By Paul Hinsberg
“And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father and told his two brothers outside” (Genesis 9:22 – ESV is quoted unless otherwise specified).
When we are reading scripture, we must consider that we are separated by culture, a few thousand years of history, and language. While reading Scripture we encounter idioms, which we often fly past not really stopping to think what they might mean to the author or to the audience contemporary to him.
These are important interpretive concepts – part of the process of hermeneutics – that help us to better understand what the author was saying (numerous resources speak to methodology of hermeneutics, such as: Osborne, Grant R. The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation. IVP Academic, 2010).
In this post we are looking at an idiom – “nakedness of his father” from Genesis 9:22. In this passage Ham, the son of Noah, has come upon his father’s tent and explains to his two brothers that he has seen the nakedness of this father. For Ham’s action, we see that Noah has cursed Canaan (v24-27), which is the tribe from the lineage of Ham.
Why would just seeing his father’s nakedness be cause for cursing a whole group of people? After all, he just saw his father unclothed right? If you have ever seen the 2014 movie “Noah” with Russel Crowe, this is exactly what you are led to believe.
It is a decent start to see if the phrase is used elsewhere, and hopefully with more explanation surrounding it. This is a technique used to help clarify complex scripture with scripture that is clear (Stanglin, Keith D. Letter and Spirit of Biblical Interpretation. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2018).
Using bible software these days can make this easier (personally I use Logos Bible Software™, but there are plenty of others – The Net Bible, the Blue Letter Bible – that are online and free). A search for the phrase offers a good deal of reference information:
Leviticus 20:11, 17-21
Deuteronomy 22:30; 27:20
Isaiah 20:4; 47:3
Ezekiel 16:36, 37; 22:10; 23:10, 29
These are a lot of passages; but I will summarize and group some of the sections. When researching and conducting a search such as this, we must be careful to include all the hits – not just the ones that may support our initial assertion. Sometimes idioms are used differently, and context helps point to the one that is intended in a particular passage in the Bible.
Leviticus 18:6-19 is a series of commands or statutes as prefaced by verses 1-5. The Lord speaking to Moses is giving him an express warning not to behave like the Egyptians and certainly not to behave like the Canaanites (wait, people of Canaan – that’s Ham’s lineage… interesting).
There are a series of statutes that speak of not approaching “close relatives to uncover nakedness.” So, it is a verb – an action of some kind that brings shame and disgrace. We see verse 8, where God says, “You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father, which is the nakedness of your mother; she is your mother, you shall not uncover her nakedness.”
So, we can see that it is possible that when Genesis 9:22 is speaking of the “nakedness of the father” it is referring to the mother. While in Genesis 9, it says that Noah was in his tent, he was of course in a relationship with Ham’s mother, and we can expect Noah’s wife to be with him in their tent.
Later in Leviticus 18:20, we see another different term used at the end of the long list of ‘nakedness’ statutes – “And you shall not lie sexually with your neighbor’s wife…” This suggests that the term to ‘uncover nakedness’ is synonymous with ‘lie sexually’. But why would the author of Leviticus change the term?
In all of the other cases in the Leviticus passage the ‘uncovering nakedness’ was in refence to family members. Verse 19 is a general statement of cleanliness, because the Lord indicated that a woman was unclean for seven days after menstruating and could refer to a man’s wife. Verse 20, however, is more explicit as it is a new form of sexual deviation, and is related to Exodus 20:14 and adultery. Thus, to make this distinction the author of Leviticus has changed the term.
So, from this passage we know that:
-Uncovering the father’s nakedness is synonymous with uncovering the mother’s nakedness.
-The act is specifically decreed indecent.
-It is an action – not just a condition of being unclothed, although we have not been told exactly what it is yet.
-It is in the vein of sexual perversion which the Lord has stated as being depraved.
Now, let us move on to Leviticus 20:10-21 for more clues.
The passage is again a listing of statutes but includes punishments and is more explicit which is good for our study. Verse 11 is of particular interest as it mentions the “nakedness of the father” specifically:
“If a man lies with his father’s wife, he has uncovered his father’s nakedness; both of them shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them.”
The term here for nakedness in Hebrew is the same as in Genesis 9:22 and the other Leviticus passages (עֶרְוַ֥ת ). So we are still working with the identical idiom.
However, we now see that the term is made synonymous with “lies with his father’s wife.” This is in the same sentence and thus defined the idiom “uncover his father’s nakedness” as being “lying with his father’s wife.” Thus, sexual relations are in view here.
Further we can see that Ham (at least himself personally) has gotten off a little easier than later Israel people guilty of the same act, as he isn’t killed. Of course, knowing that all of your progeny is cursed can’t be much of a picnic either.
Let us continue our investigation with the passages in Deuteronomy.
“A man shall not take his father’s wife, so that he does not uncover his father’s nakedness” (Deuteronomy 22:30).
“Cursed be anyone who lies with his father’s wife, because he has uncovered his father’s nakedness. And all the people shall say, ‘Amen’” (Deuteronomy 27:20).
Deuteronomy 22 is a listing of various laws. Deuteronomy 27 is a series of curses that several of the tribes of Israel were to yell from Mt. Ebal. Both verses, like Leviticus 20:11, equate ‘uncovering your father’s nakedness’ with ‘lying or taking’ your father’s wife.
Thus, we have significant evidence for the idiom to mean “having sexual relations with one’s mother.” Further, we can see that it is mentioned several times attesting to the severity of the act at times carrying the punishment of death.
Now, how about the Isaiah passages?
“So shall the king of Assyria lead away the Egyptian captives and the Cushite exiles, both the young and the old, naked and barefoot, with buttocks uncovered, the nakedness of Egypt” (Isaiah 20:4).
In this case the term “nakedness of Egypt” is referring not to an individual but to a group of people. We would have a hard time equating this with sexual relations with an entire nation. Further, the term is explained in the previous phrase “naked and barefoot.”
The same Hebrew term is used in “naked and barefoot.” Here the “nakedness of Egypt” might better be translated as meaning “to the shame of Egypt” as the BDB (Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon, a standard for Hebrew lexicons, which are dictionaries of Hebrew to English terms) agrees and uses the passage in Isaiah 20:4 as an example of translating the term as “shame.” Now the other Isaiah passage:
“Your nakedness shall be uncovered,
and your disgrace shall be seen.
I will take vengeance,
and I will spare no one.” (Isaiah 47:3)
Here we see the “nakedness shall be uncovered,” and again we are not referring to a person but to a nation as in Isaiah 20:4. In this case the nation is Babylon. Also, we see the term is equated to disgrace and shame as opposed to sexual decadency.
In Ezekiel passages the author is using a metaphor of a whore for disobedient Israel. In one passage he uses an interesting play on the term “uncover nakedness” using it in both ways we have outlined with the previous passages:
Thus says the Lord GOD, Because your lust was poured out and your nakedness uncovered in your whorings with your lovers, and with all your abominable idols, and because of the blood of your children that you gave to them, therefore, behold, I will gather all your lovers with whom you took pleasure, all those you loved and all those you hated. I will gather them against you from every side and will uncover your nakedness to them, that they may see all your nakedness. (Ezekiel 16:36-38)
Here Ezekiel is using the whore as a metaphor for the unfaithful city of Jerusalem. We can see in verse 36, the “nakedness uncovered” is equated to “whorings” which is a reference to sexual action, but Ezekiel has used it as an allegory for the idolatry of the people of Jerusalem for both wealth, power, and gods of Egypt. However, in the next verse he uses the term much as Isaiah had, meaning “shame” and “disgrace.”
So, having surveyed the occurrences of the idiom “uncovered his father’s nakedness,” I think we can see that when it is referring to a person (father, mother, sister, etc.) it is referring to sexual actions that are indecent. Also, in that context, the “nakedness of the father” is referring to sexual relations with the father’s wife.
Now return to Ham and Genesis 9:22. We can now say the sense of the term, “nakedness of his father,” refers to an action of sexual relations with his father’s wife in light of the Leviticus and Deuteronomy passages.
This explains why the curse is so severe – after all, just seeing the father naked does not have a precedence anywhere else in the bible for being anything other than shame. Further, if we did see it as such, it would be the disgrace of the father, not Ham, whose nakedness was showing (as it was in the case of Egypt, Babylon, and Jerusalem in Isaiah and Ezekiel).
Finally, consider that having sexual relations with the head of the household’s wife or concubines was typically not a case of lust, but a power-play. Absalom tries to seize control of his father David’s kingdom by making a public showing of having relations with his father’s concubines (see 2 Samuel 16:21-22).
The act is a show of power over his father. Therefore, Ham was not lusting after his mother, but trying to usurp power over the family and subsequent tribes. This would be an offense to Noah as well as to God who had entrusted Noah with executing his instructions.