Reconsidering Noah’s Drunkenness and Its Relevant Event (Gen 9:20-27)
Kye Sang Ha, Ph. D.
Professor, Sahmyook University
Various interpretations have been presented in regard to the event of Genesis 9:20-27, that is, Noah’s drunkenness, Ham’s sin, and Canaan’s being cursed, due to its intractable causality. The main issues of the study/debate on it are “What was the specific sin of Ham in relation to Noah?” and “Why was Canaan cursed in spite of having nothing to do with it?” The interpretation that has been getting more convincing lately is that of Ham’s sexual crime, and the interpretation of the joint sexual crime has most recently been offered in regard to Cannan’s curse.
The fact that Noah, who awoke from his wine, knew what his youngest son had done to him (Gen 9:24), is presented as a key reason for interpreting Ham’s crime as a sexual offense crime. ‘‘āśâ-lô/Al-hf'['’(“did to him”) here means that Ham actively did something to drunken Noah, and the fact that Noah, who became sober, knew it and cursed Ham is because of Noah himself recognizing that he had become a victim of the act, and it was a sexual act. The expression ‘Ham saw the nakedness of his father’(verse 22) is regarded as an idiomatic expression of sexual relations, and Ham’s crime is interpreted as incestuous to his father, and Leviticus 20:17, which uses ‘see the nakedness’ and ‘uncover the nakedness’ as synonyms by parallelism, is presented as a conclusive evidence. Besides, it is asserted that Noah ‘uncovered himself’ means a sexual relation, that the Hebrew verb hl;';G'/gālâ (“uncover”) is used in combination with the Hebrew noun hw"r>[,/‘erwâ (“nakedness”) to describe illegal sexual relations in many verses in the Old Testament, and that its most representative case is Leviticus 18:6-19 and 20:11, 17-21, which is the prohibition law against incest. It is argued that hl;';G'/gālâ is used with the meaning of sexual relations in every verse of these passages, that the Hebrew verb is used in combination with @n"K'/kānāp(“wing, end, skirt, nakedness) and interpreted into “uncover the nakedness” in Deuteronomy 22:30[H 23:1] and 27:20, which prohibit incest especially between parents and children, and that it is used in the same way in Ezekiel 16:36-37, 22:10, and 23:10, 18, 29 and so forth. Therefore, Noah’s uncovering himself is not considered as uncovering himself simply but as a sexual act.
I reconsidered the interpretation problem of Genesis 9:20-27 not only by closely reading the Hebrew text of Genesis 9:20-27 as the final form from a synchronic/literary perspective but also by taking into consideration an inter-textual interpretation of the text done in association with other texts that have been claimed to be relevant. First of all, I especially paid attention to the context in which the Hebrew expressions “uncover the nakedness”(gālâ/hl;';G' Piel active+‘erwâ/hw"r>[,) and “see the nakedness” (rā’â/ha'r' Qal active+ erwâ/hw"r>[,) are used in relation to sexual crimes in the texts of the Old Testament. I did not overlook the expressions to be juxtaposed or combined which the texts of the Old Testament themselves intend to clarify the two Hebrew expressions.
Leviticus 18:6-19, where the expression “uncover the nakedness”(gālâ/hl;';G' Piel active+ ‘erwâ/hw"r>[,) is most frequently (12x) used in the Old Testament, makes its beginning (verse 6) and end (verse 19) an inclusio, where the sexually suggestive expression ‘br;q' /qārab Qal active+lae/’ēl (“[sexually] approach”) is placed just before ‘hl;';G'/gālâ Piel active inf. cstr.+hw"r>[,/erwâ’. Thus the inclusio not only binds the verses 6-19 as a unified section but also provides the context for the interpretation of the verses 7-18 as a whole. Therefore, the expression “uncover the nakedness”(gālâ/hl;';G' Piel active+ ‘erwâ/hw"r>[,) cannot help but mean sexual crime (verses 7[2x], 8-13).
Verse 14 places the expression “uncover the nakedness”(gālâ/hl;';G' Piel active+ ‘erwâ/hw"r>[,) just before the expression ‘br;q'/qārab Qal active+lae/’ēl (“[sexually] approach”), making a chiasm with the beginning (verse 6) and end (verse 19) of this section, and thus the whole section forms a solid literary structure. After verse 14 the expression “uncover the nakedness”(hl;';G'/gālâ Piel active+hw"r>[,,/‘erwâ) is used again (verses 15 [2x], 16, 17a), and thus it cannot help but mean illegal sexual relations.
Besides, verses 17b and 18 places another sexually connoted expression ‘xq;l'/lāqaḥ Qal active’ (“take”) just before the expression ‘hl;';G'/gālâ Piel active inf. cstr.+hw"r>[,/‘erwâ), and thus the combination form means “take and uncover the nakedness,” which is sexual crime.
Leviticus 20:10-21, where the expression “uncover the nakedness”(gālâ/hl;';G' Piel active+ ‘erwâ/hw"r>[,) occurs frequently next to Leviticus 18, has its beginning (verse 10) and end (verse 21) which provide the context for the interpretation of the expression, and also juxtaposes it with another sexually connoted expression “lie with” (bk;v'/šākab Qal active, verses 11, 18, 20). In Ezekiel 22:10 it is juxtaposed with still another sexually suggestive expression, and even the expression ‘hl;';G'/gālâ Piel active+@n"K'/kānāp of his father (Deut 22:30[H 23:1]; 27:20), which means “uncover the nakedness of his father,” occurs in juxtaposition with other sexually connoted expressions (“take” or “lie with”).
Therefore, it is made clear that the expression “uncover the nakedness”(gālâ/hl;';G' Piel active+ ‘erwâ/hw"r>[,) comes to have the meaning of sexual crime only through its context of illegal sexual relations and its juxtaposition and combination with other sexually connoted expressions. The same is with even the expression “the nakedness is uncovered”(hl;';G'/gālâ Qal passive+hw"r>[,/erwâ, Isa 47:3).
In the case of Genesis 9:21, neither the expression “uncover the nakedness” nor the expression “the nakedness is uncovered” occurs, and the verb hl;';G'/gālâ is not coupled with the noun hw"r>[,/erwâ, and ‘hl;';G'/gālâ Hithpael’(uncover himself) with its subject Noah occurs. It is not to ‘uncover other people for sexual relations’ but to ‘uncover himself without any intentions of sexual offense.’ Even the context itself is not the context which neither hints nor specifies. Thus, as the text clearly states, Noah must have uncovered himself because he drank of the wine and got drunk, and as a result, he was so stuffy.
The expression “see the nakedness”(ha'r'/rā’â Qal active+hw"r>[,/‘erwâ, Gen 9:22) occurs in Leviticus 20:17, and that not only in the context of sexual crime of the chapter but also in juxtaposition with the expression “take”(xq;l'/lāqaḥ Qal active) and the expression “uncover the nakedness”(gālâ/hl;';G' Piel active+ ‘erwâ/hw"r>[,), and thus it means the sexual crime of incest. However, neither the expression “see the nakedness”(ha'r'/rā’â Qal active+hw"r>[,/‘erwâ) in Genesis 9:22 does have the context of sexual crime nor is it used in juxtaposition or combination with other expressions of sexual offense. Naturally Genesis 9:23 (cf. Ezek 16:8) should be literally interpreted.
Therefore, from these close studies, it is clear that the event of the latter part of Genesis 9, Noah’s intoxication, Ham’s crime, and Canaan’s curse, is one that must be understood in a literal way, regardless of sex crimes. Noah’s “drinking of the wine, becoming drunk, and uncovering himself in the tent”(verse 21) was certainly his mistake and fault. What’s more, it provided the very beginning of the case. However, it was Ham who amplified Noah's error into the situation. Noah, who became sober, came to “know what his youngest son had done to him”(verse 24). What Ham did to him here was to ‘see the nakedness of his father and to tell his two brothers outside’ (verse 22), and thus to undermine and tarnish his honor and authority, although it was so natural that he covered up his father’s fault and mistake out of his love and respect for his father who is a spiritual authority. Ham’s behavior in this regard was in stark contrast to the actions taken by his older brothers Sam and Japheth in verse 23. This very act of Ham unfortunately led to the curse of his son, Canaan.
Because God blessed Noah and his sons (Gen 9:1), Noah could not curse Ham who God blessed. It is so also in light of God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 12:2-3a and the prophet Balaam’s words in Numbers 23:9 and 24:9b. Therefore, Noah ‘prophetically’ cursed Ham’s son, Canaan who would inherit the character of Ham.