Noah’s Shame, Noah’s Honor

Mark Olson at the First Things Evangel blog wonders how Genesis 6-9 would look in a parallel Bible, with the New Individualistic Version side-by-side with an old Honor and Shame Edition.

Do anthropological differences between our individualistic/wealth driven culture and the honor/shame culture of the Middle East (throughout the ages) matter when reading text? Take for example the story of Noah and the flood.

The context is about interpretation, but Noah is a character with more Honor/Shame qualities than even Olson acknowledges. Evangel’s recent interest in Noahic literature might gain from some other recent interest on that blog about Guilt.

Noah’s Shame

Noah, a man of the soil, proceeded to plant a vineyard. When he drank some of its wine, he became drunk and lay uncovered inside his tent. Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father’s nakedness and told his two brothers outside. But Shem and Japheth took a garment and laid it across their shoulders; then they walked in backward and covered their father’s nakedness. Their faces were turned the other way so that they would not see their father’s nakedness. When Noah awoke from his wine and found out what his youngest son had done to him, he said, Cursed be Canaan! …

Augustine, and some other Church Fathers, took an allegorical approach to this passage – Christ is Noah, and Christians are Shem and Japheth who honor Christ while hating the crime (nakedness) brought against him.

Whatever merit the Christological interpretation may have, for normal readers it is hard not to notice the importance of how shame would be dealt with, according to the “Noahic culture.” In the mind of Philip Rieff, the system of interdicts –  community proscriptions that are genuinely believed in – is culture itself, and the feelings of shame and guilt that we have result from our perceived transgressions of these norms. Again according to Rieff, the “therapeutic culture” that has flowed from the mind of Freud, and the epistemology of Weber, has destroyed those guilty feelings by undermining the interdictory power. The result is not merely a culture that doesn’t feel guilty, but a culture that is not really a culture – it gives no direction and therefore offers no group identity. Ergo, if man is naturally social, the rug is being pulled out from under him when he no longer feels shame.

The optimists among moderns, such as Marx, Sartre, and Althusser, might see an opportunity here for liberation, a chance to escape history. This belief was repudiated by their intellectual better, Freud, and the optimists have found themselves waiting patiently for Godot.

It is sometimes easy to forget what the norms are when we are following them, as when a man is clothed, and soberly plowing the field. But when we see him lying exposed and inebriated in the dirt, guilt may kick in. Whether or not it does kick in is the first question of our culture, and doubted more by those who wish to eradicate it than by those who do not think about it. The second question, when we feel shame or guilt, is whether we can recognize its opposite, honor – and, in our culturally embedded, linguistically chained, authority-affirming way, cover the shame and find an honor that points to something sacred. Like when a law points to a blessing.

1 Comment

  • April 29, 2010

    Adam D'Luzansky

    That is a challenging point to consider, that the lack of guilt in a society could indicate the lack of culture altogether.

    On the topic of guilt and whether or not it is felt, I could not help but share what I just read last night in Charles Spurgeon’s Morning and Evening selection for April 28th.

    Spurgeon was reflecting on Ezekiel 3:7 which declares: “All the house of Israel are impudent and hardhearted.”

    In filling out the meaning of impudence, Spurgeon has this to say:

    The first charge is impudence, or hardness of forehead, a want of holy shame, an unhallowed boldness in evil. Before my conversion, I could sin and feel no compunction, hear of my guilt and yet remain unhumbled, and even confess my iniquity and manifest no inward humiliation on account of it. For a sinner to go to God’s house and pretend to pray to him and praise him argues a brazen-facedness of the worst kind! Alas! since the day of my new birth I have doubted my Lord to his face, murmured unblushingly in his presence, worshipped before him in a slovenly manner, and sinned without bewailing myself concerning it. If my forehead were not as an adamant, harder than flint, I should have far more holy fear, and a far deeper contrition of spirit. Woe is me, I am one of the impudent house of Israel. [emphasis mine]