Genesis 9: The Sons of Noah

By Mary Jane Chaignot

The end of chapter 9 focuses on Noah's sons and one post-flood incident in the life of Noah. It begins by elaborating that his three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth, were the ones who exited the Ark. Biblically speaking, at this point, there are no other living humans on earth. Therefore, everyone will now be descended from these three families. All the sons were married, but their wives don't even merit a mention at this point.

Ham is also identified as the father of Canaan, who is introduced without additional comment, but is destined to play a crucial role later on. Knowing that Noah's sons had sons (indeed, Canaan is the fourth of Ham's sons) is the first hint that they will be successful in their quest to repopulate the earth. This is a testament to the fulfillment of God's command, "Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth." Apparently, they were doing just that.

The story then turns back to Noah who is identified as "a tiller of the soil." To date all we have known about Noah is that he was an excellent ark-builder. But it would seem now that he is beginning his new life by tilling the soil and planting a vineyard. This is thought to be a major cultural advance. Previously, scholars think people had focused on growing only what they needed for sustenance; the production of wine is a major advance. It also indicates that the ground was, once again, able to produce. Since wine is grown on lush vines, it also suggests that Noah was not struggling to just eke out a living.

The narration continues with a note that Noah drank some of his own wine and became drunk. Somehow in his inebriated state he ended up naked in his tent in a drunken stupor. Efforts to explain or rationalize his behavior are purely speculative. Readers might be somewhat shocked at this turn of events in the life of Noah. He is, after all, a righteous man, identified as such by God himself. Regardless of readers' sensibilities, the story does not address his shortcomings, nor does it moralize upon them. It is possible that Noah simply had no idea about the effects of drinking too much wine.

Scholars have pointed out that in several ancient myths, winemaking has been attributed to the gods (in Egypt: Osiris; in Greece: Dionysus). There are also stories about the gods getting so drunk that humans needed to help them in such matters as getting back on their thrones. Unlike those myths, the biblical witness does not include God; Noah is credited for planting the vineyard.

Sometime later, for whatever reason, Ham entered the tent and saw his father naked. Apparently he made no effort to cover him. Instead, he went out and told his two brothers, who were outside the tent. They cleverly took a garment and, holding it across their shoulders, walked in backwards, and covered their father's naked body. Their faces were turned in such a way that they were prevented from seeing their father's nakedness. The problem seems to have been solved.

However, when Noah woke up from his stupor and found out what his youngest son "had done to him," he said, "Cursed be Canaan! The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers." Needless to say, scholars have tried for eons to determine exactly what Ham "had done to him," and why Noah was so upset. And worst of all, why did Canaan, suffer the curse?

In order to make sense out of this story, scholars have often speculated that Ham must have committed a great sin towards his father. "Seeing his nakedness" must be a euphemism for a greater sin. Suggestions have ranged from castration to sodomy. Others think the nuances refer to committing incest or adultery with Noah's wife. Because Canaan was cursed, the legend continues that he might have been the offspring of the illicit union. While the egregious nature of such acts might explain Noah's reaction, the text doesn't hint that anything like that happened. Translators have to force meanings upon the text to make such conclusions.

The only point that is explicitly stated is that Ham saw his father naked. Was that in and of itself enough to cause such dire consequences? Perhaps. It helps to know that later on nakedness was about the worst fate that could possibly befall someone. Nakedness was associated with shame. And shame was a measure of disrespect. By looking at his father nakedness, Ham was gravely dishonoring him.

At this point in time, Noah and his descendants were the only living people on earth. Cultural traditions and societal values would all derive from this one family. The family unit was inviolate. The father was the head of the family, and the sons were to show him nothing but honor and respect. Some scholars go on to say that disrespecting one's parent warranted the death penalty because it could lead to the ultimate breakdown of society. It was that serious. Yet Ham took no action when he saw his father in a shameful state.

Instead, he went outside and "told" his brothers about it. Did he boast; was he insufferable, hateful? Again, the text is silent on his attitude, but most scholars agree that gossiping to his brothers was the wrong course to take. Admittedly, the commandment to "Honor your father and mother" wouldn't be announced for a long time, but honoring one's parents was still considered a sacred duty. Scholars acknowledge that there aren't really any guidelines on how to handle a parent that acts disgracefully. But all agree that protecting the parent (even from himself, if need be) would have been the proper thing to do. In telling his brothers, Ham added to his father's disgrace.

We may never know the whole story, but Noah's other two sons took great pains not to see his nakedness. They backed into the tent, held the cloak to their shoulders, and averted their eyes. All of this is told in great detail. A delicate maneuver for sure!

Nor do we know how Noah found out what had happened to him. The text states that Ham was his youngest son, but the order of names is most often, Shem, Ham, and Japheth, leading scholars to think Ham was the middle son. Nonetheless, Ham's son, Canaan, was cursed: "The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers." Technically, these are Noah's first words to Ham, and they come in the form of a curse! Because Canaan was cursed, some scholars have intimated that he must have been involved in the disgrace. Perhaps he was with Ham. Again, the text says nothing about that.

What's more likely is that God had recently blessed the sons. Noah couldn't undo that blessing, but he could invoke a curse on a descendant. If Ham really was Noah's youngest son, then the punishment could have fallen to Ham's youngest son. In essence, punishment for the father's sins would be realized in his children. In the future, Canaan would vex the Israelites in many ways, leading scholars to theorize about a likely cause and effect. The "lowest of slaves" really means a "slave of slaves." It's a superlative that means the worst lot of a slave. That was borne out in the years when the Canaanites were subject to the Israelites.

As in many other biblical instances, blessing follows cursing. More than just words, these blessings and cursings were thought to influence the destinies of the recipients. Noah said, "Blessed be the Lord, the God of Shem." It's an unusual statement in that God is the one blessed, but it suggests that the blessing on Shem will only come through God. Noah praised the Lord, the God of Shem, and repeated that Canaan would be the slave of Shem. He blessed Japheth by asking God to extend his territory and saying he would live in the tents of Shem. Whether this indicated a friendly or hostile relationship between Shem and Japheth is not stated. Canaan would also be slave to him. Scholars are not sure if there ever was a time when Canaan was subject to Japheth. Since the blessing for Shem includes both "Lord," and "God," scholars presume it indicates a special relationship with God that exceeds God's relationship with Japheth.

fter that, Noah lived for another 350 years, for a total of 950 years. No information is given about his death. As far as is known, Noah didn't have any more children, so everyone is descended from these three sons. More will be said about that next month, when we will include a fuller genealogy involving the sons.