Back to Business as Usual: Calvin on Gen. 9

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The flood waters having receded, and Noah and family having disembarked from the ark, it was back to business as usual on earth in a number of discernable ways.

Thus we see, firstly, the restitution of the creation ordinance of marriage (Gen. 9.1), and, at least by Calvin's reckoning, a rather remarkable population boom in the first few centuries of post-flood human history. Noah's family was directed to "recover the lawful use of marriage," and so to rest assured that "the care of producing offspring" remained "pleasing to [God]." Accordingly, they returned to the pattern of marrying and procreating that characterized their pre-flood days; indeed, they did so with notable success, producing "within one hundred and fifty years" an "astonishing increase" of offspring, which "doubtless" resulted in "unbounded joy" for Noah, for it spoke clearly of "divine favor towards him."

We see, secondly, a return to work. "Noah, ...though now an old man, returned to the culture of the fields, and to his former labors." The resumption of his farming career must have felt rather anti-climactic to Noah, given the nature of his recent adventures. But work (along with rest/worship) is part of the normal pattern which God established for man even before the fall (Gen. 2.15). Calvin concedes that Noah may have added 'viticulturist' to his job description for the first time following the flood ("it is... uncertain whether he had been a vine-dresser or not") but he is not willing, being after all a good Frenchman, to concede that viticulture as such was strictly a post-flood pursuit. "It does not appear to me probable that the fruit of the vine, which excels all others, should have remained neglected and unprofitable [before the flood]."

We see, thirdly, a return to eating and drinking, a return to the enjoyment of the fruits of human work. Calvin refuses to see the permission to eat animals in Gen. 9.3 as something unique to the post-flood setting: "God here does not bestow upon men more than he had previously given." Men were, in other words, "permitted" from the very first "to kill wild beasts" for the very specific purposes of making "garments and tents" and padding their diet with protein. However, no license was given, before or after the flood, for superfluous shedding of "the innocent blood of cattle." As already indicated, Calvin believes God's "most precious gift" of wine was likewise entrusted to men from the very beginning, and so merely re-entrusted to men following the flood. Both gifts of God -- food and drink -- are, of course, susceptible to "shameful abuse." Neither gift should be despised on that or any other grounds.

We see, finally, a return to man doing what (fallen) man does, and God responding as God does. We see, in other words, man sinning (and sometimes, by God's grace, repenting), and God responding to man's sin in judgment, mercy, and promise. The flood was, of course, no ultimate resolution of sin. God's own post-flood observation that "every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood" (Gen. 8.21) quickly proves concretely true in a series of incidents. Noah, first of all, engages in the "filthy and detestable crime [of] drunkenness" and prostrates himself "naked on the ground, so as to become a laughing-stock to all." Then Ham, who "must have been of a wicked, perverse, and crooked disposition, ... not only took pleasure in his father's shame, but wished to expose him to his brethren." Calvin supposes a deeper motive than simple scorn to Ham's mockery of his father: "It is probable that he thus perversely insulted his father, for the purpose of acquiring for himself the license of sinning with impunity. We see many such at this day, who most studiously pry into the faults of holy and pious men, in order that without shame they may precipitate themselves into all iniquity."

In the face of such (continuing) human sin, God remains God, and responds as God responds. Indeed, God responds to human sin even before man perpetuates any (recorded) concrete sinful acts after the flood. He responds with his covenant -- that is, his promise not to destroy the earth with flood-waters again, even though man's sin be great. God's word of promise serves, Calvin notes, as a "thousand bolts and bars" restraining the waters of his wrath, "lest they should break forth to destroy us." For man's greater confidence in God's mercy, God assigns a "new office" to "the celestial arch which had before existed naturally;" the rainbow henceforth serves as a "sign and pledge" of God's promise to restrain his own anger at human impiety.

In more immediate response to the instances of sin just noted, God responds in judgment and promise. Judgment is leveled against Canaan and the Canaanites, descendants of Ham, for Ham's actions. Calvin restrains us from overmuch speculation about why Canaan bears the brunt of cursing for Ham's sin. God is never, he notes, "angry with the innocent, because even they themselves are found in fault." Beyond that we must "remember that the judgments of God are not in vain called 'a great deep,' and that it would be a degrading thing for God, before whose tribunal we all must one day stand, to be subjected to our judgment." And so "let every one of us, conscious of his own infirmity, learn rather to ascribe praise to God's justice, than plunge, with insane audacity, into the profound abyss."

Of course, more remarkable than God's sentence of condemnation, whatever its own peculiarities, is God's promise -- directly in the face of man's sin -- of a hope and salvation far greater than that which Noah and his family had recently enjoyed. In this post-flood setting where God is obviously keen to re-establish so much of what pertained to the original creation, he is most eager to repeat the promise of the Seed of the Woman who would one day come to reverse the consequences of that sin which wreaked such havoc on the original creation (Gen. 3:15).

That Seed and his saving work bear proleptic fruit, of course, in the free pardon granted Noah for his drunken escapade (a pardon which can be deduced, Calvin argues, from Noah's faith and the prophetic role granted Noah immediately after his recovery in Gen. 9.25). The concrete repetition of the promise as such occurs in Gen. 9.26-27, where Shem and Japheth are blessed. The blessing of Shem anticipates the eventual blessing of Abraham, through whom the Seed would come, and in whom all nations would themselves be blessed (Gen. 12). The blessing of Japheth points, in Calvin's judgment, to the gathering of "the Gentiles and the Jews... together in one faith," the joining together of "scattered sheep to join his flock" in the singular "covenant of life." "It is truly no common support of our faith," Calvin observes, "that the calling of the Gentiles is not only decreed in the eternal counsel of God, but is openly declared by the mouth of the Patriarch; lest we should think it to have happened suddenly, or by chance, that the inheritance of eternal life was offered generally to all."

It was, then, truly business as usual after the flood, for both good and ill. Sinful man returned to his ways of marrying and making babies, eating and drinking, working and (for some) worshiping, and, of course, sinning. God remained God, and so returned to the business of pursuing sinners with his "paternal love," sustaining them by the word of his promise in the hope of eternal life with him.

Aaron Clay Denlinger is professor of church history and historical theology at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, Florida.
Posted January 7, 2015 @ 3:33 PM by Aaron Denlinger


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