A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

What's up with the biblical story of drunken Noah? (Part 1)

January 25, 2005

Dear Straight Dope:

Genesis 9:20-25 seems to be one of the strangest stories in the Bible. Noah lands the ark, plants a vineyard, gets drunk off its wine, lays around naked in his tent and is seen by his son Ham who reports it to his two brothers. Noah sobers up knowing what Ham did and curses his grandson Canaan who apparently was not even there. What is even stranger is when I started researching this mystery I discovered the story was once used to support slavery. Further there are theories floating around concerning castration and incest. What is the real story? Is there a deeper meaning to this than Noah having a case of misdirected anger while hung over? Or are we only hearing the watered-down version in our modern day Bible?

Yes, there are some strange stories in the Bible, no question about it. And there are those who happily twist the biblical stories to suit their own political ends. I'm going to split this into two different questions to be answered in two separate articles: First, the textual interpretation of the story itself, and second the history of how that the story has been used to "justify" slavery and the subjugation of black people in America.

The story itself:

After the Flood, Noah and family emerge from the Ark, the only humans to survive the great deluge. I'll use the traditional King James translation of Genesis 9:20-25, since that was the one read from pulpits in pre-Civil War America:

And Noah began to be an husbandman, and he planted a vineyard: And he drank of the wine, and was drunken; and he was uncovered within his tent. And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brethren without. And Shem and Japheth took a garment, and laid it upon both their shoulders and went backwards, and covered the nakedness of their father; and their faces were backward, and they saw not their father's nakedness. And Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done unto him. And he said, Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren.

What the hell is this all about? The prior verses were lofty poetry and grand promises following the Flood, and here we have a brief description of a very bizarre event. This story, like many other of the earliest stories, almost certainly had an oral tradition before it was written down, and that oral tradition is now lost to us (in fact, was probably lost before 600 BC). The initial audiences of the written version knew the story, and didn't need to have all the details. We're left with speculation and guesswork. (Note that we're engaged here in literary textual interpretation, not historical veracity.)

The only other person in Genesis to get drunk is Abraham's nephew Lot, who gets drunk after the destruction of Sodom--as with the Noah story, an incident with sexual overtones following a great disaster.  Noah has witnessed dreadful catastrophe. Overwhelmed by the task of rebuilding a destroyed world, virtually alone and friendless in an almost empty world, perhaps he had some guilt that he survived when so many perished. So he got drunk and naked in the privacy of his tent. It's not what you expect of a great biblical hero, but it's a very human reaction.

Ham comes into the tent, sees his father drunk and naked and goes out to tell his two brothers. The two brothers come in backwards so as to cover their father without looking at him. Noah wakes up and curses, not Ham, but Ham's son Canaan.

Why? A straightforward reading of the text is that Ham saw his naked father, left him that way, and gossiped about it to his two brothers, ridiculing their father. Ham's sin is thus immodesty, lack of filial respect, and failure to take action to protect his father.

The problem with this plain reading is that the severity of Noah's reaction suggests that there is something more sordid going on than simply ridicule. But what? Speculation abounds. Again, most authorities think there was an oral tradition that was left out of the written text for reasons of delicacy. There are two main areas of speculation:

Ham sodomized or castrated Noah. One infers this from the fact that Noah had no children after the Flood. (On the other hand, he was over 500 years old--whaddya want?) This was a common interpretation by both Jewish rabbinic scholars and early Christian fathers. One conjecture is that Ham used some magic spell to render Noah impotent. Modern scholars view these interpretations as unlikely. Among other things, the penalty for sodomy would have been death by stoning, not a curse on the perpetrator's child.

Ham saw Noah having sex with someone other than Mrs. Noah. This is problematic. The only other women around were Noah's daughters-in-law or granddaughters. This interpretation arises from a technical fine point: Noah had entered the Ark "with his sons, his wife, and his son's wives" (Gen 7:7)--that is, first males, then females, separately. This implies that sex was not permitted on the Ark. Noah was told to exit the Ark (Gen 8:16) "with his wife, his sons, and his son's wives"--that is, by male/female pairs. They're now permitted to have sex, to repopulate the world: "Be fruitful and multiply!" But Noah didn't obey; the family exited the Ark in the same order they came in (Gen 8:18)--males first, then females. Is Noah subverting the order of procreation? Was there some marital rift that interfered with the task of repopulating the world?

Regardless of what Ham's sin was, why does Noah curse Canaan? Why not curse Ham? The text doesn't say, so commentators are free to interpret. Again, it's likely there was an oral tradition not included in the written story.

The most reasonable explanation: This is not about Canaan the individual, but about his (presumed) descendents many generations later. The Israelites viewed the Canaanites as an evil, corrupt people who engage in sexually licentious acts (see Leviticus 18:1ff where "uncovering [sexual] nakedness" is associated with the Canaanites). Modern scholars know that the Canaanite pantheon is among the most sexually violent of pagan myths. So Ham is identified with his son (and descendents) Canaan, destined to be subjugated by the Israelite monarchy in the tenth century BC. Regardless of when the story was written down (1250 BC by Moses or 1000 BC by the editor "J"), it most likely refers to that period, literal enslavement of the nation Canaan by the Israelites.

Other interpretations:

  • The phrase "the father of Canaan" has already appeared twice in this brief narrative, so the term might have been abbreviated and the damnation in verse 25 really means "Cursed be [the father of] Canaan."
  • Possibly Canaan was a participant with Ham in the offense against Noah, but the details were omitted on grounds of delicacy (and because the full story was known to the earliest readers from oral tradition). There is no textual evidence for or against this interpretation.
  • Ham had sex on the Ark, contrary to God's command, and Canaan was conceived from that disobedience. The notion that sex was prohibited on the Ark arises from Gen 7:7 quoted above. Thus, the punishment of Ham was not just for ridiculing Noah, but also for direct disobedience, and the punishment was also visited on the child conceived contrary to God's command.
  • We moderns consider that each person is responsible for himself, but the earliest biblical stories (and many cultures today) view the family as a unit. The sin of one is the sin of all, and punishing one is punishing all. So, cursing Ham's son is the same as cursing Ham. Since Ham's offense was lack of respect for or humiliation of his father, there is some nasty irony that the punishment involves lack of respect for or humiliation of his son.
  • Some think the Bible was written by multiple authors, so perhaps this story was simply a fusion of divergent traditions. But that argument doesn't get us very far. Even among those who see the Bible as the work of several hands, all ascribe this section to one author (called "J"--see the Staff Report on "Who Wrote the Bible? Part 1"). So we have one story written down by one author/editor, not two or more stories clumsily conflated.

Both Jewish rabbinic scholars and the early Christian fathers (through roughly 400 AD) had a wide range of rich commentary on the nature of Ham's offense and the meaning of the curse. No one concept predominated.  Stephen Haynes says, "There was no consensus within the early church [as to] the nature of the transgression, nor the significance, consequence, or longevity of the curse." So the situation stood around 500 AD. We'll take up later views in the next installment.

Interesting asides:

(1) Ham is called the "youngest" son, but this poses difficulties, since the order of the three brothers is given five times as Shem, Ham, and Japheth, which would make Ham the middle son. Gen 10:21 specifically says that Shem is older than Japheth, but whether Ham is really youngest or is middle is unclear. The word for "youngest" also means "smallest," so perhaps the word refers to Ham's physical size or moral stature.

(2) Note on translation: In verse 21, the term "uncovered himself" may also mean "wallowed." In the Hebrew text, the word for "nakedness" alone does not necessarily imply sexuality, it can mean simple nudity. When a phrase such as "uncovered nakedness" is used, there's almost always a sexual implication. In the Noah story, he "uncovers" himself in his tent, but then the brothers "cover his nakedness." Thus, one can argue (a) that he just got naked in his tent; or (b) that he got naked and was engaged in some sort of sexual activity; or (c) that he just got naked but that there was some sort of sexual activity going on later, after Ham entered the tent. As I say, there's lots of interpretations and lots of speculations, far beyond the simple story of the text. I thank Chaim Keller and Zev Steinhardt from the SDMB for their help with the intricacies of biblical Hebrew and for their insights. 

(3) The curse itself says that the Canaanites will be subjugated to the Israelites. The name Canaan is itself a word-play in Hebrew on the root k-n-' meaning to be humbled or humiliated.

Sources:

The Curse of Ham, by David M. Goldenberg, Princeton University Press, 2003

Torah Commentary: Genesis, by Nahum M. Sarna, Jewish Publication Society, 1989

Noah's Curse, by Stephan R. Haynes, Oxford University Press, 2002

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