Today I came across an interesting interpretation of scripture in Bible Study Magazine from Michael S. Heiser that brought to mind the importance of understanding the culture and times in which the Bible was written. There are some things in the scripture that we understand at a surface level. However, there are many things in the Bible that require an understanding of the culture or practices of the time in which the Bible was written if we want to truly understand what the Lord would have us learn. One of those passages is in Genesis 9 about Noah cursing his grandson for something that his own son did. Here’s the passage.
“Noah began to be a man of the soil, and he planted a vineyard. He drank of the wine and became drunk and lay uncovered in his tent. And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father and told his two brothers outside. Then Shem and Japheth took a garment, laid it on both their shoulders, and walked backward and covered the nakedness of their father. Their faces were turned backward, and they did not see their father’s nakedness. When Noah awoke from his wine and knew what his youngest son had done to him, he said, ‘Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be to his brothers.’” (Genesis 9:20-25).
Now the traditional interpretation for many is that Noah’s son, Ham, saw his father naked and based upon the phrase that Noah, “Knew what his youngest son had done to him,” that Ham had some kind of homosexual encounter with his father while his father was passed out or drunk. Other commentators have said that Ham’s descendants, because of this, became the black Africans and thus their color was a curse to them. However, looking further into the scripture we can see that these interpretations have serious faults.
A Matter Of Idioms
Why would Noah curse his grandson (Canaan) for something that his son (Ham) did? The answer lies in the phrase that Ham, “Saw the nakedness of his father.” At our first modern reading we assume that saying has a plain meaning: Ham saw his dad naked. But there is evidence from the scripture to suggest that this is not what was meant at all. Consider these passages in Leviticus, also written by Moses.
“You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father, which is the nakedness of your mother; she is your mother, you shall not uncover her nakedness. You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father’s wife; it is your father’s nakedness” (Leviticus 18:7-8).
“If a man lies with his father’s wife, he has uncovered his father’s nakedness; both of them shall surely be put to death” (Leviticus 20:11).
Notice the usage of, “Uncover the nakedness of your father, which is the nakedness of your mother.” Moses uses the idiom, then he explains it right away so the meaning is not lost.
In both cases Moses was using an idiom to basically say, “Don’t have sex with your mother,” or “Don’t have sex with your father’s wife.” Being that the passages in Genesis and Leviticus were written by the same author (Moses), it may be said that in Genesis 9 Moses was using this idiom to say that Ham had a sexual encounter with his mother (or Noah’s wife, assuming that the woman in question was not Ham’s natural mother). Either way, this was an incestuous relationship. Interestingly, these idioms are never used in scripture to describe a homosexual relationship, thus, this can only mean sleeping with one’s mother, or sleeping with a father’s wife, voluntary or not. So, taking this idiom into account let’s look at Genesis 9 again, with a little interpretation.
““Noah began to be a man of the soil, and he planted a vineyard. He drank of the wine and became drunk and lay uncovered in his tent. And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father [slept with his mother] and told his two brothers outside. Then Shem and Japheth took a garment, laid it on both their shoulders, and walked backward and covered the nakedness of their father [mother]. Their faces were turned backward, and they did not see their father’s nakedness [mother]. When Noah awoke from his wine and knew what his youngest son had done to him [slept with his wife], he said, ‘Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be to his brothers.’” (Genesis 9:20-25).
Notice that Ham went and told his brothers, Shem and Japheth, what he did to his mother. IE, he was telling them that she was “available.” Instead of taking advantage of her they covered her up.
So why the curse on Canaan? Because in this situation, if we are interpreting correctly, meant that Canaan was the illegitimate son of Ham and his mother. He therefore could not have a place of leadership in the family of Noah since we would have been an illegitimate son.
Why Is This Important?
When reading the book of Genesis we tend to look at the book as a series of stories about beginnings: the beginning of the world, the beginning of man, the beginning of sin, the beginning of the Jews, etc. But in actuality, the book of Genesis is more than just an account of beginnings. It is a book written to ancient Israelites in defense of Moses’ leadership for the nation. Secondly, it begins to tell us the story of the coming of Jesus.
Consider that in scripture, Canaan is a type for sin. God gives the descendants of Canaan the land for a while, but ultimately the land is to go to the Israelites as a fulfillment of a promise made to Abraham. The picture here is one of Jesus coming to deal with sin. As the land was promised to Abraham’s offspring, it is actually promised to Jesus because he is the promised offspring (Romans 4:13, Galatians 3:19). Thus, Moses is showing two things in Genesis 9. First, the Israelites are the promised people who will take possession of the land from the Canaanite tribes, who are cursed from spiritual leadership. Second, the coming savior would also come and deal with sin, by wiping it out in the same way that Israel wiped out the Canaanites from the land.
If Genesis 9 is interpreted as a homosexual act by Ham against his father, then the curse upon Canaan would be an injustice, being meted out for something his father had done. The scripture already says that, “Fathers shall not be put to death because of their children, nor shall children be put to death because of their fathers. Each one shall be put to death for his own sin” (Deuteronomy 24:16). Additionally, if the sin against Noah is a homosexual one, the story would tell us nothing of importance in terms of the types being illustrated about the promises of God for Israel and the coming Messiah. Remember that Genesis unfolds the story of a people needing a savior and finally a savior comes (Joseph), who is a type for Christ. Then Moses carries the story further into his own day as his own life becomes an illustration for the coming life of Christ.
Now, is this interpretation correct? I’m not saying I buy into this interpretation, but I do find it somewhat compelling. I confess that it is a hard one to accept because in our day we don’t use the idiom presented here. The issue is whether or not the Israelites would have understood the story in this way, being familiar with the idiom and its use elsewhere in the Pentateuch. Ultimately, it all gets down to the story of Jesus, since these early writings were given to us not only as ancient Israelite history, but as a precursor to the coming of Christ. Just as the Israelites destroyed the Canaanites from the land, so too, Jesus has dealt with the sin in our lives through his death on the cross. Just as Canaan was illegitimate and was given no family influence, so too, our sin is an illegitimate part of our lives and we must give it no influence in our lives for Christ.