Just about everybody in our culture today knows the story of Noah. Humanity became so corrupt and sinful that God decided to wipe everybody out with a massive flood and start all over again with one righteous man and his family. It is one of the most famous stories in all of Scripture, and it is one of the first that we learn as little kids.
But do you know what happened after the flood? After Noah, his family, and all the animals got out of the ark and God made his covenant with mankind, Noah didn’t just drop out of the Bible or ride off into the sunset. No, there is one more story that centers around him, and it teaches us an important lesson about the very heart of our Catholic faith.
After the flood finally ended, Noah planted a vineyard, and one day, he drank a bit too much of its wine. He went into his tent to lie down, and his son Ham also went in and “saw the nakedness of his father.” For some reason, this enraged Noah, so he pronounced a curse on Ham’s son Canaan as a punishment (Genesis 9:20-27).
This is a bizarre story, and to us modern westerners, it might even seem completely nonsensical. Was Ham’s sin really that bad? Sure, we can understand why Noah wouldn’t want his sons to see him naked, but his reaction seems way over the top. What’s more, why did he curse Ham’s son instead of Ham himself? What could possibly be the point of that? To answer all these questions, we have to read the story as its original readers (the ancient Israelites) would have done, and when we do that, everything falls into place.
A Curious Idiom
The key to this passage is the seemingly straightforward detail that Ham “saw the nakedness of his father.” Most readers just take it at face value without giving it a second thought, but the phrase is not quite that simple. It doesn’t mean that Ham saw Noah’s naked body lying on the ground. Rather, it is an idiom, just like our phrases “drop the ball” and “kick the bucket,” so we shouldn’t take it so literally.
If we look elsewhere in the Old Testament, we can see that it is equivalent to another ancient Israelite idiom, “to uncover one’s nakedness” (Leviticus 20:17). That may not seem too helpful at first, but it is an important step because Scripture tells us what that one means. To uncover the nakedness of one’s father means to have sex with one’s mother (Leviticus 20:11), so that must also be the meaning of the idiom “to see the nakedness of one’s father.”
That may be a bit confusing, so let me lay it out for you as a syllogism:
- “To see the nakedness of one’s father” = “To uncover the nakedness of one’s father”
- “To uncover the nakedness of one’s father” = To have sex with one’s mother
- Therefore, “To see the nakedness of one’s father” = To have sex with one’s mother
Once we understand that, we can make sense of the rest of this strange story. Ham’s sin wasn’t simply that he saw his father naked. Rather, it was that he had sex with his mother, and that was why Noah was so mad at him. It also explains why Noah cursed Ham’s son Canaan rather than Ham himself: Canaan was probably the offspring of that incestuous union.
The Point of the Story
But that is only half the battle. Even when we understand the strange idiom and the seemingly bizarre actions in this story, it can still be tough to see why it is in the Bible. What is the point of it? I would suggest that the point is to show that the flood didn’t really work. Humanity was just as sinful as it was before, so God had to take a different route to purify his creation. He could not just wipe out the sinners among us and then start over again with a righteous man and his family because even the righteous among us are sinful. Scripture tells us that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23), and Noah was no exception.
All of us, even the best of us, are sinners in desperate need of God’s salvation, so we need him to work deep within our souls and root out the sinfulness from our hearts. As the prophet Ezekiel said, we need God to give us “a new heart” and “a new spirit” so we can finally obey him and keep his law (Ezekiel 36:26-27), and that is why he sent us his Son. Jesus won for us the grace to truly be holy and obey God (Romans 5:19, 8:1-4; Ephesians 2:8-10), and God always knew we would need this grace. He always knew he would need to do something radical to truly save us, so he used the story of Noah, his vineyard, and his son Ham to make that crystal clear for us and prepare us to be receptive to the salvation he offers us in Jesus Christ.
image: Icon of the Noah’s Ark, St. Elijah Greek Catholic Church (Secovska Polianka, Slovakia) by Adam Jan Figel / Shutterstock.com