What Terrible Thing Did Ham Do to Drunken, Naked Noah?


Yesterday a friend and I were talking about some of the weird, perplexing things in the Bible, swapping quotes and links to try to make sense of a strange passage. I decided I’d throw it out there today and see what others thought.

Genesis 9:18-27 describes how after Noah lands the ark and makes a covenant with God he plants an orchard, invents wine, and gets drunk. Then his son Ham “saw the nakedness of his father” and told his brothers, who then covered their eyes so they didn’t see him, but went in and covered him. Afterwards Noah curses Ham’s son Canaan. What actually happened here? Why is this so important? Why does Canaan get cursed for something his father did? And why is it so bad to just see your Dad naked and laugh about it?

What is actually going on here?

There seem to be four popular interpretations:

1. The first is just a straight literalist interpretation — the crime really was just seeing his father in an uncompromising position and then laughing about it to his brothers.

The next three interpretations are a little more plausible and have been considered over the centuries:


2. Ham castrated his father.

3. Ham sexually molested or raped his father, shaming and dishonoring them both.

4. It was actually Ham’s son Canaan that did the crime.

These ideas see the curse being inflicted on Canaan for a few different reasons. First, if Noah was castrated then he couldn’t have more sons. Second, whatever the sexually dominating act was, it’s seen as a symbolic attempt to usurp Noah’s authority in the tribe.

The fifth idea, which we’ll explore on the next page, is much more of a leap from the literal but the one that ultimately makes the most sense when read against other usages of the language in the Torah and in the bigger context of the differing marital practices of Pagan tribes…

5. Ham actually committed incest with Noah’s wife/and/or his own mother.

Thus, the reason why Canaan was cursed is because he was a child of incest, and the living symbol of his father Ham’s attempt to challenge the authority and disrupt the lineage of his father Noah.

That’s the case made here, which makes the most sense to me:


Ham, Shem, and Japheth are supposed to symbolize the three forefathers from which all the cultures of the world descended. It makes sense, therefore, that the cultures descending from Ham would be ones — Canaanites — that did not prohibit incest, which the Torah would seek to clearly separate the people from in Moses time.

What do you think? How do you interpret this story and where does it fit in your value system?

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