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In Gen. 9:22–23, it is written,

22 And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brethren without. 23 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. KJV, 1769

What is the “nakedness of his father” that Ham saw? Was it because he saw his own father naked that he was subsequently cursed (Gen. 9:25)?

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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:

  1. What does עֶרְוָה mean?
  2. 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.

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  • Actually the curse is not on Ham, it’s in Canaan. Please revisit your answer – Nihil Sine Deo Aug 23 '19 at 15:54
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I'll have to go dig out sources on this later, but my Old Testament and Hebrew professor argued that it was at least possible that Ham actually sexually assaulted Noah in some sense. The text does not give enough information to say with any certainty but he argued that there are some clues in the Hebrew that suggest Ham did more than simply "see" his nakedness but that he, as some translations put it, "looked on" his nakedness, implying something more active than just looking in. But again, the reality is that this can't be answered definitively with the information we have. I'll try to find my notes from this lecture and add more information when I can.

*Update - I found my course notes on this. My professor referenced Leviticus 20 as using "similar" language of "looking on" in a specifically sexual context. He also added the fact that the response was to "curse" him indicated a grievous sin had happened such that Ham was counted in the line of the serpent who was "cursed" in Genesis 3. However, he still concluded there was insufficient information to conclude whether Ham's action were sexual in nature. (These notes were from my course Genesis to Joshua by Dr. John Currid at RTS Charlotte, NC, in case you're interested.)

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    Please do actually dig out your sources and edit this post to include them. – Caleb Jan 29 '17 at 20:40
  • Welcome to Biblical Hermeneutics Stack Exchange, thanks for contributing - as Caleb has encouraged, please do add sources when you get an opportunity. Be sure to take our site tour to learn more about us. We're a little different from other sites. – Steve Taylor Jan 30 '17 at 10:37
  • My response was updated above with the information from my course notes. The answer is still inconclusive, however. – P. TJ Feb 1 '17 at 16:48
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if you look the Hebrew scripts you can see that the word ערוה written there. in biblical Hebrew (so as in modern Hebrew) ערוה can translate as חרפה. if you read the all story it is mention that Noah plant a vineyard and drink from the wine he made.

therefore nakedness should be understand as weakness. if we put aside the sexual claim on Ham, the story tell us that he saw his father very drunk, lying on the ground and did nothing to help him. instead he went out and tell to the first men he saw (in the story his brothers) what he saw. the moral is to help our father when he is most weak and not going out and spread the news so other could hear, know, and maybe laugh on him. sorry about my poor English.

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  • @simplay a christian - i'm sorry and you are right. if you look the Hebrew scripts you can see that the word ערוה written there. in biblical Hebrew (so as in modern Hebrew) ערוה can translate as חרפה. if you read the all story it is mention that Noah plant a vineyard and drink from the wine he made. after drinking too much he fell on the ground. – A. Meshu Jan 29 '17 at 22:58
  • Welcome to Biblical Hermeneutics Stack Exchange A. Meshu, thanks for contributing! Be sure to take our site tour to learn more about us. We're a little different from other sites. – Steve Taylor Jan 30 '17 at 10:34
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This is an Orientalism or Hebraism. To "uncover the nakedness of his father" as stated in the very Bible itself, is to have sex with one's father's MOTHER (or concubine).Leviticus 18:7 ff Addressed for any relative Verses 7, 8. - Incest with a stepmother is placed next after that with a mother. On account of the unity caused by marriage ("they shall be one flesh," Genesis 2:24), the stepmother's nakedness is the father's nakedness. The tie of affinity is thus declared to be similar in its effects to the tie of consanguinity. Reuben's sin, by which he forfeited his birthright, is connected with this offense, but is of a more heinous character, as his father was alive at the time of his transgression (Genesis 49:4). It is one of the sins which Ezekiel enumerates as those which brought the judgment of God on Israel (Ezekiel 22:10). "That one should have his father's wife" is declared by St. Paul to be "such fornication as is not named among the Gentiles," and to call for the excommunication of the offender (1 Corinthians 5:1-

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