The Nakedness of Noah

In Genesis 9:20-23, we are given a narrative that could be considered by some to be scandalous. It tells of one of the most important patriarchs of the Old Testament getting drunk and having his son Ham “look upon his nakedness.” The question is, what exactly does this mean, and what sin did Ham commit? Scholars are divided on the issue for a variety of reasons, and the obscurity of the text certainly does not help. However, the varying interpretations do have reasonable justification for their contrary perspectives, but it does not seem like any of them clear every obscurity within the text.

Voyeurism Theory

Davis does not give much insight into the nakedness of Noah, since he was much more intent on letting readers know the curse of Ham was absolutely not black skin.[1] However, he does remark that he believes Canaan was cursed because he was involved in the act.[2] This means that Davis is most likely assuming what is known as the voyeurism theory, which is the most literal and surface-level of all the perspectives. This theory posits that Ham did nothing more than stare at the exposed body of his naked father.[3] However, this theory is highly criticized because the nature of Ham’s actions does not seem to be enough grounds to justify the extremities of the following curse.[4] Voyeurism also cannot account for the fact that there is no evidence in biblical or ancient near eastern literature that expresses the accidental sight of a naked parent as being a taboo.[5] The text says that Noah saw “what his youngest son had done to him” (Gen 9:24), so it seems unlikely that it was merely a result of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

It is easily argued that “seeing the nakedness of the father” is an idiom for something sexual, because Leviticus (Lev 20:17), as well as Ezekiel (Ezek 16:36-37; 22:10; 23:10, 18, 29) use the phrase explicitly within a sexual context. Thematically, the wine motif is also noteworthy. Not only is wine connected with sexuality in Near Eastern literature,[6] but the only other reference to drunkenness in Genesis occurs with the incestuous relationship between Lot and his daughters (Gen 19:30-38). In Song of Solomon, words like “vineyard” and “wine” are euphemisms (Sng 8:2, 12), so wine is connected to sexuality even in the Bible.

Castration Theory

Attempting to address the shortcomings of voyeurism, the Jewish tradition of Rab proposes the castration theory, which states that Noah was castrated by Ham to usurp his authority.[7] There are a variety of examples of sons castrating their fathers in ancient Near Eastern mythology, so such a concept was not uncommon in this period.[8] Rab believes that castration accounts for why Noah cursed Canaan instead of Ham. Since Noah cursed Ham’s fourth son, it follows that the offence was with regards to preventing Noah from having a fourth son.[9] Even though some say Ham did the castrating, there are others who believe Canaan was responsible by “mischievously looping a cord about his genitals and drawing it tight.”[10] It is said that the main problem with this theory is that it lacks explicit evidence within the text itself.

Paternal-Incest Theory

Others like Samuel suggest the paternal-incest theory, which claims that Ham sodomized Noah.[11] This is taken from the fact that the language is very similar to the account of Shechem’s rape of Dinah (Gen 34:1-2). Thus, Noah realizing what his son had done to him suggests that Noah was a victim in a sexual act. Proponents of this theory point out the relationship between this event and the Genesis account of the fallen angels known as the “sons of God” (Gen 6:1-4). “One story introduces the flood narrative, and the other concludes it.”[12] Thematically, the two stories relate on multiple levels. Not only do both stories involve the flood, this perspective would argue, but both involve unnatural sex. Interestingly, this very event is mentioned in Jude, when using the unnatural sexual lust of the angels to describe the unnatural homosexual lusts common in Sodom and Gomorrah (Jde 1:6-7). This then leads to the person of Lot, who happens to be connected to Sodom and Gomorrah, drunkenness, and the act of paternal incest. Not only that, but the very first sexual transgression mentioned in Leviticus (Lev 18:6-7) is about incest, and it is specifically used as a polemic against the land of Canaan (Lev 18:3).

Maternal-Incest Theory

Scott Hahn suggests what he calls the maternal-incest theory, which proposes that Ham actually has sexual relations with his mother, and not his father. He reasons that Lev 18:7-8 reveals how the “nakedness of your father” refers to the wife of the father, and not the father himself.[13] The reason why he doubts that Ham had sex with his father is because the verbiage in Leviticus 18:22, 20:13 does not line up with what is written in Gen 9:21-23. Therefore, he proposes that Canaan was cursed because he was the illegitimate offspring of the incestuous union.[14]

It is difficult to say which of these are correct, since they all make valid points in certain areas, but nonetheless do not account for every detail. Hahn presents an interesting theory, but it still raises other questions about how it is that Ham could have had sexual relations with his mother. Was she also drunk? Why is she not mentioned in the text? Etc. However, it seems that incest was involved in this story, since Moses is preparing the narrative to eventually contrast his moral laws with the surrounding Canaanite life. To the Hebrews in Moses’ day, the Canaanites were a cursed people, so the Genesis narrative was probably a means to explain why. Granted, Moses could have been a bit clearer.


References

[1] John Davis. Paradise to Prison. (Sheffield Publishing: Salem, Wisconsin, 1984) p. 128-129.
[2] Ibid.
[3] John Bergsma, and Scott Hahn. “Noah’s Nakedness and the Curse on Canaan (Genesis 9:20-27).” Journal of Biblical Literature 124, no. 1 (2005): 26.
[4] Frederick Bassett. “Noah’s Nakedness and the Curse of Canaan, a Case of Incest?” Vetus Testamentum 21, no. 2 (1971): 233.
[5] Bergsma and Hahn, 27.
[6] Ibid., p. 30.
[7] Ibid., p. 28.
[8] Graves and Patai, Hebrew Myths, 122.
[9] Bergsma and Hahn, 28.
[10] Frederick Bassett, 233.
[11] Bergsma and Hahn, 28.
[12] Ibid., p. 30-31.
[13] Ibid., p. 34.
[14] Ibid., p. 35.

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