Noah's Drunkenness by Jacques Joseph Tissot, 1836-1902

“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”
(Genesis 9:20-27).

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.

11 thoughts on “Difficult Bible Passages: What Did Noah’s Youngest Son do to Him?

  1. Ham had four sons: Cush, Mizraim, Phut, and Canaan. We assume based on your logic that Canaan was Ham’s youngest son. Can you speak to why Noah’s “curse” specfically only names Ham’s youngest son and why his other three boys don’t seem to be impacted. Thanks.

    1. Great question Chris. The simple answer is, I’m really not sure. I would say, however, that it is a problem whether you take the view I’ve set out above (that this was more about “promoting” Japheth for the good he did) or the normal view that it was cursing Ham and his descendants for the evil he did. Either way, the question is why does Canaan get cursed and not his elder brothers.

      But here’s my best guess, which is probably wrong 🙂

      The genealogy which puts Canaan at the end of the line of Ham’s sons comes in chapter 10. But if you go back a chapter, you read this:

      Verse 16 – “The sons of Noah who went forth from the ark were Shem, Ham, and Japheth. (Ham was the father of Canaan.)”

      Verse 22 – And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father and told his two brothers outside.

      What this seems to suggest to me is that Canaan was actually Ham’s firstborn son, and not just the firstborn of Ham, but the firstborn of all the brothers. So very soon after the 8 left the ark, Ham’s wife gave birth to Canaan. And when we come to the wine incident, he is still the only grandson of Noah – at least that passage only mentions one son of the three brothers, which is Canaan, which would be odd if there were others around.

      And so when Noah promotes Japheth because of his kindness, and demotes Ham because he failed to do what he should have done, it is said of Canaan that he will be “a servant of servants to his brothers.” And so when we come to chapter 10, Canaan is put last of the four, not because he was 4th born (as I say Chapter 9 suggests he was 1st born), but because it has already been said that he shall be a servant, not just to Shem and Japheth, but also to his brothers, Cush, Mizraim, and Phut.

      But like I say, I’m shooting in the dark here a bit, and since I’m not convinced by my own explanation here, I can hardly expect that it will satisfy you 🙂

      But there you go. It is a Difficult Bible Passage!

      Best wishes,


  2. Very interesting exposition, Rob. Thank you. Sounds very plausible to me. If you’re right then you’re one up on John Calvin who doesn’t share your interpretation in his commentary!

    I am puzzled about the fig tree episode because Jesus went up to the tree to obtain something to eat even though he knew it wasn’t the season for figs, so I look forward to reading your take on that please.

    And another request sometime please is if you would list the top 10 books you recommend everyone to read, and the top 10 books you recommend every Christian to read. Thank you.

    1. Pah! John Calvin? What does he know 😉

      Fig tree exposition is in the works.

      Will think about the Top 10 books, but I’m not sure I’m nearly well read enough to do that with any competence.

      Thanks Phil,


      1. If you’d prefer, you could write an article listing the 10 books (or 5 books) that have most impacted you personally, or the top 5 books you would choose to take on a desert island. It would be very interesting to read the reasons behind your choices. Just an idea for a future article.
        Whatever, thank you very much for all your writings on this blog. It’s interesting, enlightening, and helpful. I really appreciate your spending the time to offer this material.
        Have a nice weekend!

  3. I’m becoming reluctant to comment here as I seem to read everything different.
    Canaan was the youngest son of Ham, but if Canaan was the youngest kid or man in the family then would it be abnormal if Noah called him “his youngest son”? After all he cursed Canaan right after he realized what “his youngest son” had done to him.
    I also wonder why Ham entered Noah’s tent. Could it be that he was looking for his son Canaan? And that the “nakedness” he saw shocked him so much that he ran out to his brothers?
    Can it be that the covering of Noah’s nakedness has a symbolic meaning in the sense that what really happened should never be mentioned again and maybe that’s why the Bibile is so unclear about what really happened.

    1. No GV. Don’t stop commenting. I welcome dissenters 🙂

      I’m not 100% sure what you mean, but I think that you are saying that Noah might have been referring to Canaan when he says “his youngest son”. Have I understood you?

      However, I don’t see that it could mean that. There are two actions mentioned in the piece after Noah gets drunk and before awakes. The first is that Ham sees him, and goes out to tell his brothers (my guess is that he probably did snigger and say words to the effect of, “Come and have a look lads). The other action is performed by Shem and Japheth, who go in without looking to cover their father.

      Therefore, Noah’s words must be about one of those two actions. However, my point is whereas most people have assumed that it must be an angry Noah cursing Ham for whatever he had done, the family genealogy, which shows Japheth to be his youngest son, leads us to believe that it was Japheth’s kindness and not Ham’s sin that is being referred to.

      But I don’t think it can be referring to Canaan, since we are not told in the story about anything that Canaan actually does.


      1. Yes Rob, I’ve the impression that Canaan was with Noah and the way it is told also gives me the impression that it should never be mentioned directly that Canaan was there and neither what really happened (that is the covering up part).
        Ham saw Noah’s “nakedness” holds more than that. Ham saw what was happening. I cannot even see what Ham did wrong. He entered the room and could not expect that his father was naked, so what is he to blame for?

        1. What did Ham do wrong? He failed to perform the duty of a son by covering his father’s shame. But as I say, that’s not the point of the passage. The emphasis is more on what Japheth did right (covering his father’s shame), rather than what Ham did wrong (failing to cover him).

  4. This was actually very helpful to me. It has never bothered me to an extreme degree, but this particular passage has caused me some confusion (as you refer to.)

    Small quibble. I consider the phrase “of course” to be a phrase to be avoided unless you feel 200% confident. You say at one point: “Who is it talking about? Ham or Japheth? Well Japheth of course.” I really don’t see how you can say “of course” here, although I agree with you that it seems highly probable.

    The Bible passage that has annoyed me perhaps the most for many years is the episode where Jesus curses the fig tree for not bearing fruit, making it wither. Mark 11:12-25 I believe.

    1. Thanks Richard.

      I definitely do have a tendency to use phrases such as “of course”. Sometimes justifiably, and perhaps sometimes not. I would say in this case, I’m 99.99% sure that Japheth is the youngest brother, rather than Ham, because the author of Genesis is extremely careful with his use of language, and I think if he orders them S,H and J in all instances, he is telling us something.

      I’d love to have a go at the fig tree episode. It would be useful to me if you could tell me what it is that annoys you about it, so I can factor it into any piece I write on it.



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