Saturday, May 14, 2011

Noah’s Nakedness… What Really Happened?

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,
        "Cursed be Canaan;
        A servant of servants
        He shall be to his brothers."

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


Anonymous said...

Examine the Hebrew, the translation of "his tent" is incorrect. The word in Hebrew is not OHEL (his tent) but OHELAH (her tent).

Later on in Scripture we find the prohibition of "you shall not uncover the nakedness of your father's wife, for that is your father's nakedness". (Referring to sexual immorality with your father's wife.) So in that context, it was not looking upon the nakedness of Noah that was in question. Noah had gone into his wife's tent. There is therefore the suggestion that his son had tried to do something immoral with Noah's wife. (Not necessarily the original "Mrs Noah" by that time.)

Is there a schedule for CNC Texas yet?

Matthew Neal said...

I've heard before what you've mentioned here about the tent. I've also heard the idea taken so far as to conclude that the reason Canaan was cursed was bacause he was the actual offspring conceived by the incestuous union between Ham and Noah's wife.

However, I find that line of reasoning and interpretation very unlikely to be true. It simply stretches the limits of exegesis too thin. Here's why I say that.

* Yes, it's very likely that Noah was naked in his wife's tent. Nothing wrong with that.

* If you have read my post and article about the Hebrew word, "ervah," you'll see that It consistently is used to also infer sexual activity. From this we can surmise that Noah was attempting to be sexually active, perhaps with his wife, or perhaps alone.

* The language of Lev. 18 uses a very consistent phrase, "uncover the nakedness (ervah) of..." to define and prohibit incest. That phrase is *not* here in Gen. 9 and it is a stretch or worse (adding to God's Word!) to read it into the passage. We certainly cannot presume incest every other time we find the word "nakedness" (ervah) in the Bible.

* The text says that Ham "saw" (not uncovered) his father's nakedness, then told his brothers *outside.* It seems clear that Ham's actions didn't have anything to do with some sort of participation in what was going on inside the tent.

* Since whatever Ham "saw" and likely ridiculed to his brothers evidently had to do with their father's dignity, the other brothers walked in backwards to protect their father from the indignity that Ham freely exploited. Only a matter of a strictly *visible* activity would have been rectified by the actions taken by Ham's brothers. If Ham had been "hitting on" his mom/step-mom, then walking in backwards with a covering would not have had any corrective impact at all. More appropriate would have been to go grab Ham, rip him away from Mom and take him outside for lesson he wouldn't soon forget...

Reading incest into this account simply strains the limits of credible exegesis.

My personal opinion about what actually happened is this:

Noah was drunk. He was trying to make love to his wife, but, being drunk, it wasn't working. Ham sees it and thinks it's funny, so he calls his brothers to come watch their father's blundering attempts at sex while drunk.

The brothers spurn Ham's humor and instead, they protect the honor of their father by refusing to even look at their father in his embarrassing condition. Instead, they take a blanket in and cover Mom and Dad up so that Ham would no longer be able to see and ridicule him.
Noah was too drunk to do anything at the moment it happened, but he wasn't so drunk he didn't remember what happened. And that's when he prounounced the curse on Canaan.


P.S. About the CNC... Check the CNC website, it's liked here at the blog under "Worthwhile Links."

Anonymous said...

if what you say is true, then where did Canaan come from?

most likely from the union of Ham and Noah's wife, which is why Noah would curse him and drive him away.

something to think about!

Matthew Neal said...

I have thought about it. I was intrigued the very first time I heard it, but upon reflection, I rejected that notion as not being defensible from the Scriptures. The ONLY point in its favor is that it would give us a plausible explanation of why Canaan was cursed instead of Ham.
But "plausible explanation" is no proof of anything at all. There can be dozens of plausible reasons which could ALL be wrong and the right reason could be one completely and utterly hidden from us thousands of years and hundreds of cultures removed from the event.
But just as plausible (or more so...) is the idea that Noah did not want to curse Ham and thereby curse all four of his sons (see Gen. 10:6) and so he only cursed 1/4 of Ham, or one of his sons. And of course, since birth order really mattered in that culture, it was #4 (the youngest son was least important) on whom the curse fell.
And if you were implying that Ham did not have his own wife, we know that is absolutely false. Not only did Ham have three other sons before Canaan, Gen. 7:7 tells us that Noah's sons entered the ark with their wives. 1 Peter 3:20 tells us that there were eight people aboard. That makes one woman for each man.
And even though only the sons of Noah's sons are recorded in the Bible, they had to have had daughters, too, else there would have been no way to repopulate the planet.
Noah himself lived 350 years after the flood (Gen. 9:28), most likely all his sons did the same. There would have been plenty of time to have kids after the flood.

Anonymous said...

Here's a thought:

The Bible says that God blessed Noah,

and all of his sons. Therefore,Ham

was already blessed, so he could not

be cursed. And let us remember, only

one of Ham's sons was cursed, not

all of them. Thus, the fable that

Ham and all his descendants are

cursed is totally false and

taken out of context. Check out

Genesis very carefully. You guys

are making some very good points,

though. This gives people a chance

to clarify. But again, Ham wasn't

cursed, because he was blessed

already. Only Canaan was cursed

out of all of Ham's sons. Cush,

Put, and Mitzraim, Ham's other

sons were not cursed in this

event. And as far as the nakedness

factor, it simply says that

Ham walked in and saw his father's

nakedness. Instead of covering

him up and not making fun (which

is disrespectful to a parent), he

chose to talk about it to his

brothers. A cultural thing, I'm

almost certain. In the Middle

East, seeing a parent's nakedness

and making fun is a very serious


Jasen said...

"The word in Hebrew is not OHEL (his tent) but OHELAH (her tent)."

Back when I studied this passage, I was unaware of this subtlety. That is very interesting.

As I recall (I don't have my notes anymore and I'm too lazy to re-do the research), the phrases used in the Noah passage are extremely similar to the passages in Leviticus that proscribe incest. I recall the phrase "uncover the nakedness of" and the term "gazed" were used almost identically in both passages.

I came to the conclusion that Noah got drunk and was masturbating (uncovered his own nakedness). But if the word OHELAH has a feminine implication then it could very well be that he was having sex with his wife (she is his "nakedness" which Leviticus talks about when sons should not have sex with their father's wife).