It’s a common pop Evangelical interpretative move to handle the story of Noah and Ham in Genesis 9:20-27 as if it’s a sobering morality tale about the dangers of alcohol and an illustration of the imperfect characters of even the godly saints in Scripture. But I regard that as a poor and unwarranted reading of the text. And it completely misses the actual teaching of the passages.
Noah was a righteous and blameless man; he walked with God (Gen. 6:9). He is singled out along with Job and Daniel as three of the most pleasing and persuasive faithful men who God favors (Ezek. 14:14). He is called a preacher of righteousness (2 Peter 2:5). And he’s commended for his godly fear leading to great faith (Heb. 11:7) In Genesis, he is an early patriarch and proto-prophet.
After the Deluge, Noah becomes a “husbandman of the ground”—an iysh of the adamah. This is one of many parallels with Adam in Genesis 2 who was from the ground and told to work the ground. He plants a vineyard and servers as its vinedresser. And he presses and ‘matures’ the blood of grapes into wine. Mankind moving to a new level of maturity is a theme in Genesis 9 in several ways.
You cause the grass to grow for the livestock
And plants for man to cultivate,
That he may bring forth food from the earth
And wine to gladden the heart of man,
Oil to make his face shine
And bread to strengthen man’s heart.
An abundance of wine is one of God’s blessings for obedience (Deut. 7:13; 11:14). And God virtually commands that his people Israel are to determine a budget to be spent enjoying wine and strong drink at the presentation of their first fruits each year (Deut. 14:22-26).
Wine is a drink of endings or “omega food” for rejoicing, rest, and comfort. This is fitting for Noah who was foretold to bring comfort or relief as his name indicates. This is wine that gladdens the heart of Noah who has entered into the rest of the new creation (fresh out of the chaos waters) and the new covenant as the new Adam of a new mankind. God has brought mankind from the beginning with the first Adam who toils with the ground for bread by the sweat of his nostrils to this new beginning with this second Adam who works the ground (no longer demeaned by God) for wine to gladden and comfort. He’s at joyous rest in the privacy of his own tabernacle.
Some measure of intoxication is viewed as an approved delight in Scripture. The Hebrew term shakar implies various senses of intoxication and is not inherently sinful. The sense must be determined in context. Being drunk does not make one a drunkard. Drunkards are a specific kind of fool and sinner with a poor character. Noah’s actions need not be regarded as sinful in any way. Noah is a righteous and blameless man as he has been all through his story up till now. There’s no compelling reason to interpret him otherwise.
There is a motif here of consumption, nakedness, and judgment which is reminiscent of Genesis 3 and the transgression in the Garden. So there is something of a new Fall in this new creation with this new Adam. But we have to figure out who is in what role and if everything is parallel or not. And there are, in fact, some changes.
Noah is not the transgressor. Ham is. Noah is the one who condemns and curses; he is not the one who’s condemned and cursed. Ham is. Noah pronounces sentence. Noah’s a man who walked with God. He is a proto-prophet like Enoch his great grandfather was. Therefore, Noah’s a participant in the divine council and a representative on its behalf. He’s a faithful son of God and image of God exercising rule on behalf of God.
Ham’s the villain of this story. He’s called “the father of Canaan” with a rhetorical wink and cough twice in this passage. With the Exodus generation as the original hearers of Genesis, the animosity between the Israelites (the Eberites or Hebrews through Shem) and the Canaanites is centerstage in the story starting with Ham the father of Canaan. Ham looks at his father’s nakedness and reports it to this brothers. Later, when Noah awakens, he knows what Ham has done. In Genesis, the act of seeing is regularly tied to judging. Ham seeing his father’s nakedness is not an accidental awkward encounter.
Linguistically, it’s not clear to me if Noah uncovered himself or if he was uncovered by someone else. Considering that it says he awoke and knew what Ham had done to him suggests Ham may not have merely looked upon his patriarch’s nakedness but actually uncovered him to do so. And given the Hebrew euphemism of “uncovering nakedness” like that of Leviticus 18 and 20, there may be some measure of sexual violation involved.
It’s not entirely clear, but Ham has done something that’s humiliated and violated Noah the patriarch. It could’ve been as simple as the haughty glance of crooked judgment that Ham gave his naked sleeping father and his gossiping mockery before the presence of his brothers. Or it could’ve been something far more degrading as suggested by the Hebrew euphemism “uncovering nakedness” which has sexual connotations such as some sort of incestuous homosexual fascination or behavior. There’s room for and a long history of interpretation.
I tend to read the situation along middle grounds. Ham looked upon (or even actively uncovered Noah) to leer at him in a complex fashion, to dishonor him and shame him in contempt and perhaps with a streak of incestuous homosexual exploitation in him. The sexual abuse of the “dogs” to establish and enforce submission and inferiority.
To speak of “Ham the father of Canaan” seems to imply that the perversions and moral defects in Ham the son of Noah are already evident or will assuredly come to pass in the life of Canaan the grandson of Noah. This false son and grandson who aren’t in the image and likeness of Noah are two new generations of the seed of the Serpent. These are the roots of the Canaanites, and that would make complete sense to the Israelites.
Learning to see common rhythms and motifs between stories helps us to understand the kind of template we’re reading. This story is a bridge between Genesis 3 and Genesis 19 with Lot and his two daughters.
Lot’s a righteous man; the apostle Peter tells us that. (And we must learn to read him as such.) The problem with Lot’s daughters is not that they’re too much like their allegedly flawed, morally compromised father. It’s that they may have been taken out of Sodom, but Sodom has not been taken out of them. They are not true daughters of Lot. They are true daughters of Sodom.
Take that back to the story with Noah and Ham. Ham was taken out of the old world that was destroyed, but that world was not taken out of him—out of his heart. He wasn’t truly delivered from it. He’s not a true son in the image and likeness of his God-fearing father. Ham is the true son of the Serpent and father of all of Israel’s enemies: Mitzraim (Egypt), Philistia, and Canaan.