Textual Harassment

This week’s sermon from First Presbyterian, Boonville.

The text is Genesis 9:18-28.

One of the scariest things about the Bible is how people can take one small part literally and out-of-context in order to make it say some pretty strange things.  We’re used to this in some ways.  Who hasn’t seen “John 3:16” posted on billboards or bumper stickers around town?  Thank goodness nobody (so far) has put Leviticus 26:29 on their bumper sticker: “You shall eat the flesh of your sons, and you shall eat the flesh of your daughters.”  Personally, that verse alone is enough to make me think twice before eating at any place that calls itself a “family restaurant”!

What would it be like if we took things that literally in our love poetry?

“Oh darling, your face reminds me of the morning sun!”

“Are you calling me a giant ball of gas?!”

It wouldn’t work!

And it doesn’t work with the Bible either.  The Bible is not a magic book filled with easy answers that can never be wrong.  Yet some Christians still seem to treat it as such.

I have a good friend who has struggled with clinical depression for over a decade.  Folks at church would tell her things like, “You should just remember what it says in Nehemiah 8:10: ‘the joy of the Lord is your strength.’”  These folks sincerely meant well, but their words did more harm than good.

My friend responded, “Ordering me around with Bible verses about joy will only make me feel more distant from God than I already do!”

Again, the Bible is not a magic book that’s full of easy and infallible answers.  It’s complicated and often confusing.  The divine Word comes to us in the midst of these human words.  You have to listen for it.  And sometimes, it can be very hard to hear.

Nowhere in the Bible is this truer than in the passage we read this morning from Genesis.  This is the real end of the Noah’s Ark story.  It’s the part they probably didn’t teach you about in Sunday school.  It’s pretty dark and disturbing, isn’t it?  There’s no divine intervention or moral to the story.  All we have is the image of Noah getting blackout drunk, Ham committing an unspeakable act of abuse against his father, and Noah then cursing his grandson Canaan for all time.  This story doesn’t lend itself to simplistic interpretation.

Many biblical scholars see this as a story that was made up in order to explain the origins of a certain international conflict.  In the ancient Middle East, there was an intense rivalry between Israelites and Canaanites.  They were competitors for the same piece of land (not unlike the modern-day conflict between Israelis and Palestinians).  Undoubtedly, young Hebrews would eventually come to the point of asking, “Why do we hate them so much, anyway?”  So the tribal elders produced this story as an answer to that question.  You may have noticed that Noah’s cursed grandson is named “Canaan”, just like the nation that was then in conflict with the Israelites.

Canaan was the son of Ham, who had other sons.  If you look at the list of their descendants in Genesis 10, you’ll see some other familiar names: Egypt, Babylon, Assyria, and the Philistines.  All of these (along with the Canaanites) were the ancient enemies of Israel.  And (according to the story) they all had Noah’s son Ham as their common ancestor.  The Israelites, on the other hand, claimed Noah’s other son, Shem, as their ancestor.  By the way, that’s where we get the words “Semitic” and “Anti-Semitic” in reference to Jewish people.  “Semitic” is derived from the name “Shem”.

So, for the purposes of this story, all of Israel’s national enemies are lumped into one convenient ethnic basket.  They can all be traced back to one person: Ham son of Noah.  You can see why the Israelite storytellers then had a vested interest in making this individual out to be as nasty and evil as possible.  So they have him commit this horrible act of violence against a member of his own family (who also happens to be a member of Israel’s family, according to the mythological genealogy in Genesis).

The text tells us that Ham “saw the nakedness of his father”.  This is more than just accidentally walking in on someone in the shower.  It’s a Hebrew euphemism that typically refers to some kind of shameful abuse.  Thankfully, the text spares us the gory details.

Ham, the ancestor of Israel’s enemies, is a perverted deviant while Shem, the ancestor of Israel, is the hero who tries to help his father.  As a result, Noah proclaims, “Cursed be Canaan [son of Ham]” and “Blessed by Yahweh my God be Shem”.  So, an ancient Hebrew reading this story would come away with the notion that “we are the good guys” and “they (our enemies) are the bad guys”.  The purpose of this story is to justify the hatred of one’s enemies.  It paints the ancestor of one’s rival as a monster who was less than human.  This hardly seems consistent with the ethic of love that Jesus taught!

What’s even more disturbing is the way this text was interpreted by Christians for several centuries.  You’re looking at the primary biblical text that was used to justify the institution of slavery until the 19th century.  Early commentators portrayed Ham as the ancestor of African people.  His African descendants, they said, bore the weight of Noah’s curse and were thus doomed to be the “lowest of slaves”.  Christians bought this line of twisted theology for hundreds of years.  Our African brothers and sisters suffered and died under the yoke of slavery because of it.  It wasn’t until the 19th century that Christians in the abolitionist movement came up with a new way to read and interpret the Bible.  Thankfully, many Christians in that day followed this new guiding light from the Holy Spirit.  In fact, some of them lived right here in our own community.  We know from historical records that the Underground Railroad ran right through our little village of Boonville as escaped slaves made their way toward freedom.

You may notice that, while I’ve said a lot about how this passage should not be interpreted, I haven’t said much about how this passage should be interpreted.  I’ll be honest: I’m not going to.  This is a difficult passage that defies easy answers.  If I were to make an attempt at interpreting this passage, it might go something like this:

This is a warning passage.  The hateful rhetoric in the book of Genesis eventually gave rise to brutal genocide of Canaanites in the book of Joshua.  In the same way, the Anti-Semitism of Adolf Hitler in the 1930s eventually gave rise to the Holocaust in the 1940s.  I might ask a question: What words are we using today that might become the basis for atrocities in the future?  But, like I said, I’m not going to give this particular Genesis passage a full treatment in this sermon.  Instead, I’m using it as a springboard to launch us into a discussion about how we understand and use the Bible itself.

If we treat the Bible like a magic book with easy and infallible answers, then we are bound to end up in some strange ideological territory.  This text alone has been used to justify everything from slavery to genocide.  The good news is that this is not the only way to read the Bible.  If we come to the text with open minds and hearts, we can trust that the Holy Spirit can and does still speak to us through these ancient words.  Even though the Bible was used to uphold the institution of slavery, let’s not forget that the abolitionists also drew their inspiration from the same Bible.  They just read it differently!

How can we be sure that we won’t end up reading the Bible in a way that oppresses and dehumanizes our fellow human beings?  What kinds of tools are out there to help us listen for the divine Word as it comes to us in midst of these human words?  There are several.

To name a few, I’m going to pull from a paper published by the Presbyterian Church back in in 1982.  It sets forth some general guidelines for understanding the authority and interpretation of the Bible.  These guidelines are printed on an insert in your bulletin.  I invite you to take it home with you and look it over in greater detail.  In the meantime, let’s read these guidelines out loud together as our Affirmation of Faith this morning:


The United Presbyterian Church in the USA, 1982

Recognize that Jesus Christ, the Redeemer, is the center of Scripture.  The redemptive activity of God is central to the entire Scripture.  The Old Testament themes of the covenant and the messiah testify to this activity.  In the center of the New Testament is Jesus Christ: the Word made flesh, the fulfillment of Israel’s messianic hope, and the promise of the Kingdom.  It is to Christ that the church witnesses.  When interpreting Scripture, keeping Christ in the center aids in evaluating the significance of the problems and controversies that always persist in the vigorous, historical life of the church.

Let the focus be on the plain text of Scripture, to the grammatical and historical context, rather than to allegory or subjective fantasy.

Depend on the guidance of the Holy Spirit in interpreting and applying God’s message.

Be guided by the doctrinal consensus of the church, which is the rule of faith.

Let all interpretations be in accord with the rule of love, the two-fold commandment to love God and to love our neighbor.

Remember that the interpretation of the Bible requires earnest study in order to establish the best text and to interpret the influence and cultural context in which the divine message has come.

Seek to interpret a particular passage of the Bible in light of all the Bible.

4 thoughts on “Textual Harassment

  1. How true! As a journalism student, I was taught the importance of keeping other people’s words in the proper perspective. My professors stressed that it was taboo to borrow others’ thoughts and words and use them in the wrong context. Now, as a teacher myself, I remind my English students about the same rules and firmly believe using words to twist meanings smacks of plagiarism. The same can be said about advertisers and marketers who sing the praises of “9 out of 10 doctors recommend…” Thanks for your blog. I enjoyed it!

  2. Pingback: Textual Harassment « Feeds « Theology of Ministry

  3. I like this. Not sure I agree entirely with this statement “Be guided by the doctrinal consensus of the church, which is the rule of faith,” in the 1982 document, just because the consensus has been wrong before, but in general it seems to be a good idea.

  4. Yeah, I had trouble with that one too. The way I reconciled it in my head was with the word “guided”. There are times in life when fidelity mandates dissent. Hence, abolitionism. I tend to think of scripture and tradition as “privileged partners” in theological conversation.

    I also struggle with the last one about “all the Bible”. That statement, while solidly grounded in the Reformed tradition, assumes the acceptance of a particular biblical metanarrative. Which metanarrative one chooses makes a huge difference in how one relates a particular passage to the whole. Most traditional theologies assume a Creation-Fall-Redemption metanarrative, while I tend to prefer one of ongoing Creation/Liberation.

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