What did Ham do to Noah?

Before you start reading, I just want to warn that this post mentions sexual abuse and slavery.

On Wednesdays I’ve been reading through the book of Genesis and posting some reflections. Today I’ve been reading an odd part of the Noah story, which I don’t think is often included when the story is preached about in churches.
After the flood Noah plants a vineyard. In fact, the story says he’s the first person to plant a vineyard. He drinks wine and possibly becomes the first person to get drunk in the story. While he’s drunk he lies naked in his tent. His son Ham sees him naked in the tent, and tells his brothers, Shem and Japheth. His brothers walk into the tent backward (so they on’t see their father while he’s naked) and drop a garment over Noah to cover him. When Noah wakes up and find out he curses Ham and says that Ham will be a slave to his brothers Shem and Japheth. Throughout the story it is repeated that Ham is the ancestor of Canaan.


Earlier this year, my friend Trav got in touch with me to ask what I thought the text was saying when it said that Ham saw Noah’s nakedness, and why it was considered sinful. I said that my understanding was that it would have been considered shameful for Ham to see his father naked, but that some scholars seem to think that Ham actually molested his father while he was drunk. I think the more striaghtforward answer is that it was shameful for Ham to see Noah’s nakedness.

Either way, this epilogue to the flood story it shows that wiping out almost all of humanity has not solved the problem of human evil. I asked Trav what conclusion he came to and he was saying

I didn’t come to any conclusions about the specific sin that was committed in Noah’s tent but I did come to the conclusion that the story itself is a mirror of the creation-sin story in Genesis 3. Noah has a garden and is sinful in his garden like Adam and Eve were sinful in the garden. This demonstrates that the flood hasn’t eradicated sin from the human heart-something more is needed.

The other thing I found interesting while I was reading was Ham’s curse, which says that Canaan will be a slave to Shem and Japheth. Clearly this could have been used to justify Israel (who understood themselves to be descendents of Shem) dominating Canaan. In modern history, Europeans (who have sometimes understood themselves to be descendents of Japheth) have claimed that it was okay to enslave African people, because they believed African people were descendents of Ham, and so under Ham’s curse. I think rejecting that interpretation of the text means we also have to question the validity of dispossessing the Canaanites.

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