TLDR Video Cliff Notes
Over the course of history, many people have attempted to explain the curse of Canaan. The biblical text seems to be concealing something that is difficult for the modern reader to ascertain. However, I think the answer can be found through a proper exegesis and some understanding of the original language. Some of the popular options for Ham’s sin have been,
- Mocking his father
- Paternal Rape/Assault
However, I am going to propose a less talked about theory, which is that Ham slept with his mother. On the face of the text, it seems like an odd interpretation, however, once we understand the language and the culture of the Bible, it becomes more clear. It also explains many of the mysteries within the story, such as why Ham told his brother’s about his actions and why such a strong curse is cast upon his lineage. Let’s now look at what the passage says.
20 And Noah began to be a farmer, and he planted a vineyard. 21 Then he drank of the wine and was drunk, and became uncovered in his tent. 22 And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers outside. 23 But Shem and Japheth took a garment, laid it on both their shoulders, and went backward and covered the nakedness of their father. Their faces were turned away, and they did not see their father’s nakedness.
24 So Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done to him. 25 Then he said:
“Cursed be Canaan;
A servant of servants
He shall be to his brethren.”
Meaning of Seeing or Uncovering Nakedness
The word “nakedness” occurs in the Old Testament 54 times. In most of those instances it’s referring to having sex. There are a few where it does not refer to sex, but like most Hebrew idioms, the underlying word often has multiple meanings depending on whether it’s being taken literally or as a figure of speech. What is striking about the use of this word is that it is never used to refer to same-sex relations. It’s always used to indicate male/female sexual contact. Even more striking, when a woman is raped, it’s her husband or father’s nakedness that is said to be exposed. In other words, sleeping with your aunt’s is not uncovering your aunt’s nakedness, but your uncle’s!! Once a woman is married, her nakedness becomes her husband’s and the shame associated with it becomes her husband’s also.
Therefore, one could rightly conclude that the phrase to “uncover/see Noah’s nakedness” must mean that Ham slept with Noah’s wife, and since she was married, it was technically Noah’s nakedness. The phrases below that are in red text show where sex with a married woman is actually uncovering the nakedness of her husband. However, there is one exception to this rule, which is in Leviticus 18:7 where is speaks of the nakedness of a man’s mother and father. Nevertheless, the very next verse clarifies that sleeping with your father’s wife actually reveals the nakedness of your father.
- Leviticus 20 (NKJV)
- 11 The man who lies with his father’s wife has uncovered his father’s nakedness; both of them shall surely be put to death.
- 17 ‘If a man takes his sister, his father’s daughter or his mother’s daughter, and sees her nakedness and she sees his nakedness, it is a wicked thing. And they shall be cut off in the sight of their people. He has uncovered his sister’s nakedness. He shall bear his guilt.
- 18 If a man lies with a woman during her sickness and uncovers her nakedness, he has exposed her flow, and she has uncovered the flow of her blood. Both of them shall be cut off from their people.
- 19 ‘You shall not uncover the nakedness of your mother’s sister nor of your father’s sister, for that would uncover his near of kin. They shall bear their guilt.
- 20 If a man lies with his uncle’s wife, he has uncovered his uncle’s nakedness. They shall bear their sin; they shall die childless.
- 21 If a man takes his brother’s wife, it is an unclean thing. He has uncovered his brother’s nakedness. They shall be childless.
- Leviticus 18 (NKJV)
- 6 ‘None of you shall approach anyone who is near of kin to him, to uncover his nakedness: I am the Lord.
- 7 The nakedness of your father or the nakedness of your mother you shall not uncover. She is your mother; you shall not uncover her nakedness.
- 8 The nakedness of your father’s wife you shall not uncover; it is your father’s nakedness.
- 9 The nakedness of your sister, the daughter of your father, or the daughter of your mother, whether born at home or elsewhere, their nakedness you shall not uncover.
- 10 The nakedness of your son’s daughter or your daughter’s daughter, their nakedness you shall not uncover; for theirs is your own nakedness.
- 11 The nakedness of your father’s wife’s daughter, begotten by your father—she is your sister—you shall not uncover her nakedness.
- 12 You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father’s sister; she is near of kin to your father.
- 13 You shall not uncover the nakedness of your mother’s sister, for she is near of kin to your mother.
- 14 You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father’s brother. You shall not approach his wife; she is your aunt.
- 15 You shall not uncover the nakedness of your daughter-in-law—she is your son’s wife—you shall not uncover her nakedness.
- 16 You shall not uncover the nakedness of your brother’s wife; it is your brother’s nakedness.
- 17 You shall not uncover the nakedness of a woman and her daughter, nor shall you take her son’s daughter or her daughter’s daughter, to uncover her nakedness. They are near of kin to her. It is wickedness.
- 18 Nor shall you take a woman as a rival to her sister, to uncover her nakedness while the other is alive.
- 19 ‘Also you shall not approach a woman to uncover her nakedness as long as she is in her customary impurity.
Other passages outside of the law code which refer to nakedness also use it in a sexual manner. Often it speaks of it as a matter is shaming a person in addition to a sexual act. In fact, it’s usually used to refer to a sexual violation rather than a consensual act.
35 ‘Now then, O harlot, hear the word of the Lord! 36 Thus says the Lord God: “Because your filthiness was poured out and your nakedness uncovered in your harlotry with your lovers, and with all your abominable idols, and because of the blood of your children which you gave to them, 37 surely, therefore, I will gather all your lovers with whom you took pleasure, all those you loved, and all those you hated; I will gather them from all around against you and will uncover your nakedness to them, that they may see all your nakedness.
Ezekiel 16:35-37 (NKJV)
“Come down and sit in the dust,
O virgin daughter of Babylon;
Sit on the ground without a throne,
O daughter of the Chaldeans!
For you shall no more be called
Tender and delicate.
2 Take the millstones and grind meal.
Remove your veil,
Take off the skirt,
Uncover the thigh,
Pass through the rivers.
3 Your nakedness shall be uncovered,
Yes, your shame will be seen;
I will take vengeance,
And I will not arbitrate with a man.”
Isaiah 47 (NKJV)
Who’s Tent Did Ham Go Into?
Genesis 9:21 is usually translated into English as:
When he drank some of its wine, he became drunk and lay uncovered inside his tent.
Given that the events took place in somebody’s tent, it is right to ask, in who’s tent did these events take place. The text most people read says “his tent”, but it is safe assume that Noah and his mother shared a common tent while they are intimate. However, it was also common for the tribal head to have his own tent and the wife to have her own. This provided a place for her to do her work, take care of the kids, and be separated during her monthly week of “impurity”. The difficulty is that the Hebrew wording is not clear. The word used for “his tent” is “אָהֳלֹֽה”, which Michael Heiser believes is a feminine morphology and should be translated “her tent”. Unfortunately, this conjugation only shows up three times in the Old Testament and the two times outside of Noah, it’s clearly referring to the tent of a male figure.
8 From there he (Abraham) went on toward the hills east of Bethel and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east. There he built an altar to the Lord and called on the name of the Lord.
21 Israel moved on again and pitched his tent beyond Migdal Eder.
Furthermore, the only clear example in the Old Testament where “her tent” is clearly part of the text, it’s actually paraphrased in the Hebrew text and only implies that the tent belongs to a female.
And then, as Barak pursued Sisera, Jael came out to meet him, and said to him, “Come, I will show you the man whom you seek.” And when he went into her tent (אֵלֶ֔יהָ), there lay Sisera, dead with the peg in his temple.
In Judges 4:22 Jael was showing the dead man the was in her tent but text leaves the word “tent” out, leaving the reader to infer by the phrase “into her” that they are speaking about her tent. So, we have no clear evidence from this passage on how to conjugate “tent” for the feminine use.
There is one additional text in the Old Testament where it refers to the tent of a female but it’s called “the tent of Sarah”. In Genesis 24:67, Isaac bring Rebecca into the tent of his mother, Sarah to make her his wife. In this passage, “the tent” has a matching feminine morphology to that of Noah’s tent.
67 Then Isaac brought her into the tent of Sarah (הָאֹ֙הֱלָה֙), his mother; and he took Rebekah and she became his wife, and he loved her. So Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death.
It is the “ה֙” ending here that many suggest makes the word a feminine noun. To be sure, this is a feminine ending in Hebrew. The problem is that irregular nouns and verbs also exist within Hebrew and this morphology could very well be one of them. So, was it her tent that Ham entered or his tent? I don’t think the text is clear, however, it shouldn’t matter, as it’s quite possible that Noah and/or his wife could have been inside of Noah’s tent.
Why Sleep with Your Own Mother?
Many Bible readers find the suggestion that Ham slept with his own mother as implausible, however, we will demonstrate that this was not as strange as it sounds, and certain scenarios in the ancient world actually demand it. For example, when Absalom revolted against his father, David, and tried to steal his throne, he was instructed to publicly sleep with his father’s concubines as a show of power.
20 Then Absalom said to Ahithophel, “Give advice as to what we should do.”
21 And Ahithophel said to Absalom, “Go in to your father’s concubines, whom he has left to keep the house; and all Israel will hear that you are abhorred by your father. Then the hands of all who are with you will be strong.” 22 So they pitched a tent for Absalom on the top of the house, and Absalom went in to his father’s concubines in the sight of all Israel.
23 Now the advice of Ahithophel, which he gave in those days, was as if one had inquired at the oracle of God. So was all the advice of Ahithophel both with David and with Absalom.
(2 Samuel 16:20-23)
Sleeping with your father’s wife (or wives) was a power move. It showed that you were now in charge. There was no greater display of power aside from outright murdering whoever was on the throne. This is seen also in the story of David’s takeover of Saul’s throne. While being rebuked by the prophet Nathan, we are informed that David was “given” Saul’s wives when he assumed the throne.
7 Then Nathan said to David, “You are the man! Thus says the Lord God of Israel: ‘I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you from the hand of Saul. 8 I gave you your master’s house and your master’s wives into your keeping, and gave you the house of Israel and Judah. And if that had been too little, I also would have given you much more! 9 Why have you despised the commandment of the Lord, to do evil in His sight? You have killed Uriah the Hittite with the sword; you have taken his wife to be your wife, and have killed him with the sword of the people of Ammon.
(2 Samuel 12:7-9)
This dethronement theory also explains one of the most perplexing part of the story, which is why Ham went out and told his brothers about his actions. He was informing them of his actions because he was attempting a takeover.
A Fitting Curse
The last thing that is explained by this theory is how the curse is fitting. Most people see the curse as an overreaction. However, once we understand that Canaan was possibly an illegitimate child from the sinful union of Ham and his mother, it sounds much more in keeping with the biblical texts. For example, Abraham’s offspring with Hagar (Ishmael) was essentially cursed because of his source. He had done nothing wrong, yet his fate was sealed by the nature of his coming into the world. This is in keeping with the idea of generational curses in the Bible, especially those stemming from sin. It also explains why only Canaan was cursed and not Ham’s other offspring (Put & Egypt). However, it is obvious that Put and Egypt are not favored people groups and it make sense that they would be the offspring of a sinful ancestor.
He (Ishmael) will be a wild donkey of a man;
his hand will be against everyone
and everyone’s hand against him,
and he will live in hostility
toward all his brothers.
Even more fitting is that had Ham’s offspring in this narrative serve as a rival lineage to the two brothers who acted righteously. As with the offspring of Cain, we see a biblical view that a wicked person begets a wicked lineage. A similar experience can be seen with the offspring of Reuben who was quasi-cursed by his father Jacob for sleeping with Bilhah.
And it came to pass, while Israel dwelt in that land, that Reuben went and lay with Bilhah his father’s concubine; and Israel heard of it.
3 “Reuben, you are my firstborn,
My might and the beginning of my strength,
The excellency of dignity and the excellency of power.
4 Unstable as water, you shall not excel,
Because you went up to your father’s bed;
Then you defiled it—
He went up to my couch.
Why Did Ham’s Brother’s Cover Noah?
At this point, one should be asking, if Noah’s wife was the one that was defiled, why did Ham’s brothers go through such great lengths to cover Noah without seeing him? Their are two answers to this question. The first assumes the narrative is complete and not a composite of multiple narratives. The second requires the combining of two narratives from different time periods. I personally think both views are correct.
In the first view, one merely needs to read the passage as before, assuming an idiomatic usage. The text does not state that they covered Noah. It states that they covered Noah’s nakedness which has already been demosntrated to mean Noah’s wife.
But Shem and Japheth took a garment, laid it on both their shoulders, and went backward and covered the nakedness of their father. Their faces were turned away, and they did not see their father’s nakedness.
This accounts for the fact that Noah was not the primary target. However, it fails to explain why the brothers went through great lengths to avoid accidentally seeing “Noah’s nakedness”. If the idiom refers to a sexual act then surely they would not be cursed for merely seeing their mother naked, and by accident no less. Nevertheless, this can be explained by assuming that cultural norms would still dictate viewing their mother in such a way is shameful.
Even still, many scholars have suggested another theory which is that this story is a composite and the portion about the brothers is a later addition. Being that it was added later, it seems that the editor was so far removed from the ancient text that they were unaware of the idiom and added this portion assuming everything in the existing narrative was literal. For many source critics, this view is predominant. From a literary standpoint, this makes sense because the narrative up untul verse 23 is fairly vague. However, verse 23 seems to be painfully aware of the details that needs to be expressed, as if they want to leave no doubt in the reader’s head about what they are referring to. This also makes sense because we know that at least part of the narrative was recorded long after Canaan was subdued by the Israelites. Was there a nucleous of this story that was pre-monarchy and then additions made later? Many source critics believe so.
One piece of evidence that the text was a composite is that Canaan is cursed upon Noah’s waking and discovering what was “done to him”. Thus far, Canaan had yet to exist. The cursing of Canaan may have happened at a later time but the narrator or later editor did not account for this glaring anachronism. This is buttressed by the fact that in verse 26 Japheth and Shem have a different god than Canaan. Clearly this passage is written in a time when Canaan was already a defined people group with a distinct religion. I would add further that this sounds like it is from a much later time period when Israel had already departed from the worship of El (the supreme deity in Canaan) and began the worship of YHWH.
I think with the evidence laid out, it is possible to conclude that something sexual in nature occurred inside the tent. I think there is enough textual evidence as well, to conclude Noah’s nakedness really refers to Noah’s wife. It solves the question of why Noah’s response was so sever. It solves the problem of why Canaan alone was cursed out of Ham’s three sons. It also explains why this strange interlude appears to be inserted into a section of text that is about genealogy. The curse of Ham’s lineage was necessary in the mind of the ancient author, as ham was attempting to setup a wicked new world order.