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Sunday, October 09, 2011

Noah's Legacy--A Sermon

Noah’s Legacy
John Shuck

(Part of the Fall Sermon Series on the Myths of Genesis)

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

October 9, 2011

Genesis 9:18-29

The sons of Noah who went out of the ark were Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Ham was the father of Canaan. These three were the sons of Noah; and from these the whole earth was peopled.

Noah, a man of the soil, was the first to plant a vineyard. He drank some of the wine and became drunk, and he lay uncovered in his tent. And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers outside. Then Shem and Japheth took a garment, laid it on both their shoulders, and walked backwards and covered the nakedness of their father; their faces were turned away, and they did not see their father’s nakedness. When Noah awoke from his wine and knew what his youngest son had done to him, he said,

‘Cursed be Canaan;
lowest of slaves shall he be to his brothers.’
He also said,
‘Blessed by the Lord my God be Shem;
and let Canaan be his slave.
May God make space for Japheth,
and let him live in the tents of Shem;
and let Canaan be his slave.’

After the flood Noah lived for three hundred and fifty years. All the days of Noah were nine hundred and fifty years; and he died.


And thus ends a nice story to tell the children at bedtime.
“It is with justice, we believe, that the condition of slavery is the result of sin. And this is why we do not find the word ‘slave’ in any part of Scripture until righteous Noah branded the sin of his son with this name. It is a name, therefore, introduced by sin and not by nature.” [Jack Rogers, Jesus, the Bible and Homosexuality, p. 19]
That was Augustine in his book The City of God.

Robert Lewis Dabney, a Presbyterian minister from 1865 to 1892 wrote:
“In Genesis ix. 25-27, Ham the son of Noah, is guilty of an unfilial crime. His posterity are condemned with him and share the penalty to this day.” [Rogers, 24]
Dabney believed that people of African descent were a degraded race and should not be intermingled with the pure white race. He believed that Ham’s “sin” was somehow sexual in nature, “the indecent and unnatural sin of Ham” was the reason for the enslavement of his offspring.

Up through the 19th century (and in many circles still today) folks read the history of the Bible as the history of the world. As the descendants of the three sons of Noah populated the earth, the descendants of Ham were believed to be the dark-skinned people.

The Bible mixed with pseudo-science allowed Dabney to write:
“But while we believe that ‘God made of one blood all nations of men to dwell under the whole heavens.’ We know that the African has become, according to a well-known law of natural history, by the manifold influences of the ages, a different, fixed species of the race, separated from the white man by traits, bodily , mental and moral almost as rigid and permanent as those of genus.” [Rogers, 22-23]
Lest we think these are the rantings of a marginalized fool, know that Dabney was a Presbyterian clergyman and professor at Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Virginia. He was one of the most educated and respected men of his time.

I remember when in seminary, I decided to write a paper on this passage about Noah’s curse. I found in the basement of the library at Princeton, book after book of sermons before the Civil War and shortly after in which Noah’s curse was used to defend slavery and later to deny ordination to the ministry of African Americans.

Abolitionists had an uphill battle. The Bible was against them. James Henley Thornwell, a theologian at Columbia Theological Seminary, a Presbyterian seminary near Atlanta, argued that the Scriptures clearly did not condemn slavery. He wrote:
“Slavery is no new thing….It has not only existed for ages in the world, but it has existed, under every dispensation of the covenant of grace, in the Church of God.” [Rogers, 21]
I use this example when I get invited to speak to classes at ETSU. I get invited because I am a minister and I am on the board of PFLAG. I speak to classes in the social work department or human services and where ever I am invited. The Bible is usually mentioned. I get asked something along these lines:
“Doesn’t the Bible clearly condemn homosexuality?”
I say that the Bible says a lot of things about many different topics and often many different things about the same topic. I tell the class about Noah’s curse and how this text was used to support slavery and after the War Between the States to deny rights and equality to African Americans and to justify racial superiority and segregation.

I say that no one today argues that we need to bring back slavery. Yet it was so clear that that was what the Bible said just a few generations ago. The texts of the Bible haven’t changed, but how we read them has changed. From the time of Augustine through the 19th century, slavery was seen as a part of God’s plan. Slavery was the result of sin, to be sure, but sin on the part of the ancestors of the enslaved not the sin of the slave masters.

While those who want to use the Bible to fortify their own prejudices and deny equality to LGBT people may have a loud and popular voice, it is a voice that is becoming increasingly shrill and hysterical. We are learning to read old texts with new eyes.

Just because someone quotes the Bible, it doesn’t mean they own it. It certainly doesn’t mean they know the “clear meaning” of the text. I suggest that the Bible does not belong to religious people or to believers or to the church. The Bible is a product of Western Culture and secular people have as much right to it as anyone.

I advocate taking the Bible off of its holy pedestal. Call it no longer “Word of God”. Remove it from its shrine on the coffee table or the brass stand. Then do something radical. Read it. Read it with understanding. Read it critically. Read it aware of the influence it has had over our culture over the centuries, indeed, the world. Read it with rage at the injustices done in its name. Read it with admiration at the genius, compassion and courage it has inspired. It is a mixed legacy.

Biblical scholar and peace activist, Walter Wink, made the best quote I have read yet about the Bible. He understands the reality that the Bible is a mixed bag. He wrote:
"I listen intently to the Book. But I do not acquiesce in it. I rail at it. I make accusations. I censure it for endorsing patriarchalism, violence, anti-Judaism, homophobia, and slavery. It rails back at me, accusing me of greed, presumption, narcissism, and cowardice. We wrestle. We roll on the ground, neither of us capitulating, until it wounds my thigh with “new-ancient” words. And the Holy Spirit is right there the whole time, strengthening us both."
The Bible is the centerpiece of Western Culture. What you don’t know can and will be used against you. The Bible has been and continues to be a powerful tool, even a weapon. It is a good idea to know how to defend against those who do use it against you. It is also good to know it for what it says about those of us (and if you speak English that is all of us) who are products of its stories.

We have been shaped by the Bible just by living. When we become conscious of the impact these myths and stories have on us, we can make choices about whether or not we want to continue living them. We can make choices about how we want to interpret them rather than hand their interpretation over to the Pat Robertsons and the Creationists and the homophobians and the Tea Partiers. The Book is too powerful and too important simply to give it away.

I am going to say a little about Noah and his myth, but I want to say a couple of things about the Bible first. Last week I said that we can think of God in three ways,
  • First, as a symbol for our personal sacred experience, the God to whom we may pray, for instance.
  • Second, as theory or theology. This is the God we try to explain.
  • Third, as a character in a sacred text. This is the God we find in the Bible or the Qur'an.
This may sound radical, but it isn’t. This third God is created. As Shakespeare created Hamlet, as the author of Epic of Gilgamesh created Ishtar and Anu, so the biblical authors created Elohim and Adonai. This is the interesting question, I think.

What kind of people create Elohim and Adonai?

The Bible is a human book. What else could it be? So is the Qur’an. So is the Book of Mormon. So is the Bhagavad Gita and the Dhammapada and any other book you can name. None of them, probably, are of supernatural origin.

That view, I think, values humanity highly. We often hear or have said ourselves, “Well, I am only human” or we repeat the famous phrase, “To err is human, to forgive, divine” or “little ones to him belong, they are weak, but he is strong.” Or we notice something in ourselves or others and say, “That is so good, wonderful, amazing, that it couldn’t be human; it has to be God.” I say wait a second. Human beings created all of these stories, including the stories of the gods and of God.

19th century philosopher, Ludwig Feurbach, knew this. He said we project all of our virtues onto a supernatural being. Goodness, mercy, compassion, justice—we give it away. We project these virtues onto a big screen. OK. But don’t leave them there. Take them back, Feurbach said. They are yours. You are compassionate, just, and good.

Jesus tried to give it back. He said to those who had ears to listen,
“You are the light of the world….You are the salt of the earth.”
What did we do? We couldn’t handle the responsibility and we made a god out of him. We said in effect,
“We would rather call you good and worship you than take the responsibility to be good ourselves.”
We create God in our image then we forgot we did so, and imagined that God created us in his image.

It is also true that we project qualities that might not be so virtuous onto God. I am getting closer to the Noah story. Elohim and Adonai are both revealed in that story. That is because in the Noah story, the two names for God, Elohim and Adonai, come from two traditions that are blended. Blended is not quite the right world. Spliced is better. An editor took two or perhaps even more traditions and spliced them together.

We can see the seams when we read the Noah story. For example how many animals did Noah take aboard? Two of each kind, right? Well, that is according to one tradition. Another tradition has him take seven pairs of the “clean” animals and seven pairs of the birds.

The Noah story lives in our imagination. In this imagination is a rainbow and a dove with an olive branch, and gentle old Noah and his floating zoo. There is a children’s song about Noah putting the animals twosy twosy in the arky arky.

But underneath is a terrifying story. I was aware of this even as a child. It is a story of destruction and of death. It is a story of judgment and rage.
“I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created—people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.” [Genesis 6:7]
This is the raging father, knocking dishes off the table, throwing things around the house. This is the dictator who wants a pure race and the religious zealot who wishes to destroy the infidels or create a pure church and clean out its leaven.

Human beings created this violent Adonai and Elohim—this creator who is also destroyer. He is the product of the apocalyptic imagination. He is the wrath within projected out. We may be familiar with this wrath. We may know that feeling when things don’t go our way that those evil others are the fault. Destroy them. Get rid of them and it will be better. We are going to defeat terrorism and destroy evil.

If you destroy everything you don’t have a story, so Noah is selected to carry on.

This story, of course, is older than the Bible. The oldest written story is the Epic of Gilgamesh. It is a great story. I recommend the translation by Stephen Mitchell. It is filled with sex and violence and fun.

Gilgamesh, the king of Uruk, in, yes Iraq, searches for immortality. At the end of the story he finally runs into Utnapishtim who is the only mortal to achieve immortality. The god Ea grants it to Utnapishtim, because he outsmarts the gods and saves creation. When the great gods want to destroy humanity with a flood, Utnapishtim gets wind of the plan by another god, Ea.

Ea tells Utnapishtim to build a boat. He does and he gathers his family and the animals and he survives. It rains and floods. Finally, after the rain stops, he sends out a raven and a dove to find signs of dry land. When he lands he burns a sacrifice and the gods smell the odor of it.

Gilgamesh never does achieve immortality. At one point, Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh that there is a plant under water that will be the source of eternal youth. Gilgamesh fetches it, but on his return home he leaves it on the shore when he swims in the lake and a snake eats it and it sheds its skin. Thus the snake stole immortality from Gilgamesh.

Many of the images and accounts in Gilgamesh were borrowed by the storytellers who created the myths of Genesis. One of the best cures for biblical literalism is to read Gilgamesh and see that the stories in the Bible are not original, but borrowed from earlier traditions and then shaped over time.

Unlike his counterpart Utnapishtim, Noah does not gain immortality. Noah makes a sacrifice and Adonai enjoys the pleasing odor. Adonai says,
“I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done.” [Genesis 8:21]
The he puts the rainbow in the sky to remind himself not to wipe out humanity.

So, why did God do it in the first place? What did it solve? The people are evil before and evil after. God in this story reflects our own reality. We go to war to destroy evil and find out that all we ended up doing was destroying.

After that, Noah needs a drink. He learns the art of cultivating vineyards and he makes wine. Now we know the rest of the story. It is possible that this story, especially the cursing of Canaan, was a justification for the forced labor of the indigenous people, the Canaanites, who Solomon conscripted. The story may have been edited to for that purpose.

As I mentioned at the beginning of the sermon, this story was used to justify slavery of African Americans in this country. It has had a gruesome legacy. There is hardly anything redeemable in it.

Noah curses his son (or his grandson) because he felt his honor was tarnished. This is kind of like certain interpretations of the Christian god whose honor is tarnished by human sin and so needs to kill everyone. Instead he curses and kills his son, Jesus, as a scapegoat. That is the legacy of patriarchy. At all costs, preserve the honor of the father. In the words of George Bush, Jr., “Saddam tried to kill my dad.” We are still there.

Way back in seminary when I worked on this story of Noah, I heard of another interpretation. It was from a woman who had an alcoholic father who would go into rages. She found in Ham and in Canaan, her own story. Everyone in the family had a role in dealing with the father’s alcoholism.

In the biblical story, Shem and Japheth covered their father. This was a symbol for covering over the problem, keeping the family secrets, preserving Daddy’s honor and ultimately enabling him in his alcoholism. In this reading, Ham is the whistleblower, the one who told the truth. He was the one who said, “Dad is naked and drunk. We ought to deal with this.” For his truth-telling, he received the father’s curse. He was the bad kid. And so it is in many dysfunctional families. So is the legacy of patriarchy.

Preaching on bad texts is a challenge. I want to inspire and give you something to take home. A cursing hungover Noah who starts slavery is hardly that. My point today isn’t about Noah as much as how we approach and read the Bible. I find it liberating to read the Bible free of the constraint of dogma. Letting the Bible be a human book, a collection of stories told by a particular people, a book that contains both warts and wisdom, allows us freedom to enter into these stories in ways we couldn’t when told how we were supposed to read them.

When we allow it to be a human book we may find that we connect with it more than when it is the church’s book of holy writ. When we remove its halo we may find that it has less power to do damage and can instead be a resource we can use to discover our humanity.

Amen.
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