Genesis 9 – Noah Gets Plastered

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Today’s PassageGenesis 9

The story of Noah and the ark is a long-time favorite in Sunday schools, and with good reason. Kids love animals, and the story is rife with animals. Kids love counting, and the story is rife with numbers. Kids love learning that the rainbow is a symbol of God’s promise never to eradicate all life from the face of the earth again, and the story is rife with a rainbow, which God explains is a symbol of his–okay, anyway. But then, after the dust has settled and Noah’s family gets back to the business of living life, there is some very non-G-rated content that goes down. And that’s why I’m starting my research for today’s chapter by googling “Genesis 9 what’s up with Noah getting drunk and naked.”

Because that’s what happens. Noah plants himself a vineyard, starts making wine from the grapes, and one day drinks himself drunk. He retreats to his tent and strips off his clothes, where his son Ham finds him naked and inebriated. When Ham tells his brothers, they put a garment over their dad without looking at him. Then, when Noah sobers up, he curses Ham and gives his other two sons a blessing. All said, it’s not the kind of story you’re putting up on the flannelgraph.

But Genesis doesn’t hesitate to end Noah’s story on that weird note. It doesn’t shy away from the unpleasant reality that one of its central figures, a righteous man favored by God, a man through whose obedience God preserved the human race, also got hammered on wine. Walking around naked in the privacy of your own home is certainly not the worst thing you can do while drunk, but it’s also no gold star on Noah’s record. I’m not categorically opposed to alcohol, because the Bible is not categorically opposed to alcohol. But it’s worth noting that you can’t get drunk if you don’t drink.

Noah’s youngest son Ham gets the short end of the stick in this one, though. He “saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers outside” (22), and he doesn’t help the other brothers cover up their drunk dad. So Noah curses his family line, declaring, “Cursed be Canaan [Ham’s son]; a servant of servants he shall be to his brothers” (25). As I finished reading, I came away thinking: man, that seems harsh. Noah gets drunk, and his son gets blamed for seeing him naked? Old man brought this on himself.

A lot of Genesis-readers have speculated as to what Ham may have done to earn Noah’s curse, arguing that the text implies a particular “what his youngest son had done” (24) meriting such disapprobation from Dad. They’re making inferences, sure, but inferences can be valid, and I’m also making an inference if I assume that Ham walked in on Noah accidentally. What reads to me at first glance as an innocent mistake may in fact have been Ham hearing his dad stumbling around muttering inside the tent, looking in for a laugh at Noah’s expense, then running off to tell the hilarious tale to his older brothers. And compared to what misdeeds of Ham some scholars posit, that’s a particularly benign possibility for the “sin of Ham.”

Another thought that crosses my mind: this particular passage doesn’t put any stamp of approval on Noah’s curse. It merely reports that Noah got mad and tried to drop some shame on Ham’s family line. Going forward, we’ll have to pay attention to the appearances of the Canaanites if we want to determine the attitude of the text toward Noah’s actions here.

But in order to do that, we’ve got a lot of ground to cover first. Tune in on Monday for more genealogies!

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