CLAIM: Genesis records,
[Noah] drank of the wine and became drunk, and uncovered himself inside his tent. 22 Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers outside. 23 But Shem and Japheth took a garment and laid it upon both their shoulders and walked backward and covered the nakedness of their father; and their faces were turned away, so that they did not see their father’s nakedness. 24 When Noah awoke from his wine, he knew what his youngest son had done to him. 25 So he said, “Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants he shall be to his brothers.”
Some interpreters claim that this refers to Ham raping his father. In fact, as early as the Babylonian Talmud, Jewish interpreters held that Ham either raped his father or castrated him (Sanhedrin, 70a). Modern scholars like Hermann Gunkel, Gerhard von Rad, Robert Gagnon, and Martti Nissinen have also held to this view. Is this the case?
RESPONSE: The plain sense reading states that Noah was drunk, undressed himself, passed out, and Ham mocked him. The plain sense reading of the text should be preferred unless other arguments could get us to question this plain sense reading. What are these arguments, and how powerful are they?
ARGUMENT #1: The expression “saw the nakedness of his father” is a euphemism for sex
Interpreters who believe that Ham raped Noah appeal to Leviticus to show that Moses uses the phrase “uncover the nakedness” to refer to sex. Leviticus 18:6-8 states,
None of you shall approach any blood relative of his to uncover nakedness; I am the LORD. 7 ‘You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father, that is, the nakedness of your mother. She is your mother; you are not to uncover her nakedness. 8 ‘You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father’s wife; it is your father’s nakedness
There are a few problems with seeing Genesis 9 as a euphemism for rape:
First, Leviticus 18 uses a different expression. Genesis states, “Ham… saw the nakedness of his father” (Gen. 9:22), while Leviticus states, “You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father” (Lev. 18:7). While these expressions are similar, they are not the same. We only find the exact language in reference to how Shem and Japheth “covered the nakedness of their father.” It’s suspicious not to see the euphemism in the passage about Ham—especially when this is the passage in question.
Proponents of the euphemistic reading, however, argue that Genesis 9:23 equates how the sons “covered the nakedness of their father” with how “they did not see their father’s nakedness.” Moreover, Leviticus 20:17 equates seeing nakedness with uncovering nakedness (cf. Ezek. 16:36-37; 22:10; 23:10, 18, 29).
Second, we cannot hold this interpretation consistently between verses 22 and 23. If verse 22 is a euphemism for sex, then we’d expect the same expression in verse 23 to be a euphemism for sex too. Verse 23 says, “[Shem and Japheth’s] faces were turned away [i.e. not looking at Noah], so that they did not see their father’s nakedness [i.e. not raping him?].” If seeing nakedness is a euphemism for sex in verse 22, then we’d expect it to be a euphemism for sex in verse 23. Yet verse 23 explains what it means to “see his nakedness.” While verse 22 could mean sex (given Leviticus 18), the context trumps this interpretation. It is clear that it’s referring to just looking in verse 23, because they have a sheet up and are facing the other direction so they don’t see him. They weren’t looking the other direction to stop from raping him!
Third, the literal usage makes sense of verse 21. Verse 21 states that Noah “uncovered himself inside his tent.” On a non-literal reading, what would this expression mean?
ARGUMENT #2: How could Noah know what happened to him, if he was merely mocked?
Genesis records, “When Noah awoke from his wine, he knew what his youngest son had done to him” (9:24). How did Noah know what happened to him if Ham merely mocked him? On the other hand, if Noah had been raped, he would’ve instantly known this as he awoke (for graphic reasons not worth explicitly mentioning here).
On the other hand, we might point out that Noah explicitly knew what Ham did to him. If Noah had been raped, how would he know that the culprit was Ham, rather than one of the other boys (or even all three boys!)? In other words, this argument doesn’t help either side of the debate, because Noah learned what happened in ways that the text simply doesn’t state. Therefore, we shouldn’t read too much into this statement. Moreover, the NET Bible states that Noah “learned” what his son did, although the NET note states that literally “he knew.” Perhaps the text is merely stating that Noah learned what happened from one of the sons as he awoke.
ARGUMENT #3: Why was Ham’s curse so severe, if he merely mocked his father’s nakedness?
The OT teaches explicitly that a man will be “cursed” if he “dishonors father or mother” (Deut. 27:16). This, of course, is the exact language of Genesis 9:25 (“Cursed be Canaan”). In fact, the Hebrew case law held that cursing or harming one’s parents was a capital offense (Ex. 21:15, 17; Deut. 21:18-21; cf. Mk. 7:10). While modern people often see little (or even no) importance in regards to honoring their parents, the Bible places a large importance on this subject.
If we want to forfeit the plain sense reading of a given text, we need adequate reason for doing so. The arguments put forward in this case are not sufficient. Since the details about this event are so concise, we shouldn’t read into what was written here.