What Was Ham’s Sin?

Noah got drunk. There are many prohibitions and warnings about drunkenness in the Bible.

This is an excerpt from Genesis Segment 9

Gen 9:21-25  And he drank of the wine, and was drunken; and he was uncovered within his tent.  (22)  And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brethren without.  (23)  And Shem and Japheth took a garment, and laid it upon both their shoulders, and went backward, and covered the nakedness of their father; and their faces were backward, and they saw not their father’s nakedness.  (24)  And Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done unto him.  (25)  And he said, Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren.

Noah got drunk. There are many prohibitions and warnings about drunkenness in the Bible. In the New Testament, Paul specifically tells us in Ephesians 5:18 not to be drunk with wine but to be filled with the Holy Spirit. In our modern times, most governments have laws against public drunkenness. Yet, in Noah’s day we do not know of any prohibition against drunkenness, and Noah was not drunk in public but in his home. One aspect of this story is that it is written to dissuade drunkenness. Apparently Noah was “passing-out-drunk” for he was unable to perceive what Ham did while he was passed out in his tent. Noah had a bad experience with it and probably did not try to get drunk again. See Prov 20:1; 23:31-35; Isa 5:11; 28:7; 29:9; Rom 13:13; Gal 5:21. Drunkenness is a sin and Noah did sin by becoming drunk. But the Scriptures do not dwell on Noah’s sin, but rather on Ham’s sin.

The “rest of the story” as a beloved and well known commentator would say, is a bit difficult to explain. Taking this passage at face value, it probably is a literal fact that Noah was lying nude in his tent. That, of course is not a sin. To be naked in one’s own house in private is not sinful or shameful. Nakedness was considered shameful when another person saw someone naked. Christ on the cross had the shame of being naked for the entire world to see (Psalm 22:18; Mat 27:35; Luk 23:34; Mark 15:24; John 19:23). Thus, Noah was in a state where he could be shamed. Consequently, when Ham went into his father’s tent where he saw his father lying there naked and this brought shame against Noah.

Again, taking this passage at face value, he went outside and told his brothers perhaps hoping they would go in the tent and they all would have a good laugh. But the other two respected their father and went in and covered him up, thus preventing him from being shamed again. When Noah got over his drunkenness (and probably his hangover), he became aware of what Ham had done. So Noah cursed Canaan, Ham’s son, thus double cursing Ham for now the curse would flow from father to son. We are not specifically told how this action on Ham’s part was so sinful that it exacted a curse, just that it did so.

A scenario that seems to explain this more fully is taken from the law. Lev 20:11 states, “And the man that lieth with his father’s wife hath uncovered his father’s nakedness: both of them shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.” This law did not apply in Noah’s day, but its significance is that it explains uncovering one’s father’s nakedness. According to this interpreting of the term “uncovered his father’s nakedness” we understand it to mean that the son has committed adultery with his father’s wife. Deu 27:20 states, “Cursed be he that lieth with his father’s wife; because he uncovereth his father’s skirt.” So the son that commits adultery with his father’s wife has uncovered the man’s nakedness, and he should be cursed. Now the wife of the father may or not be the son’s mother. Polygamy was accepted then, and of course a father might remarry after the death of his first wife. If we look further at the law about uncovering a person’s nakedness, we see it means to have illicit sexual relations with a person. For examples, see Lev 20:17-21.

Why is that? It is likely that Noah’s wife was pregnant with Canaan, Ham’s illegitimate son due to the incestuous relationship between Ham and Noah’s wife. This wife may not have been Ham’s mother for his mother may have died and after her death, Noah may have married another wife. This is pure speculation, for the Scriptures are silent on this, yet it is plausible. In this scenario, Ham went into his father’s tent where Noah was drunk, committed adultery and incest with Noah’s wife. When Noah found out later, perhaps because his wife was pregnant with Canaan, he cursed the child of the adulterous act. This is a reasonable assumption for several reasons. First, we are told in verse eighteen that Ham was the son of Canaan. No other sons of either Shem or Japheth are mentioned, just Canaan. The reason that is stated is important for the Bible would not mention it if it was not significant. The significance is to make sure no one confused Canaan with Noah. This makes certain that the hearers of this story knew that Canaan was in no way Noah’s son when it was told verbally (and later for readers of the story when it was written down). In verse 22, we are again reminded that Canaan was Ham’s son and not Noah’s son. In the Genealogies, in Gen 10:6, it appears that Canaan was Ham’s fourth son. That would mean that Ham had the other sons before this incident with Noah in his tent. However, there is the possibility that Canaan may have been the firstborn. Since Canaan was cursed, he may have been legally placed last in the line of inheritance because of the curse.  The other possibility is that this happened after Ham had his first three sons.

The case for the incestuous relationship between Ham and his father’s wife is strongly supported by the scriptures, and the case for Canaan to have been born to Noah’s wife for several reasons:

  • The scriptures inform us that having a sexual relationship with one’s mother, step mother, or sister is uncovering his father’s nakedness. Incestuous relationships are uncovering one’s father’s nakedness (Deut 27:20; Lev 20:11; 17).
  • Noah was uncovered in his tent. Thus when Ham went into his father’s tent, he uncovered his father’s nakedness.
  • The scriptures adamantly state that Canaan was Ham’s son to make sure no one thought he was a son of Noah. This implies that Noah’s wife bore the child (Gen 9:18; 22).
  • Noah never had any children after the flood even though God told Noah and his sons to be fruitful and multiply (see genealogy of Noah in Genesis 10). This implies that Noah never had a sexual relationship with his wife after she became pregnant with Ham’s son. Noah would not have wanted a further relationship with her after her adultery.
  • Why would Noah curse Canaan for the act of his father, Ham? Why not curse Ham. He cursed Canaan, who was the illegitimate child of Ham, to make sure he, Canaan, had no inheritance in Noah’s line. (Blessing was reserved for the son who received the lion’s share of the inheritance; cursing would have removed any claim the son had to his father’s—or grandfather’s—inheritance).
  • When Ham told his brothers what had happened, they tried to cover up Ham’s sin. Unfortunately that did not work, for Noah found out about the sin.
  • Finally, this scenario better explains why Ham’s sin was so grievous. Again, this is all speculation for the Scriptures do not expound further than the fact the Ham saw the nakedness of Noah.

Many in history (and even up to the present time) have concluded that this passage is a biblical mandate for slavery in the antebellum south in the United States. Nothing could be further from the truth. The curse of Canaan had absolutely nothing to do with slavery, period! It had everything to do with Ham’s incest with his father’s wife. Ham was attempting to wrest Noah’s authority as the Patriarch of the family by lying with his wife, thus attempting to possess her and depose his father (See 2 Sam 16:21; 22).

The Bible is quite plain in its opposition to forced slavery. Exo 21:16 states, “And he that stealeth a man, and selleth him, or if he be found in his hand, he shall surely be put to death.” In other words, kidnapping a person and selling that person into slavery was punishable by death in the Old Testament. That is exactly how slavery was conducted in the USA prior to the Civil War. People were kidnapped in Africa, transported the USA, and then sold into slavery. That is not allowed in the Bible. Many pre-Civil War Southern Congressmen, Senators, Columnists, and yes, even Christian pastors of several denominations twisted the Scriptures to condone such a heinous practice. Slavery is a blot on the American experiment, which was only corrected by the spilling of much American blood.

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