Genesis 9
Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
And God blessed Noah and his sons, and said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth.

(1) God blessed Noah.—The blessing bestowed upon Noah, the second father of mankind, is exactly parallel to that given to our first father in Genesis 1:28-29; Genesis 2:16-17, with a significant addition growing out of the history of the past. There is the same command to fill the world with human life, and the same promise that the fear of man shall rest upon the whole animated creation; but this grant of dominion is so extended that the animals are now given to man for his food. But just as there was a restriction as regards Adam’s food, the fruit of the tree of knowledge being refused him, so now there is a prohibition against the eating of blood. The addition is the sanctity given to human life, with the evident object of guarding against such a disruption of the human race as was the result of Cain’s murder of Abel. Thus, then, man starts afresh upon his task of subjugating the earth, with increased empire over the animal world, and with his own life more solemnly guarded and made secure.

But flesh with the life thereof, which is the blood thereof, shall ye not eat.
(4) But flesh. . . . —The words are remarkable. “Only flesh in its soul, its blood, ye shall not eat.” The Authorised Version is probably right in taking blood as in apposition to soul, which word means here the principle of animation, or that which causes an animal to live. This is God’s especial gift; for He alone can bestow upon that aggregation of solids and fluids which we call a body the secret principle of life. Of this hidden life the blood is the representative, and while man is permitted to have the body for his food, as being the mere vessel which contains this life, the gift itself must go back to God, and the blood as its symbol be treated with reverence.

And surely your blood of your lives will I require; at the hand of every beast will I require it, and at the hand of man; at the hand of every man's brother will I require the life of man.
(5) Your blood of your lives. . . . —This verse should be translated: “And surely your blood, which is for your souls, will I require (i.e., avenge); from every beast will I require it, and from man: even from a man’s brother will I require the soul of man,” as from Cain. “Your blood, which is for your souls,” means that it is the means for the maintenance of the animal life within them. As it is, then, the support of man’s life, au animal which sheds it becomes guilty, and must be slain; and still more must those animals be destroyed which prey upon man. Thus there is a command given for the extirpation of the carnivora at the time when the more peaceful animals had just been saved. The last clause literally is . . . at the hand of man, at the hand of one that is his brother, will I require the soul of man. This has nothing to do with the avenger of blood. The near kinsman is here the murderer, and the commandment requires that even such an one should not be spared.

Whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man.
(6) By man . . . —This penalty of life for life is not to be left to natural law, but man himself, in such a manner and under such safeguards as the civil law in each country shall order, is to execute the Divine command. And thus protected from violence, both of man and beast, and with all such terrible crimes for bidden as had polluted Adam’s beginning, Noah in peace and security is to commence afresh man’s great work upon earth.

And I, behold, I establish my covenant with you, and with your seed after you;
(9) I, behold, I establish my covenant . . . The covenant between God and man is thus solemnly introduced as Elohim’s personal act. No covenant is mentioned as existing between Elohim and the antediluvian world; but distinctly now there is a step onward in all respects, and man, in the renovated earth after the flood, is brought nearer to God by being admitted into covenant with Him. And not only is man included in the covenant, but, first, those animals which had been with Noah in the ark; and, secondly, those which had not been admitted there. For the words of Genesis 9:10 are: “From all that go out of the ark unto every beast of the earth” (the larger world). To such straits are those reduced who hold to the theory of a universal deluge, that Kalisch argues that it means the fish, as if fishes would be destroyed by a second flood any more than they were by the first. Plainly, the words imply the existence of a larger world-sphere than that in connection with Noah, and give the assurance that not only those now providentially preserved, but the animals everywhere, shall never again be in danger of a similar extinction.

And God said, This is the token of the covenant which I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for perpetual generations:
(12) This is the token of the covenant.—The word rendered “token” really means sign, and is a term that has met with very unfortunate treatment in our Version, especially in the New Testament, where—as, for instance, in St. John’s Gospel—it is too frequently translated miracle. Its meaning will be best seen by examining some of the places where it occurs: e.g., Genesis 17:11; Exodus 3:12; Exodus 12:13; Exodus 13:16; Numbers 17:10; Joshua 2:12; Job 21:29; Psalm 65:8; Psalm 86:17; Psalm 135:9; Isaiah 44:25. In the majority of these places the sign, or token, is some natural occurrence, but in its higher meaning it is a proof or indication of God’s immediate working. On proper occasions, therefore, it will be supernatural, because the proof of God’s direct agency will most fitly be some act such as God alone can accomplish. More frequently it is something natural. Thus the sign to the shepherds of the birth of a Saviour, who was “the anointed Jehovah” (Luke 2:11), was their finding in a manger a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, a thing of the most simple and ordinary kind. We may dismiss, then, all such curious speculations as that no rain fell before the flood, or that some condition was wanting necessary for producing this glorious symbol. What Noah needed was a guarantee and a memorial which, as often as rain occurred, would bring back to his thoughts the Divine promise; and such a memorial was best taken from the natural accompaniments of rain. We may further notice with Maimonides that the words are not, as in our version, “I do set,” but my how I have set in the cloud: that is, the bow which God set in the cloud on that day of creation in which He imposed upon air and water those laws which produce this phenomenon, is now to become the sign of a solemn compact made with man by God, whereby He gives man the assurance that neither himself nor his works shall ever again be swept away by a flood.

But a covenant is a contract between two parties; and what, we may ask, was the undertaking on man’s part? The Talmud enumerates several of the chief moral laws, which it supposes that Noah was now bound to observe. More truly it was a covenant of grace, just as that in Genesis 6:18 was one simply of mercy. What then might have been granted simply as a promise on God’s part is made into a covenant, not merely for man’s greater assurance, but also to indicate that it was irrevocable. Promises are revocable, and their fulfilment may depend upon man’s co-agency; a covenant is irrevocable, and under no circumstances will the earth again be destroyed by water.

The rainbow appears in the Chaldean Genesis, but in a heathenish manner:—

“From afar the great goddess (Istar) at her approach

Lifted up the mighty arches (i.e., the rainbow) which Anu

had created as his glory.

The crystal of those gods before me (i.e., the rainbow) never

may I forget.”—Chald. Gen., p. 287.

And the sons of Noah, that went forth of the ark, were Shem, and Ham, and Japheth: and Ham is the father of Canaan.
(18) Ham is the father of Canaan.—Though human life had thus begun again upon a firmer footing, yet evil and discord were soon to reappear, though in a milder form. No brother sheds a brother’s blood, but in the next generation sin breaks forth afresh, and the human family is disunited thereby, the descendants of Canaan taking the place of the Cainites—without indeed, their striking gifts, but nevertheless as a race foremost in trade and commerce. After enumerating the three sons of Noah, we are told: “Of ‘—more correctly, from—“them was the whole earth overspread,” that is, peopled.

And Noah began to be an husbandman, and he planted a vineyard:
(20, 21) Noah began to be an husbandman.—Rather, Noah, being a husbandman (Heb., a man of the adâmâh), began to plant a vineyard. Noah had always been a husbandman: it was the cultivation of the vine, still abundant in Armenia, that was new. Scarcely aware, perhaps, of the intoxicating qualities of the juice which he had allowed to ferment, he drank to excess, and became the first example of the shameful effects of intemperance.

And he drank of the wine, and was drunken; and he was uncovered within his tent.
(21) He was uncovered is, literally, he uncovered himself. It was no accident, but a wilful breach of modesty.

And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brethren without.
(22, 23) Ham . . . saw . . . and told.—The sin lay not in seeing, which might be unintentional, but in telling, especially if his purpose was to ridicule his father. His brothers, with filial piety, “take a garment,” the loose outer robe or cloak enveloping the whole body, and with reverent delicacy walk backwards, and lay it upon their father’s person.

And Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done unto him.
(24) Noah . . . knew what his younger son had done unto him.—Heb., his son, the little one. This can only mean his youngest son. So it is applied to Benjamin in Genesis 42:34; Genesis 43:29, and to David in 1Samuel 16:11, where the words literally are, there re- maineth yet the little one. Now Ham was not the youngest son, but Japheth; and it is not Ham who is cursed, but Canaan. So far from Ham being accursed, his descendants were building mighty cities, such as Egyptian Thebes, Nineveh, and Babylon, were rearing palaces, digging canals, organising governments, and founding empires at a time when the descendants of Japheth were wandering over Europe with no better weapons than implements of flint and bone. The application of the curse to Ham seems to have been suggested to commentators by the degradation of the African race in modern times, and especially by the prevalence of slavery: but anciently the converse was the case, and for centuries the Egyptians, a Hamite race, made the Israelites serve them.

We must not extend, therefore, to Ham the curse pronounced upon Canaan. But what had Canaan done to deserve it? As the son, the little one, was not Ham, so certainly it was not Japheth, but probably it was Canaan. He was the youngest son of Ham, and in Hebrew “son” is occasionally used for grandson (Genesis 29:5; Genesis 31:55), and so he might be described as Noah’s youngest son, being the youngest member of his family. Origen quotes a tradition that Canaan was the first who saw Noah’s exposure, and that he told it to his father. Aben Ezra says that Canaan had done worse than mock, though the Scripture does not in words reveal his crime. With some such surmise we must be content; and the meaning seems to be, “Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what (Canaan) his youngest son (or grandson) had done unto him; and it was a deed so shameless that he said, ‘Cursed be Canaan.’”

And he said, Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren.
(25) Cursed be Canaan.—The prophecy of Noah takes the form of a poem, like Lamech’s boast in Genesis 4. In it Ham is passed over in silence, as though his unfilial conduct, recorded in Genesis 9:22, made him unworthy of a blessing, while it was not so wicked as to bring on him a curse. The whole weight of Noah’s displeasure falls on Canaan, whose degraded position among the nations is thrice insisted upon.

A servant of servants. That is, the most abject of slaves. This was fulfilled in the conquest of Canaau by Joshua, but the race had nevertheless a great future before it. The Hittites were one of the foremost nations of antiquity, and the Sido-nians, Tyrians, and Phœnicians were such famous traders, that Canaanite is in our version translated merchant, without even a note in the margin (e.g., Proverbs 31:24). But the whole race was enslaved by one of the most terrible and degrading forms of idolatry, and as Shem’s blessing is religious, so possibly is Canaan’s curse. Lenormant (Manual of Ancient History of the East, 2:219) says of their religion, “No other people ever rivalled them in the mixture of bloodshed and debauchery with which they thought to honour the Deity.” He also quotes Creuzer, who says, “The Canaanite religion silenced all the best feelings of human nature, degraded men’s minds by a superstition alternately cruel and profligate, and we may seek in vain for any influence for good it could have exercised on the nation.”

And he said, Blessed be the LORD God of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant.
(26) Blessed be Jehovah.—The greatness of Shem’s blessing is shown by its taking the form of a hymn of praise to Jehovah, the personal God; and the patriarch’s fervent outburst of thanksgiving was a presage of the hallelujahs that were to arise unto God from all mankind for the birth of that son of Shem in whom all nations were to be blessed. The following words should be translated, And let Canaan be their servant, the servant both of Shem and Japheth. (See margin.)

God shall enlarge Japheth, and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant.
(27) God shall enlarge Japheth.—First, the Deity is here Elohim, following upon Jehovah in the preceding verse, and that with extraordinary exactness. Jehovah has never been the special name of the Deity worshipped by the race of Japheth, though doubtless it is the Greek Zeus and the Latin Jove. But it soon became the proper title of God in covenant with the race of Shem. It is plainly impossible to divide this most ancient poem into Elohistic and Jehovistic sections, and the theory, however plausible occasionally, fails in a crucial place like this. Next, there is a play upon the name of Japheth, or rather, Yepheth, our translators having made the same mistake as in changing Hebel into Abel. The Hebrew is Yapheth Elohim l’Yepheth, “God enlarge the enlarger” (not “God shall enlarge”). While, then, it is the special blessing of Shem that through him the voice of thanksgiving is to ascend to Jehovah, the God of grace; it is Elohim, the God of nature and of the universe, who gives to Japheth wide extension and the most numerous posterity. If the most ancient civilisation and the earliest empires in Egypt and on the Tigris were Hamite, the great world- powers of history, the Chaldean, the Medo-Persian, the Greek and Roman, the Hindoo, were all of Japhetic origin, as are also the modern rulers of mankind.

He shall dwell in the tents of Shem.—(Rather, let him dwell). In one sense Shem now dwells in the tents of Japheth: for the Jews, the noblest representatives of Shem, dwell dispersed in Aryan countries; and except in the Arabian peninsula, once Cushite, the Shemites have no home of their own. But the religious privileges of their race now belong to the family of Japheth. Carried by Jewish missionaries, like St. Paul, throughout the Roman world, they have become the property of the leading members of the Aryan race; and thus Japheth takes possession of the tents which by right of primogeniture belonged to Shem. For “to dwell in the tents of Shem” is not so much to share them as to own them; and if the Jews retain some degree of faith, it has lost with them all expansive power; while the right interpretation of their Scriptures, and as well the maintenance as the propagation of the religion of their Messiah, are now in the hands of the descendants of Japheth. Yet Shem does not lose all pre-eminence: for again we read—

Canaan shall be his servant (rather, their).—If Shem lose the foremost place of primogeniture, he is still a brother, and Canaan but a slave.

And all the days of Noah were nine hundred and fifty years: and he died.
(29) All the days of Noah.—While Noah attained to the same age as the antediluvian patriarchs, 950 years, human life was fast diminishing. The whole life-time of Shem was 600 years; that of Peleg, a few generations afterwards, only 239. After him only one man, Terah, is described as living more than 200 years, and of his age there is great doubt. (See Note on Genesis 11:32.) Thus before Shem’s death the age of man was rapidly shortening, and things were settling down to that condition in which they are set before us in profane literature.

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

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