Revisiting Noah’s curse

Last week I wrote a short reflection on the disturbing conclusion to the story of Noah in the book of Genesis. In hindsight I think I approached the story too lightly. I want to acknowledge again that the Bible can be, in many ways, a disturbing text. So I want to warn again that the story being discussed may be describing sexual abuse.

I mentioned that some Bible scholars have suggested that Ham molested his father Noah, after Noah had been drinking. Dylan asked me where those claims were being made and how they came to those conclusions. So I said I’d see what I could find. (What I’d written was just from memory, not from recent reading of Biblical scholarship.) So my plan here is to draw together what some of the scholars have said:

I want to start with Beth’s response, which picks up on some possibilities in the story which I missed:

In Africa Bible Commentary, Barnabe Assohoto and Samuel Ngewa say in their entry on Genesis that Ham dishonoured his father by not protecting his honour, and instead going to ridicule him by telling his brothers.

In her entry on Genesis in World Bible Commentary, Clare Amos says,

‘Genesis has no truck with ethnic apartheid. Rather, the connecting link in Ham’s genealogy seems to be the symbolism of Ham’s descendants as nations the biblical writer feared either for their empires or for their aggressive expansionism, just as Ham’s misguided actions had earlier seemed to to give him inappropriate control over his father.’ (9)

In his commentary on Genesis (part of the Interpretation series) Walter Brueggemann says that this story is juxtaposed against the command in Exodus 20:12 and Deuteronomy 5:16 to honour parents and the instructions in Leviticus 18:7-8 against don’t uncovering  one’s parents’ nakedness. Brueggemann says the story might be saying that Ham had sex his with mother, or with his father Noah. He also suggests that it might symbolically mean Ham chose to ‘penetrate the ultimate personal mystery of the parents by probing their most vulnerable action or condition.’ (89)

In Old Testament Theology: Israel’s Gospel, John Goldingay compares this story to the Leviticus 18 and 20, where language of ‘uncovering nakedness’ is clearly being used to talk about sex. For this reason he thinks the story is probably about incest. Goldingay believes it’s possible that Noah, even though he was said to be a good person, molested Ham, and then cursed him, with his other sons covering up what their father did. He says that it’s hard to know what is happening in the story. Something horrible and hard to understand has happened in the family. (184)

I’ve found reflecting on this story disturbing, but I think it is an important story to hear and reflect on. If it is the case that the family was working to cover up abuse, we need to make sure we don’t end up doing the same.

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