Bible as Literature: The Curse of Ham (Genesis 9:18 – 9:28)

Noah’s three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth, exit the ark. Noah becomes a farmer, grows a vineyard, and gets drunk off the fruits of his labor in his tent. His son, Ham, notices his father is drunk and naked. He calls the other two brothers and tells them about their father’s nakedness. The other two sons respond by covering up their father and turning away so they won’t see his nakedness. Noah wakes up, well aware of what Ham did, and curses Ham, the father of Canaan, so that his descendants will be the servants of his brothers’ descendants.

Ham does the wrong thing by not clothing his father (failing to honor him properly). By calling his brothers over the text implies Ham does further wrong. Perhaps Ham plans to mock his father’s nakedness with his brothers and increase his shame by calling more attention to the fact rather than less when he should be attempting to minimize it. In its typically minimalist fashion, we aren’t told explicitly and the text leaves it up to the reader’s imagination to fill in the gaps. However, what does come across is Ham fails to honor his father the way he should, while the other two sons when they cover his nakedness and refuse to look at him in that state do honor their father. They are doing everything in their power to reduce his shame. There are some interpretations that suggest sexual overtones. Consequently, one might also read the tale as a warning against intoxication.

There is no getting around that this story is intensely tribalistic, although not any more so than other ancient cultures. The story metaphorically associates the Canaanites with disrespect to their parents (violating one of God’s commandments given later to the Israelites), and Noah’s curse of Ham claims that it is the destiny of the Canaanites to be the servants of Shem’s and Japheth’s descendants. In other words, the story is a post hoc justification of the enslavement of another group of people. In this sense, it is a bit of a nasty story to our modern sensibilities.


3 thoughts on “Bible as Literature: The Curse of Ham (Genesis 9:18 – 9:28)

  1. Great post mining out the little golden nuggets of that book. Although it cannot compete with science and academic history when it comes to gaining knowledge of factual reality, I find the Bible – like Greek mythology, Eastern religions, and Blake’s visionary poetry – rich in truth and wisdom about lived reality. Thus I differ from my more militant atheist friends. However, some of the moral threads woven into that old tribalist document are repugnant to our post-Enlightenment secular morality. Genocidal tendencies, e.g., are legion (e.g., Numbers 21, where God commands Israel to “utterly destroy” the Canaanites; Numbers 31, where God commands them to kill the Midianites, after which Moses is outraged when he finds that they saved the women and children alive–so he orders them to go back and kill all the women and male children “but all the women children, that have not known man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves”; not to mention Deuteronomy 2, Deuteronomy 3, Deuteronomy 7, and Deuteronomy 20).

      • That distinction arises when you have an Arts and Humanities person like me engaging my scientist friends in a way that shows I respect science tremendously but find it perhaps more limited in scope than they do. (I’ll be posting about this shortly 🙂

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