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No. 97: The Sin of Ham and the Curse of Canaan, Part 2
An Exposition of Genesis 9:20-27

BIBLICAL Horizons, July, 1997
Copyright 1997 Biblical Horizons
No. 97


A. Noah’s God-like Labor:8:20And Noah, a master of the ground, was the first,
  And he planted a vineyard.
   21And he drank from the wine,
  And became drunk,
And lay uncovered inside his tent.

It appears to me that there is a balance between "ground" and "tent" in this paragraph, and that the central idea is that Noah drank from the wine. Thus, the paragraph is chiastic in outline.

The first two statements mean that Noah was the first to plant a vineyard. He is said to do this as "master of the ground." Commentators agree that Noah is presented as a giver of rest, by being a giver of wine. He himself drinks of the wine and takes a nap. We are pointed back to Lamech’s prophecy when he named Noah, in 8:29, "And he called his name Noah (Comfort), saying, `This one will comfort us in our labors and in the toil of our hands from the ground, which Yahweh cursed.’" Lamech thus prophesied that there would be a relaxation of the curse as a result of Noah’s work, and that this relaxation would take the form of comfort. The soil would still prosecute God’s curse, and would still bring forth thorns and thistles, but a comfort would be given in the midst of that trial.

Comfort and rest come at the end of toil, and thus are associated with sabbath. God rested on the sabbath day after His labors of creation, but Adam did not enter into any kind of sabbath rest. Through Noah, humanity now enters into a sabbath; not the final sabbath, but a real experience of rest after toil and trial.

What was Noah’s labor? He prophesied to sinners and built a church (the ark) to house God’s people in the midst of historical judgment. And, this judgment was the end of the world. With the end of the old world, and the preservation of the church, Noah’s work was finished, and he could enter sabbath rest. Of course, he lived on and there was more to do, but he entered a sabbath with reference to his former work. We can see here something taught everywhere in Scripture: Those who stand for God and built the Church will inherit the world and enter sabbath and rule.

Sabbath rest is always associated with enthronement. God rests enthroned in His creation. Kings rest enthroned after defeating their enemies and building their houses. It is at that time that a king can sit down and relax with a glass of wine. Accordingly, enthroned kings are often pictured with wine-servers, or drinking wine (Genesis 40; Nehemiah 2:1; Esther). Wine, thus, is a sign of completed work, of rest and comfort after labor. The priests were not to drink wine in the Tabernacle, because their work was never finished, and they did not sit down. (For a full discussion, see Jeffrey J. Meyers, "Concerning Wine and Beer," Rite Reasons 48 & 49.)

The change from Adam to Noah is, thus, a change from priestly labor to kingly rule. No one was allowed to avenge Cain, for God had not given kingly rule to humanity at that point in history, though men seized it for themselves (Genesis 4:15, 23). With Noah, however, the right to rule by means of capital punishment is delegated to humanity (9:5-6). Associated with the right to put murderers to death is the right to kill animals for food (9:3-4).

We can summarize the changes thus:

Adam Noah
No sabbath Sabbath
Toil w/o comfort Toil with comfort
Bread only Bread & wine
Vegetables only Meat also
Priestly only Priestly & Kingly

This explains, I believe, why Genesis 9:20 refers to Noah as a "master of the ground." The word in Hebrew is `ish, which means man as lord of a lady, master of a servant, ruler of a people; while the other common Hebrew word, `adam, refers to man as made of soil, man as man. A third word, `enosh, refers to man as under God, as part of the earth, humble under Divine rule. Thus, in a very general way, the three terms point to man as lord, equal, and servant. Adam was made ruler of the soil and cosmos, of course, but he forsook that position and was made a slave of the soil. In Noah, humanity is given an initial form of mastery back over the creation.

Vine, Wine, and Drink

The statement that Noah was the first to plant a vineyard can be taken in one of several ways. It may simply mean that he began to plant a vineyard, but commentators point out that this is not the best way to make that statement. It may imply that while there had been vineyards and wine before this time (just as there had been executions for crime), this was the first proper vineyard planted with God’s permission. Or it may imply that grapes were unknown in the world before the Flood. Genesis 1 mentions fruit trees and grain plants, but perhaps the vine did not exist until after the Flood.

Whatever the actual historical case, the Biblical meaning is fairly clear: Noah was the first man to act as a master of the soil in planting a vineyard. Noah was the first man to be elevated to kingly status, and from that position to plant his own garden.

God is king. Man is made in God’s image, which is permanent and unchangeable, and also in God’s likeness, which is flexible. Man simply is the image of God; even in hell, people are images of God. Humanity was to grow in God-likeness, however, and become mature enough to be rulers. That was the challenge of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Adam tried to seize the prerogatives of maturity and rulership when he was only a few hours old, and long before his was ready for it, long before God was willing to give it to him. Noah is now 601 years old, and is mature enough and ready enough to be a king and to act like God in certain significant ways. To wit: Noah, like God, will plant a vineyard (same verb as in Genesis 2:8); and like God he will pass judgment on sins committed in that vineyard by his son.

Noah’s position of authority is signified by his garment, a garment he laid aside during his rest, and which his two righteous sons placed on him. The word for "the garment" is simlah. This word can be used for any covering of the body, clothing in general; but in a number of places the word is used for clothing that has some special symbolic or ceremonial meaning (Genesis 35:2; 41:14; Exodus 19:10 & 14; Deuteronomy 21:13; 22:5). Here at the beginning of the new history of the world, it is doubtful if Noah had any particular special garment, because his situation did not invite him to distinguish himself from other people and their positions. Nevertheless, in terms of the robe-theology of Genesis, Noah’s garments signify his position of authority and rule over his clan. (For a fuller treatment of robe-theology, see James B. Jordan, Primeval Saints: Studies in the Patriarchs of Genesis, published by Biblical Horizons .)

At the center of this paragraph is the statement that Noah drank of the wine. He entered into the promised rest, and participated in the sabbath of kings. This is followed by the statement that he became drunk. In English, "getting drunk" usually means becoming helplessly inebriated, but it does not have that meaning in Hebrew. All this statement needs to mean is that Noah drank enough to feel warm, peaceful, and sleepy. This is the kind of restful and relaxing use of alcohol that the Bible commends as entirely proper, on proper occasions. Possibly, of course, Noah was new to wine and accidently drank too much; but however the case may be, there is nothing to indicate any sinful action on Noah’s part. In this story, it is Ham, not Noah, who sins.

We are also told that Noah uncovered himself. That is, he was warm and lay down for a nap. Since he was inside his own private tent, he was hidden from view; that is, he was still covered by the tent itself.

Noah has now withdrawn from the vineyard. He has planted it, and he has entered into sabbath rest. The sons are alone in the vineyard. This is directly parallel to Genesis 2, where Yahweh God planted the garden, entered into sabbath rest, and withdrew, leaving Adam and Eve alone.

B. Actions of the Brothers:

A. 22And Ham, father of Canaan, saw
  B. The nakedness of his father,
    C. And he told his two brothers outside.
      D. 23And Shem and Japheth took the garment,
        E. And they laid [it] upon a shoulder of each of them,
        E’ And they walked backward,
      D’ And they covered the nakedness of their father,
    C’ And their faces were backward,
  B’ And the nakedness of their father
A’ They did not see.

This chiastic form of this paragraph is clearly marked by the first and last phrase, which in Hebrew are reversed:

Ham saw
Nakedness of father
Nakedness of father
They did not see

The other statements are either parallels or contrasts, and illuminate each other. Statement C says that Ham told his brothers, while C’ says that their faces were turned away. In context, their faces were turned away that they might not see their father’s nakedness; but it is clear that they also turned away their faces from Ham’s solicitations. Statements D & D’ have to do with the garment that covered their father’s nakedness. At the center is Shem and Japheth’s restoration of their father’s symbolic stature.

For the second time, Ham is called the father of Canaan (Genesis 9:18 & 22). Since Ham had four sons, there must be some special significance in this appellation (10:6). Commentators sometimes seek an explanation for this by running off to later places in Genesis, where the Canaanites are clearly a wicked people, or even later in the Bible, where the land of Canaan is given to Israel. We should, however, stick with the context as closely as possible. A father is a physical progenitor, of course, but often a "father" is also a role model, a spiritual father. Since Canaan is singled out here, it seems fairly clear that we are being told that Ham’s basic attitude and sinfulness was already being emulated by Canaan; perhaps Ham’s other sons did not pick up on their father’s ways. Since Canaan alone is cursed, it seems that Canaan alone was a "son" of Ham in this sense.

Ham was one of the eight righteous souls taken on the Ark. Thus, he was a faithful servant of Yahweh. The story we are considering is, therefore, the fall of Ham.

The Sin of Ham

The sin of Ham is the subject of much myth and nonsense. I recently read in an internet discussion that "commentators usually consider it to have been a homosexual attack." I asked, "What commentators?" Commentators bring up this possibility only in order to dismiss it as nonsense. Yes, "uncovering nakedness" in Levi-ticus 18 does refer to sexual relations, but that phrase is not found here. Moreover, it is clear from the passage that Shem and Japheth did the opposite of what Ham did. They covered their father, which means Ham looked at him. That is all.

Now, the word "naked" here does imply that Ham espied Noah’s private parts. In Leviticus 18, to "uncover the nakedness" of another person means to uncover her or his genitals with a view to having sexual relations. Ham did not "uncover" Noah’s genitals, so there is no hint of sexual relations, but he did see Noah’s "nakedness." Back in Genesis 3, when Adam and Eve became aware of their nakedness, they made coverings for their loins. Thus, "nakedness" is concentrated there.

Ham did two things. First of all, he entered Noah’s tent without permission, without "knocking." This by itself was wrong, but understandable. Perhaps Ham had some interesting news, and just barged in. When he saw that Noah was asleep (on his back, presumably), he might simply have turned around quickly and left, and said nothing.

Ham’s serious sin was not that he happened to see Noah naked, but was his making an issue of it. He told his brothers about it. Here again, the text is subtle and we must be careful. Ham might have come out and said, "Hey, guys! I happened to wander in to father’s tent and saw he has uncovered himself. Do you think we should do anything?" If that had been the case, the matter would have been completely innocent. Clearly, however, something more was involved. Whatever Ham said provoked Shem and Japheth to engage in the purely ritual act of covering Noah, who after all was already covered by the tent itself; and whatever Ham said provoked Noah to pass a very severe judgment on his line through Canaan.

Did Ham come to his brothers and snicker about Noah’s condition? This seems unlikely behavior for a man already more than a century old. Moreover, in terms of eye-for-eye judgment, it does not fit with the curse put upon Canaan: Noah did not curse Canaan to be laughed at.

The subsequent verses give us all we need to reconstruct what Ham said: He advocated taking over rule and authority from Noah. The symbol of such authority was the robe, and by re-robing their father, Shem and Japheth rejected Ham’s suggestion. The curse on Canaan to be a slave and a servant fittingly matches the sin of Ham: Canaan will have his rule and authority stript from him.

Ham corresponds to the serpent in Genesis 3. The serpent advocated that Adam and Eve seize the forbidden fruit and make themselves gods. Ham advocates that Shem and Japheth seize the robe and make themselves rulers. In both cases, the sin is grounded in ambition and impatience, for the Tree of Knowledge was not permanently forbidden (Genesis 1:29), and Noah’s robe would descend to his sons in due time. In both cases, the sin is rebellion against authority, first against God’s fatherly authority, and then against man’s fatherly authority under God.

(to be continued)