Rorate Caeli

Noah's Drunkenness, Ham's Sin, and Canaan's Curse

Sometimes reading Scripture can be like trying to solve a mystery-crime: you have to look for clues, collect the evidence, and see where it leads. For those of you who enjoy such pursuits (the "Scripture geeks" among us), I offer my latest essay, which - believe it or not - has some rather strong implications for our modern culture:

Among my many childhood memories, one particularly early memory (relating to the interpretation of Scripture) stands out. When I and my siblings were young, we would gather in the mornings with our mother to read two chapters of Scripture - this was a daily habit. Over the course of several years, we covered nearly all of the Old and New Testaments, sometimes circling back around and covering old territory again.

While reading through Genesis, I was perplexed by the story of Noah's drunkenness in Genesis 9. In that story, Noah drinks too much wine, and falls asleep in his tent. His son, Ham, comes into the tent, sees his father's "nakedness" (as the text says), and invites his brothers in to see it as well. They decline, instead bringing a blanket to cover their sleeping father. When Noah wakes up from his drunken stupor, he learns what had happened, and proceeds to curse ... Ham's son? So says the text. As a youngster, I could not understand why Noah would curse Ham's son for a sin that Ham himself committed.

Through varied study over the last several years, I have since come across several scholarly papers that attempt to address this issue, and as the ideas have been batted around, it seems that a child-hood riddle has now at last been solved - at least to some extent. It will be the purpose of this essay to relate and regurgitate some of that material in order to answer the question: what was Ham's sin, and why did his son have to bear the brunt of the curse?


What are the problems raised by the story of Ham's sin in Genesis 9? There are several.

First, why does Noah react with such intensity against what appears to be such a minor infraction? Ham's sin is, on the surface, apparently nothing more than a rather juvenile prank - he sees his father's nakedness, and goes to tell his brothers. Does that really warrant a cursing of Ham's lineage in perpetuity?

Second, the text says that Noah uttered his curses after he "awoke from his wine and knew what his youngest son had done to him." (9:24) How in the world did he know what Ham had done? It seems that there would have to have been some kind of visible effect of the sin of Ham (perhaps he left a sandal behind in Noah's tent?) in order for Noah to have knowledge of it. Perhaps one of Ham's brothers played the tattle-tale and told Noah what Ham had done - the text doesn't say.

Third, why does the text describe the sin as an active offense - "what his youngest son had done to him" - rather than a passive offense, which is how we would normally consider an act of voyeurism? Ham only looked at Noah, says the text; it isn't as though he actively caused Noah any harm.

Fourth, and most obviously, why is Ham's son Canaan the recipient of the curse, and not Ham himself? What did Canaan have to do with the sin of his father? It is so much a matter of common sense that it hardly warrants stating explicitly: Canaan is nowhere mentioned in connection with the sin, and so strict justice would demand that the offender himself should be punished, not his offspring.

Fifth, why was Noah naked in the first place? It is plausible that a man might get drunk; it is also plausible that, after getting drunk, the man might pass out for a while. But who gets drunk, strips naked, and then passes out? Did he start out naked when he began drinking (a bizarre thing in itself, if it were true)? If not, why would he take the time to take off his clothing before passing out?

Sixth, why would one man seeing another man naked be considered a sin at all, even if they were father and son?

Read more of Noah's Drunkenness, Ham's Sin, and Canaan's Curse.


Jeff Miller said...

I think those were the same conclusions that Dr. Scott Hahn also came to in A Father Who Keeps His Promises and certainly look to be the correct ones.

Dad29 said...

Makes the Euripides story a little more interesting, eh?

Simon-Peter said...


Simply superb...sitting here at the PC letting out one, long "ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh, so that was it?"


Moretben said...

Scripture, eh?

Who'd be a Protestant?


Dad29 said...

On reflection, it also makes the "New Eve" honorific much more meaningful, as well.

JAM said...

Scripture, eh?

Who'd be a Protestant?



It is a little-known fact that I let a ghost-writing Protestant write all my articles on Scripture.

I quit reading Scripture when I became a Catholic, and have been trying ever since my conversion to forget everything I learned about the bible.


Moretben said...

Good man there, Jam!

What was it Belloc said?

"A lot of Iron-age nonsense"?

Seriously, thanks - a great piece.


Screwtape said...

I haven't been this excited since William F. Buckley explained the "Horseman, pass by" on a famous epitaph.

Uh, which Euripides story? Phaedre, I assume. Why not Racine?

NOW I know why Dr. Hahn's mind is where it is. (I didn't say it.)

Meanwhile, I'm wishing there were an Old Testament tic-tac-toe, so I wouldn't have to keep losing the secular version.

The Jewish exegesis on Septuagint narrative symbology I read in Commentary magazine thirty years ago was simple by comparison.

Some people have way too much time on their hands.

I've lost my teddy bear, Melvin!

Paul M. Kingery said...

Noah represents Jesus, wanting to reveal Himself in the flesh, when his sons are not expecting that or willing for it. He is drunken in that he would not normally do such a thing. Ham is his son, and responds to the intimate encounter by telling his brothers, as he should. Ham is the good son, who was in the place of Christ's appearing. The two brothers are in the faith, but do two bad things. They set their faces backward, they walk backard. Not good. Then Noah pronounces the curse on Canaan, not a curse he or God places, but in the ancient Israeli custom of foretelling the future of your son. It was the two brothers who cursed Canaan, and drove him away. He was the servant of servants to his brethren. Not a bad thing to be for any Christian. But the brothers thought they were better, so they covered up the appearing of Christ and plagued their brother. This will soon happen, Christ will return, the established church people will deny it, and curse those who say they saw Him. Read more about this in my free online book at to avoid the publisher's charges at Let me know what you think.
Your brother,

Anonymous said...

I would like to read more of your article but the link is to a website called which seems unrelated.
Could you repost your article, please?

Marian said...

Simple. The Scripture does not say whether Noah's wife was the mother of Noah's sons. The Book of Leviticus, in setting forth the forms of unlawful sexual relationships, is plain in saying "you shall not uncover the nakedness of your father's wife. It is your father's nakedness." Noah got drunk and was going to make love with his wife but passed out before anything could happen. Ham (who it would seem had an eye for his stepmother) walks in and...shall we say?...finishes what his father started. Noah 'knew what his younger son had done to him' because Noah's wife ended up pregnant and Noah knew it wasn't his. Since there were only 'eight souls saved out of water', it had to be one of Noah's sons. Mrs. Noah obviously filled in the details... or maybe it came out when the child was born...?

You will notice in the Scripture text that Ham is mentioned as the father of Canaan at the same time he is mentioned as the son of Noah....

I am a Traditional Roman Catholic. However, I had some insight into this provided by an Orthodox Jewish friend.

The Relic said...

Paul Kingery,

Your interpretation is not in keeping with the faith. Canaan is condemned by the righteous father, Noah--never is this type a prefigurement of one who will later be blessed.

While the exact nature of Ham's sin is a matter of dispute, "looking on his father's nakedness" was a no-no. According to St. Augustine in The City of God, Shem is a prefigurement of the Jews, since he is first blessed; Japheth is a prefigurement of the Gentiles, since he will "dwell in the houses of Shem," in other words, be given a share in the inheritance promised to Shem.

Noah's nakedness and drunkenness is a figure of Christ's crucifixion, in which we see the weakness and folly of the cross, which according to Paul is stronger than our strength and wiser than our wisdom. Ham would be a figure for those who ridiculed and spat on the stripped, helpless form. Shem and Japheth are seen by Augustine as doing exactly what they should do: honoring their helpless, shamed father with utmost reverence--the two of them prefigure Christians, those called out of Judaism and paganism, respectfully.