This is the first of a few articles I hope to post about strange events recorded in Genesis that are widely misunderstood and generaly simplified beyond what is reasonable, causing the original meaning of the story to be obscured. When one digs deeper and makes the proper connections within the text of the Torah, what one discovers transforms what initially appears to be a confusing story into one with much deeper significance.

Let's start with the very short story in Genesis 9 relating a strange event in which Noah gets drunk, disrobes in his tent, is seen by one of his sons, is subsequently covered up by his other two sons who enter the tent backwards, presumably to avoid seeing their father naked, and ends with Noah cursing his grandson, the son of the one who saw him naked.

The typical interpretation of this story is quite unsatisfying, in my opinion. Let's try to figure out what really happened.

Noah, a man of the soil, began to plant a vineyard.

When he drank some of the wine, he got drunk and uncovered himself inside his tent.

Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father's nakedness and told his two brothers who were outside.

Shem and Japheth took the garment and placed it on their shoulders. Then they walked in backwards and covered up their father's nakedness. Their faces were turned the other way so they did not see their father's nakedness.

When Noah awoke from his drunken stupor he learned what his youngest son had done to him.

So he said, "Cursed be Canaan! The lowest of slaves he will be to his brothers."

He also said, "Worthy of praise is YHWH, the God of Shem! May Canaan be the slave of Shem!

May God enlarge Japheth's territory and numbers! May he live in the tents of Shem and may Canaan be his slave!"

Gen 9:20-27

The story as written presents several problems:

  1. Why was it so wrong for Ham to see Noah naked?
  2. Why did Shem and Japheth have to walk backwards when covering him up?
  3. If Ham was the offender, why was his son Canaan cursed rather than himself, while Seth and Japheth were blessed for their actions?

Too much of this story is nonsensical when taken at face value. However, when one makes the following crucial connection to a commandment related to sexuality presented later in Leviticus, one begins to understand what may reallly have happened:

If a man has sexual intercourse with his father's wife, he has exposed his father's nakedness. Both of them must be put to death; their blood guilt is on themselves.

Lev 20:11

Suddenly, with this understanding of a Hebrew euphemism, the entire story comes to life with all of its sordid details.

What the story really tells us, in my opinion, is this:

Noah (and likely his wife as well) got drunk and were naked in their tent, probably engaging (or preparing to at least) in marital intimacy. By the time Ham enters the tent, Noah is drunk to the point of incapacity or unconsciousness (as the story doesn't suggest he intervened.)

Ham took advantage of the situation and had sex with Noah's wife, then apparently bragged to his brothers about it. Seth and Japheth walked into the tent backwards because they were covering their mother up, not their father (though they may have covered him as well.)

Noah's wife was impregnated by Ham and bore Canaan, who was cursed as the product of a prohibited sexual relationship.

Now we have a much darker story, but one that finally makes sense!

Interestingly, the descendants of Canaan become the people whom YHWH instructs Moses and the Israelites to destroy or drive out when they inherit the land of Canaan.