Thursday, October 21, 2010

Hamming it Up

My Bible study has me in the book of Genesis right now. Yes, I'm starting at the very beginning. I think I mentioned I'm using The Daily Message: Through the Bible in One Year. I'm currently learning about Noah. Did you know that the animals weren't just two-by-two? God actually requested seven pairs of the "clean" animals and one pair of the "unclean" animals. Fascinating!

Sometimes, in reading the Bible, you come across a story that doesn't make sense. No matter how many times you read it, somehow not all the information is there. Fortunately, it's not typically the pivotal stories. They're little background stories. 

The one that got me the other day was the story of Ham and Noah. Ham (also called Canaan) is Noah's son. Noah apparently overdid it on the wine one night (proof that even the most righteous of men make mistakes!) and passed out nekked in his tent. The next part of the story goes like this:

Noah, a farmer, was the first to plant a vineyard. He drank from its wine, got drunk and passed out, naked in his tent. Ham, the father of Canaan, saw that his father was naked and told his two brothers who were outside the tent. Shem and Japheth took a cloak, held it between them from their shoulders, walked backward and covered their father's nakedness, keeping their faces turned away so they did not see their father's exposed body. (Genesis 9:20-23, The Message)

That's a bummer for Ham. No one wants to walk in on a nekked parent. That's upsetting. It doesn't say that Ham mocked him or went out to his brothers and made fun of his dad. But in the next verses, Noah lays a whammy of a curse on poor Ham:

Cursed be Canaan! A slave of slaves,
      a slave to his brothers!
   Blessed be 
God, the God of Shem,
      but Canaan shall be his slave.
   God prosper Japheth,
      living spaciously in the tents of Shem.
   But Canaan shall be his slave. (Genesis 9:25-27, The Message)

Yikes! Harsh! Maybe Noah was just embarrassed. Maybe he overreacted. But everyone knows Old Testament curses are nothing to be trifled with. Adam and Eve, Caan and Abel, Isaac and Esau. Stuff happens when you curse a person! (But for fun, try this Biblical Curse Generator.)

I want more information! I want to know what Ham did that made Noah so mad. Is there more to the story? I've checked the Hebrew, but there's no other information to be found. Furthermore, what am I supposed to do with this? What lesson do I learn from this? Not to overreact? Not to accidentally walk in on a nekked person? Not to drink in excess? Nobody's perfect? 

I think one lesson for this verse is how important context is when studying the Bible. While I struggle to discover what God's Word has for me in this little gem, I can easily research what other people have seen in it. Some people have seen it as a rationalization for slavery of all kinds—the enslavement of the Canaanites by Israel and the enslavement of Africans, whom someone decided were descendants of Ham. I fail to see any proof of that one. Any enslaved person isn't a descendant of Ham.

There are two ways to read the Bible: one way is called exegesis, and the other way is called eisegesis. Exegesis is going into the Bible and coming out with the truth of what the Bible says. It is a critical interpretation of the Bible. Eisegesis is going into the Bible with your own agenda and reading things into the text that aren't there. Proponents of slavery tried to find any Biblical proof they could that slavery was supported by God. While slavery has existed for thousands of years, nothing in the Bible says, "Own slaves." It dictates how a person is supposed to treat slaves and how slaves are supposed to respond to their owners, but Biblical slavery is very different from the transatlantic slave trade. One of the main differences is that Biblical-era slavery wasn't based on race.

I guess what I can take from the story of Ham and Noah is the importance of coming to the Bible with the intention of learning what God has to say to us, not what I want God to say. I want God to say that I'm going to be rich and beautiful because I'm a believer. It's not in the Bible. I want God to say that everything in my life is going to work out the way I want it to. It's not in there. My agenda and God's agenda don't always line up, but they should—by aligning myself with God. And I can guarantee that his will always work out better than mine.

God has promised us a lot in his Word, and he's fulfilled his promises in Christ. Shouldn't that be enough for any of us? 


  1. Hi Rachel,

    Thanks for sharing your experiences this blog. I do find it interesting to read about the role of Christianity in your life.

    This entry gave me pause, though. I'm not sure it's a good idea to downplay the Bible's approval of slavery. A few problematic passages that I've seen:

    Leviticus 25:44-46 says, "You may purchase male or female slaves from among the foreigners who live among you." It continues, "You may also purchase the children of such resident foreigners." And in case there was ambiguity about these people being slaves: "You may treat them as your property, passing them on to your children as a permanent inheritance."

    Exodus 21:2-6, on the other hand, explains how if you have a male Hebrew slave, he serves for six years and then you have to let him go. But if he got married while he was your slave, his wife and any kids they may have had still belong to you.

    The next verse in Exodus is: "When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she will not be freed at the end of six years as the men are." The next few verses after that give some of the specifics for managing a female slave, including the injunction that if the owner or his son marries her, then they actually have treat her as a spouse, rather than as a slave.

    And finally versus 20-21: "When a man strikes his male or female slave with a rod so hard that the slave dies under his hand, he shall be punished. If, however, the slave survives for a day or two, he is not to be punished, since the slave is his own property."

    Agenda or not, I find it hard to argue that the proponents of slavery in the United States got it wrong. The Bible DOES explicitly sanction the ownership of other human beings -- clearing indicating the slaves' status as property.

    (And though this is quibbling, there are some racial distinctions -- i.e., whether or not the slave is Hebrew -- if not as clearcut as there were in the U.S.)

    I hope it's OK for me to comment here, and once again, thank you for sharing your thoughts and experiences with the rest of us.


  2. I so agree that reading the Bible in context is vital ... and I admit to being guilty of often coming to my study of the Bible with an agenda or a desire for a "feel good" message. You are absolutely right -- His agenda is always so much more wise than mine.

  3. Thank you for your insight, Eve! I'm sorry I didn't see your comment until just now (my spam folder has been receiving my notifications).

    Like I said in my post, most Biblical references to slavery are rules and regulations. Frequently throughout the Old Testament, God had to make rules for the things people were doing, since they didn't adhere to HIS rules. The verses you cited indicate that slavery was a way of life, but it doesn't necessarily endorse it as something God wants.

    I should also clarify that when I say slavery based on "race," I mean skin color. That's what made the transatlantic slave trade different from Biblical slavery. While people have always had differences and thought negatively of people from other regions (often based on traditions and religious beliefs or lack thereof), the transatlantic slave trade was based primarily on skin color and a feeling of superiority due to that trait (other rationalizations came later). Also, the cruelty of the slave trade finds approval nowhere in the Bible.

    So, while the Bible make mentions of it and gives rules concerning it, I don't think it explicitly condones slavery. What bothers me most is that people reach back to the OT to condone slavery, yet ignore the things Paul says in the New Testament:

    For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. (I Corinthians 12:13)

    There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatian 3:28)

    Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all. (Colossians 3:11)

    Those verses indicate that, even if one is in slavery, they are still loved by God and capable of receiving his grace. That's certainly not a truth American slaveholders upheld!

    Thank you for your comments, Eve. You've given me a lot to think about!



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