The kingdom of God has been re-established in Noah. In fact, the sovereign has given more power to Noah that he did to Adam. In the beginning, Adam and Eve ruled only the animals on God’s behalf. Now God has authorized human government, so Noah is the first person with divinely appointed power over the lives of others. In the framework of the ancient near east, that gives Noah great honour. How does he use the power entrusted to him?
Not too well, actually. The honourable Noah acts dishonourably. He shames himself by getting drunk, and he shames himself by lying unrobed (9:21). Don’t overplay the significance of this simple act: he’s inside his own tent, so it’s not a major issue, though it would have been considered inappropriate exposure for a patriarchal ruler.
When a ruler acts shamefully, some people make something of it. They draw attention to his shameful actions and increase his shame by spreading the news. Others are more respectful. They try to cover over the shame so as to protect the person’s honour as best they can. That’s exactly what’s going on in this passage: Ham dishonours his father by blabbing his shame so everyone knows (9:22), while Shem and Japheth attempt to cover over their father’s indiscretion and protect what they can of his honour (9:23). Every ruler—ancient and modern—is all too familiar with these reactions.
Eventually, the ruler comes to and realizes what he has done. The important question is how he responds at this point. Ideally a ruler should own his failure and wear his shame, but that’s not usually what happens. Most rulers do what Noah did: they use their power abusively against those who increased their shame, and they reward those who acted to cover their indiscretion.
Noah’s vitriolic reaction to Ham places an abusive curse on his son, Canaan. There is some political mileage to be gained in Israel’s story by placing a curse on the Canaanites, but don’t let that stop you from seeing what’s happening here. The curse is slavery. It is the first time we have seen this word in Scripture:
Genesis 9:24–25 (NIV)
When Noah awoke from his wine and found out what his youngest son had done to him, he said, “Cursed be Canaan! The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers.”
What a contrast! The chapter opened, “Then God blessed Noah and his sons, saying …” (9:1). Noah received the heavenly ruler’s blessing , but he passed on a curse!
Actually, Noah tries to pass on a blessing to the boys who covered his indiscretion, but it’s so twisted that the narrator doesn’t call it a blessing:
Genesis 9:26–27 (NIV)
He also said, “…May Canaan be the slave of Shem … and may Canaan be the slave of Japheth.”
Look out! YHWH has just permitted human authority over the lives of others, and the very first ruler turns that power into the curse of slavery. Noah is a twisted ruler. He exercises power abusively, out of his own sense of shame.
Slavery is symptomatic of the abusive nature of human rule.
What others are saying
We referred to this earlier, but it’s worth repeating that the church fathers understood Genesis as the story of God’s reign. Augustine, City of God 19.15.1:
For “let them,” He says, “have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every creeping thing which creepeth on the earth.” He did not intend that His rational creature, who was made in His image, should have dominion over anything but the irrational creation,— not man over man, but man over the beasts. And hence the righteous men in primitive times were made shepherds of cattle rather than kings of men, God intending thus to teach us what the relative position of the creatures is, and what the desert of sin; for it is with justice, we believe, that the condition of slavery is the result of sin. And this is why we do not find the word “slave” in any part of Scripture until righteous Noah branded the sin of his son with this name. It is a name, therefore, introduced by sin and not by nature.
Those who miss the kingdom theme often struggle to understand why some of these passages are included or what to make of them. A couple of the more outlandish ways of understanding this passage are summarized in John E. Hartley, Genesis, Understanding the Bible Commentary Series (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2012), 112–113:
The ordinary reading of this text finds that Ham’s only offense is that he saw his father’s nakedness. Interpreters have sought, however, to discover in these words a more scandalous action, such as Ham’s sodomizing Noah or even castrating him. On the basis that the idiom “to uncover a man’s nakedness” is a euphemism for having intercourse (e.g., Lev. 18:6–17), another proposal has Ham committing incest with his mother. In that case Canaan might have been born from the result of that illicit union. This reconstruction has the advantage of accounting for Noah’s curse on Canaan, Ham’s youngest son. However, it fails because of the way “saw” and “uncover” are used in this text and because the remedy was “covering” Noah. In that society the offense of seeing a parent’s nakedness brought shame and dishonour on the parent. Suffering such an indignity was a severe affront, especially to a person of high standing like Noah.
Update 2016-06-12: The original title was “Noah abuses power.”
Read Genesis 9:18-29.