Noah and the Curse of Ham

Noah and the Curse of Ham

Written by T. M. Suffield |
Tuesday, January 2, 2024

There is a common theme in Genesis of younger sons, or occasionally even first sons, wanting to usurp their father’s role. We know something similar is going on by the nature of the curse, it involves authority and submission, implying a sin of rebellion. We might notice that Shem and Japheth (typologically Jews and Gentiles—see Irenaeus On the Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching) solve the problem by re-robing Noah, and that the robe bears the definite article ‘the mantle.’ Clothes, especially robes and mantles, are authoritative garments in the Bible’s symbolic world—much like the metaphorical meaning that ‘mantle’ bears in English today. They replace his authority.

There’s this strange moment in Noah’s life where he gets drunk, falls down naked, his son Ham sees him naked, and then he curses Ham. It leads to the frequent accusation that Noah was a drunkard, which at best might be true but is missing the wood for the trees.

You can read the story in Genesis 9. Is Noah just an angry drunk? What did Ham do wrong?

It’s also been the cause of much racist nonsense, with the curse of Ham linked to theories where a particular ‘race’ (in the modern sense rather than the Biblical one) are cursed because of their descent from Ham. All of that should be rejected as evil. The first thing we should notice is that Ham isn’t cursed. There is no curse of Ham. Instead his son, Noah’s grandson, Canaan is cursed as a result of Ham’s actions. Which feels instinctively unfair to us but is perhaps a hint that something more is going on here. It also makes us think of the eventual defeat of the various Canaanite peoples by the Hebrews—the eventual result of the curse. That doesn’t clarify what’s happening but it’s worth noticing the way this pans out in the story.

So, what’s going on? Let’s try and look at this interrogatively. There are three broad questions to answer: Does Noah get drunk? What does Ham do to him? Why does he curse Canaan rather than Ham.

Does Noah Get Drunk?

Yes. That was easy enough. It’s his characterisation as a drunkard that I take some issue with, partly because it assumes a habitual behaviour but mostly because it tries to find the moral of the story in Noah’s misuse of God’s good gift of wine rather than in whatever Ham has done wrong.

Noah may have been a drunkard, but there’s nothing in the text that would make us think so. It is possible to read the text as suggesting that he simply rested after drinking, though I think that unlikely looking at how the Hebrew word is used elsewhere in the Bible. I think the Bible says he got a bit merry and went to sleep—unwise, but not the parallel to Adam’s fall in the story. I don’t think this is a good thing or to be commended (Ephesians 5), nor is it incidental to the story, but it’s not its hinge either.

Noah’s planting of the vineyard was a good thing, a fulfilment of his declaration to be the man of rest. He prefigures Christ as the provider of wine at the table and is planting a new Eden.

A Snake in the Garden

There is a snake in the garden though: Ham. Noah removes his robe of office within his tent to sleep. Perhaps someone else wants to usurp or ridicule his role; the robe is a textual clue to this.

What is it that Ham does? A flat reading of the text is that he glances at his father without his clothes on and mocks him to his brothers, who then carefully recover Noah’s nakedness. This leaves us with questions though, why is it that this is worthy of a curse?

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