Noah’s behavior (Gen 9:20-21) is treated as quite shameful. Why?

First, getting quite drunk is portrayed as sinful, or at least very foolish, in a number of places. For example: “Wine is a mocker, strong drink is raging: and whosoever is deceived thereby is not wise.” (Prov 20:1) But while nakedness is itself is no sin, public exposure (even being “uncovered within his tent”) is treated as shameful in the Mosaic code. (And throughout, we must remember that the author of Genesis was the author of the Mosaic code; and that God was the real author throughout.) Noah’s nakedness while drunk raises the question why he was naked; there may be some implication of sexual impropriety; see next question.

What was the nature of Ham’s sin (Gen 9:22)?

Was it really sinful or wrong to catch a sight of one’s father naked at all, let alone when drunk? First, note that Lev 18:7 makes it unlawful to “uncover” the “nakedness of thy father,” although, to be fair, the text does not say Ham did this, but only that Ham caught sight of Noah’s uncovered body. Still, one view has it that this is a euphemism for incest. But this interpretation is not, strictly speaking, required by the text. Perhaps merely being able to see his uncovered father was the shameful thing. This seems unlikely to us today, because for us, since family members of the same sex regularly accidentally see each other’s nakedness, the boys merely seeing their father’s naked body was probably not unusual or shameful. But Ross claims, “To the ancients…even seeing one’s father naked was a breach of family ethic.” If so, then some euphemism is meant. It is also entirely possible that Ham’s sin is not sexual but rather the fact that he has dishonored his father by mocking him to his brothers.

Why was Canaan cursed for the sin of his father Ham (Gen 9:25)?

We are not told why. After all, Ham did have other sons, and in just a few verses (Gen 10:6), we will see in the genealogy that (apparently) Canaan was the youngest; though perhaps he was listed last due to his shame. In any event, we are forced to conclude that there was some special reason, known to Noah but unknown to us. Since the curse is generational, it might very well be incest (or be some lesser perversion that develops into incest), a thing known to run in families. Moreover, in Ex 18, God forbids the entering Israelites to behave “after the doings of the land of Canaan, whither I bring you” (Ex 18:3), and he then rattles off a long and disgusting list of varieties of incest, child rape, child sacrifice, etc., and concludes the list of horrors by saying, “Defile not ye yourselves in any of these things: for in all these the nations are defiled which I cast out before you” (Ex 18:24). Henry aptly points out that in saying this, Moses was partly justifying for the sake of the Israelites the justice to be meted out to the Canaanites—the justice which God was presently ordering, and which the Israelites were to administer.

What are we to make of the blessings Noah gives to Shem and Japheth (Gen 9:25-27)?

Particularly since they immediately precede the report of Noah’s death (though it might have occurred hundreds of years after this incident), this recalls the prophesies of the twelve tribes given by Jacob (Gen 49). They also recollect the contrasting blessing and curse given by Isaac to Jacob and Esau (Gen 27). In any event, due to the shame of his father, Canaan (or rather, his line) will, much later, become a “servant of servants” (in a few later Bible instances) of the Israelites. It is particularly the line of Shem, which will eventually include the Israelites, which will be master over the Canaanites. Again, this might serve for Moses as encouragement to the invading Israelites. As for Japheth, he will “dwell in the tents of Shem.” The meaning of this is obscure, some believing it to mean that descendants of Japheth (such as the Greeks and Hebrews) would in time occupy Semite (Israelite) land; some like Henry even maintain it is a prophesy of the new covenant, insofar as Gentiles will come to be united through the Gospel with the Jews.

Can the story of the shame of Noah and curse of Canaan (Gen 9:18-29) be compared to the story of the Garden and the Fall (Gen 2-3)?

This is a view taken by Sailhamer, for example. The parallels are indeed numerous. God and Noah both do planting: the Garden and a vineyard. Adam and Eve wickedly ate the forbidden fruit, while Noah drank too much of the fruit of the vine. As a result, Adam and Eve recognized their nakedness, while Noah became naked. They made themselves clothing (and God later made them better clothing); the more righteous brothers covered their father. The wrongdoers were confronted (by God, and by Noah). Finally, there followed curses, which affect the more wicked descendants of the father, as well as blessings. Clearly, the stories exhibit a similar sort of structure, and they do have some themes in common. I am not totally convinced that the similarities are intentional. Perhaps the biggest difference is that the story of the Fall—a word significant and unique, so that we capitalize it—is about the fall of man from his original sinlessness. Meanwhile, Noah’s and Ham’s sins are not quite a second fall, because they are already certainly fallen.

Do not such similarities (just mentioned, between Gen 9:18-29 and Gen 2-3) suggest contrivance by the author, rather than faithfulness to some events?

How likely is it that the events were designed by God to match each other? This might turn out to be a general problem: when the carefully contrived details of a narrative seem best explained by choices made by the author, that would certainly seem to indicate that the narrative was literally contrived, i.e., fictional and mythic, rather than actual. I do not believe we have seen many other examples so far; still, the symmetrical structure of the weeks and months given in the Flood, discussed above (q.v.), are another example. Yet my approach in this case is slightly different. We need only observe that the events in both cases here flow naturally, and that adequately explains their similarity. It was inevitable that Adam, and Noah, would sin; after that happened, they would (at some point, in the case of Noah) be caught, and the nakedness in both case just happens to be integral to the story. That a mixture of merciful blessing and just punishment follows is perfectly natural. Now, it is possible that, out of the sins of Noah, this one was selected because it involved his nakedness that resulted from consuming the fruit of the vine, this in turn because it recapitulates the symbology of the Fall (the fruit of temptation and the nakedness before God that follows sin). It is also possible that God permitted Ham to be tempted to gaze upon his father and mock him to his brothers, because this prophetic lesson would result.

Why punish the son, or even worse, all the descendants (as at Gen 9:24-27)?

“Have we not seen by now numerous examples,” a critic asks, “of a sort of mean-spirited stereotyping by God? Why support this unfair treatment based on their accidental family grouping? Is this not merely a primitive sort of tribal bigotry, which is being put into the person of the Holy God?” How are we to answer this question? Early, primitive people were very tribal and bigoted; as with other unfortunate practices, such as wars of conquest, slavery, and polygamy, words in a holy book were sadly not going to extirpate these practices. Only time, under the gentle guiding hand of religion, would have a chance to affect that. You will notice here that the curse is given by Noah, not by God, who does not mention it in justifying the invasion of Canaan and the extirpation of the Canaanites. God has his own reasons, which we will return to. Note also that Cain’s entire family line was not specifically cursed; only Cain was. But Cain’s bad habits happened to give rise to bad descendants. So, thus far, we do not have any examples of God himself engaging in anything like “mean-spirited stereotyping.” But we will have to come back to this and similar issues later.