Sometime after the floodwaters receded and the ground had dried, Noah decided to plant a vineyard and drink of its fruit. It’s not hard to imagine how months and months at sea would turn someone toward being a man of the soil. Nor is it hard to understand how survivor’s guilt over the almost-global extinction of the human race would lead Noah to try and drown his sorrows in the bottom of a bottle. But that’s what he did. And that’s when things took a turn for the worse.
One night when Noah lay passed out naked on the ground, one of his sons, Ham, sees him and goes and tells his brothers about it. His point in telling them isn’t simply to inform but to gossip and expose. If social media were around back then, he would have posted about it, brazenly and foolishly mocking his own dad. Not his most shining moment as a son, or as a human being. But his brothers, Shem and Japheth take a different approach. Instead of furthering the shame, they delete the post from their feeds, lay a blanket on their shoulders, and walk backward toward their father to cover him without seeing his nakedness. When Noah wakes up and finds out everything that happened, in embarrassment and anger he curses Ham, but he blesses Shem and Japheth (Gen 9:18-27).
In Christian theology, stories like this have a point. There are often two sides to them, but the sides aren’t just a simple right and wrong. Genesis 9 has no obvious moral lesson. “Don’t see your dad naked” or “Don’t make fun of people” seem ridiculously out of place, especially at this juncture in the biblical storyline. Instead, the two sides represent two ways of relating to God through the two primary covenants of the Bible.
Ham represents the first covenant, the Old Testament, which is why he comes first in the story even though he’s the youngest. He personifies the thing that exposes, uncovers, and makes us want to run for cover, that is, the (unkeepable) law. If we didn’t realize we were naked already, the law makes it crystal clear, as Adam and Eve find out the hard way when they sinfully reach for the tree of the law in Genesis 3, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Turns out that grasping for impossible standards (and the tireless attempt at proving ourselves that comes with it) isn’t as fun as it first sounds, so they immediately hide from God.
But Shem and Japheth represent the second covenant, the New Testament. They represent the covering of our shame. They work against exposure, not for it. It’s no surprise that genealogically Jesus comes from the line of Shem, not Ham, because he came to save us by the work of his nail-pierced hands, not to thrust the work back onto our shoulders. And his grace, we learn, isn’t preconditioned on our spiritual (or physical) sobriety, but like Noah we are covered on our worst days, not our best — even when we’re least expecting it. Grace has a way of surprising us like that because it has the audacity to be given apart from works, not in response to them. God says somewhere in Romans, “I revealed myself to those who did not ask for me.” That’s good news for the humble, but bad news for those who like to keep score.
This is the clash of ideologies in Genesis 9. Like these brothers who fought with each other as they grew up, so do the testaments they represent. Law and grace are oil and water. Better yet: mirror and blanket. They treat us differently. And like Shem is the better brother, so is the New Testament the better covenant (Heb 8:6), because it’s built on a savior whose love covers a multitude of sins (1 Pet 4:8).