How is the reiteration of “Be fruitful, and multiply” (Gen 9:1) significant?

It serves two functions. First, it underscores the notion that Noah and his family are blessed by presiding over a new Earth, as it were a new creation; it was after the introduction of man to the first creation that God gave him the same blessing. Notice this serves not just as a command but as a blessing, the profundity of which becomes only clearer between this verse and others concerning the sanctity of life, leading up to Gen 9:7 where “be fruitful, and multiply” is again reiterated. The second function is to make a general statement of approval of the notion that human life on earth is to be replenished, even though God has just stated grimly that “the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth.” (Gen 8:21)

Why only now should it be that “the fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth” (Gen 9:2)?

The observation seems to imply that animals were not previously afraid of man. This seems unlikely, however, not only from a scientific point of view but from a narrative one; there was no hint of it earlier, and the suggestion does not seem to serve any obvious role in God’s plan. So I propose to look for a different way to understand the statement, and it is not hard to find one. Along with “be fruitful, and multiply” in Gen 1:28, God bade man to “replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion” over animal creation. And here in the present passage there is a similar injunction to fruitfulness as well as a statement that “every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you” (Gen 9:3). So perhaps this is just another way to state that man has dominion over the beasts of the earth; fearing man, they are able to be dominated by man. So the claim, I suggest, is not that man and beast were previously on more polite terms, nor that man had somehow become more dreadful or that animals had become more timid, but instead a reiteration has license to rule the natural world as God’s representative.

If “every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you” (Gen 9:3), does that not mean that there was no unclean meat?

So it appears, and this is despite a statement not long before (Gen 7:2) that some animals were “clean” (טָהוֹר, tahor) and others not. Some commentators attribute this to two different authors of the text (the P, or priestly, text would talk about clean versus unclean animals, while the Gen 9 verses would by from something like the J, or Yahwist, source. This, of course, undermines the credibility of the text. Is there another sensible way to reconcile the text? Perhaps this way: Moses would describe tame livestock raised by Noah as “clean,” even though Noah might not; he might attribute those words to God, and who knows, perhaps God employed them with Noah. But times were simpler, and God was permitting all food sources to them, so that they had the best chance to succeed in life.

So does the text imply that Noah, and mankind, were vegetarians before Gen 9:3 (“every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you”)?

I have already discussed this question above, but let us re-examine it briefly in light of this passage. I think it is tolerably clear from what we said earlier that, probably, men were not just vegetarians. The Cainites were surely not above eating meat. But in that case, why say the animals “shall be meat for you; even as the green herb have I given you all things”? That is a fair question. After all, the text seems to be an allusion to this: “Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat.” (Gen 1:29) Perhaps it also refers to “in sorrow shalt thou eat of [the ground] all the days of thy life” (Gen 3:17), which God told to Adam; there, too, there is no reference to animal meat. Could it be that God did not approve of meat eating, even though he tolerated it, but that here, now he officially sanctioned it on grounds that man would certainly continue in his practice, just as he would continue to have multiple wives? That would imply that God’s laws become laxer in order to accommodate was once regarded as sin; and that sounds unlikely. I think it is fair to say that God always did approve of meat eating, and the reason he says man may eat meat now, whereas he did not before, is that in the times before the Fall, man did not eat meat because he did not have to. Now, essentially, the difficulty of life in a fallen world has made meat-eating a practical necessity. God specifically blesses meat-eating because man is beginning a renewed life in this fallen world, in which meat-eating is necessary.

Why does God so specifically forbid the eating of blood (Gen 9:4)? How does this, and other verses in this passage, point up the sacredness of life?

Blood is not just a symbol of life (as in the word, “lifeblood”; see the next question), it carries essential, life-giving oxygen and nutrients throughout the body, and death comes when it stops coursing through the body. It is, of course, a symbolic act to avoid the blood. But why is it so important to avoid it? After all, in order to eat meat, one must kill an animal, ending the actual life of which the blood is merely a component and symbol. To answer, let us consider several other points related to life in the passage: (1) Noah and family are invited to reproduce human life; (2) animals will fear for their lives before Noah, as well they should, since (3) Noah is given authority over the lives of those animals, any of which could be eaten; (4) but life of men could not be taken (and this is put in terms of “man’s blood”), and (5) whoever does so take it, forfeits his own life (and will pay with his own blood). The upshot, clearly, is that life per se is deeply sacred, and if it should be that man may eat meat in this fallen world, he must never forget the sacredness of the life given up for that meat, even if it is merely animal life. Such respect for the sacredness of life is symbolically expressed in this injunction against eating blood.

Is it not the case that the prohibition on blood first appears here, and that this is because meat is first explicitly permitted here (Gen 9:4)?

This is, I believe, precisely correct. Again, while man might have begun eating meat just after the Fall, he was doing so without the explicit permission of God. God had not given his explicit permission in Gen 1 because the Fall had not yet happened; food from plants was at that time doubtless much more nutritious and tasty. But now, again, because the world is starting anew, and God is passing out the new rules of the game, only now does he acknowledge that eating meat is permitted. But if he is going to permit that, he had better (so goes the thinking) forbid the eating of blood, lest man think that is ever permitted. It is not, because (see above) the lifeblood is respected deeply as a symbol of the sacredness of life—of all life that draws breath. The importance of treating the blood as sacred is underlined more explicitly in Lev 17:10-14, which is well worth reviewing in full:

And whatsoever man there be of the house of Israel, or of the strangers that sojourn among you, that eateth any manner of blood; I will even set my face against that soul that eateth blood, and will cut him off from among his people. For the life of the flesh is in the blood: and I have given it to you upon the altar to make an atonement for your souls: for it is the blood that maketh an atonement for the soul. Therefore I said unto the children of Israel, No soul of you shall eat blood, neither shall any stranger that sojourneth among you eat blood. And whatsoever man there be of the children of Israel, or of the strangers that sojourn among you, which hunteth and catcheth any beast or fowl that may be eaten; he shall even pour out the blood thereof, and cover it with dust. For it is the life of all flesh; the blood of it is for the life thereof: therefore I said unto the children of Israel, Ye shall eat the blood of no manner of flesh: for the life of all flesh is the blood thereof: whosoever eateth it shall be cut off.

Are such laws as that against eating blood (Gen 9:4) and murder (9:5-6) the first legislation in the world? Was there no human law before this?

On the one hand, God had set rules and requirements for man previously; insofar as any command of God constitutes law, then there was law before this. Moreover, there was something like human law in the form of Lamech’s bold and shameless declaration, “If Cain is avenged sevenfold, Then Lamech seventy-sevenfold” (4:24). Some commentators portray this as a kind of law; if Lamech could back up his boast, as he probably could, then it could have been something like a (deviant, unjust) law. But on the other hand, the laws set forth here are indeed the first divinely-promulgated law which was nonetheless to be enforced by man. In this regard, it is the original of the sorts of laws given to Moses.

Why does God pass off responsibility of law enforcement to man (Gen 9:5)?

God personally punished the first crimes, much as he gave the first devastating punishment to all mankind in the Flood, and for that matter, much as he destroyed Nadab and Abihu as examples to future careless priests. Notice in every case that God is incredibly strict (on which, see below). What is interesting in every case is that, while God initially is the law enforcer, in time he passes the responsibility to man. So—why? To begin with, in each case when God passes off responsibility to enforce law, he specifically deputizes man, though only properly righteous and consecrated man. In this way, he appears to be training man to be fellow judges and executioners with him. Now, as to why he does not simply continue in this original role, it is probably not as if the role were beneath him; rather, this is a rite of passage as man leaves his nonage. As man is created in the image of God, more righteous or godly sort of men (if that is permitted to say) ought to be able to serve as judges over other men. God is building his church and the inhabitants of the future kingdom of God. After being placed in authority over Israel by Yahweh, Moses specifically deputizes literal judges over Israel (see Ex 18). Future men will be made, explicitly, judges of a much holier kingdom, of the twelve tribes of Israel in the Kingdom of God—as Jesus says of the twelve apostles. “And I appoint unto you a kingdom, as my Father hath appointed unto me; that ye may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” (Luke 22:29-30) Practice would seem to be in order.

God has by now certainly proven himself to be quite strict, as in, just for example, ordaining capital punishment for murder (Gen 9:5-6). How and why, in his original examples of law enforcement, is God initially very strict?

Let us review his strictness. Consider the examples. For their original sin of eating a piece of forbidden fruit, God exiles Adam and Eve from the Garden (but not entirely from the presence of God), and assigns them limited lives of toil and pain. He punishes Cain’s murder with exile from the presence of God and God’s people. He destroys mankind for their unmitigated wickedness, except for Noah, who walked with God, and his family. Though it was Noah who issued the curse on Canaan, it seems God did carry out the sentence (as the Bible’s history books, especially Joshua, make very clear). And when man outrageously attempted to build a tower to heaven, God confused human languages and scattered the people. Later, when the Pharaoh refuses to obey God and honor God’s people, God devastates the land. And when two of the first priests fail to strictly follow God’s rituals, he destroys them. All of these examples, without exception, show God’s first punishments to be surprisingly strict, indeed, harsh. And yet, also in every case, many later examples of the same (and worse) crimes are not touched by God. I believe God literally made an example of the first in each case: the first sin, the first murder, the first corrupt society, the first disrespect of parents (or perhaps the first incest), the first organized occult attempt to displace God, the first oppression of his chosen people, and the first disrespect of priestly duties. God demonstrates in this way both his high standards and his sovereignty. Afterward, it is mostly whole nations (and their leaders) that God personally punishes, and often the punishment still takes place at the hands of other nations.

If God so cherishes life, why does he require capital punishment (Gen 9:5-6)?

An answer is given right in the text: “For in the image of God he made man.” Severe punishment for murder is meted out because man bears the image of God. Still, we can ask: do not murderers also bear the image of God? Why are they killed, then? The answer, clearly, must be that time and again in the Bible, lawbreakers lose their rights. Murderers lose their right to live. Adam lost the right to live in the Garden, and to immortality. Cain lost the right to be in the presence of God and live among God’s people. The evil of nearly all of humanity caused them to lose the right to live. And that is just the first six chapters of the Bible; the theme goes on to the end. Moreover, the famous articulation of lex talionis, “eye for eye” (Ex 21:24), occurs in a distinguished place, i.e., just one chapter after the Ten Commandments. God is very far from being a gentle, tolerant liberal. God cherishes life, it is fair to say, indeed; so, naturally, he hates that which is so hostile to life. But more precisely, it is ultimately not lives per se but lives that serves righteous life that God loves.

What is the theme of Gen 9:1-7?

There is indeed an interesting, unifying theme. To wit, we must reproduce, feed up, and cherish life; naturally, we must not destroy life, except in jealous defense of it.

What is the meaning and force of “covenant” (Gen 9:9)?

It is not merely an agreement, because God’s covenants do not necessarily require anything of man, as here. It is also unlike an agreement in that there is no negotiation between the parties. That is, God hands each covenant down to man as a fait accompli; God’s covenants are all announced unilaterally by him. Usually man is required to do something, and there is punishment or loss of rights if he does not do that; but here, man has no requirements and it is just God declaring his intentions. A covenant also establishes, so to speak, the context in which God and man are thereafter to interact. It may include commands, laws, rewards, punishments, blessings, and curses—these all or mostly couched in the form of promises. You might call covenants “God’s parameters for man.”

Is the content of the covenant at Gen 9:11 identical to the promise given to Noah at Gen 8:21? What is the relationship between the two similar statements?

This seems to be a fairly typical example of Biblical repetition, but the difference, as Henry pointed out, is that in the first passage, what “the Lord said in his heart” is, remarkably enough, revealed to us, while the second passage says what he said to Noah. Both specify that God will never again destroy man in a Flood. But in fact, the Gen 8 divine self-reflection is more elaborate than the Gen 9 covenant, except that the covenant includes the bit about the rainbow. It is possible that there were indeed two separate oral narratives (i.e., texts written to be read) written down by Moses and placed one after the other, and like the toledoths, they featured repetition because they overlapped. The first is backward-looking, letting the eight remaining people know they need not fear something so terrible happening again. The second is forward-looking, being placed in the context of new instructions to “be fruitful,” and of the first law.

Why is the symbol of the covenant a rainbow (Gen 9:13-16)?

The “bow in the cloud” image is repeated three times here. It is explicitly called a “sign,” which is remarkable in that it proves once for all—if proof were really needed—that God does use signs or symbols as memorials used in teaching. Of course, such signs can be found throughout the Bible. It is an appropriate symbol since rainbows generally appear when the rain ends. That we are to look to this as a symbol that God will never again flood the Earth suggests that the rains will always end; if the rainbow will always come out, then the rains will not go on so long as to wipe everyone out again.

Did God create a rainbow at this point?

One commentator (Ross) takes the bold view that since no rain had fallen before the Flood (Gen 2:5), there had been no rainbows before this. But this is quite a stretch; the text only says that, at some time before Adam was created and before there were any plants (itself relevant to say because Adam was to be a tiller of the soil), there had been no rain. In short, that text hardly establishes that there was no rain between Gen 2 and Gen 6 (for literally hundreds and hundreds of years). My view is that surely God did not create rainbows at this point; the laws of physics do not change, so we must not understand “I do set my bow in the cloud” in this way. After all, the rainbow need not have been created at that moment for God’s statement to be true. The point might just as well be stated this way: “Henceforth, whenever you see a rainbow, remember this promise.” Besides, God always knew this would happen; you might say the laws of physics were so arranged as to create rainbows, and it is now that he announces their purpose.

What is the significance of calling the Noachian covenant an “everlasting covenant” (Gen 9:16)?

This is the first of many instances of this phrase. The Hebrew עוֹלָם, olam, is glossed as “long duration, antiquity, futurity.” That it cannot be an “eternal” covenant seems clear if the implication is that God will never again destroy the earth—because he will, after all, at the end of time. Moreover, some things that are called “everlasting covenants” in the text do fail to apply to certain descendants of those with whom they are made. For example, after some generations, distant descendants of the Jews will not be bound by the Mosaic covenant because the temple will be destroyed, or because a new covenant replaces the old. Hence “everlasting” would seem to be better rendered “long-lived” or “indefinitely long.” This is not to deny that God does not have any number of, indeed, eternal covenants. It is just that an olam covenant is not necessarily eternal. It is just long-lived.

The Canaanite line of Ham is soon to be cursed; who else is said to be in that line Gen (9:18)?

We need only look in the genealogy which we are about to read: “And the sons of Ham; Cush [Ethiopia], and Mizraim [Egypt], and Phut [Libya], and Canaan.” (Gen 10:6) Interestingly, together, these are the southern enemies of Israel. Of course the Canaanites will, in the future, become the wicked inhabitants of the Promised Land. As a people they are to be extirpated for their sins, which will become as monstrous and widespread as those of the antediluvians.

Noah’s behavior (Gen 9:20-21) is treated as quite shameful. Why?

First, getting quite drunk is portrayed as sinful, or at least very foolish, in a number of places. For example: “Wine is a mocker, strong drink is raging: and whosoever is deceived thereby is not wise.” (Prov 20:1) But while nakedness is itself is no sin, public exposure (even being “uncovered within his tent”) is treated as shameful in the Mosaic code. (And throughout, we must remember that the author of Genesis was the author of the Mosaic code; and that God was the real author throughout.) Noah’s nakedness while drunk raises the question why he was naked; there may be some implication of sexual impropriety; see next question.

What was the nature of Ham’s sin (Gen 9:22)?

Was it really sinful or wrong to catch a sight of one’s father naked at all, let alone when drunk? First, note that Lev 18:7 makes it unlawful to “uncover” the “nakedness of thy father,” although, to be fair, the text does not say Ham did this, but only that Ham caught sight of Noah’s uncovered body. Still, one view has it that this is a euphemism for incest. But this interpretation is not, strictly speaking, required by the text. Perhaps merely being able to see his uncovered father was the shameful thing. This seems unlikely to us today, because for us, since family members of the same sex regularly accidentally see each other’s nakedness, the boys merely seeing their father’s naked body was probably not unusual or shameful. But Ross claims, “To the ancients…even seeing one’s father naked was a breach of family ethic.” If so, then some euphemism is meant. It is also entirely possible that Ham’s sin is not sexual but rather the fact that he has dishonored his father by mocking him to his brothers.

Why was Canaan cursed for the sin of his father Ham (Gen 9:25)?

We are not told why. After all, Ham did have other sons, and in just a few verses (Gen 10:6), we will see in the genealogy that (apparently) Canaan was the youngest; though perhaps he was listed last due to his shame. In any event, we are forced to conclude that there was some special reason, known to Noah but unknown to us. Since the curse is generational, it might very well be incest (or be some lesser perversion that develops into incest), a thing known to run in families. Moreover, in Ex 18, God forbids the entering Israelites to behave “after the doings of the land of Canaan, whither I bring you” (Ex 18:3), and he then rattles off a long and disgusting list of varieties of incest, child rape, child sacrifice, etc., and concludes the list of horrors by saying, “Defile not ye yourselves in any of these things: for in all these the nations are defiled which I cast out before you” (Ex 18:24). Henry aptly points out that in saying this, Moses was partly justifying for the sake of the Israelites the justice to be meted out to the Canaanites—the justice which God was presently ordering, and which the Israelites were to administer.

What are we to make of the blessings Noah gives to Shem and Japheth (Gen 9:25-27)?

Particularly since they immediately precede the report of Noah’s death (though it might have occurred hundreds of years after this incident), this recalls the prophesies of the twelve tribes given by Jacob (Gen 49). They also recollect the contrasting blessing and curse given by Isaac to Jacob and Esau (Gen 27). In any event, due to the shame of his father, Canaan (or rather, his line) will, much later, become a “servant of servants” (in a few later Bible instances) of the Israelites. It is particularly the line of Shem, which will eventually include the Israelites, which will be master over the Canaanites. Again, this might serve for Moses as encouragement to the invading Israelites. As for Japheth, he will “dwell in the tents of Shem.” The meaning of this is obscure, some believing it to mean that descendants of Japheth (such as the Greeks and Hebrews) would in time occupy Semite (Israelite) land; some like Henry even maintain it is a prophesy of the new covenant, insofar as Gentiles will come to be united through the Gospel with the Jews.

Can the story of the shame of Noah and curse of Canaan (Gen 9:18-29) be compared to the story of the Garden and the Fall (Gen 2-3)?

This is a view taken by Sailhamer, for example. The parallels are indeed numerous. God and Noah both do planting: the Garden and a vineyard. Adam and Eve wickedly ate the forbidden fruit, while Noah drank too much of the fruit of the vine. As a result, Adam and Eve recognized their nakedness, while Noah became naked. They made themselves clothing (and God later made them better clothing); the more righteous brothers covered their father. The wrongdoers were confronted (by God, and by Noah). Finally, there followed curses, which affect the more wicked descendants of the father, as well as blessings. Clearly, the stories exhibit a similar sort of structure, and they do have some themes in common. I am not totally convinced that the similarities are intentional. Perhaps the biggest difference is that the story of the Fall—a word significant and unique, so that we capitalize it—is about the fall of man from his original sinlessness. Meanwhile, Noah’s and Ham’s sins are not quite a second fall, because they are already certainly fallen.

Do not such similarities (just mentioned, between Gen 9:18-29 and Gen 2-3) suggest contrivance by the author, rather than faithfulness to some events?

How likely is it that the events were designed by God to match each other? This might turn out to be a general problem: when the carefully contrived details of a narrative seem best explained by choices made by the author, that would certainly seem to indicate that the narrative was literally contrived, i.e., fictional and mythic, rather than actual. I do not believe we have seen many other examples so far; still, the symmetrical structure of the weeks and months given in the Flood, discussed above (q.v.), are another example. Yet my approach in this case is slightly different. We need only observe that the events in both cases here flow naturally, and that adequately explains their similarity. It was inevitable that Adam, and Noah, would sin; after that happened, they would (at some point, in the case of Noah) be caught, and the nakedness in both case just happens to be integral to the story. That a mixture of merciful blessing and just punishment follows is perfectly natural. Now, it is possible that, out of the sins of Noah, this one was selected because it involved his nakedness that resulted from consuming the fruit of the vine, this in turn because it recapitulates the symbology of the Fall (the fruit of temptation and the nakedness before God that follows sin). It is also possible that God permitted Ham to be tempted to gaze upon his father and mock him to his brothers, because this prophetic lesson would result.

Why punish the son, or even worse, all the descendants (as at Gen 9:24-27)?

“Have we not seen by now numerous examples,” a critic asks, “of a sort of mean-spirited stereotyping by God? Why support this unfair treatment based on their accidental family grouping? Is this not merely a primitive sort of tribal bigotry, which is being put into the person of the Holy God?” How are we to answer this question? Early, primitive people were very tribal and bigoted; as with other unfortunate practices, such as wars of conquest, slavery, and polygamy, words in a holy book were sadly not going to extirpate these practices. Only time, under the gentle guiding hand of religion, would have a chance to affect that. You will notice here that the curse is given by Noah, not by God, who does not mention it in justifying the invasion of Canaan and the extirpation of the Canaanites. God has his own reasons, which we will return to. Note also that Cain’s entire family line was not specifically cursed; only Cain was. But Cain’s bad habits happened to give rise to bad descendants. So, thus far, we do not have any examples of God himself engaging in anything like “mean-spirited stereotyping.” But we will have to come back to this and similar issues later.

What, really is wrong with a naturalistic explanation?

“But wait,” continues a skeptical critic. “Throughout these answers you have constructed a lot of Just So Stories to fit the hypothesis that God exists and acted as described in Genesis. But are not all the puzzling details of the text much more elegantly explained by saying, ‘Clearly, it was all simply made up?’ Can you submit any non-question-begging reasons against such a naturalistic approach?” Typically, nothing at all is wrong with naturalistic explanations. Elegant and naturalistic explanations are usually the best because the universe works according to rationally describable natural laws—when God is not involved. When God is involved in the events and working “wonders,” as the Bible puts it, then of course naturalistic explanations are not appropriate. Since the Bible concerns the movement of God in the universe, obviously it features many supernatural explanations. If you do not believe the Bible, then just as obviously the preferable explanation of the details of the text is, “Clearly, it was all simply made up.” And if you are genuinely not sure, if you are torn, then the mere availability of naturalistic explanations for how the text reads is not going to settle the matter. In short, it is actually the skeptic who begs the question if he infers from “A naturalistic explanation for how the text reads is available” to “The Bible is just carefully contrived fiction.”