Through this series, we’ve been working through some of the issues I encountered while reading Genesis, and so far, they’ve been big ones that are complex and require a lot of context and a lot of words to sort out. Thankfully, however, a few of the issues in Genesis are much easier to answer. Sometimes, the answers are simple, and this Issue in Genesis is one of those. We’ll cover the whole subject in this single post.
Open your Bible to Genesis 9:20 and read along with me here:
Noah began to be a man of the soil, and he planted a vineyard. He drank of the wine and became drunk and lay uncovered in his tent. And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father and told his two brothers outside.
Then Shem and Japheth took a garment, laid it on both of their shoulders, and walked backward and covered the nakedness of their father. Their faces were turned backward, and they did not see their father’s nakedness. When Noah awoke from his wine and knew what his youngest son had done to him, he said,
“Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be to his brothers.”
He also said,
“Blessed be the Lord, the God of Shem; and let Canaan be his servant. May God enlarge Japheth, and let him dwell in the tents of Shem, and let Canaan be his servant.”
Genesis 9:20-27, ESV
This can seem utterly confusing, and it was such a relief to me when I had it explained. The explanation came, in part, from Jen Wilkin’s God of Creation study that covers Genesis 1-11, and the other part came from discussions with my Tuesday Ladies in our study group.
Like so much else in the Bible, the answer for this one is really cool.
The first part of solving this issue involves understanding the shape of the Noah story and realizing that Noah is a new Adam. This is a new Creation story, a literal reboot of Genesis 1 and 2. We went over Genesis 6 and its imagery of total depravity in the Sons of God & Daughters of Men series. If you read that (or if you’ve studied it before), you know that God destroyed the earth and mankind because of his grief and his justified wrath. But the Great Flood isn’t just a divine temper tantrum. It is a structured and planned decision to wipe out the corrupted creation and begin anew.
The story of Noah and the Flood follows the same shape as the original creation story.
In Genesis 1, the waters cover the earth before Creation begins.
In Genesis 7, the flood waters “prevail” on the earth for 150 days before they recede.
In Genesis 1, God breathes/speaks, and Creation obeys.
In Genesis 8, God blows (his breath) over the waters and they recede.
In Genesis 1, God makes waters recede and dry land appear.
In Genesis 8, God makes waters recede and dry land appear.
In Genesis 1, God tells them (Adam and Eve) to be fruitful and multiply, to fill the earth.
In Genesis 9, God tells Noah and his family to be fruitful and multiply, to fill the earth.
You can go to the two stories and line them up next to each other to find many parallels like this. The point I want you to see is that Noah’s story is a new creation after the Fall of mankind. God resets the world with the Flood, and he starts over with a new earth and a new Adam. The rest of Noah’s story stays in parallel with the Adam story, so stick with this theme as we move forward.
1.) What did Ham do that made his father angry? Noah’s the one who got drunk and passed out naked! Why is he mad at Ham?
2.) Why, if Noah’s going to curse someone, did he curse Canaan and not Ham? Canaan didn’t do anything to Noah, so what on earth is going on here?
To answer these questions, we have to keep breaking down the Noah story in parallel.
In Genesis 2, Adam is stewarding Eden and learning to shepherd the earth. He is naming God’s creatures and exercising his dominion. He is in a state of obedience and harmony with God.
In Genesis 9, Noah is offering sacrifices to God. He is planting his vineyard. He is ordering the earth around him, making a home and being fruitful. He is in a state of obedience and harmony with God.
In Genesis 3, Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit. They sin.
In Genesis 9, Noah abuses the fruit of his harvest, becoming drunk. He sins.
In Genesis 3, Adam and Eve feel “naked.” They feel shame because their sin is exposed to God.
In Genesis 9, Noah is passed out and naked in his tent. He feels shame when his sin is exposed to his sons.
In Genesis 3, the serpent exposed Adam and Eve to shame.
In Genesis 9, Noah’s son Ham exposes Noah to shame.
In Genesis 3, God covers the shame of Adam and Eve by shedding blood in His own garden to make them garments to hide their nakedness.
In Genesis 9, Noah’s other two sons, Shem and Japheth, cover the shame of Noah by placing a garment over his nakedness.
Okay, so we have the serpent exposing Adam and Eve to shame, and we have Ham exposing Noah to shame. God covers the shame of Adam and Eve. Shem and Japheth cover the shame of Noah.
What happened to the serpent in Genesis 3 after he uncovered the nakedness of Adam and Eve? God curses the serpent (Genesis 3:14-15).
What happens to Ham in Genesis 9 after he uncovers the nakedness of Noah? Noah curses Ham’s son, Canaan (Genesis 9:25-27).
Hopefully, at this point, you’re seeing the parallel here and what this text is supposed to mean for us. Cool, isn’t it? Let’s keep going, though, because the Canaan piece is important.
Noah wakes up and is informed that his son has exposed his shame. Ham saw his father naked, and rather than covering his father and protecting him as a son should do, Ham ran outside and told his brothers all about it. He multiplied the shame of Noah’s sin by exposing it to–literally–every man on earth.
Why Was Ham’s Sin Worthy of a Curse?
As I was writing this, my husband said (I’m paraphrasing, but this is close):
“You know, it’s the craziest thing that even today we say that Noah–a man who committed one sin of excess out of a lifetime of unimpeachable obedience to God–was ‘a drunk,’ but we practically deify Samson, who spent his entire life in unrepentant sin.”
I love my husband. He is the best!
And his point is even bigger than it might seem. Noah spent a century enduring the mocking and jeers of everyone around him as he built that ark in obedience to God. He came through the terror and devastation of the Flood, never losing faith. The first thing he does after God opens the Ark is build an altar and offer sacrifices to the Lord. Noah obediently begins the work of being fruitful in the post-flood world. He lived for hundreds of years in this story, and he lived a more righteous life of faith than Abraham, Isaac, Jacob (Israel), or any of Jacob’s sons (except, perhaps, Joseph).
Noah has one moment of sinful weakness. His son exposes it to two men. And millennia later…God’s people still call Noah, “a drunk.”
I drank too much more than once in my youth, but nobody calls me a drunk. Have you ever had one too many in your life? Maybe it wasn’t alcohol, but have you ever used a good gift of God to sinful excess? Drugs, sex, or food? This is the sin Noah committed. He used a good gift of God to sinful excess. Once.
My life and character have not been defined by a small handful of sins I committed more than 20 years ago. Noah is defined by ONE drunken incident out of a life of obedience that lasted for nearly a thousand years.
That is what Ham did to his father. That was his sin against Noah.
Ugly Ways People Abuse this Passage
I would be remiss if I did not address this, so before we get to the end, let’s just have done with it: There are two monstrously incorrect interpretations of this passage, and neither has any place in our thoughts. One is more dangerous than the other, so let’s start with that.
This Passage Has Been Abused to Justify Black Slavery
Genesis 9:20-29 has been used to argue for chattel slavery based on race. During the American Civil War and in other times/places, this passage was used alongside the Table of Nations in Genesis 10 to defend the practice of enslaving African people. In Genesis 10, some of Ham’s descendants settled throughout Northern Africa, so the people who owned African slaves used Ham’s curse as a justification for their sin.
First, the Torah makes no mention of biological “race” concepts. Ham, Shem, and Japheth are all biological brothers, and neither skin color nor any other measure of physical difference between them is mentioned in the Bible.
Second, Canaan’s descendants are the only ones affected by Noah’s curse, and they settled in Palestine–not Africa.
Third, God does indeed tell us what he thinks of slavery in the Bible. Spoiler Alert: He ain’t for it. That is a much bigger subject, and I will cover it to the best of my non-scholar’s ability, but for the context of this passage, I will say this: I believe God will punish people who unrepentantly carry his holy Name in vain. Twisting Ham’s story, which is about God covering shame, into a justification for the shameful practice of racially-based chattel slavery? Well, that’s the worst and most evil thing I have ever seen people do to Scripture. Don’t blaspheme by putting God’s name on that.
It is a bald and obvious lie.
Thankfully, this is no longer a commonly-used argument, but it still comes up (mostly from people asking where that notion comes from), and it must be shut down with firm and rational explanation by the biblically literate whenever and wherever it appears.
Did Incest Happen in Noah’s Tent?
There is a lot of tittering on the internet (and even amongst bible students) about something sexual going on between Ham and Noah in the tent. Like the temptation to sexualize Ruth’s “uncovering” of Boaz’ feet in the book of Ruth, people jump to sexual explanations for Genesis 9, as well.
I don’t think people do this strictly because they’re trying to insult or de-legitimize the Bible. I mean, some are, sure, but there are believing Christians who fall down these rabbit holes of sensational interpretation, too.
No, I think the reason we fall into this sensationalism is the cultural disconnect inherent in 3,500 years of separation between us and the authors of Old Testament books. The Books of Moses were written…in the generation of Moses. That was fully 3,500 years ago, and the stories recorded in Genesis come from even farther back.
We see a man cursing his grandson over something shameful in a tent, and it doesn’t make sense to us unless a sin happened that we would recognize in our own culture. Laughing at a drunk dad doesn’t seem like a curse-worthy offense to us (perhaps it should). A son raping his father while he was passed out drunk, however, seems to fit the bill, so a lot of people speculate and go there.
The problem with such an interpretation is that the text doesn’t go there. The text gives us a very clear, very vivid image of what’s happening in this story. Incest and rape are not a part of it. The Bible calls sex, “sex,” and it calls rape, “rape,” and it calls out sexual sin wherever it happens in the Bible story. It has nothing of the sort to say about this story. So put down the tinfoil hats and just look at what the Scripture is actually saying.
So Why Canaan and Not Ham, Himself?
Noah was shamed by his son, Ham. He curses Canaan to a low status so that Ham will be shamed by his son. Again, this is symmetry. Again, the story is telling us a parallel of Creation and the Fall. Adam sinned against his Father, and all his descendants have been corrupted by it. Ham sinned against his father, and his descendants have been shamed by it. It is a brilliant literary technique used to illustrate who God is, who we are, and also to explain historical truths about the world the original audience lived in.
The Canaanites were were both neighbors to Israel and enemies. The Canaanites lived in all manner of sinful practices, but there were many Canaanites who got adopted into the tribes of Israel (or married in), and they became righteous followers of the Lord. These are among the many “foreigners among you” we see over and over again. The Canaanites were vanquished and shamed by Israel throughout the generations, and the Canaanites were also a fearsome enemy to the Israelites throughout the generations. When Canaan bowed to Israel, everything worked out the way it was supposed to. When Israel bowed to Canaan, corruption, shame, and exile were the result. This story tells us (and the original audience) the ancient origin of that dynamic.
Whether you believe that this story–which was already incredibly ancient when the author wrote it down–should be taken literally (which I do, to an extent) or whether you think it should be considered a symbolic moral tale, this passage of Scripture explains to the Israelites how the Canaanites became a cursed people. Canaan was cursed to shame his father, Ham, and the story of Noah’s nakedness tells us why.
How Should We Use This Text in Our Lives
The part of this story that matters to our own lives is the part that shows us who God is. God is the Father who covers the sin of his children. God is the Son who covers the sins of the world. God covers shame. God forgives our sins so we have no shame. God forgets our transgressions when we believe in Him. There is no condemnation for those in Christ.
“Fear not, for you will not be ashamed; be not confounded, for you will not be disgraced; for you will forget the shame of your youth, and the reproach of your widowhood you will remember no more.”
This verse from Isaiah 54 is part of a long consolation God is giving to Israel after the exile. They have been humiliated before the nations because of their idolatry and hard-hearted sins, but God is bringing them back to himself. He is encouraging them and lifting them up. He is removing their shame.
As Christians, we are called to emulate God in this. We are to forgive. We are to cover the shame of our repentant brothers and sisters. We are not to indulge in mocking or laughing at the pain and downfall of others. Instead, we are to help them lift their heads back up. It’s love, y’all. It’s just love.
When someone sins against God or against you…forgive them. Cover the shame of righteous people. Look away from their sins and see them as God sees them. That’s the application I see in this text.
Let me know what you think.
Happy New Year! See you next time.