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.