This is the 7th paper in a series of papers I wrote on The Primeval History period of The Bible (i.e Genesis 1-11). To download this paper as a PDF file click here –> https://www.dropbox.com/s/zw6784m2wk6gg7g/Genesis%209_%20Noah%E2%80%99s%20Nakedness%2C%20the%20Sin%20of%20Ham%2C%20and%20the%20Curse%20of%20Canaan.pdf?dl=0
Abstract: Genesis 9:20-27 comes at the end of the Genesis flood narrative covered in Genesis 6-9. This account baffles many Bible readers because it appears as though Noah curses his grandson Canaan, son of his son Ham, simply because Ham walked in and accidentally discovered Noah passed out naked and drunk. This seems like quite a severe overreaction. However, this only seems odd if one takes “saw his father’s nakedness” literally. I will argue in this paper that this is a euphemistic way of saying that Ham had sex with Noah’s wife (i.e his own mother) as an attempt to usurp Noah’s Patriarchal authority and that this is how Genesis’ original audience would have understood the passage. I will look at other explanations that other biblical scholars have brought up and show why they are not the best interpretation of the passage.
Genesis 9:20-27 – What The Passage Says
“The sons of Noah who went forth from the ark were Shem, Ham, and Japheth. (Ham was the father of Canaan.) These three were the sons of Noah, and from these the people of the whole earth were dispersed. 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 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.’ After the flood Noah lived 350 years. All the days of Noah were 950 years, and he died.” – Genesis 9:20-27 (ESV)
This is part of Noah’s story that puzzled me for years. It seems as though Noah gets drunk, passes out in his tent in said drunken stupor, and Ham comes in and inadvertently sees his dad lying there unconscious and naked, so he decides to leave. He tells his brothers “Yo, Dad’s naked in there passed out. You might want to cover him up or something. I just went in there by accident”. Then his brothers walk backwards into the tent out of respect, they cover him, and leave. When Noah wakes up, he somehow knows Ham saw him naked, and enraged, his curses Ham’s grandson who hasn’t even been born yet! What in the world is going on here? I can understand Noah’s embarrassment, and I might even be angry in that situation myself if I didn’t know who saw me and whether they did it on purpose or not, but it seems like an overreaction. Besides, how does he even know that it was his youngest son who did that? He was passed out at the time!
There are basically three interpretations of this passage that biblical interpreters have proposed. I will look at each of them in order of least plausible to most plausible.
Option 1: The Sin Of Ham Was Voyeurism.
The first option is that the sin of Ham was just voyeurism. He walked in, saw his father naked, and this violated a taboo here that Ham violated. Noah got embarrassed, and thus the outcry.
John Sietze Bergsma and Scott Walker Hahn have an article is entitled, “Noah’s Nakedness and the Curse on Canaan.” It’s from The Journal of
Biblical Literature. On page 27, they write this: “The strength of this position is its conservatism: it refuses to see anything in the text that is not explicit. Yet, in a sense, voyeurism is a nonexplanation, since it fails to elucidate either the gravity of Ham’s offense or the reason for the curse of Canaan. It also requires the interpreter to assume the existence of a taboo against the accidental sight of a naked parent that is otherwise unattested in biblical or Ancient Near Eastern literature. ’”1
Donald J Wold writes “Was there a custom that children did not even look into the tent of their parents? How could Ham have known that his father was naked when he opened the tent flap? Perhaps, in his innocence, he meant only to speak with his father. Or, more altruistically, perhaps he knew that his father had taken too much wine and needed assistance of some sort. Perhaps Ham saw his naked father and entertained lewd thoughts (i.e., lusted after him), but did nothing about it. If so, this incident would be one of the earliest examples where an individual is made liable to a curse or penalty for merely intending to do something. . . . Scholars who accept the literal view maintain that Ham only saw his nude father, but they must defend a custom about which we know nothing. They must also presume an immoral intention based on the severity of the curse imposed by Noah. A further problem with this view is that it does not explain why the curse was pronounced on Ham’s son Canaan and not on Ham himself.”2
So Ham walked in, saw his dad there naked unexpectedly, and that merits the cursing of his son, Canaan? It just seems like an overreaction. Dr. Michael Heiser points out the problem with this interpretation in an episode of The Naked Bible Podcast. Heiser said “Again, we don’t really have any evidence that it was taboo to just come upon someone’s naked body and see them and then you were in big trouble. There’s nothing like that in biblical law or Ancient Near Eastern law. Nevertheless, this has probably become the leading traditional view, and it really derives from the statement that Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father. That’s really where it comes from. So simple voyeurism is probably the leading traditional view. Its primary weakness, other than not having a law or anything in the Bible that would just say this was awful, is that it really doesn’t explain the curse on Canaan at all.”3
Option 2: Ham Castrated Noah.
This interpretation says that the sin that Ham committed was basically removing Noah’s testicles. Certainly, this is a rabbinic idea. To quote Bergsma and Hahn, in their article, they provide just a little snippet of an explanation or comment here. They say:
“. . . one can cite examples from Ancient Near Eastern mythology (although none from the Bible) of a son castrating his father as part of an effort to usurp his authority… [This view] also provides some rationale, albeit complex, for the cursing of Canaan: Noah curses Ham’s fourth son since Ham deprived Noah of a fourth son. What is lacking, however, is any lexical hint in the text of Gen 9:20-27 that would suggest castration.”4
So basically what Bergsma and Hahn are saying is that there’s no evidence in the text that castration occurred, there’s no evidence that Noah desired to have a fourth son, but this view does have the advantage of explaining why Noah was so angry. Hey, if someone removed my testicles while I was passed out, I’d be pretty ticked too. But other than providing a reason for Noah’s outburst, it’s really a strained interpretation.
Option 3: Ham Committed Paternal Incest.
I think that this view is the closest to the truth, as you’ll see later in this paper, but it slightly misses the mark. Robert A.J Gagnon takes this view in his book The Bible and Homosexuality.
Robert A.J Gagnon defends this interpretation by writing “First, the story appears to place Ham inside the tent, suggesting an action beyond peeking into the tent. Gen 9:22 clearly states that, after seeing his father’s nakedness, Ham ‘told (it) to his two brothers outside.’ The Septuagint is even more explicit, adding (or translating from a different Hebrew version) that Ham ‘went out and told . . .’ (exelthōn). What was he doing inside the tent? Possibly the tent was understood to be off-limits to the sons, explaining why Shem and Japheth were ‘outside’ and unaware. The fact that v. 23 refers to Shem and Japheth taking ‘the outer garment’ suggests that the garment was Noah’s. How did Noah’s garment happen to be outside the tent? The most likely answer is: Ham brought it out when he went back outside. Why would Ham have brought out Noah’s garment? A possible answer: Ham brought the garment out as proof of what he ‘had done’ to his father. It was the evidence he needed to establish bragging rights. Second, when Noah woke up, ‘he learned what his youngest son had done to him’—not the expression one would expect to describe an unintended glance or even voyeurism. If wayyitgal is translated ‘and he was uncovered’ rather than ‘and he uncovered himself,’ it ‘leaves the door open’ for asking: who uncovered Noah? The continuation in 9:22 (which need not be separated from 9:21 with a period) intimates that Ham committed the unspeakable act.”5
Gangon goes on to say “Third, and most important, the language of ‘uncovering” and ‘seeing the nakedness of’ connects up with similar phrases denoting sexual intercourse.66 Leviticus uses the phrase ‘uncover the nakedness of’ to denote incest (1aw8:6-18; 20:11, 17-21; also in 18:19, of sexual intercourse with a woman during her menstrual cycle). The same phrase is used elsewhere in the Bible of prostitution and adultery, and of rape and/or public exposure for adultery. In Lev 20:17, the expression ‘sees his/her nakedness’ is used to describe sibling incest; in other instances, the phrase ‘seeing the nakedness of’ may imply an opportunity for rape.”6
After giving these three arguments, Robert Gagnon goes on to give some other reasons for why he thinks the sin that Ham comitted here was homosexual paternal rape. He concludes by saying “Thus it is likely that the narrator charged Ham with committing a heinous act of incestuous, homosexual rape of his father.”7
I said that this is the closest alternative to being correct out of all the alternatives that I don’t take. The reason is that this interpretation recognizes that Ham “DID” something to his father. The text says “When Noah realized what his youngest son had done to him.” Obviously, something more than mere taking a glimpse at daddy’s ding dong is going on here. An action took place. And as Gagnon explains, a plausible explanation is that Noah’s garment was outside the tent is that Ham took it out as evidence he needed to establish bragging rights over what he had done. Finally, Gagnon explains that the phrase “seeing the nakedness of” is a common Old Testament idiom for sexual intercourse. Here, I think Gagnon is correct. It was indeed an Old Testament idiom for sexual intercourse. However, I think Gagnon misapplies it. Gagnon gets so close to the right answer, but literally misses it by mere inches. And no, I didn’t misuse the term literally here, as you’ll see in the next subsection.
Option 4: Ham’s Comitted Maternal Incest
What we have in Genesis 9 is, indeed, a Hebrew idiom. “To see” (the Hebrew word is ra’ah) the nakedness (the Hebrew word is ‘erwah) of someone is idiomatic. It’s an expression for sexual intercourse. Now how do we know that? If we go to Leviticus 20:17, we read this: “If a man takes his sister, a daughter of his father or a daughter of his mother, and sees her nakedness, and she sees his nakedness, it is a disgrace, and they shall be cut off in the sight of the children of their people. He has uncovered his sister’s nakedness, and he shall bear his iniquity.”
Michael Heiser explains that “The key here is to understand that ‘uncovering nakedness,’ which describes the act of removing clothing from the genital area for the purpose of sex, and ‘seeing nakedness’ are equated in this passage. Did you notice that? We have the idiom ‘to see the nakedness of’ and ‘sees her nakedness’ and that’s parallel to “uncovering nakedness.” Similar expression, but with two different verbs: see and uncover. That’s important because if you actually searched for the phrase ‘uncovering nakedness’ (there the Hebrew word is galah), you’re going to find passages that very clearly and explicitly show that uncovering nakedness is a reference to sexual intercourse.”8
Listen to the “uncovering nakedness” terminology in Leviticus 18.
“None of you shall approach any one of his close relatives to uncover nakedness. I am the LORD. You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father, which is the nakedness of your mother; she is your mother, you shall not uncover her nakedness. You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father’s wife; it is your father’s nakedness. You shall not uncover the nakedness of your sister, your father’s daughter or your mother’s daughter, whether brought up in the family or in another home. You shall not uncover the nakedness of your son’s daughter or of your daughter’s daughter, for their nakedness is your own nakedness. You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father’s wife’s daughter, brought up in your father’s family, since she is your sister. You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father’s sister; she is your father’s relative. You shall not uncover the nakedness of your mother’s sister, for she is your mother’s relative. You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father’s brother, that is, you shall not approach his wife; she is your aunt. You shall not uncover the nakedness of your daughter-in-law; she is your son’s wife, you shall not uncover her nakedness. You shall not uncover the nakedness of your brother’s wife; it is your brother’s nakedness. You shall not uncover the nakedness of a woman and of her daughter, and you shall not take her son’s daughter or her daughter’s daughter to uncover her nakedness; they are relatives; it is depravity. And you shall not take a woman as a rival wife to her sister, uncovering her nakedness while her sister is still alive.” – Leviticus 18:6-18, ESV
Note the underlined boldface words. The phrase “uncover your father’s nakedness” means to have sex with your father’s wife (your mom or step mom). To uncover your father’s brother (or uncle’s) nakedness means to have sex with your aunt. To have sex with your own son or daughter, Leviticus says, is to uncover your own nakedness.
As Michael Heiser says, “In Old Testament, Semitic, patriarchal culture, the nakedness of a man was defined as the woman that belongs to him. So that’s why Leviticus has this wording. To us it sounds very confusing, but if you understand the idiom, it’s not.”9
So when I said that Gagnon missed the answer by a few inches, I mean that the idiom he applied, and interpreting it as Ham having sex with Noah, should really have been applied to Noah’s wife, who was likely in the tent with him. To uncover a man’s nakedness means to have sex with a man that belongs to him.
At this point, one may wonder about the description of Shem and Japheth walking in backwards so as not to see Noah’s nakedness. Surely the text isn’t saying that they were trying to avoid having sex with their mother, right? Bergma and Hahn explain that “The brothers’ actions play on the broader meaning of the phrase. Not only did the brothers not ‘see their father’s nakedness’ in the sense of having intercourse with him, but also they did not even dare to ‘see their father’s nakedness’ in a literal sense. Where Ham’s act was exceedingly evil, their gesture was exceedingly pious and noble.”10
But we’re still left to wonder why Canan was cursed instead of Ham. Brian Godawa writes that “Ham is oddly and repeatedly referred to as the father of Canaan. It is a strange repetition that draws attention to itself and is finally climaxed with Canaan being cursed instead of Ham for Ham’s dirty deed. Well, if Canaan was the fruit of that illicit union of maternal incest between Ham and Emzara, it makes perfect sense within that culture that he is cursed. It may not sound kind to our modern ears, but it is perfectly consistent with that Biblical time period. Ham sought to usurp his father’s patriarchal authority through maternal incest which was ‘uncovering his nakedness.’ The fruit of that action, the son Canaan, is a cursed man. And that cursed man is the forefather of a cursed nation.”11
The sin of Ham was maternal incest. Ham had sex with his mother, Noah’s wife, in order to usurp his father’s patriarchal authority. Rather than outright say that Ham violated his mother, the author of Genesis employed a biblical idiom “uncovered his father’s nakedness” which meant to have sex with his father’s wife. To uncover a man’s nakedness was to have sex with a woman that belonged to him. This explains why Noah was so enraged at Ham, and why Canaan was cursed (because he was the fruit of that illicit union). It explains the “done to him” kind of language we find in the account, which suggests Ham did more than just get a quick peek.
1: John Sietze Bergsma and Scott Walker Hahn, “Noah’s Nakedness and the Curse on Canaan.”, The Journal Of Biblical Literature, page 27.
2: Donald J Wold, “Out Of Order”, Pages 66-67
3: Dr. Michael S. Heiser, The Naked Bible Podcast: “Episode 159: Noah’s Nakedness, the Sin of Ham, and the Curse of Canaan” — https://nakedbiblepodcast.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/NB-159-Transcript-1.pdf
4: John Sietze Bergsma and Scott Walker Hahn, “Noah’s Nakedness and the Curse on Canaan.”, The Journal Of Biblical Literature, page 28
5: Robert A.J Gagnon, “The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermenuetics”, Abingdon Press, First edition, page 69.
7: ibid, page 70.
8: Dr. Michael S. Heiser, The Naked Bible Podcast: “Episode 159: Noah’s Nakedness, the Sin of Ham, and the Curse of Canaan” — https://nakedbiblepodcast.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/NB-159-Transcript-1.pdf
10: Journal of Biblical Literature 124 (2005): 33, ed. Gail R. O’Day, 33 (Decatur, GA: Society of Biblical Literature, 2005).
11: Godawa, Brian. When Giants Were Upon the Earth: The Watchers, the Nephilim, and the Biblical Cosmic War of the Seed (pp. 181-183). Embedded Pictures Publishing. Kindle Edition.