The Revelation of the Messiah in Noah’s Prophecy: Genesis 9:25-27
THE REVELATION OF THE MESSIAH IN NOAH’S PROPHECY:
The period between the fall and the flood was a tumultuous time. God’s grace was extended to certain antediluvian persons such as Abel (Gen. 4:4; Heb. 11:4), Enoch (Gen. 5:22-23; Heb. 11:5), and Noah (Gen. 6:8-9). However, this period had a minimum of restraining and saving grace resulting in a progressive moral degeneration and culminating in the judgment of the flood. Geerhardus Vos contends that this minimum of grace had the purpose of demonstrating the true nature of sin. He writes of the period:
It was intended to bring out the consequences of sin when left so far as possible to itself. Had God permitted grace freely to flow out into the world and to gather great strength within a short period, then the true nature and consequences of sin would have been very imperfectly disclosed. Man would have ascribed to his own relative goodness what was in reality a product of the grace of God. Hence, before the work of redemption is further carried out, the downward tendency of sin is clearly illustrated, in order that subsequently in light of this downgrade movement the true divine cause of the upward course of redemption might be appreciated.28
Sin’s power to corrupt is vividly demonstrated in the moral degeneration in this period. The postdiluvian age prior to Abraham is similar. The building of the tower of Babel and God’s judgment through the confusion of languages is a key event during this period (Gen. 11:1-11). However, in the midst of this period of moral decline and judgment from God, a significant messianic prophecy came through Noah. This prophecy expands and affirms the messianic promise given in Genesis 3:15.
After the flood, Noah planted a vineyard and got drunk from its wine (Gen. 9:18-21). This led to the sin of Ham who, “saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers outside” (Gen. 9:22). Exact detail concerning the sin of Ham is not given, but when Noah awoke from his drunken stupor, he prophetically cursed Canaan, the son of Ham and pronounced a blessing on the other two sons, Shem and Japheth (Gen.9:23-27). It is this prophetic statement of Noah that has significant messianic content. Genesis 9:25-27 states:
25. So he said,
“Cursed be Canaan;
A servant of servants
He shall be to his brothers.”
26. He also said,
“Blessed be the Lord,
The God of Shem;
And let Canaan be his servant.
27. “May God enlarge Japheth,
And let him dwell in the tents of Shem;
And let Canaan be his servant” (NASB).
Noah’s curse is directed toward Ham’s son, Canaan. Either Canaan already demonstrated the same sinful disposition of his father or Noah prophetically saw it. In either case, Noah pronounced a triple curse on Canaan (verses 25-27). Shem and Japheth both received blessings. Charles Briggs notes, “Shem is the central figure of the prophecy.”29 In verse 26, Noah blessed the God of Shem. Verse 27 has been the focus of debate. The question surrounding this verse concerns to whom the pronoun “he” in the phrase “let him dwell” refers. Grammatically, it could refer either to Japheth or to God.
Keil and Delitzsch argue that the pronoun refers to Japheth. They give three reasons for their position:
It is much more natural to regard the expression as applying to Japhet, (a) because the refrain, “Canaan shall be his servant,” requires that we should understand ver. 27 as applying to Japhet, like ver. 26 to Shem; (b) because the plural, tents, is not applicable to the abode of Jehovah in Israel, inasmuch as in the parallel passages “we read of God dwelling in His tent, on His holy hill, in Zion in the midst of the children of Israel, and also of the faithful dwelling in the tabernacle or temple of God, but never of God dwelling in the tents of Israel” (Hengstenberg); and (c) because we should expect the act of affection, which the two sons so delicately performed in concert, to have its corresponding blessing in relation established between the two (Delitzsch).30
This position, however, raises the question of the meaning of Japheth’s dwelling in the tents of Shem. Does it imply that the descendants of Japheth will militarily take over the land of the Shemites? Most reject this option in favor of a spiritual interpretation of the phrase. For example, Franz Delitzsch writes, “The fulfillment is plain enough, for we are all Japhethites dwelling in the tents of Shem; and the language of the New Testament is the language of Javan [Greece] entered into the tents of Shem.”31 Therefore, Delitzsch interprets the phrase to mean that since the gospel was preached in Greek, then Greek entered into the tents of Shem and in that manner was a spiritual conqueror of them.
The other option is to interpret the passage as predicting that God would dwell in the tents of Shem. This makes the passage a prophecy of the incarnation. Walter Kaiser, Jr. argues: “It is better to take Elohim, “God,” as the subject and proper antecedent of “he will dwell” in Genesis 9:27. . . .”32 He then presents five reasons for this interpretation:
(1) The Hebrew language presumes that the subject of a previous clause will carry over to the next one when no other subject is interjected, especially when, as here, it is in a parallel line of Hebrew poetry.
(2) Structurally, the heptastich (seven poetic lines) in verses 25-27 is subdivided into three parts with the curse on Canaan as a refrain. In the first part, a distich (two lines), only Canaan appears. In the second part, also a distich, Canaan and Shem appear. In the third part, a tristich, all three sons appear. This justifies making God the subject of the verb to dwell in the second of the three lines, since then Shem is being talked about and not a second statement being made about Japheth.
(3) In the narrative, beginning in Genesis 9:18, the place of honor and prominence goes to Shem, in that his name comes first. Thus he seems to be the leader; a fact that does not comport well with Shem’s being placed in some sort of subordination to Japheth in verse 27.
(4) Since God blesses Shem in the previous distich of verse 26 and thereby identifies himself in a distinctive sense as being related to Shem, it is most natural to expect that this distinctiveness will manifest itself in some way, such as God’s decision to take up his abode somewhere within the Semitic world.
(5) The most natural interpretation of this blessing of expansion for Japheth and Japheth’s alleged dwelling in the tents of Shem, despite modern protests to the contrary, would be that Japheth would conquer Shem, or at least occupy his territory. But this would humiliate Shem, making him little better off than the curse set upon Canaan. Therefore, the meaning of Genesis 9:27 is God’s announcement that his advent will take place among the Shemites, later known through the Greek form of their name as the Semites.33
Charles Briggs observes that if Japheth were the subject, then the prophecy would be primarily a political prophecy rather than a spiritual one. This would not fit the character of Noah’s prophecy.34
Therefore, Genesis 9:27 is an early messianic prophecy concerning the incarnation. Genesis 3:15 presents the human aspect of the promised Messiah; he would be the seed of the woman. Genesis 9:27 presents the divine aspect of the promised Messiah; God will come and dwell in the tents of Shem. Charles Briggs writes:
In the former prophecy [Gen. 3:15] we have the human side of Messianic redemption brought out in the victory of the seed of the woman over the serpent. Here, on the other hand, we have the divine side of Messianic redemption in the prediction of the advent of God as a blessing in the tents of Shem. These two lines of Messianic prophecy, the human and divine, henceforth develop side by side in Messianic prophecy; they approximate at times, but never converge till they unite in the person of Jesus Christ, the God-man, at His first advent, and still more at His second advent.35
The prophecy in Genesis 9:27 is beautifully fulfilled in John 1:14: “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth” (NASB).36
28Vos, Biblical Theology, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1948; reprint, 1980), 45 (page references are to reprint edition).
29Briggs, Messianic Prophecy (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1886), 81.
30C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, trans. James Martin, Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament: The Pentateuch vol. 1 (reprint, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980), 159 (page references are to reprint edition).
31Keil and Delitzsch, Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament: The Pentateuch, 1:160.
32Water Kaiser, Jr., The Messiah in the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), 44.
33Water Kaiser, Jr., The Messiah in the Old Testament, 44-45. Kaiser notes that these points are drawn from Charles Briggs, Messianic Prophecy, 82, n. 1.
34Charles A. Briggs, Messianic Prophecy, 82, n. 1.
35Briggs, Messianic Prophecy, 82-83.
36James E. Smith argues for this interpretation of Genesis 9:27 in What the Bible Teaches About the Promised Messiah (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1993), 45-46. See also Herman Witsius, The Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man 2 vols. (reprint: Kingsburg, California: den Dulk Christian Foundation, 1990 distributed by Presbyterian and Reformed), 2:138-140.