Published: 21 June 2021

Something Sketchy Happened In Noah’s Tent

Shocking behavior in Noah's tent.

God turned the world off and back on again. That’s pretty much what Noah’s Flood was all about. Mankind had become so wicked that God decided the best course of action was to start over. God had compassion on Noah and extended grace to him by sparing him and his family from the flood.

Noah found favor in the sight of God because he was righteous and blameless (Gen 6:9), but He was not perfect. Noah’s story is an echo of the story of the Garden. The world has been re-created and Noah finds himself in a vineyard (which is a kind of garden, Gen 9:20). He imbibes of the fruit of this garden resulting in drunkenness and becomes naked (Gen 9:21). Twice now in Genesis sin has left people in a vulnerable (naked) condition.

What happens next is somewhat unclear, but we can say for certain that Noah’s inebriated condition opens the door to some sketchy behavior by his son Ham. 

“21 He drank of the wine and became drunk and lay uncovered in his tent. 22 And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father and told his two brothers outside. 23 Then Shem and Japheth took a garment, laid it on both 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. 24 When Noah awoke from his wine and knew what his youngest son had done to him, 25 he said, “Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be to his brothers.”” (Gen. 9:21–25 ESV)

The text is vague about what happened exactly and leaves us with a lot of unanswered questions. What did Ham do in Noah’s tent? Questions that a satisfactory interpretation should answer are:

  • Why are we told twice that Ham was the father of Canaan?
  • What is the significance of Ham telling his brothers what he had done?
  • Why did the brother’s walk in backwards?
  • Why did “seeing” Noah’s nakedness deserve a curse?
  • Why was Canaan cursed instead of Ham?

Possible explanations

Ham was guilty of voyeurism. This is a simple explanation and is typically the default position a person takes who casually reads the story. The strength of this interpretation is that it is the simplest, most straightforward explanation. The weakness is that it explains almost nothing. It answers none of the questions above and on that basis alone should be ruled out.

Ham castrated his father. This is an old Jewish idea which says as Ham’s fourth son, Noah cursed Canaan because Ham deprived Noah of having a fourth son. The weakness here is that there is no scriptural basis for this at all and fails to explain any of the other questions above. I include it here simply because of its Jewish origins.

Ham committed an act of homosexual incest with his father. Based on Lev 18:6-19 we know that to “uncover nakedness” is a euphimism for sexual relations. To “see nakedness” is a phrase that means the same (Lev 20:17). Therefore, it is reasoned that when the text says that Ham “saw the nakedness of his father” this signals that Ham committed a homosexual act with his father while Noah was incapacitated. 

There are problems with this explanation. The text from Leviticus is describing heterosexual unions when using the euphemism. It doesn’t explain why Canaan was cursed instead of Ham nor does it answer any of the other questions above.

Ham committed incest with Noah’s wife. In my opinion this is the best explanation, but is not without its problems. This interpretation addresses all of the questions above.

Understanding the euphemisms of Lev 18:6-19 and Lev 20:17 gives us a significant clue in grasping what this story is really about. To “uncover nakedness” is to engage in sexual intercourse.

“A common Hebrew idiom appears here and throughout the chapter; it consists of a form of the Hebrew verb galah, meaning “reveal” or “uncover,” and the noun erwah, meaning “nakedness.” The idiom of “uncovering nakedness” is a common euphemism for sexual intercourse (or relations). The general command here to not “uncover nakedness” of close relatives is elaborated in the following verses that spell out exactly who is part of the class of close relatives.”[1]Barry, J. D., Mangum, D., Brown, D. R., Heiser, M. S., Custis, M., Ritzema, E., … Bomar, D. (2012, 2016). Faithlife Study Bible (Le 18:6). Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.

This euphemism isn’t really such a strange way to describe marital relations if you think about it from a spouse’s perspective:

“The idea is that a husband or wife’s nakedness belongs to their spouse, and to no one else. The legal spouse is the one with whom God intends them to be naked and unashamed…”[2]https://www.blueletterbible.org/Comm/guzik_david/StudyGuide2017-Lev/Lev-18.cfm

Was Ham a big pervert?

Perhaps Ham was a pervert, but sexual deviancy probably wasn’t the motivating factor in his behavior. Ham was probably making a claim to leadership of the family. 

“Possession of the concubines that belonged to the head of the clan was presumably a sign of leadership in the clan. When the father died, the care and ownership of the concubines (as part of his property) passed to the next head of the clan. To seize ownership of the concubines prior to the father’s death would then be seen as an act of subversion and disrespect (comparable to seizing lands or herds), but would not be unusual if succession to clan leadership were contested.”[3]Walton, John H. Zondervan illustrated Bible backgrounds commentary. Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 2009: 120 

“A son who has sexual relations with his mother or step-mother commits a rebellious sin against his father, since the possession of a man’s wife is seen also as an effort to supplant the man himself.”[4]Bergsma, John Sietze, and Scott Hahn. “Noah’s Nakedness and the Curse on Canaan (Genesis 9:20-27).” Journal of Biblical Literature 124, no. 1 (2005): 37.

Asserting leadership by taking the wife or wives of a predecessor has multiple instances of biblical precedent. For example:

  • Reuben slept with Bilhah, Jacob’s concubine (Gen. 35:22; 49:3–4)
  • David took Saul’s wives (2 Sam. 12:7–8)
  • Absolom took David’s concubines (2 Sam. 16:20–22)
  • Solomon considered Adonijah’s request to marry Abishag (one of David’s wives) to be a subversive request and had him killed for it (1 Ki 2:21-25)

Taking possession of a father’s concubines was a normal part of the principal heir’s inheritance. However, to take them while the father was still alive would be a disrespectful and defiant act (2 Sam 16:22). By today’s standards, the ancient Near East had some bizarre customs.

The maternal incest interpretation provides answers

Why does the text tell us twice that Ham was the father of Canaan? The text wants us to be clear that Ham was Canaan’s father, presumably by Noah’s wife. Noah was not Canaan’s father and this would never have been in question if an act of maternal incest had not taken place.

What is the significance of Ham telling his brothers what he had done? Ham wanted them to know what he had done in order to advance his agenda of claiming leadership of the family.

Why did the brother’s walk in backwards? It was not only Noah who was naked in the tent, but also Noah’s wife. They had enough respect not to gaze upon their father’s naked wife. 

Why did “seeing” Noah’s nakedness deserve a curse? If the euphemism of Leviticus 18 & 20 is in use here, Noah issues a curse to thwart Ham’s attempted claim of family leadership.

Why was Canaan cursed instead of Ham? Ham meant for Canaan to be the future leader of the family. Noah was going to have none of that. Jacob refused to bestow clan leadership upon Reuben (his firstborn) at the end of his life because of Reuben’s attempt to seize control (Gen 49:3-4). Likewise, Noah would not allow Ham’s attempt to succeed and the son of this illicit union receives a curse instead.

Weaknesses of the maternal incest interpretation

The euphemism of Lev 18 & 20 must be understood to be used here for this explanation to work. However, in the other biblical cases where dominance was expressed by sleeping with a former leader’s woman, the text clearly says that there was sexual activity without using euphemisms. 

Moses wrote Gen 9 and Gen 35:22; 49:3–4. Why did he use a euphemism in Gen 9 to explain a claim to clan leadership by Ham, but not when Reuben, the son of Jacob, attempted to do the same?

In addition, “nakedness” must be understood both literally and as a euphemism in the same passage:

  • v. 21 – uncovered (literal)
  • v. 22 – saw the nakedness of his father (euphemism)
  • v. 23 – nakedness (literal)

Regardless of these two difficulties, this approach has far more ability to explain the passage than any of the interpretations.

Noah: the new Adam

This was humanity’s second fall into sin. God had cleansed the world with a flood restoring it to a pristine condition. Noah found himself in a garden, took of its fruit and as a consequence opened the door to sin once more. Like the first Adam, Noah finds himself naked, ashamed, realizing that his sin would have consequences for future generations of his descendants. 

References

References
1 Barry, J. D., Mangum, D., Brown, D. R., Heiser, M. S., Custis, M., Ritzema, E., … Bomar, D. (2012, 2016). Faithlife Study Bible (Le 18:6). Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.
2 https://www.blueletterbible.org/Comm/guzik_david/StudyGuide2017-Lev/Lev-18.cfm
3 Walton, John H. Zondervan illustrated Bible backgrounds commentary. Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 2009: 120
4 Bergsma, John Sietze, and Scott Hahn. “Noah’s Nakedness and the Curse on Canaan (Genesis 9:20-27).” Journal of Biblical Literature 124, no. 1 (2005): 37.