When most people encounter the story of Noah and Ham they usually have one view of what happened. Ham looked at Noah naked and mocked or made fun of him in some way, and Noah got angry and cursed his son, Canaan. However, the Hebrew text used phrases that are consistently used elsewhere in scripture as euphemisms for something more nefarious. This leads to other possible interpretations that reveal why the punishment for Canaan was so harsh.
Gen 9:22 (KJV) 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. 26 And he said, Blessed be the Lord God of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant. 27 God shall enlarge Japheth, and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant.
If Ham simply saw his father naked and Noah’s response has in shame why did Noah responds with such ferocity? He could have just scolded Ham, why curse his own grandson?
First, why did he curse Canaan instead of Ham? Ham is always referenced as “the father of Canaan”, and this is because Genesis was compiled by Moses years after the events happened. It seems Moses is emphasizing this to the show origins of Canaanites (descendants of Canaan), who are the inhabitants of the promised land. These are the people that Israel is told to defeat as the execution of God’s judgment against them. Also, it was Canaan that was cursed and not Ham. One possibility is that since Noah, Ham, Shem, and Japheth and their wives were blessed when they got off the ark in Gen 9:1, Noah can’t curse what God has already blessed, so he goes after the next best thing Ham’s son. In Numbers chapters 22-24 when Balaam tries but fails to curse Israel for the Moabites, his reasoning is that no one can curse someone that God has already blessed, and the power of blessing and cursing is truly God’s. So this seems likely a biblically consistent reason.
The Hebrew text says, “saw [raah](רָאָה) the nakedness [ervah](עֶרְוָה) of…”. This phrase is often used as an idiom for sex. The text also says his nakedness “was uncovered”[galah](גֶּלֶה). An example of nakedness being uncovered as an idiom for sex can be found in Leviticus 18:6 and Leviticus 20:17 which are about incest. Elements of this idiom are also used metaphorically for sex like when describing Israel’s idolatry in Ezekiel 16:36, Ez 22:10; and Ez 23:10, 18, 29. Idolatry is like adultery because the people were cheating on God as a wife cheats on a husband.
Leviticus 20:17 (KJV) And if a man shall take his sister, his father’s daughter, or his mother’s daughter, and see her nakedness, and she see his nakedness; it is a wicked thing; and they shall be cut off in the sight of their people: he hath uncovered his sister’s nakedness; he shall bear his iniquity.
Ezekiel 16:36 Thus saith the Lord God; Because thy filthiness was poured out, and thy nakedness discovered through thy whoredoms with thy lovers, and with all the idols of thy abominations, and by the blood of thy children, which thou didst give unto them;
Leviticus 18:6 None of you shall approach to any that is near of kin to him, to uncover their nakedness; I am the Lord.
This leads to other theories, one is that Ham had sex with his father while he was drunk just like Lot’s daughters in Genesis 19:31-38. Alternatively, another interpretation of the nakedness of Noah was in reference to his wife, Ham’s mother, and Ham had sex with her. Leviticus 18:7-8 elaborates on this.
Leviticus 18:7 The nakedness of thy father, or the nakedness of thy mother, shalt thou not uncover: she is thy mother; thou shalt not uncover her nakedness. 8 The nakedness of thy father’s wife shalt thou not uncover: it is thy father’s nakedness.
Earlier in Leviticus 18, God told the Israelites not to copy the customs of Egypt and Canaan, which involves committing incest against them. So it seems Egypt and Canaan (both descendants of Ham) made a practice of what Ham did. Genesis 9:24 says Noah woke up “and he knew what his son had done to him”, which suggests Ham did something specific to him. Could this be why he took the time to curse Canaan? There are other cases of incestuous sex with a mother or father’s wife (stepmother), later in scripture. Jacob curses Reuben (his firstborn) for having sex with Bilhah his concubine (Gen 35: 21-22, Gen 49:1-4), and gives an inheritance to Joseph’s sons Ephraim and Manasseh (Gen 48:5-6). Absalom, David’s son from his third wife, slept with David’s concubines in order to usurp his father’s authority in 2 Samuel 16:21-22. If Ham raped his father it also would have been a way of showing dominance and usurping authority over his family in the new post-flood world. Alternatively, sleeping with his mother, violated his father’s “nakedness” as well in a less direct way. One extension of the scenario where Ham rap’s mother is that Canaan was actually born from Noah’s wife and so Noah cursed Canaan because he was an incest child. This would explain why Noah took the time to curse Canaan rather than the other sons of Ham. It’s also possible that Noah just chose him because he was the firstborn. We don’t know which son was his firstborn but if Canaan was first, then Noah’s reasoning doesn’t have to be so specific. Noah could have just gone for the firstborn because firstborns are more precious and had special birth rights. It also is possible that Canaan was the only son Ham had at the time this event occurred.
The issue with the illicit sex theories is that it doesn’t explain why Noah’s other sons walked backward into the tent to cover their father and what that has to do with incest? Were they just covering their drunk father, after he was assaulted by Ham or perhaps both of their parents were being covered because they were both drunk when his mother was assaulted? Or maybe the “covering” means they are comforting their mother after being assaulted until their father sobers up and realizes what happened? This is an exploration designed to cause us to think more about what we read when reading the bible. Sometimes there is more to the story than what is written that is buried under layers of linguistics and culture. These are simply possibilities, in the end, it could simply be that he mocked his drunk father and Noah cursed Canaan because he couldn’t curse Ham and Canaan was the firstborn.