The story begins with the Flood of Noah, in which God drowned every living thing on earth because “the wickedness of man was great upon the earth” and the earth was “filled with violence.”
God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And it repented the LORD that he had made man. Genesis 6:5-6It is interesting, and even a bit surprising, that God didn’t mention homosexuality in his reason for drowning everyone. It was just general wickedness, bad thoughts, and violence.
The earth is filled with violence through them; and, behold, I will destroy them with the earth. 6:11-13
And yet there was some funny business going on just before God announced the flood. I’m not sure what to make of it, but it seemed to bother God quite a bit.
And it came to pass, when men began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born unto them, That the sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took them wives of all which they chose. And the LORD said, My spirit shall not always strive with man, for that he also is flesh: yet his days shall be an hundred and twenty years. There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown. Genesis 6:2-4Did you catch all that?
The sons of God impregnated the daughters of men, producing “mighty men.” When God saw all this, he said to himself, “I’m not going to fight with humans anymore because they are flesh. So I’ll limit their lifespans to 120 years.” (At that time the human lifespan averaged about 900 years.)1 Then, in the next verse, he decides to drown everything on earth.
So the sons of God/daughters of men thing must have had something to do with the flood. I suppose it bothered God to see his sons messing around with women. You’d think he could control them better than that. But since the sex in this strange episode was clearly heterosexual, we’ll move on to the rest of the story.
After the flood subsided, Noah sacrificed some animals for God, planted a vineyard, got drunk, and lay naked in his tent.
And Noah builded an altar unto the LORD; and took of every clean beast, and of every clean fowl, and offered burnt offerings on the altar. And the LORD smelled a sweet savour. Genesis 8:20-21
And Noah began to be an husbandman, and he planted a vineyard: And he drank of the wine, and was drunken; and he was uncovered within his tent. 9:20-21
Noah’s son, Ham, entered the tent, saw his father in this condition, and told his brothers about it.
And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brethren without. 9:22
Ham’s brothers, Shem and Japheth, went into the tent and covered up their naked father without looking at him.
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. 9:23When Noah woke up, he (somehow) knew what Ham had done to him, so he cursed Ham’s son Canaan,2 and all of Canaan’s descendants, to be slaves of slaves.3
And Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done unto him. And he said, Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren. 9:24-25
Noah’s curse has provided (and still provides) a biblical justification of slavery.4 But what does it have to do with homosexuality? That depends on what Ham did to his father, Noah.
If he just looked at his drunken father’s nakedness, then we know that God doesn’t like it when a son sees his father naked, even when it’s the father’s fault. Although if that is the case, then the punishment is more than just excessive, it’s psychotic.
But maybe it involved more than that. Chapters 18 and 20 of Leviticus are filled with warnings about “uncovering the nakedness” of your relatives, including your father.5 And “uncovering the nakedness” is often Bible-speak for sexual intercourse.6
If that is what is meant in Genesis 9:22, then Ham didn’t just see his father naked, he had sex with him. And that, at least, would make a bit more sense out of the senseless curse in Genesis 9:24-25.
And yet even if that is the correct interpretation of this passage, it is far from clear what to make of it all. Homosexual rape of a father by his son is not the same as same-sex intercourse in general.
There are also many other ways that this verse has been interpreted. Ham may have mocked or made fun of this father after seeing him naked; he may have touched or fondled his father’s genitals; he may have castrated his father; or he may have had sex not with his father, but with his father’s wife, since according to Leviticus 18:8 and Deuteronomy 27:20, uncovering the nakedness of one’s mother is equivalent to uncovering the nakedness of one’s father. This last possibility might explain why Ham’s son, Canaan, was cursed; perhaps Ham’s fourth son, Canaan, resulted from the sexual intercourse of Ham and his mother. All of these possibilities have been suggested by Christian and Jewish commentators.7
Conservatives tend to believe that Ham did more than just look at his father -- he raped him.8 And it was the homosexual part of it, not the rape part, that bothers them (and God, they figure) the most. God can overlook a rape here or there, as long as it’s heterosexual. That’s why he still considered Lot just and righteous9 after he offered his virgin daughters to be raped10 and later was raped by them.11 Heterosexual shit happens. But when a son looks at his naked father or has some kind of homosexual sex with him, that’s more than God can take. Homosexuality is an abomination to God and it makes him do crazy things, like destroy entire cities in the case of Sodom, or curse an innocent grandson and all of his descendants with slavery in the case of Ham.
Conservatives see further evidence for the rape of Noah in the Bible’s treatment of the descendants of Canaan -- the Canaanites. The next chapter of Genesis says that the Canaanites lived in the area of Sodom and Gomorrah.
And the border of the Canaanites was from Sidon, as thou comest to Gerar, unto Gaza; as thou goest, unto Sodom, and Gomorrah. Genesis 10:19
Here’s how Robert Gagnon explains it in The Bible and Homosexual Practice:12
It is, in effect, in the Canaanite blood to be unremittingly evil. Canaanite proclivity to homosexual rape is hinted at by J in Gen 10:19 when he mentions the fact that the territory of the Canaanites extended as far south as Sodom and Gomorrah.... And the punishment eminently fit the crime (lex talionis). Just as Ham committed a heinous act with his ‘seed’ (sperm), so too the curse fell on his ‘seed’ (son, descendants).
If you have trouble following Gagnon’s logic here, I don’t blame you. Even if we accept the idea that Ham raped his drunken father, there are a few question that come to mind:
- Did God make all of the Canaanite people “unremittingly evil”? Are all of their descendants evil today? Do they still have a “proclivity to homosexual rape”?
- If Ham raped Noah, why didn’t God punish Ham?
- Since Canaan had nothing to do with the Ham/Noah incident, how does the punishment “eminently fit the crime?”
- How is a curse transmitted by “seed” (semen)? Is it still being transmitted “by seed” today?
- How did Noah know what happened to him in the tent? And how did he know who did it?
- Since Ham had four sons, why did God select his fourth son (Canaan) to punish?13
Liberal Christians seldom mention this passage, but when they do, it is with disgust. Noah cursed his grandson for something (God knows what) his son did; an entire tribe (and perhaps race) of people were enslaved because of some unspecified act of their ancestor, and the guilty person is unpunished. Here, for example, is how Adrian Thatcher puts it in The Savage Text:
Noah’s grandson, Canaan, not Noah’s son, Ham, is cursed. This is a morally appalling story, a double injustice. Imagine a grandfather cursing his grandson for his father’s misdemeanor (assuming there was one). … [O]n this text Christians once built the most horrendous justification for racism and slavery.14
- Here are the life spans reported in the previous chapter of Genesis. (Mean = 907.5 years)
And all the days that Adam lived were nine hundred and thirty years: and he died. Genesis 5:5
And all the days of Seth were nine hundred and twelve years: and he died. 5:8
And all the days of Enos were nine hundred and five years: and he died. 5:11
And all the days of Cainan were nine hundred and ten years: and he died. 5:14
And all the days of Mahalaleel were eight hundred ninety and five years: and he died. 5:17
And all the days of Jared were nine hundred sixty and two years: and he died. 5:20
And all the days of Methuselah were nine hundred sixty and nine years: and he died. 5:25
And all the days of Lamech were seven hundred seventy and seven years: and he died. 5:31
- One of the many strange things in this very strange story is the person who was cursed. It was Ham
that did the looking (or whatever), but it was Ham’s fourth son, Canaan (and all of his descendants), that was cursed.
And the sons of Ham; Cush, and Mizraim, and Phut, and Canaan. Genesis 10:1
- “Slave” is translated as “servant” in the King James Version. Here is Genesis 9:25 in the New International Version: “Cursed be Canaan! The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers.”
- “This biblical story [the curse of Ham - Genesis 9:18-25] has been the single greatest justification for Black slavery for more than a thousand years.” David M. Goldenberg, The Curse of Ham, p. 1; See also Adrian Thatcher, The Savage Text, pp. 41-42.
- “The nakedness of thy father... shalt thou not uncover.” Leviticus 18:7
“And the man that lieth with his father's wife hath uncovered his father's nakedness: both of them shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.” Leviticus 20:11
- “Saw the nakedness of his father possibly denotes a sexual act; Lev 18.7.” The HarperCollins Study Bible, note for Genesis 9:22, p. 16.
- For a good discussion of these interpretations, see Jennifer Wright Knust, Unprotected Texts, pp. 127-131.
- “Thus it is likely that the narrator charged Ham with committing a heinous act of incestuous, homosexual rape of his father.” Robert A. J. Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice, p. 68.
- “Just Lot ... that righteous man" 2 Peter 2:7-8
- “Behold now, I have two daughters which have not known man; let me, I pray you, bring them out unto you, and do ye to them as is good in your eyes.” Genesis 19:8
- "Lot went up out of Zoar, and dwelt in the mountain, and his two daughters with him ... and he dwelt in a cave, he and his two daughters. And the firstborn said unto the younger, Our father is old, and there is not a man in the earth to come in unto us .... Come, let us make our father drink wine, and we will lie with him, that we may preserve seed of our father. And they made their father drink wine that night: and the firstborn went in, and lay with her father; and he perceived not when she lay down, nor when she arose. And it came to pass on the morrow, that the firstborn said unto the younger, Behold, I lay yesternight with my father: let us make him drink wine this night also; and go thou in, and lie with him, that we may preserve seed of our father. And they made their father drink wine that night also: and the younger arose, and lay with him; and he perceived not when she lay down, nor when she arose. Thus were both the daughters of Lot with child by their father." Genesis 19:30-36
- Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice, p. 121.
Gagnon’s reference to “J” in this quote refers to the “Documentary Hypothesis,” which proposes that the first five books of the Bible were independently composed by several different sources and later combined into one document. One of these sources is referred to as “J” -- the Yahwist source. See The HarperCollins Study Bible, pp. xx-xxi.
- One possible explanation is that the entire story Lot’s nakedness and Canaan’s curse was created to explain why the Canaanites were so evil and sexually deviant, and thereby justify their mistreatment. The interpretation that Ham had sex with Noah’s wife producing Canaan as an offspring would fit well with this hypothesis. See note 6 above.
- Thatcher, The Savage Text, p. 41.