In Gen. 9:21–23, it is written,
21 And he drank wine and was drunk, and he uncovered himself within his tent. 22 And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and he told his two brothers outside. 23 And Shem and Japheth took a garment, and laid it upon both of their shoulders, and they went backard and covered the nakedness of their father, and their faces were backward, and they did not see the nakedness of their father.
כא וַיֵּשְׁתְּ מִן הַיַּיִן וַיִּשְׁכָּר וַיִּתְגַּל בְּתוֹךְ אָהֳלֹה כב וַיַּרְא חָם אֲבִי כְנַעַן אֵת עֶרְוַת אָבִיו וַיַּגֵּד לִשְׁנֵי אֶחָיו בַּחוּץ כג וַיִּקַּח שֵׁם וָיֶפֶת אֶת הַשִּׂמְלָה וַיָּשִׂימוּ עַל שְׁכֶם שְׁנֵיהֶם וַיֵּלְכוּ אֲחֹרַנִּית וַיְכַסּוּ אֵת עֶרְוַת אֲבִיהֶם וּפְנֵיהֶם אֲחֹרַנִּית וְעֶרְוַת אֲבִיהֶם לֹא רָאוּ
There are two principal questions:
- What does עֶרְוָה mean?
- Whose עֶרְוָה is it?
In this narrative, the Hebrew noun עֶרְוָה (ʿerwâ) (v. 22) occurs in conjunction with the verb גָּלָה (gālâ) (v. 21). In Exo. 20:26, both occur in the same verse wherein the Israelites are prohibited from ascending the altar by steps so that their “nakedness is not uncovered.” In that particular verse, it is evidently referring to one’s genitalia being exposed to view.
With that in mind, many commentators interpret Gen. 9:21 as meaning that Ham saw Noah’s exposed genitals. This seems to be supported by v. 23 wherein it is stated that Shem and Japheth:
took a garment, and laid it upon both of their shoulders, and they went backard and covered the nakedness of their father, and their faces were backward, and they did not see the nakedness of their father.
If Shem and Japheth did not see the nakedness of their father because they (1) covered Noah with a garment and (2) turned their heads away, then it seems that seeing Noah’s nakedness occurred by Ham simply looking at him (when he was naked).
Other commentators search for another meaning, rejecting the previous interpretation on account of the relatively severe curse Noah imposes upon Ham for simply looking at him naked (v. 25). One possibility is that Ham actually had sex (i.e., sodomized) Noah. This interpretation is based on scripture such as Lev. 20:11, in which it is written,
11 And a man who lies with the wife of his father has uncovered the nakedness of his father. Both of them shall certainly die; their blood shall be upon them.
יא וְאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר יִשְׁכַּב אֶת אֵשֶׁת אָבִיו עֶרְוַת אָבִיו גִּלָּה מוֹת יוּמְתוּ שְׁנֵיהֶם דְּמֵיהֶם בָּם
There are two possible interpretations concerning Gen. 9:21–23 that may be derived from Lev. 20:11. First, having sexual intercourse with someone is equated to uncovering their nakedness (this does not mean that every instance of uncovering nakedness suggests sexual intercourse). Therefore, it is possible that Ham uncovering Noah’s nakedness means that he had sex with his father.
However, it is also noteworthy that having sexual intercourse with one’s mother (i.e., father’s wife) is considered uncovering the father’s nakedness (as opposed to the mother’s nakedness). Accordingly, it is possible that Ham uncovering Noah’s nakedness means that he had sex with his mother (Noah’s wife), who was likely in the tent with Noah at the time.
These are the three possibilities most commonly suggested, but ultimately, the text remains ambiguous.