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What Did Ham Do to Noah?

What Did Ham Do to Noah?

Now for something light. It comes from a book by two professors at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Avigdor Shinan and Yair Zakovitch, titled From Gods to God: How the Hebrew Bible Debunked, Suppressed, or Changed Ancient Myths & Legends, published 2004 by the Jewish Publication Society. Chapter 14 explores the curious episode that led a hungover Noah to curse Canaan, the fourth son of Ham.

We know the story in all its vagueness. After the flood Noah became the first in the new world order to plant a vineyard, to make wine, and to get blind drunk. We read that while drunk the good saint

was uncovered in his tent. And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brethren without.

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. (Gen. 9:22-23)

So we are being told that there is something so terrible about seeing one’s father naked that it needs to be recorded in the Bible for all posterity to read.

But look at the punishment that follows:

And Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done unto him.

And he said, Cursed be Ham Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren. . . . (9:24-25)

I added and crossed out Ham there to draw attention to the bizarre detail that it was not Ham, Noah’s younger son who saw him naked, who is cursed, but Ham’s son. And not just any son, but his fourth son:

And the sons of Ham: Cush, and Mizraim, and Phut, and Canaan. (Gen. 10:6)

The mystery thickens.

Now many of us savvy sophisticates know that when the Bible speaks of “seeing the nakedness” of someone it is euphemism for having sex. Leviticus 20:17 leaves no doubt:

If a man takes his sister, his father’s daughter or his mother’s daughter, and sees her nakedness and she sees his nakedness, it is a wicked thing. And they shall be cut off in the sight of their people. He has uncovered his sister’s nakedness. He shall bear his guilt.

So this makes a bit more sense than Ham merely peeping at his naked father. Noah did, after all, know what Ham had “done unto him”. That’s a bit stronger than having a peek.

But that still doesn’t explain everything. Why did Noah curse Canaan, Ham’s fourth son?


As we read the following books in the Bible we see that the Canaanites were notorious for their sexual license and so were the Egyptians who were also descended from Ham. So perhaps here is an indication that Ham’s sin involved a sex act? Not entirely a satisfactory explanation, is it.

Stepping Back for a Closer Look

Here’s where Avigdor Shinan and Yair Zakovitch take a literary step back and view this episode in its broader structural context.

Before the flood recall that one of the sins that upset God so much was the fallen angels lusting after and procreating with human females. Then not long after the flood Ham does something relating to illicit sex to his father. Sin is ever the human condition. God just has to learn to be patient if he wants humans to populate the earth. But consider another subsequent tale of annihilation — Sodom and Gomorrah. In that case, it is the humans who lust after and want to have sex with the angels who are visiting Lot. Not that they know they are angels, of course, but we do see a curious chiastic or sandwich structure here either side of the Noah-Ham filling.

It gets more interesting as we zoom in for a closer look. Here’s a little diagram produced by the authors to help explain the way it works:

Noah-LotBefore the flood the fallen angels “went unto” the daughters of men. Before the destruction of Sodom the wicked men wanted “to have” the male angels sheltering with Lot.

After the flood a son “sees the nakedness” of his father (I think the diagram is a bit askew there); after the destruction of Sodom the daughters have sex with their father Lot.

Lucas_van_Leyden_-_Lot_and_his_Daughters_-_WGA12932Before the flood there is illicit male-female sex and after Sodom there is illicit male-female sex.

After the flood there appears to be illicit male-male sex and before Sodom’s demise there is an attempt to have illicit male-male sex.

Moreover, getting blind drunk is an essential part of each story. Both Noah and Lot become so drunk that they don’t know what is happening to them.

Noah knows what has happened when he recovers, however. So he curses Ham’s fourth son. We’re coming to that.

Lot does not know what has happened and does not curse anyone. The children are later cursed in the biblical narrative, though (Deut 23:4). Later rabbinic readings, however, did find a way to interpret the Genesis account to mean that though Lot did not know when one of his daughters came to lie with him he did register her getting up and leaving. This appears to have been an attempt to connect the stories of Noah and Lot more closely. Was this interpretation known in Second Temple times? (Genesis — and I’m departing from the Shinan and Zakovitch’s book here — is considered by some scholars to have been of very late composition, even as late as the second century BCE.)

So despite the vagueness and ostensibly virtual innocence of Ham’s “sin” (peeking at his naked father) in the Genesis account, the rabbis recognized that there was something more sinister just below the surface (the Midrash Genesis Rabbah 51:8).

The Unspeakable is Spoken

They (the rabbis) went further. B. Sanhedrin 70a says the following:

And he knew what his youngest son had done to him.” Rav and Samuel [differ]. One says that he castrated him, the other says that he sexually abused him.

Castration? Where did that come from?

The neighbouring Phoenicians, Hurrites and Greeks all had myths of intergenerational conflict in which a son castrated his father or ruler. Philo of Byblos tells us the Phoenician god Kronos castrated his father Uranus with his own knife; the Hurrite god Kumarbi rebelled against the sky god Anu and replaced him as the ruler of the heavens, even biting his knee and swallowing his genitals. We know of the Greek myth of Kronos castrating his father Uranus, god of the sky.


Shinan and Zakovitch inform us that

what was told in the polytheistic nations surrounding Israel about the battles of gods was transferred, in the monotheism of the Bible, to the human realm. (p. 135)

It follows then, Shinan and Zakovitch explain, that the story of Ham and Noah developed in three stages:

It would also explain why Noah cursed Ham’s fourth son.

First stage:

The mythic tradition of a son castrating his father in order to prevent his father from having more sons and “dilute the older son’s inheritance.” So the Midrash ha-Gadol to Genesis 9:25 says:

The Holy One, blessed be He, meant to issue four sons from Noah who would inherit the four winds of the earth. Ham said: I will castrate my father so that he will not produce a fourth son, in order that [this fourth son] will not share the world with us.

Rashi in the commentary says that the castration was performed “for inheriting the world.”

Now as Shinan and Zakovitch point out, an act of castration would leave some fairly obvious evidence for the sobered-up Noah to notice. It would also explain why Noah cursed Ham’s fourth son. If Noah could no longer have a fourth son then Ham’s fourth son was to be cursed.

Genesis Rabbah 36:7 explains

You prevented me from producing a youngest son who would serve me; consequently, the same man [you] will be his brother’s slave. . . . You prevented me from producing a fourth son, consequently I curse your fourth son.

Second stage:

The Pentateuch stepped back from documenting a castration upon a man who was elsewhere called “righteous” (Genesis 6:9). So Noah’s emasculation was replaced with a lesser evil, being raped by his son.

The “see nakedness” expression and the correlations with the Sodom narrative make this interpretation fairly clear.

Third stage:

Censorship finally sanitized the whole episode to infer that Ham was guilty of “seeing” his father naked and instead of covering his shame rushing to tell his brothers.

Interestingly the Bible retains an ambiguity here — as it does in many other narratives. The reader is not quite sure what the author intended. Alternative possibilities are always on the table.

Why Did God Want It In the Bible At All?

But why should such a tale enter Holy Writ at all? S and Z answer:

the story disparages two nations with whom ancient Israel was in contact, Egypt and Canaan, and calls for Israel’s utter separation from them. It is also possible that the story was . . . used to justify the Israelites’ conquest of the Land of Canaan. At least that is what is stated overtly in the Talmud: “The Canaanites said, The Land of Canaan belongs to us. . . . Geviha son of Persia said to them, . . . But [you are wrong, since] it is written in the Torah, ‘Cursed be Canaan a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren.’ [Now:] if a slave acquires property, to whom does he belong, and whose is the property?” (B. Sanhedrin 91a)

S and Z also suggest a morality tale to warn against drunkenness.

In any event, we can, at the least, say that the obfuscation of the story’s objectionable contours was evidently enough to assure its place in the Bible. (p. 137)

I often wonder of such intriguing explanations how much of their account really is “true” and how much is owed to the wisdom of hindsight. Either way, it’s a plausible and interesting tale. It also underscores the point of Hector Avalos that the Bible is, or should be, an irrelevant book for any sort of moral guidance this day and age.



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 This post complements my previous one about the Ham “seeing his father’s nakedness” story developing in three stages:

  1. Originally the story was an adaption of the myths of the youngest son castrating his father (the motive: to maintain an inheritance)
  2. Then it was more delicately shifted to a story of illicit sex
  3. And finally most bashfully of all the story left readers wondering if all Ham did was “have a look”.

Philippe Wajdenbaum (whose book, Argonauts of the Desert: Structural Analysis of the Hebrew Bible, I have discussed a few times before) gives a more detailed comparison between the Ham-Noah narrative and the Greek myth.

Recall that a number of scholars — Wajdenbaum among them — argue that Genesis was written relatively late, even as late as the second century by which time the Greeks had spread throughout the Near East. Such a late date opens a window for another perspective on how the story found its way into the Bible.

First recap the Genesis narrative — Genesis 9:20-27 (KJV)

20 And Noah began to be a farmer, and he planted a vineyard. 21 Then he drank of the wine and was drunk, and became uncovered in his tent. 22 And 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, laid it on both their shoulders, and went backward and covered the nakedness of their father. Their faces were turned away, and they did not see their father’s nakedness.

24 So Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done to him. 25 Then he said:

Cursed be Canaan;
A servant of servants
He shall be to his brethren.”

26 And he said:

“Blessed be the Lord,
The God of Shem,
And may Canaan be his servant.
27 May God enlarge Japheth,
And may he dwell in the tents of Shem;
And may Canaan be his servant.”

Japheth is to be enlarged. That is, expanded — even into the tents of Shem. Hence the argument that this prophecy reflects a time after Alexander the Great’s conquests and the Hellenization of the Near East.

Greeks migrated everywhere -- the dark green and more. Map from

Greeks migrated everywhere — the dark green and more. Map from

Now we have more justification to compare the Greek myth as found in Hesiod’s Theogony. (I suspect Avigdor Shinan and Yair Zakovitch, our authors discussed in the previous post, were less enthusiastic about the comparison with the Greek version of the myth if they embrace a more traditional date for Genesis.)

Here is Hesiod’s account of the birth of the youngest son who was destined to castrate his father, Uranus (Heaven), and his older brother Iapetus:


And Earth first bare starry Heaven, equal to herself, to cover her on every side, and to be an ever-sure abiding-place for the blessed gods. And she brought forth long Hills, graceful haunts of the goddess-Nymphs who dwell amongst the glens of the hills. She bare also the fruitless deep with his raging swell, Pontus, without sweet union of love.

But afterwards she lay with Heaven and bare deep-swirling Oceanus, Coeus and Crius and Hyperion and Iapetus, Theia and Rhea, Themis and Mnemosyne and gold-crowned Phoebe and lovely Tethys. After them was born Cronos the wily, youngest and most terrible of her children, and he hated his lusty sire.

But we want to read how the evil deed was done and the curse placed upon Cronos.

(ll. 147-163) And again, three other sons were born of Earth and Heaven, great and doughty beyond telling, Cottus and Briareos and Gyes, presumptuous children. From their shoulders sprang an hundred arms, not to be approached, and each had fifty heads upon his shoulders on their strong limbs, and irresistible was the stubborn strength that was in their great forms. For of all the children that were born of Earth and Heaven, these were the most terrible, and they were hated by their own father from the first.

And he used to hide them all away in a secret place of Earth so soon as each was born, and would not suffer them to come up into the light: and Heaven rejoiced in his evil doing.

But vast Earth groaned within, being straitened, and she made the element of grey flint and shaped a great sickle, and told her plan to her dear sons. And she spoke, cheering them, while she was vexed in her dear heart:

(ll. 164-166) `My children, gotten of a sinful father, if you will obey me, we should punish the vile outrage of your father; for he first thought of doing shameful things.’

(ll. 167-169) So she said; but fear seized them all, and none of them uttered a word. But great Cronos the wily took courage and answered his dear mother:

(ll. 170-172) `Mother, I will undertake to do this deed, for I reverence not our father of evil name, for he first thought of doing shameful things.

(ll. 173-175) So he said: and vast Earth rejoiced greatly in spirit, and set and hid him in an ambush, and put in his hands a jagged sickle, and revealed to him the whole plot.

(ll. 176-206) And Heaven came, bringing on night and longing for love, and he lay about Earth spreading himself full upon her.

Then the son from his ambush stretched forth his left hand and in his right took the great long sickle with jagged teeth, and swiftly lopped off his own father’s members and cast them away to fall behind him.

7144327_f496And not vainly did they fall from his hand; for all the bloody drops that gushed forth Earth received, and as the seasons moved round she bare the strong Erinyes and the great Giants with gleaming armour, holding long spears in their hands and the Nymphs whom they call Meliae all over the boundless earth. And so soon as he had cut off the members with flint and cast them from the land into the surging sea, they were swept away over the main a long time: and a white foam spread around them from the immortal flesh,and in it there grew a maiden. First she drew near holy Cythera, and from there, afterwards, she came to sea-girt Cyprus, and came forth an awful and lovely goddess, and grass grew up about her beneath her shapely feet. Her gods and men call Aphrodite, and the foam-born goddess and rich-crowned Cytherea, because she grew amid the foam, and Cytherea because she reached Cythera, and Cyprogenes because she was born in billowy Cyprus, and Philommedes because sprang from the members. And with her went Eros, and comely Desire followed her at her birth at the first and as she went into the assembly of the gods. This honour she has from the beginning, and this is the portion allotted to her amongst men and undying gods, — the whisperings of maidens and smiles and deceits with sweet delight and love and graciousness.

(ll. 207-210) But these sons whom be begot himself great Heaven used to call Titans (Strainers) in reproach, for he said that they strained and did presumptuously a fearful deed, and that vengeance for it would come afterwards.

What a beautiful story. So that’s how a certain personification, the goddess of “sweet delight and love and graciousness” was born!

Prudish Plato was scandalized. Such stories were not fit for public consumption. Wajdenbaum suggests that the authors of Genesis agreed with Plato. Some revision was called for. So the castration was slightly modified to “seeing his father naked”.

And as we read in the previous post, so Wajdenbaum alerts us to the tradition of the castration being preserved in the Jewish midrashim (Midrash Rabba).

Wajdenbaum sees other adaptations of the Greek myths in Genesis, too, but they will have to wait for future posts.

What is interesting here is that gods in other cultures were rewritten as humans in the Jewish one. Or rather, as a special type of human who lived an extraordinarily long time, so we might think of them as a species appropriate to fill the gap between gods and us normal humans. We know Euhemerus rationalized the myths be arguing that the gods were originally tales about great humans. The monotheistic (more or less) biblical authors took the same route and changed the gods into humans.

But back to the Ham story.

Canaan is cursed, for Israel, descended from Shem, is to possess the land. The proof that the biblical story is indeed inspired by Hesiod lies in the retention of the name Japhet, homonym of the Titan Iapetos. In both texts, the youngest son commits a shameless act against the father, and has a brother called Japhet.

This deliberate ‘fingerprint’ is furthermore the heralding of the coming of the Greeks.

One should mention how the Sibylline Oracles, a text of the Roman era, strangely confused the Japhet of the Bible with that of Greek tradition (Sib. Or. III, 105-13). This text considers the Greek gods to have been famous humans. . . .(Argonauts of the Desert, p. 108. My formatting)


-- Edited by Admin on Monday 7th of March 2016 01:46:38 PM

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