“And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father...” ~ Genesis 9:22
This episode took place not long after the end of the flood. Noah had planted a vineyard, harvested the crop, made some wine with it, got drunk, and passed out in his tent. At that point Ham did to him whatever he did.
So what did Ham do? Most commentators believe that this was an act of homosexual transgression, either that Ham leered at the exposed body of his father or committed some act of sexual indecency with him.
The key phrase to understanding this episode is, “saw the nakedness of his father.” One of the principles of Bible interpretation is that we are to seek the author’s intended meaning. That is, what we want to get at is the meaning the author himself intended to give to his words.
Here we get some help, for Moses, the author of Genesis, was also the author of Leviticus. Leviticus 18 contains a list of all the forms of incest that were prohibited under Mosaic Law. The general principle is found in v. 6: “None of you shall approach any one of his close relatives to uncover nakedness.” The phrase “to uncover nakedness” is clearly a euphemism for sexual intercourse, which is how the NIV translates it throughout Leviticus 18. The phrase “to see the nakedness of” is used in Leviticus 20, again as a euphemism for incest: “If a man takes his sister...and sees her nakedness, and she sees his nakedness, it is a disgrace...” (Leviticus 20:17).
The first act of incest Moses forbids is between a son and his mother. “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” (Leviticus 18:7). The mother’s nakedness properly belongs to the father and the father alone, since sexual intercourse is to be reserved exclusively for the union of a husband and wife in marriage.
Thus I suggest that Ham’s sin was not homosexual in nature, but incestual in nature. He took sexual advantage of his own mother while his father was too drunk to notice or care. He attempted to entice his brothers, Japheth and Shem, to also take advantage of their mother’s sexual availability, but they resisted temptation by backing into the tent with a blanket and laying it over the exposed and available body of their mother.
This sheds light on what is otherwise an inexplicable detail in the Genesis narrative. Ham was the one who committed the sin, but the consequence of his act landed not on Ham but on his son, Canaan. “Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be to his brothers” (Genesis 9:25). Twice more, in verses 26 and 27, Noah emphasizes that Canaan is the one who will bear the brunt of Ham’s act of sexual deviancy.
Canaan experienced the tragic consequences of Ham’s sin because he was conceived through the incestuous union of Ham and Ham’s own mother. He was the son, the poisoned fruit, of the illicit union between son and mother.
Moses is also laying the moral groundwork to explain what was happening in his own day. Ham’s son became the ancestor of the people of Canaan, a people who over time became so morally, sexually, and spiritually compromised that God brought the armies of Israel under Joshua’s leadership into their land to discipline them.
God told Abraham in Genesis 15 that the entire land of Canaan would one day be his. It was the “promised” land. But, God said, I cannot bring your descendants into this land for 400 years because I must give the people Canaan ample to time to repent of their sexual depravity before I judge them. Your descendants, God said to Abraham, “shall come back here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete” (Genesis 15:16). God is a patient and longsuffering God, and slow to anger, but even his patience has limits.
It is as if the Canaanites, or the Amorites as they are identified here, were filling up a slop bucket with every act of sexual deviancy, whether the deviancy was sexual immorality, adultery, incest, homosexuality, or bestiality. After 400 years, the slop bucket was full and it was time for God to empty it out.
Moses warned the nation of Israel, “Do not make yourselves unclean by any of these things, for by all these the nations I am driving out before you have become unclean, and the land became unclean, so that I punished its iniquity, and the land vomited out its inhabitants” (Leviticus 18:25).
The United States is rapidly embracing and celebrating all the acts of sexual license which caused the Canaanites to vanish from the earth. (A woman in Oklahoma recently legally married both her daughter and her son before embarrassed public officials were forced to do something about it.) We must remember that while God is a patient and forgiving God, there are limits to what he will endure. I don’t know how much more of America’s flagrant sexual debauchery God is prepared to tolerate, but it’s best for us to repent before we find out.