A New Beginning Spoiled by Sin: Noah’s Drunkenness, Ham’s Contempt, and Canaan’s Curse
God’s pained heart is soothed when he smells the aroma of the burnt offerings wafting from Noah’s altar (8:20–21a). In response, Yahweh pledges never again to destroy the world with a flood but to provide a stable environment wherein he may bring to fruition his redemptive plans for humanity (8:21b-22; 9:1–17). Yet, an ominous note sounds among an otherwise harmonious chorus of divine goodness. Yahweh’s covenant promise is made “even though [כי] every inclination of [man’s] heart is evil from childhood” (8:21b, NIV). This concessive clause indicates that though the Deluge washed away sinners, it failed to eradicate sin. Regrettably, Noah and his family imported the sin from the world-that-then-was to the world-that-now-is. That tragic reality quickly unfolds.
A New Beginning Spoiled by Sin
Noah, portrayed as a New Adam in a New World with a renewed mandate to subdue the earth,1 becomes the father of viticulture (9:30). But Noah abuses one of God’s gifts to mankind,2 transgressing the limits of moderation, and becomes intoxicated (9:21a).3 Worse, drunken Noah disrobes in his tent (9:21b)4 and provides an occasion for a greater sin. Noah’s son Ham gazes at (וירא) his father’s nakedness. Then he tells Shem and Japheth (9:22), who go into their father’s tent not to see (לא ראו) but to cover their father’s nakedness (9:23). Since the brothers’ covering of Noah parallels Yahweh’s covering of Adam and Eve’s nakedness (3:21), the reader is led to evaluate their action positively and Ham’s negatively. This is how Noah, once awake and sober, evaluates the actions of his sons (9:24–27).
The Contempt of Ham
Fundamentally, Ham’s sin is an intentional act of contempt accompanied by a mocking disclosure to his brothers—both actions the original audience would interpret as blatant violations of the fifth commandment (Exod 20:12).5 Whether perverted sexual curiosity prompted Ham to intrude into Noah’s private quarters to gaze on his nude body can only be conjectured.6 Interpretations that construe Ham’s deed as a scandalous sexual crime go beyond the textual and contextual data.7 But keeping in view Noah’s public devotion to Yahweh (6:9; 8:20) and his prophetic office as a preacher of righteousness (1 Pet 3:18–20; 2 Pet 2:5), Ham’s contempt for his father may also be viewed as contempt for his father’s religion and his father’s God.8
The Curse upon Canaan
So a “Cain,” an offspring of the Serpent, has been discovered among Noah’s family. And as Cain and his descendants inherited Cain’s father’s (i.e., the Serpent) curse (3:14–15; 4:11–12), so must Canaan and his offspring inherit his father’s (i.e., Ham) curse. Thus Noah curses Ham’s descendants, the sons of Canaan,9 consigning their destiny to abject servitude (9:25),10 while blessing Shem and Japheth, who shall become lords over the Canaanites (9:26–27). Yet, long before the Noachian curse begins to find its initial fulfillment, Ham’s contempt for the true religion represented by Noah will grow to mammoth proportions that rival the hubris of “The Sons of God” (בני האלהים; bene-elohim). and their offspring, “The Mighty Warriors” (הגברים; hagibborim) (Gen 6:1-4).
The entry above is excerpted and adapted from my recently published monograph Where Sin Abounds (a theological commentary on Genesis). Used by permission of Wipf and Stock Publishers. www.wipfandstock.com
- For the many verbal and thematic parallels between Adam and Noah, see Gage, The Gospel of Genesis, 7–12; and Tomasino, “History Repeats Itself: the ‘Fall’ and Noah’s Drunkenness,” 128–30. [↩]
- So “wine” (יין) is portrayed in Gen 14:18; 27:25; Judg 9:13; Deut 14:26; Ps 104:15; Eccl 2:3; 9:7; 10:19; Isa 25:6; 55:1. Nevertheless, like many of God’s gifts to humanity, wine may be abused, and its misuse is strongly condemned and sometimes even portrayed as a curse in Scripture (Prov 23:29–35; Isa 5:11–12; 28:1, 7; 56:12; Jer 13:13–14; 25:16; Lam 4:21–22; Ezek 23:28–33; Nah 1:9–10; Hab 2:5, 15–16; 1 Cor 5:11; 6:10; Gal 5:19, 21; Eph 5:18). Not surprisingly, the OT also forbade priests and kings to use wine while acting in the capacity of their office-bearing functions because of its potential to dull the senses and weaken moral judgment (Lev 10:8–11; Prov 31:4–5; Isa 5:22–23). Moreover, the NT also lists intemperance as a disqualifying vice for the pastoral or diaconal office (1 Tim. 3:2–3, 8) and discourages believers from the use of wine in situations that would cause a brother to stumble (Rom 14:21). [↩]
- Walter Brown attempts to make a case that Noah did not become intoxicated. He suggests “that in Gen 9:21 שכר should be translated as ‘to be fully content’ or ‘to be satiated to sleep.’” Brown then concludes, “Noah’s action was not negative and despicable; rather, it was positive and commendable.” “Noah: Sot or Saint? Genesis 9:20–27,” 37. Brown’s interpretation, however, is flawed. First, though the verb does not always have negative connotations (Gen 43:34; Song 5:1; Hag 1:6), it more often carries a negative connotation when connected with the use of wine (2 Sam 11:13; Lam 4:21; Isa 29:9; 49:26; Jer 25:27; Nah 3:11). Second, the exposure of Noah’s “nakedness” after transgressing the limit related to the “fruit of the vine” (9:21) finds a parallel in the exposure of Adam and Eve’s “nakedness” after their transgressing the limit with respect to the “fruit of the Tree” (3:6–7). In both cases “nakedness” functions as an indicator of guilt (see also the connection between a drunkenness that leads to shameful nakedness in Hab 2:15 and Lam 4:21). Third, the controlling presupposition that turns the rudder of Brown’s exegesis is the assumption that the narrator’s portrait of Noah is that of a “saint” not a “sinner.” Brown avers, “Noah is described positively in the strongest possible fashion. . . . From the perspective of character analysis, the positive reading of Gen. 9:20–27 is expected” (53). But as will become evident in the subsequent analysis of the patriarchal narratives, even saints still sin. Indeed, by recording the “Fall” of Noah, Moses subtly indicates that Noah himself is not the ultimate “Rest-Giver,” that is, “The Seed Par Excellence,” who is yet to come. [↩]
- The LXX renders the Hebrew ויתגל as a passive (εγυμνωθη), as do a number of English versions: “and he was naked” (KJV, DRA, ASV, NIV, ESV). But the verb appears in the Hithpael theme, which is normally reflexive, not passive (IBHS § 26.2; GBH § 53i), and the only other place where this verb appears in the Hithpael form is clearly reflexive (Prov 18:2). The translation “and he uncovered himself” is, therefore, preferable (NAU, NIV, CSB). [↩]
- Hamilton suggests, “Ham was in the wrong place at the wrong time.” Genesis 1–17, 322. But this interpretation lessens the gravity of Ham’s sin by limiting Ham’s crime to his disclosure to his brothers. The antithetical response of Ham’s brothers (9:23) and Noah’s subsequent curse (9:24–25) suggest that both Ham’s looking and telling were intentional acts of contempt and mockery. See Fretheim, “Genesis,” 404; Luther, Lectures on Genesis, 2:167; Mathews, Genesis 1–11:26; 419–20; Westermann, Genesis 1–11, 487–88. [↩]
- Leupold suggests an inordinate voyeurism (1:346). [↩]
- Ham has been accused of either incest (Ham had intercourse with his mother) or homosexuality (Ham committed some sexual act with his father). See Bassett, “Noah’s Nakedness and the Curse of Canaan: A Case of Incest?” 232–37; Brueggemann, Genesis, 90; Walton, Genesis, 346–49. While it is true that the expression “to uncover [another’s] nakedness [לגלות ערות]” may refer euphemistically to an act of sexual immorality, the expression is normally accompanied by an explanatory clause indicating its function as such (see Lev 18:6ff.; 20:11ff.). Moreover, apparently it is Noah, not Ham, who “uncovers” himself (see note 95 above); Ham only looks on his father’s nakedness and informs his brothers. This is further supported by the antithetical parallelism of the action of Ham’s brothers—the text does not say they refrained from uncovering their father’s nakedness but from merely looking on his nakedness. Furthermore, since the subsequent narrative does not shy away from exposing illicit sexual acts (Gen 19:5, 8–9, 32–36; 34:2; 38:16–18), one would not expect the narrator to veil such an immorality here, if indeed it happened. Accordingly, there is no basis in the text for viewing Ham’s sin as a full-blown act of immorality. For a further rebuttal, see Rice, “The Curse That Never Was,” 11–13. [↩]
- According to Luther, “[Cain’s action] points to a heart that despises not only its parent but also the command of God.” He continues, “Ham’s deed must be traced back, not to some childish playfulness but to the bitter hatred of Satan, who inflames his members against the church, especially against those who are in the ministry, and makes them constantly watchful, so that they may be on the lookout for anything that can be turned into slander.” Lectures on Genesis, 2:168. Calvin also suggests this reading when he writes, “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; they may even make the faults of other men an occasion of hardening themselves into a contempt for God.” Genesis, 1:303. Candlish is most explicit: “Foolish, giddy, willful as he might be, who that had not some more malignant end to serve, could find his father as Noah was found, and make the discovery a matter of jest or exultation? But Ham had another quarrel with his father; he hated his religion. He not merely dishonoured him as a parent—he disliked him as a preacher of righteousness.” Studies in Genesis, 158–59. [↩]
- Literally, Noah declares, “Cursed be Canaan” (ארור כנען). Moses has already conspicuously referred to Canaan twice as Ham’s son (9:18, 22). This fact suggests that he is providing his Israelite readers the etiological origin of God’s soon-to-be-enacted Holy War on the Canaanites. Hence, the curse had primary reference to Ham’s descendants who would arise through the line of Canaan and not to Canaan in particular. This interpretation relieves the reader of looking to interpretations that attempt to make Canaan an accomplice in Ham’s crime. On the other hand, the primeval narrative has already established the fact that the particular anti-God disposition of a family head (4:4b, 8–9, 13–14) will often be passed on to and through his descendants (4:19, 22–23; 6:1–2, 4–5, 11–13). Perhaps Noah already perceived Ham’s evil ungodly traits being replicated in his son. At the very least, he has, through prophetic insight, anticipated the moral decadence of Canaan’s distant ancestors. See Kline, Kingdom Prologue, 263; and Ronning, “The Curse on the Serpent (Genesis 3:15) in Biblical Theology and Hermeneutics,” 181. [↩]
- Here we have the juxtaposition of two identical nouns, the first a singular and the second a plural—עבד עבדים—a superlative genitive (IBHS § 9.5.3j), which may be translated, “The lowest of slaves he will be to his brothers” (NIV, NET). [↩]