“Noah’s Drunkenness” by Jacques Joseph Tissot, 1836-1902
“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”
These verses have been the subject of much debate and, I would argue, confusion over the years. Noah, having planted a vineyard, got so drunk one night on wine that he lay in his tent naked and, it seems, utterly insensible. In the next scene, his son Ham sees him lying there in his stupor and apparently “does something to his father”. When he tells his two brothers, they are keen to uphold the honour of their father, and so even though he has brought shame upon himself they cover it up.
The debates have generally centered on two things. Firstly, what was it that Ham did? And secondly, why did Noah curse Ham’s son, Canaan, for the sin of his father?
To the first question, many have supposed that Noah’s “knowing what his son had done to him” can only mean that Ham performed an act of homosexuality on him. Others have wondered whether the uncovering of Noah’s nakedness means that Ham used the occasion of his father’s drunkenness to sleep with his mother – Noah’s wife. Still others have taken it to mean that he simply went out to snigger to his brothers about his father’s state, and presumably to encourage them to come and take a look. But whatever it was that Ham did, so the thinking goes, it must have been enough to make his father furious, so that when he awoke and realised what had happened, he cursed both him and his descendants.
But of course this leads to even bigger problems. The law that is given later in Deuteronomy 24 says this:
“Fathers shall not be put to death because of their children, nor shall children be put to death because of their fathers. Each one shall be put to death for his own sin.”
Although that law referred to instances of capital punishment, the spirit of it applies to sins in general, as we find out in Ezekiel 18:20:
“The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father for this iniquity of the son.”
Of course the law hadn’t been given at the time of Noah, but it’s a principle established by God and so if Noah had wrongly cursed Ham’s son for his father’s act, then God would presumably have corrected Noah’s misunderstanding. Yet subsequent history does indeed show Noah’s words coming to pass.
So what is this all about?
I’m genuinely puzzled as to why people have read the passage this way over the years. For there is a very glaring detail that, when seen, puts the whole episode in a very different light. We are told that Noah’s words were a reaction to what “his youngest son had done to him”. Which was Ham, right? Well let’s take a look at all the references to his three sons where they are all mentioned together in the Bible:
“After Noah was 500 years old, Noah fathered Shem, Ham, and Japheth.” (Genesis 5:32)
“These are the generations of Noah. Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation. Noah walked with God. And Noah had three sons, Shem, Ham and Japheth.” (Genesis 6:9-10)
“On the very same day Noah and his sons, Shem, Ham and Japheth, and Noah’s wife and the three wives of his sons with them entered the ark.” Chapter 7:13:
“The sons of Noah who went forth from the ark were Shem, Ham and Japheth.” (Genesis 9:18)
“These are the generations of the sons of Noah, Shem, Ham and Japheth.” (Genesis 10:1)
“Noah, Shem, Ham, and Japheth.” (1 Chronicles 1:4)
Let me ask you a question: if you had just read these passages for the first time, and knew nothing about the drunken incident, who would you say Noah’s youngest son was? Well, you wouldn’t say Ham, would you? Since Japheth is always mentioned last, we can safely say that it was he, not Ham, who was Noah’s youngest son.
Which puts a very different complexion on the drunken, naked incident. So when it says that:
“Noah awoke from his wine and knew what his youngest son had done to him”…
Who is it talking about? Ham or Japheth? Well Japheth of course. And so rather than this being about Noah waking up and angrily realising that Ham had done something unspeakable to him, it is actually about Noah waking up and realising that his youngest son had done a great kindness to him. It was Japheth, his youngest son, who had done to him what his elder brother, Ham, ought to have done.
Which then makes sense of the rest of the passage. Remember that back in those days, inheritance had far more importance than it does today. In the pecking order of Noah’s family, Shem was first, Ham was second and Japheth was last. And so Japheth was servant to his brothers, and Japheth’s sons would have been servants to the sons of Shem and Ham.
But what happens after this incident is that Japheth moves above Ham in the family pecking order. He is given the privileges that Ham had, because he did what Ham should have done – covered his father’s shame. And therefore so do his sons move up in the pecking order. Whereas Japheth’s sons would naturally have been considered below Ham’s sons, Japheth’s kindness to his father, and his doing what the second son should have done, now mean that the order is reversed.
And so this is not a case of Noah cursing Canaan because of his father’s sin. Rather, it is a case of Noah rewarding Japheth for being the second son that Ham failed to be. Which in turn means that whereas his sons will from then on be rewarded with the privileges that Ham’s sons would have had, conversely Ham’s sons, including Canaan and his progeny, will from that point on be servants to Japheth and his progeny.
As always, this may well raise other questions, but I hope that this might help explain what is perhaps one of the most misunderstood of biblical passages.