Noah catches a lot of flak. We all know the story. Noah grows grapes, makes wine, drinks wine, uncovers himself, and then his son Ham comes into his tent and sees him. Noah later wakes up and realizes what Ham has done, and so he curses Ham son, Canaan—prophesying that Canaan will be a slave to his brothers.
What did he do wrong?
It seems that most Christians forget the last half of the story, where Ham saw his father and Noah cursed Canaan, and instead focus on the "sin" of Noah. Interestingly enough, the text does not tell us that Noah sinned and the drunken sailor story itself was only given so that the reader could better understand the purpose of the curse. No where does Moses (the author) actually condemn Noah for what he has done, but instead Ham is condemned. But why?
I'm sure we could have a long discussion about the abuse of alcohol and the many scripture references in favor of the use of alcohol, and we could have a discussion about the modern prohibition movement within the church in the United States, but that isn't actually the point of the passage, and if that is the way we read this, then we miss an important message.
"saw his father’s nakedness"? What does that mean?
Before we move on, I should note that some have struggled with this idea of Ham "seeing" the nakedness of his father. Why was wrong? Theories have developed in an attempt to correct the fogginess of the passage. These are as follows:
Noah had just slept with his wife
Ham had slept with Noah's wife
Ham had slept with Noah
Ham saw his father's nakedness (no, really...just saw)
Since nothing within the text even warrants a discussion of sex (homo- or hetero-), I find it difficult to accept any of these views. Yes, some relate Leviticus 18:6-11,15-19 and its reference "uncover nakedness" being a euphemism for sex, but in this case Noah uncovered himself—Ham just saw him. Furthermore, in the very next verse, the other two brothers entered the tent backwards in order to cover their sleeping father.
Is it wrong to look upon another's nakedness?
In our modern culture, where nakedness is something to be proud of and show the world (just look at almost any random advertisement), but in the Biblical world nakedness was often equated with shame. Now, nakedness isn't shameful (God created the human body!), but the public viewing of one's nakedness brings shame upon the naked individual. Check out these quick passages that explain ( I have handpicked the versions that use the words "naked" or "nakedness" for ease of understanding):
Isaiah 47.3a, "Your nakedness will be uncovered, Your shame also will be exposed." (NASB )
Nahum 3.5, “Behold, I am against you,” says the LORD of hosts; “I will lift your skirts over your face, I will show the nations your nakedness, And the kingdoms your shame.” (NKJ)
Revelation 3.18, "I advise you to buy from Me gold refined by fire so that you may become rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself, and that the shame of your nakedness will not be revealed; and eye salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see." (NASB)
Revelation 16.15, "Behold, I am coming like a thief. Blessed is the one who stays awake and keeps his clothes, so that he will not walk about naked and men will not see his shame." (NASB)
According to these Scriptures, and within this culture, showing your nakedness to others (obviously with exclusions—we can assume spouse, doctor, etc.) was a shameful practice. Now, with that said, let's get back to Noah and notice that Noah was uncovered inside "his own" tent! If there is a place where a man can sleep naked, surely it is within his own bedroom, right?
Again, Noah is not said to have done anything wrong here. Getting drunk was not condemned, and getting naked was not condemned. As a matter of fact, I am not sure that Ham's quick viewing of his father should be condemned, but rather what he did afterward.
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A West Semitic legend most likely concerned with the annual summer drought helps us to understand the real error on Ham's part—the Aqhat Epic. In this story, Danel wants a son. For seven days, he makes offerings and lies before the gods. Finally, Ba'al takes compassion on him, and helps to fulfill Danel's desires.
What is truly interesting as a comparison, though, isn't that Danel wanted a son, but *why* he wanted a son. What would a son do for him? Several times we read what a son would do for him:
to set up a stela for [Danel's] divine ancestor,
a votive marker for [Danel's] clan in the sanctuary;
to send [Danel's] incense up from the earth,
the song of [Danel's] burial place from the dust;
to shut the jaws of [Danel's] abusers,
to drive off [Danel's] oppressors;
to hold [Danel's] hand when [Danel] is drunk,
to support [Danel] when he is full of wine;
to eat [Danel's] grain-offering in the temple of Baal,
[Danel's] portion in the temple of El;
to patch [Danel's] roof when it gets muddy,
to wash [Danel's] clothes when they get dirty.
Having a son was a great blessing. The son would take care of the aging father, but he would also "shut the jaws" of abusers and "drive off" oppressors. A son's duty was to keep his father's honor in-tact at all costs. This included helping his father when he is drunk.
We are not told that Noah did anything wrong that night. He drank too much wine, became overheated, and decided to sleep it off. Ham enters, sees his father, and then what does he do? Does he close up his father's tent and ward off his brothers? No. Instead, we read:
"Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father’s nakedness and told his two brothers who were outside" (Gen 9:22).
It isn't shameful to be naked in one's own tent, but there is a shame in a public display of one's nakedness. There isn't shame in drinking too much wine in one's own tent, but there is a shame when the world finds out. Ham dishonored his father, and apparently Noah could see that this would carry through into Canaan.
The Curse of Canaan
Noah didn't curse Ham, but he cursed Canaan instead. The text reads:
“Cursed be Canaan!
The lowest of slaves
he will be to his brothers.”
He also said,
“Worthy of praise is the Lord, the God of Shem!
May Canaan be the slave of Shem!
May God enlarge Japheth’s territory and numbers!
May he live in the tents of Shem
and may Canaan be his slave!” (Gen 9:25-27)
The answer to why Canaan was cursed instead of Ham will elude us. There are many theories, but probably the best theory is that Noah could somehow determine that Canaan would act in the same manner. This is completely conjecture, though.
We are told that Noah planted a vineyard, and then after he was able to make wine he got drunk. What we aren't told is how long this took. We don't know what grandchildren were present, and we don't know at what point in the chronology of events this took place. Noah lived three hundred fifty years after the flood—was Canaan there somewhere? Was Canaan an adult with his own kids at this point?
From the biblical text, we learn that Canaan had children that established prominent nations: Cush, Mizraim, Put, and Canaan. Archaeologically, we learn that the Canaanites of Abraham's day were not aboriginal to the land—there was a group before them. There is a material culture break between Chalcolithic Canaan and Early Bronze Canaan, meaning that at some point the Canaanites of Abraham's day (a Semitic group—children of Shem) moved into the land, and as their culture was dominant, they became the dominant/key players, subjecting the aboriginal inhabitants.
This means that the Canaanites that Joshua faced were not the Canaanites that were cursed. In fact, due to the harsh Ba'alism in the land, the Israelites were not supposed to subjugate the people of the land (as the curse requires), but to destroy them.
So, when was the curse fulfilled? Long before Abraham even entered the land. The curse, Canaan becoming slaves to Shem, occurred when the Semites moved into the land and whose material culture we know as the Early Bonze Age.