I’m taking a quick break from the responses to Mr. John Piper in order to address
a question raised by a reader in the “Sound Off” post.
I’m pretty sure it wasn’t a story that was covered in Sunday School, but I was sure familiar with it. I’d probably read it for myself as a boy and it made a lasting impression on me.
I’m talking about the story of Noah and what happened when one of his sons saw him naked… and believe me, it put the fear in me to ever see my own dad naked. At those rare times we might have been in a campground shower together, I was intentionally looking the other way when my dad took off his shorts. I sure didn’t want to be cursed like Ham was in the bible… just for seeing his dad naked.
That response to my father’s nudity persisted throughout my life.
Fast forward to about five years ago, and I find myself startled that there are Christian naturists… who claim that the Bible does not forbid us to be unclothed with others in a social context. When I could not quickly and easily refute their claims, it launched for me a rather intense study of God’s word on the topic.
It wasn’t long before I realized that the passages I had always assumed to prohibit social nudity actually did not, but I was still bugged in the back of my mind about the story of Noah. It had so shaped my attitude towards my father’s nudity that I knew I would have to revisit this story and assess my understanding of it before I could ever accept naturism as being morally pure, biblically speaking.
So, rather than rest in the interpretation of a pre-teen boy as being accurate, I looked at the passage again to see what it really said.
The story is found in Gen 9:20-25. Here it is in full:
20 Then Noah began farming and planted a vineyard.
21 He drank of the wine and became drunk, and uncovered himself inside his tent.
22 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 and laid it upon both their shoulders and walked backward and covered the nakedness of their father; and their faces were turned away, so that they did not see their father's nakedness.
24When Noah awoke from his wine, he knew what his youngest son had done to him.
25 So he said,
The first question we need to address here is this…What does this passage teach us?
In order to answer that, we first need to make some observations about it and consider their implications, else we may try to “see” things which are not there, or miss things that are.
There are many, many observations that could be made, of course, but I’m only going to highlight some that I believe are of special significance when we are trying to discern God’s moral truth about nakedness.
- This is a narrative passage; it is not a legal (law-giving) section of the Scriptures. It tells what happened, but it does not establish any sort of moral code.
- Consequently, we cannot use this passage to establish some sort of moral rule for righteousness. We may find that it illustrates teaching found elsewhere in the Bible, but it cannot establish a doctrine from it.
- For example, the Bible never tells us that we may not see our parents naked or else we will suffer a curse. This story of Noah and his sons cannot be forced to establish such a teaching, since it really is only narrative.
- By contrast, however, the Bible teaches very clearly that we should honor our parents (Exo. 20:12). The command carries a promise of blessing when obeyed. What’s more, Deut. 27:16 promises a curse for those who fail to honor their parents.
- Clearly, the story of Noah in Gen 9 illustrates these biblical laws perfectly… however, it does not establish them!
- A passage cannot illustrate a command that does not exist elsewhere in the Bible. To establish a narrative as an illustration of Biblical truth, we must first locate where in the Bible that truth is declared.
- While we know that the story is true (because it is part of God’s Word), within the account itself, we find no divine commentary! God describes the historical event, but He does not give His “perspective” on the event; He does not tell us what we should learn, or what we should emulate.
- Consequently, we must be careful not to presume to know the mind of the Lord on the matter, or we may find that we are putting forth our own human thoughts and attributing them to God (see Isa. 55:9)!
- Consider the story of Gideon and his setting out a fleece before the Lord (Judges 6:36-40). One might be tempted to read the story and see how God responded to Gideon’s “testing” of the Lord and conclude that this is how we should respond to the Lord, too. However, a little pondering of the story will reveal that Gideon’s actions really revealed his lack of faith, not his possession of it! God had told Gideon that he would prevail, but Gideon did not take God at His word! God’s graciousness towards such unbelief is His own prerogative, but it certainly would be suspect if we concluded that since God answered Gideon’s requests that He wants us to place the same sort of requests before Him ourselves!
- I’ve heard it put this way… Narrative is not Imperative. Narrative without Imperative is not Normative.
- In other words, a biblical story does not constitute a divine command. If the story has no divine command included, we cannot consider that story’s presence in the pages of Scripture to be a moral guide for our lives.
- It is not for us to declare that “this or that” story in the Bible must be emulated when God has not told us to do so!
- For an example of a narrative that contains a command, read about the creation of Eve in Gen. 2:21-24. The story is related in verses 21-23. A clear command follows in verse 24!
- The story of Noah and his son’s teaches us very little about our lives or even Biblical history. The only enduring reality that we can know for sure from this passage is when, why, and how the people of Canaan were cursed by God. In my opinion, no other conclusion is exegetically justifiable.
Some other observations raise difficult and perhaps unanswerable questions:
- Was Noah wrong to be unclothed in His own tent?
- If this is a passage about “nakedness,” why is it that it was not the one who was naked who was cursed?
- If Ham was the one who dishonored his father, why is it that Ham’s son was cursed instead?
- Given the fact that the Hebrew word ervah (translated “nakedness”) seems to very consistently signify sexual activity rather than simple nudity, could it be that there was some sort of sexual component implied in the story that we don’t see in the English translation? (for a careful treatment of this subject, see “The Meaning of “Nakedness” – Part 1” and the full article upon which it is based)
These questions reveal that there is much about this story that we do not know… seemingly pertinent details which God chose not to reveal. This fact underscores the folly of presuming to discern moral absolutes from the account. We simply do not know enough about what actually happened.
The conclusion that I have reached on this passage is that it cannot be interpreted to be any sort of divine prohibition of simple nudity, or the establishment of a curse for one who sees his own father naked.
How many years did I live under the fear of a curse based on a very faulty understanding of this passage? I don’t know, but I’m free from that fear now!
— Matthew Neal