily agree with this part of Kevin's comment:
"you don't need to dig deeper before posting. At least, that's what I tell myself when I think about writing something and then get overwhelmed by the research required to make a well supported post! :-) It's a surprisingly bad habit that I'm trying to break; "it is beneficial to learn in public, especially among friends" is my mantra."

Sure, it would be great if we could always research what we feel like saying to the nth degree. But that's not always practically possible. Sincere reactions to the world around us have their own worth, even if we wind up having to retrench, retract, correct, or revise.

That's the essence of learning and growing. It's also (in my view) the very essence of our little blog: Embracing the Risk.

This is our safe place. We're among friends here. This is the very BEST place to be "wrong" (or to be less than completely, perfectly, well-researchedly "right").

purple_kangaroo said...

I wish Blogger had a "like" button for those last few comments. :)

steviepinhead said...


We blog for PK points...!

Kevin said...

Yes, we do! Stevie points, too. :)

Douglas said...

So, was this another example of dynamic equivalence being superior to more literal translations?

I relied on the RSV, which says:
[20] Noah was the first tiller of the soil. He planted a vineyard;
[21] and he drank of the wine, and became drunk, and lay uncovered in his tent.
[22] And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers outside.

In this translation, Noah laying uncovered is clearly a passive statement that does not imply in any way that someone else uncovered him. Also, the text simply says that Ham "saw" his fathers nakedness, not that he uncovered his father's nakedness.

Clearly, there is a lot more going on here. I'm not expert on this passage, as the original post shows. Questions I have include:
1) How explicit is the text that Ham uncovered his father's nakedness in the original texts.
2) How dependent are we on other interpretive texts in understanding this passage?

Personally, I tend to think that more literal translations are better because dynamic equivalence can obscure the biases and interpretive traditions of the translators. The NIV and NAB are famous for this. However, perhaps this is a time when I was ill-served by such a preference? I don't know and don't have time to look into it.

Kevin said...

I agree with you, Doug. I tend to prefer a more literal translation, too, along with further key interpretation in the margins or footnotes to help me understand the culture and context.

At least with literal, it should be easier to identify uses of an idiom or allusion like "uncover nakedness". People today also use allusions for sex and sexual parts, for the same reasons of propriety. cf. foot in the Bible.

Here's a comparison of the "uncover nakedness" allusion in Genesis and Leviticus between RSV and NIV:


Genesis 9:21,22 (RSV): and he drank of the wine, and became drunk, and lay uncovered in his tent. And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers outside.

Leviticus 18:6...(RSV): None of you shall approach any one near of kin to him to uncover nakedness. I am the LORD. You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father, which is the nakedness of your mother; she is your mother, you shall not uncover her nakedness. [...]

Leviticus 20:11 (RSV): The man who lies with his father's wife has uncovered his father's nakedness; both of them shall be put to death, their blood is upon them.


Genesis 9:21,22 (NIV): When he drank some of its wine, he became drunk and lay uncovered inside his tent. Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father's nakedness and told his two brothers outside.

Leviticus 18:6...(RSV): No one is to approach any close relative to have sexual relations. I am the LORD. Do not dishonor your father by having sexual relations with your mother. She is your mother; do not have relations with her. [...]

Leviticus 20:11 (NIV): If a man sleeps with his father's wife, he has dishonored his father. Both the man and the woman must be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.

You can see that the NIV translated the allusion in Leviticus as "sex" and "dishonor", but ignored the allusion in Genesis, so we can't see any connection or their mistake in thought-for-thought translation.

So, IMHO, you were better served in this case with the RSV. NIV dropped the ball and missed the thought.

I'll also comment a little more generally at Scott's Translating the Bible post that you reference.