Why was it so serious for Ham to spot his father in a naked condition in Genesis 9:22?
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Let's get the whole quote. We take it from the NKJV:
'And Noah began to be a farmer, and he planted a vineyard. Then he drank of the wine and was drunk, and became uncovered in his tent. And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers outside. But Shem and Japheth took a garment, laid it on both their shoulders, and went backward and covered the nakedness of their father. Their faces were turned away, and they did not see their father's nakedness. So Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done to him. Then he said: "Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants he shall be to his brethren." And he said: "Blessed be the LORD, the God of Shem, and may Canaan be his servant. May God enlarge Japheth, and may he dwell in the tents of Shem; and may Canaan be his servant."'
At first sight this does not seem such a serious incident and many have wondered why the punishment for a young man seeing his father in a naked condition was so serious, after all they were both men. Also, this Scripture seems especially odd since the punishment seems to have been passed directly on to Noah's grandson (rather than his son). We must note that the text of Genesis here is less clear than one might wish so we have to work with various clues, including from other sections of Scripture. Overall, most Bible commentators (not all) feel that something else occurred which the text never specifically spells out.
So there might be much more to this text than immediately meets the eye!
Okay, let us consider this in more detail.
Much of the explanation may be found in the meaning of the Hebrew phrase, 'to look upon his/her nakedness.' Look up Leviticus 18:6-18 and 20:17. It is very clear that this phrase was used by the Hebrews to describe the sexual sin which occurred following seeing the nakedness of another. In this case, the sin of incest seems to be the problem. There are two possibilities of meaning here:
Noah apparently carelessly left himself uncovered in his tent (v. 21), whereupon his son Ham saw his 'nakedness' [Heb. 'erwa' = 'his genitals'] (v. 22); and then apparently performed a sexual act, probably masturbation, upon his weakened father (however, since the curse was pronounced on Canaan rather than upon Ham, some believe that Ham employed his son to perform the act upon Noah - v. 24). So, almost certainly, and in a completely depraved manner, Noah was probably masturbated (there is another explanation which we will consider later). Presumably Noah was drunk and did not react, and in his weakened state, might even have disgracefully enjoyed the act. But when he became sober, Noah was both ashamed and furious at what had happened. The text strongly suggests that whereas Shem and Japheth were horrified at noting Noah's careless nakedness, Ham exploited the situation. So Ham 'saw the nakedness of his father,' and seems to have been wholly responsible (although, as already alluded to, some think that the actual sexual act was performed by Canaan). This caused Ham to be removed from receiving any blessing from Noah, and Canaan, his son, was pronounced to be the future father of servants. Putting it all together, it seems most likely that Canaan, Ham's son, was not involved in the act but the curse was placed upon him possibly because he was Ham's favourite son.
It is surely interesting that a state of drunkeness leads to another act of incest in Genesis. This was when Lot's daughters deliberately got their father drunk in order to have sex with him. It is recounted in Genesis 19:30-35. So this was paternal incest.
The message of the Bible is that the foul sin of incest can only produce evil results. Canaan became the father of the Canaanites who apparently inherited the sexual morals of their grandfather, with a liking for incest and other forms of sexual perversion. Moses warned the Israelites not to adopt the sexual behaviour and practises of the Canaanites and other tribes within the Promised Land in Leviticus 18:6-18 and Exodus 23:23-24.
The incest of Lot's daughters with their father led to the peoples of Edom, Moab and Ammon (Genesis 19:36-38) and these people too proved to be continual enemies of Israel!
In Genesis 9, we note the curse which Noah pronounced on his grandson for Ham's apparent act of incest; Canaan's descendants would now have to serve Shem's descendants which is what happened when the Jews, descended from Shem, inherited the Promised Land! Shem and Japheth receive blessings because they reacted with wisdom and concern when Ham apparently foolishly boasted. They entered the tent and covered their father's 'nakedness' (that is, their father and mother). Japheth's blessing is that he would be 'enlarged' - his descendants have indeed become numerous. Japhethites are indeed very numerous and would not only include many 'western-types' but another branch of Japheth will be found among such races as the Chinese, Japanese and Indonesians; a very populous people!
Incidentally, its worth pointing something else out from Genesis 9:27. The verse says this:
'May God enlarge Japheth, and may he dwell in the tents of Shem...'
We need to remember that the original Hebrew carried no punctuation, and many feel that there should be a full-stop (period) after Japheth, rather than a comma, because the next part, 'And may He dwell in the tents of Shem' is actually a reference to God, and God 'dwelt in the tents of Shem' in the tented tabernacle in the wilderness!
SECOND POSSIBILITY OF THE EXPLANATION OF GENESIS 9:20-27:
As we have pointed out, the Genesis text is not as clear as it might be in this section of Scripture and some commentators have suggested a different explanation:
They suggest that it was Noah's wife who was the victim of the incestuous behaviour, not Noah at all. In other words, this would make the phrase 'the nakedness of Noah,' to be a reference to Noah's wife rather than to Noah himself, and 'to uncover Noah's nakedness' would be to have illicit sexual relations with his wife. If this is so, it might explain more. For example, some scholars now suggest that such incestuous acts were often all about inner-family power struggles and it was usually an ambitious son who attempted to sexually compromise his mother!
Scott Hahn says this,
'..Ham was trying to usurp his father's authority by sleeping with his mother. Perhaps that's why he told his brothers what he'd done, rather than keeping it a secret. This reflects a pattern found elsewhere in the Old Testament, especially where sons resent fathers for showing favor to siblings. For example, Jacob's son Reuben sought to undermine his (Jacob's) favored half-brother Joseph by taking his father's concubine - for which he received a paternal curse (see Gen 29:32; 35:22; 49:3-4). Likewise, Absalom resented the plans of his father, King David, to give the throne to one of his younger half-brothers, Solomon. In response, Absalom drove King David out of Jerusalem and then slept with his father's concubines - right in public - to signify his seizure of royal power...'
(Scott Hahn, A Father Who Keeps His Promises, p 87-88, Charis Servant Publications, Ann Arbor, 1998).
So there may well have been a bid for leadership over his siblings by Ham in his sexual conquest of his own mother (if indeed, it was Noah's wife who was compromised rather than Noah himself) - almost certainly, Ham wanted to be recognised as the leader among Noah's sons! Some believe that this wicked practice (ambitious sons seeking the sexual conquest of their mothers) later became more widespread, but, in Ham's case, God caused his evil behaviour to backfire, and the greater blessings and honour went to Japheth and, especially, to Shem, from whom the tribes of Israel would spring!
So it should not be entirely surprising that God gave the sons of Shem (Abraham and the Israelites) the right to have authority over the Canaanites.
Robin A. Brace
2003. Partly updated 2016.
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