How Noah brought home the bacon: the riddle of Genesis 5:29

I love senior thesis time at Wyoming Catholic College. Students jump in over their heads, take on bold ideas, thrash around, and eventually ask their teachers the most wonderful, fundamental, and challenging questions. This year one of the women is writing about how the Eucharist relates to the importance of food in general—how cool is that?—and found herself dealing with the passage in Genesis 9 where Noah receives permission to eat meat. Her thesis director sent her to me for help, and….

Well, it’s time to expose myself. For years now I have read that passage in a way I have never seen in any commentary and yet in a way which seems more obvious to me with time. Never having an occasion to talk about it, I have never bothered to submit my interpretation to scrutiny and possible refutation. Maybe I have been deluded all this time? Maybe I’m off the map? Or maybe, just maybe, I’m on to something? Judge for yourself. This write-up is for Alexis.Our quest begins with Genesis 5:29, an odd verse that commentators tend to leave alone. When Noah is born, his father names him and says, “Out of the ground which the LORD has cursed this one shall bring us relief from our work and from the toil of our hands.” If you pause over this verse at all, you’ll find yourself asking, How will Noah do that? He survives a flood, but—where does he do anything about “the toil of our hands”?

The sin of Adam

Before we can figure out how Noah brings relief from a curse on the ground, we have to find out what that curse is. It turns out there are two curses on the ground.

The first comes in with the sin of Adam. In Genesis 3:17-19, God says to Adam:

Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, “You shall not eat of it,” cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth to you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

From this point on, it’s going to be hard to get plants to grow in the ground for people to eat. If you hate veggies anyway, you may be thinking, “So?” The reason it’s such a big deal is that mankind has permission to eat plants—and nothing else! Genesis 1:29-30 sets the scene:

And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so.

Drawing the line between plants and animals

But why does mankind receive permission to eat plants and not meat? It has to do with how Genesis ranks plants in the hierarchy of being. As has often been observed, the first six days of creation are set out in an order whereby the first day corresponds to the fourth, the second to the fifth, and the third to the sixth:

First Day: Light                               Fourth Day: Sun, moon, and stars
Second Day: Sky and sea              Fifth Day: Birds and fish
Third Day: Dry land and plants   Sixth Day: Animals and man

The first three days set out a context which is then filled in the next three days. The sky and sea are the necessary habitat for birds and fish, while dry land and plants form the necessary habitat for animals and man.

Notice that, on this scheme, plants are right in there with the rocks. The dirt and rocks aren’t counted as a habitat for plants; rather, the dirt and rocks and plants together are counted as a habitat for animals and for man. Even though we tend to draw a line between “living” and “non-loving” with plants on the side of the “living,” Genesis draws a line between “dwelling” and “inhabitant” with plants on the side of “dwelling”. In some way, animals and men are truly living; plants are just something dirt does—“Let the earth put forth vegetation” (Gen 1:11).

The bottom line is, you can’t eat living things but you can eat plants.

Notice that I didn’t say you can’t kill living things. When Cain and Abel bring sacrifices to God, Abel brings the firstlings of his flocks, which he presumably raises for wool. God not only doesn’t mind but actually approves when Abel kills sheep as sacrifices to God. Before the flood, God instructs Noah to bring certain animals for the express purpose of sacrificing them afterward. In other words, mankind can’t eat animals because life doesn’t belong to mankind, but life does belong to God and so it is good to offer animal life to him in sacrifice.

To review: mankind is only allowed to eat plants, and after Adam’s sin it’s really hard to grow plants. The situation is bad. But it’s about to get worse.

The sin of Cain

The subject of animal sacrifice brings us to the story of Cain and Abel, which is where the ground is cursed for a second time. After Cain kills his brother, God says to Cain (Gen 4:10-12):

What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground. And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you till the ground, it shall no longer yield to you its strength; you shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.

Because murder spills blood on the ground, the ground is cursed by murder. Strangely, Cain’s punishment is fairly light: he can’t support himself by farming anymore and he has to go away from his home, but he can build a city and trade for things and make a living without fear of further consequence. God explicitly forbids anyone to kill Cain. The fact that Cain has taken Abel’s life, which belonged only to God, does not entitle someone else to take Cain’s life. Animal life is sacred and can only be taken in sacrifice to God, but human life is the very image of God, so killing a human being would be violence against God himself. You can’t kill humans ever, not even in sacrifice to God.

It doesn’t take long for this lenient policy to go sour. In Genesis 4:23, one of Cain’s descendants, Lamech, boasts that he has killed a man who hit him—boasts of his immunity to any revenge. And in Genesis 6:11, we learn that “the earth was filled with violence” by evil men.

This is obviously bad in all kinds of ways, but for our purposes we should note what is happening to the ground. Cain’s sin resulted in his being cursed from the ground; as murders proliferate, it is reasonable to suppose that the ground becomes more and more saturated with blood—more and more cursed. God’s lenient policy toward those who take life has indirectly made it harder to grow food and sustain life.

Noah’s achievement

Now we can see why Noah’s father would be looking for someone who would “bring us relief from our work and from the toil of our hands.” It has gotten really, really hard to eke out a living from the ground.  The “Lamech” of Seth’s line responds to the boastfully violent “Lamech” of Cain’s line by predicting relief from the curse of the blood-stained earth.

What Noah does is simple: he lives a righteous life and obeys God in regard to the flood. Along the way, he preserves the life of both mankind and all forms of animals, and caps the journey off with an animal sacrifice acceptable to God. At the end of Genesis 8, God smells Noah’s sacrifice and resolves never to destroy the world by a flood again.

But the beginning of Genesis 9 is where we see the prophecy regarding Noah fulfilled. In light of Noah’s accomplishment, God grants mankind two concessions regarding life, corresponding to the two curses on the ground:

First, corresponding to the curse on the ground after Adam’s sin, God grants mankind the right to eat animals. Whereas before the animal’s life was entirely reserved for sacrifice to God, now a person can eat the animal; only the blood is reserved for sacrifice. The habit of never eating an animal’s blood reminds people that in reality the animal’s life is God’s and that they are eating the animal as something conceded to them by God.

Second, corresponding to the curse from the ground after Cain’s sin, God grants mankind the right to inflict capital punishment. Now that the flood has washed the ground clean of all the human blood that had been spilled on it, God institutes a way of limiting future murders by allowing murderers to be killed. The universal prohibition on taking human life remains in place, because human life belongs entirely and solely to God, but precisely to uphold that prohibition God delegates to mankind the power of taking the life of those who have taken life.

The effect of the first concession is to make it easier to get food; the effect of the second concession is to prevent or slow down the gradual pollution and malediction of the ground, from which food comes. And so within the story we see how Noah was one who would “bring us relief from our work and from the toil of our hands.”

However, the story is not primarily about the practicalities of getting bread on the table. More than anything else, it is a story about the sanctity of life—sanctity in a strict sense, “reserved for God.” All life—or we would say, all conscious life—belongs to God.

The Mosaic Law

We have to remember that the original intended reader of the Noah story would have been an Israelite, someone who grew up with the Mosaic Law. He would have been familiar with the laws governing how animals are to be used in sacrifice, and those laws would affect how he understood what God says to Noah.

In Israel, a sacrifice did not normally involve burning a whole animal—that was only one special kind of sacrifice, the “holocaust.” More typically, the animal would be slaughtered, its blood would be drained and brought into the Holy Place to be presented to God, and then the priests would eat some of the meat from the animal. If it was a peace offering—the most common kind—then the lay person who brought the animal for sacrifice would also eat some of the meat.

Now the animal being offered to God was thought of as food. The Israelites knew that God did not need to “eat,” but they still used the metaphor of food to describe what happened when they offered an animal to God: the altar was described as God’s “table” and God would “smell” the “pleasing odor” of the food cooking and would be pleased. So when the priests or even the lay people ate meat from the altar, they were eating from God’s table; they were enjoying table fellowship with the Almighty. It’s an awesome thought!

When you read the Noah story with this in mind, something neat happens. What God says to Noah means that all meals resemble the sacred “meal” of God’s Temple. In the Temple, there is an animal set aside as belonging to God and yet human beings are allowed to eat meat from God’s table while the blood of the animal is brought in to be poured out before God. But in Genesis 9 we see that all animal life belongs to God, and so every time we eat meat we are eating something God has granted us; and of course, the requirement imposed on Noah was that any time men slaughtered an animal—even if they weren’t near the Temple and weren’t sacrificing it—they were supposed to pour out the blood to acknowledge that the animal’s life belonged to God. Even everyday meals had a sacred element, a resemblance to the Temple ritual.

The New Covenant in Christ

We can’t entirely understand the story without seeing where it goes in the New Covenant. While the covenant with Noah emphasized that all life is sacred, it made a distinction between animal life and human life: animals belong to God and so should be sacrificed to him; humans, being made in the very image of God, are so inviolable that one cannot even sacrifice them to God. Even killing a killer is something God concedes to us.

But Christ, by willingly submitting to the wrongful violence of others, offers his own life as a sacrifice to God. This is the offering of a human life, and more than a human life, and it exposes the true nature of sacrifice itself: all along, when men sacrificed animals, what they were really doing or supposed to be doing was offering themselves vicariously through the animal. Christ then leaves us the Mass, which allows us to offer God’s own son made man as a sacrifice and to eat the flesh of God’s own son in a new sacred meal. The element of offering is elevated to the offering of a divine life, while the element of table fellowship with God is elevated to the point of eating God’s own body. Everything that the Old Testament sacrifices were is present but taken, so to speak, to the limit.

Consequently, the ancient prohibition on eating blood is lifted, because animal life is no longer the means by which God wishes to be honored. But at the same time, one might argue that our everyday meals are elevated by a relationship, not just to the animal sacrifices of the Mosaic Law, but to the unbloody consumption of the flesh of God. But this is Alexis’s thesis, so I’ll leave that part to her.

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Author: Dr. Holmes

Dr. Jeremy Holmes teaches Theology at Wyoming Catholic College. He lives in Wyoming with his wife, Jacinta, and their eight children.

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8 years ago

I don’t have any complicated argument to support it, but I always read Genesis 5:29 in relation to Genesis 9:20, “Noah, a man of the soil, was the first to plant a vineyard.” And so by that means he brought from the cursed ground something that would grant relief from our work and the toil of our hands.