The book of Genesis tells us that God saw the evil of humankind and decided to kill everyone in a cataclysmic flood—everyone, that is, except Noah and his family. Then, after the flood, Noah gets off the boat, grows a wine vineyard, gets astoundingly drunk on his wine, and passes out naked in a tent. Finally, Noah wakes up, finds out that his son saw him naked, and curses his grandson. The end.
Setting aside the disturbing fact that the God of all justice apparently decided to wipe out all of humanity (and then later declared that justice would never again require doing that—even if humankind became equally evil), there are still many bizarre things in this story.
First, if someone saw me naked—especially because I’d kicked back about ten or twenty too many the night before—l can imagine all kinds of reactions that I might have when I woke up.
But, no matter how hard I try, I can’t imagine cursing that person’s child being one of them.
That said, let’s suspend all familiar. Let’s just pretend that I had no sense of direction or proportionality. Let’s pretend my reaction would be to curse a man’s child. Let’s say my waiter tonight spills a drink in my lap. And let’s say I immediately stand up, look him in the eye, and proclaim, “Cursed be your child! The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers.”
Again, there would be all kinds of not normal in that situation.
But I can confidently say that God would not curse the man’s child.
So when God actually does grant Noah’s really odd curse on Ham’s child, I think it’s in bounds to ask all sorts of questions. Specifically, is there something happening below the surface that we don’t see?
This is not a story about why it’s bad to drink alcohol (yes, I’ve heard that many times).
What’s really going on here is much more dark.
And we need to talk about it.
It tells us a lot about the kind of thing we are reading when we are reading the Bible that I agree is inspired.
So, let’s go back to the story and look at it in detail. When Noah gets off the boat, we are told that his three sons got off the boat too. But the story begins with an interesting detail.
And it’s oddly specific.
The sons of Noah who came out of the ark were Shem, Ham and Japheth. (Ham was the father of Canaan.)
Whoever Canaan is, he is not in this story, and Noah’s three children had lots of children. So this odd story only get more odd when it begins by the specific information that Ham was the father of Canaan. Perhaps that was just an accident (spoiler: I wrote this whole thing because it’s not), but let’s read on.
Next, we are told that Noah gets drunk on the wine from a vineyard that he planted (as a side note, as a former Californian I can confidently tell you that it takes a LONG time for a vineyard to become wine producing, but never mind), and Ham happens to see him passed out drunk and naked in his tent. But notice that the writer provides that same strange detail a second time:
When he drank some of its wine, he became drunk and lay uncovered inside his tent. Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father naked and told his two brothers outside.
Again, let me repeat: Canaan is still not in this story. In fact, there is not a single story in the whole Bible about a man named Canaan. Yet, here his name comes back for a second random appearance.
At this point, you would be in the right if you are beginning to suspect that whoever wrote this story might have been obsessed with Canaan. If you’ve ever had a conversation with someone who, no matter what the topic, always brings the conversation back to something about someone they used to date, I think you’ve experienced what’s happening here. This story isn’t about Noah or his sons or nakedness or wine.
But Shem and Japheth took a garment and laid it across their shoulders; then they walked in backward and covered their father’s naked body. Their faces were turned the other way so that they would not see their father naked.
This story is about Canaan.
And why Canaan is different from his brothers.
Specifically, why his brothers are superior to Canaan.
And what that might mean to a people who have been exiled from the land that their traditions have long held came from Canaan.
And why Yahweh might not look so favorably on a people who took them away from the land that Yahweh took from those evil Canaanites.
BUT, is accidentally seeing Noah passed out naked in his tent . . . evil? No. But that’s probably not what happened. This part of the story is probably a euphemism for Ham sleeping with Noah’s wife. The Bible often tells whole stories as euphemisms like this. For example, when the book of Ruth tells us that Ruth went to the sound asleep Boaz and “uncovered his feet”, trust me she wasn’t uncovering his feet.
“Ah, yes,” I hear people thinking, “that’s what this story is about. This story is about why it’s bad to have sex with your father’s wife.”
But, haha, no. Ham sleeping with his father’s wife isn’t the point of this story either.
Later the Bible will tell us that God commanded the sons of Shem to wipe out the sons of Ham. But who are the sons of Shem? Why, they are the semitic people. Have you ever heard someone say that so-and-so was anti-semitic, and you knew that meant “anti-Jewish”, but wondered where that word came from? Well, here it is.
This story is about them.
And their land.
Which they took from the Canaanites.
And why they believed God gave it to them.
This is a story told centuries after a genocide, and by the people who committed it.
Notice what we are told at the very beginning of the story:
These were the three sons of Noah, and from them came the people who were scattered over the whole earth.
First of all, it should be said that anthropologists are very confident that the spread of humanity throughout the earth did not happen the way Genesis describes (which is a comforting thing if you aren’t fond of following a God who orders genocides). But, as I have argued extensively, Genesis was written thousands of years after the events it describes. It was written a thousand years after Moses’s time, a time when the Semitic people had just returned after being exiled from their land. And since the writer is trying to explain why everything is the way it is now, he starts with a clean slate. He starts with three people from whom all humanity will come. It’s as if to say: If you want to understand why things are the way they are now, just compare us to the people from whom God gave us this land.
Notice everything Noah says when he wakes up:
When Noah awoke from his wine 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.”
He also said,
“Praise be to the Lord, the God of Shem!
May Canaan be the slave of Shem.
If you are wondering why Noah got so mad and decided to take his anger out on Canaan of all people, it’s because this story never happened. It’s a myth.
What did happen is that when this story was written the sons of Shem—that is, the Israelites—had just returned to the land they had lost and so constructed a narrative to support their never-ending claim to their land.
The Semite’s claim to their land is what you are reading when you read the entire book of Genesis.
Notice what happens immediately after this story in one of those “boring” genealogies.
This is the account of Shem, Ham and Japheth, Noah’s sons, who themselves had sons after the flood.
The sons of Ham:
Cush, Egypt, Put and Canaan.
Cush was the father of Nimrod, who became a mighty warrior on the earth. 9 He was a mighty hunter before the Lord; that is why it is said, “Like Nimrod, a mighty hunter before the Lord.” The first centers of his kingdom were Babylon, Uruk, Akkad and Kalneh, in Shiner. From that land he went to Assyria, where he built Nineveh, Rehoboth Ir, Calah and Resen, which is between Nineveh and Calah—which is the great city.
Canaan was the father of Sidon his firstborn, and of the Hittites, Jebusites, Amorites, Girgashites, Hives, Arkites, Sinites, Arvadites, Zemarites and Hamathites.
Later the Canaanite clans scattered and the borders of Canaan reached from Sidon toward Gerar as far as Gaza, and then toward Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah and Zeboyim, as far as Lasha.
These are the sons of Ham by their clans and languages, in their territories and nations.
If you’ve spent as little as an hour in the Bible, you would know that every virtually every single people group who would later become an enemy of Israel—not to mention the Canaanites—came from Ham. But, then notice who came from Shem:
Sons were also born to Shem, whose older brother was Japheth; Shem was the ancestor of all the sons of Eber.
The sons of Shem: Elam, Ashur, Arphaxad, Lud and Aram.
The sons of Aram: Uz, Hul, Gether and Meshek.
Arphaxad was the father of Shelah, and Shelah the father of Eber.
It is from Shem that we get Eber.
And who is Eber?
It is from Eber that we get the name, and the ethnic group, Hebrew.
Now, go back to the text and notice how prominently Eber and Canaan are placed in the genealogy. It’s not an accident. The drunk Noah story and the genealogy are all about them.
The entire Old Testament is the story of the Hamites against Semites.
This is why I found it important to miss out on normal young, single adult life and spend six months writing a caution against Christians basing their whole faith on the inerrancy of the Bible. It’s easy today for me to say that God never really commanded the things you see written in Joshua and Judges. My reading of the Bible doesn’t force me into that position. And I feel bad for people who still live their lives trying to explain how the justice and wisdom of God required that the Israelites kill the newborn children of the people living in Jericho.
If you realize that the books of the Old Testament are nowhere close to telling what we today think of as “history”, you begin to see that these genealogies are less history and more ancient arguments in support of a claim to nice land.
Arguments that Jesus Christ would later come and kill on a Roman cross.
I certainly believe the Israelites looked from Babylon back at the land from which they were exiled and believed God had commanded this. That their land was their divine right.
But our faith in God doesn’t require that we believe this too.
Unless you are prepared to say that God gave the Israelites the right to kill people for land because Noah got drunk and his son happened to walk into a tent.