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Q and A – What of Noah’s Drunkenness And What Was Ham’s Curse?

At the tail end of the Flood Story, we learn that Noah planted a vineyard and drank the wine from it. He became drunk and lay uncovered (naked) in his tent. One of his sons, Ham, who was the father of Canaan, saw his father naked and told his two brothers. Now, the two brothers are pictured as the good ones, who take a garment, walk backward, and cover the nakedness of their father without seeing him. When Noah wakes up and finds out what his son had “done to him”, he seems to get angry and says, “Cursed be Canaan; lowest of the slaves shall he be to his brothers”(Genesis 9:20-25).

What I love about the Bible is that it does not try to cover up the faults of its greatest heroes. Noah who was so obedient to God, is now drunk. We know drunkenness is wrong from later texts in the Bible, but this text does not fault Noah for getting drunk. Moreover, we all know there is nothing wrong with being naked in one’s own tent. The reader is left to make their own judgments about such matters for the writer does not convey the great Noah in the negative here. Maybe Noah wanted to take the edge off from all the stress of the great flood? Ham’s action, whatever it was, is the focus of negativity from Noah’s perspective.

Before we get there though, there is more we can derive from this text on other subjects. We find that Genesis offers some perspective on the origin of urbanization (4:17), nomadism (4:20), music/arts (4:21), metallurgy (4:22), and religion (4:26).[1] And now, near the end of the Flood Story, we see agriculture in the form of vineyards. Vineyards, and more broadly agriculture, seem to be linked with the blessings and curses on those who lived after the flood.[2] Even more interesting, other surrounding cultures and their literature accredit these civilizational achievements to the gods. The author of Genesis accredits these developments to humans.[3] I personally find this an important distinction between Biblical literature and non-biblical literature.

Back to the curse: commentators have offered numerous interpretations of what Ham’s actions could have been to his father; such as voyeurism, castration, paternal incest, or even maternal incest.[4] However, like a lot of Hebrew literature, there is something still hidden about a passage like this. The language is simply not specific enough to tell us exactly what he did. We only know that he “saw” and he “told.” One avenue which could be fruitful for our understanding, is that a son had certain responsibilities to their father, especially when drunk.[5] Thus, we can know for sure that he failed to honor his father in this circumstance. Following societal conventions may not seem to explain Noah’s anger to Western readers, but this is taking place in the East. Even to this day, some Eastern and Middle Eastern Cultures live with conventions which result in serious shaming, honor killing, and more.

What of the Curse? What is most interesting to me about this curse is that it is directed at Canaan, even though Ham is the one who sinned. Thus, the reader is betraying that they are writing about an earlier time. The author of this passage was alive much later than Noah, since he is writing about a developed people group who receives the curse. I find this takes place in a lot of portions of the book of Genesis and other Old Testament books as well. We learn later that the Canaanites are not the greatest people, and now we have an understanding why! Ham, their early father, was a little ‘off’ from the start.

The conclusion we should come to is that the author of Genesis is making sense (the practice of sense making) why a group of people (the Canaanites), are what they are. The curse then is not so much to be seen as deserving of the crime, or even as determining their whole lineage because of Noah’s spoken curse, but more so as a recognition of the results of a people who came from a negative character in the first place.

Pastor Isaac

[1] Bill Arnold’s commentary on Genesis, page. 411 is where I found this. I have noticed this before, but he brings it all together so well which makes the mind clearer and he deserves citation. [2] P. 111 [3] P. 112 [4] P. 112 [5] P. 112

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