Pete Enns & The Bible for Normal People

Uh, That Sounds Familiar: Adam and Noah in Genesis

adam and noah

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works.Tweets at @peteenns.

Some stories in Genesis overlap a lot. Or maybe a better way of putting it is the stories echo each other.

Specifically, I am talking about Adam and Noah. 

Look at the basic plot of the Adam story:

  1. Yahweh plants a garden.
  2. Adam and Eve consume something, some fruit, with the bad consequences.
  3. Adam and Eve are naked.
  4. Adam and Eve receive clothing to cover their nakedness
  5. Adam and Eve’s eyes are opened and they perceive their nakedness.
  6. The curse is pronounced upon the perpetrators.

These selected portions of the story of Adam show up again in the story of Noah. 

So here is what we find in the story of Noah:

  1. Noah plants an orchard.
  2. Noah consumes wine and becomes drunk.
  3. Noah gets naked in his tent.
  4. Noah’s nakedness is covered with a blanket.
  5. Noah awoke from his sleep and perceives what has happened.
  6. A curse is pronounced.

Stories that echo each other don’t need to do so every point. If they did then they would simply be the same story. But if enough elements from one story remind you of elements of another, it might be worth pausing for a moment and thinking about how the stories are connected. 

So the fact that Yahweh plants a garden and Noah plants an orchard are clearly quite different—except for the fact that both stories feature something planted a garden-like setting accompanied by a bad result.

Likewise, Adam and Eve finally perceive they’ve been naked all along, whereas Noah gets naked because he’s hammered. Also, Yahweh clothes Adam and Eve, whereas Noah’s sons cover Noah’s nakedness. Nevertheless, nakedness features prominently in both. 

The same holds for the curse in both stories. God pronounces the curse on those who ate the forbidden fruit, whereas Noah pronounces a curse on his innocent grandson Canaan.

So what might we conclude from these echoes? Well, that’s the question, and these stories don’t answer them for us. But they seem designed to invite us to put to words why these two stories look so similar.

My answer, which I’ve gleaned this over the years from who knows how many books, is that the Noah story is the second “fall” story. 

I don’t mean “fall” in the full-fledged evangelical sense of the word. And neither do I mean that the “fall” in the two stories is the same. 

Adam’s act brought, among other things, mortality to humanity, whereas Noah’s grandson Canaan is alone cursed. Again, the purpose of pointing out echoes is not to say, “Hey, they are the same,” but to see patterns between these stories.

The story of Cain and Abel is already an earlier pattern of the Adam story. It is vital to see that Adam’s fall is not the cause of Cain’s murder of his brother. Rather, if the two stories are held side-by-side, one can quickly see Cain is explicitly presented as a repeat of the Adam story. Cain is given the same choice of obedience or disobedience, just like Adam, and was capable of choosing the good, just like Adam.

The story of Noah continues this pattern, though now the focus is not on the immediate consequences of the bad actions, but of their long-term consequences.

The specific long-term consequences of the Noah story concerns the curse pronounced upon Canaan. And if you think about it, this is a rather unexpected —even bizarre— move in the logic of this story.

The offending act is that one of Noah’s sons, Ham, “uncovers his father’s nakedness.” Now what this phrase means exactly is up for some debate, and the way this and similar phrases are used elsewhere in the Old Testament suggests that there might be some sexual overtones here. 

But without getting bogged down in that issue, it is striking that Noah does not pronounce a curse on the perpetrator himself, Ham, but on one of Ham’s sons, Canaan, who in the logic of the story is not even born yet. At least there’s no indication that any of the sons have children at this point. These children are not mentioned until later.

Be that as it may, it should raise an eyebrow or two that Noah pronounces a curse not on the guilty party, and not even on all of Ham’s descendants, but on one of them—Canaan.

And we all know who–or what–Canaan is: Israel’s despised enemies who are to be exterminated, or nearly so, so the Israelites can take over their land, and who will be a persistent thorn in their side, tempting them away from worship of Yahweh for deities like Baal and Asherah (see the books of 1 and 2 Kings).

It is quite a reveal to see Canaan mentioned here, of all people, and it is hardly a casual detail to give. Inside the mention of Canaan is so abrupt and makes so little logical sense, it seems designed to lift our eyes off of the story in order to seek an explanation. 

“Canaan” ties this pattern we’ve been looking at to a far-off future event—at least far off in terms of the logic of the narrative when Canaanites will be a problem. Historically speaking, there is little question for me that the Noah story, with its curse pronounced upon Canaan, was written against the backdrop of Israel’s world during the time of the monarchy, at least in part as a defending their claim to the land. 

But all these possible interpretations aside, all of which can be debated, what drives this conversation for me are the echoes between the stories of Adam and Noah—two primordial figures whose stories began well but wind up having serious long-term consequences.

Get smarter about the Bible and stuff.

Get insider updates + articles + podcast + more.