What was the Nakedness of Noah?


There are three interpretations surrounding the nakedness of Noah, and the sin of Ham.  Generally, the first being that Ham sinned by looking upon his father’s naked body.  Essentially this is an act of voyeurism.   The second view is purely Rabbinical in nature, and a “number of midrashim say the offense involved the castration of Noah.”[1]  The third is the traditional view, wherein Ham committed paternal incest with his father Noah.[2]  After expanding briefly on each view, I would like to offer a fourth view, which has recently gained substantial scholarly support, with the help of ancient Near Eastern scholar Michael Heiser and fellow scholars John Bergsma and Scott Hahn, which suggests “that Ham’s actions in Gen. 9.22-24 constituted an act of ‘maternal incest’, rather than an act of voyeurism, castration or paternal incest.”[3]

This view has been a popular view for many years, and Ham sinned just because he saw Noah’s naked body.  “For the rabbis, male nakedness means the exposure of the penis.  The rabbis understand exposure of the penis in the sancta as an offense against God.”[4]  Essentially, they make the connection of being holy congruent to male modesty.[5]  Tradition surrounds this regarding a certain rabbi named Judah the Patriarch, because “he never looked at his own penis.”[6]  Therefore, rabbis have summarily asserted that Ham saw his father’s penis, which some have suggested either led to him penetrating or emasculating him,[7] the two views that will be explored further.

Like voyeurism, the castration of Noah was explicitly founded upon rabbinical literature simply because some rabbis couldn’t accept the curse of Canaan (Ham’s son) resulted from Ham solely seeing his father naked and the exposure of his genitals.[8]  In ancient Near East and Greek traditions, there is evidence where a son attempted to supplant his father’s role by castrating him.  “In this light, the idiomatic interpretation is strengthened by the midrashic stories of Noah’s castration.  Castration is also a well documented motif in ancient stories of the usurpation of royal power.”[9]  Unfortunately this is read into the text by assuming “that Noah wanted a fourth son,”[10] and by doing so, Noah cursed Ham’s fourth son because he deprived Noah of that progeny. [11]

The third paradigm of the sin of Ham and Noah’s nakedness is common in academia, and of course, rabbinical literature as well for those who, like those noted above, was the source for Jewish scholars and rabbis who refused to accept that Ham’s sin was simply seeing his father naked. “In the laws prohibiting sexual relations in Lev. xviii and xx, this expression clearly has an idiomatic force, meaning to have sexual intercourse,”[12] and this is an area of interpretation which fundamentally relies predominantly on this passage. 

This fourth interpretation, I believe, which has been widely accepted in modern academia as the most likely view considering the Biblical text, but also for the curse of Ham’s son Canaan.  However, scholars like Brad Embry disagree citing Jacob Milgram, who asserts that there is no exegetical basis for thinking this way because “Noah’s wife was neither a virgin nor unmarried” considering the phrase to “uncover nakedness” doesn’t apply to a married woman.[13]  This is of course not without its problems as well because he circumvents the Biblical standard of just what that phrase refers to by utilizing a strawman argument regarding what Noah was intending, “suggesting that Noah’s account articulates the position of maternal incest.”[14]  In the end, they both believe that it is solely because Ham saw his father naked.  Unfortunately for Milgram and Embry, they fail to recognize that “the Old Testament text itself points to an offense involving more than just seeing.”[15]  Because the sin Ham was involved sexual intercourse, we are left theorizing exactly who he had intercourse with.  Bassett goes on to say, “what is even more significant for the problem under discussion, the idiom is used to describe not homosexual but heterosexual intercourse, even when it speaks of a man seeing another man’s nakedness.”[16]  This is clearly stated in Leviticus 18:8 when it says, “You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father’s wife; it is your father’s nakedness.”  Even though the “paternal incest view gets part of this right, but then misapplies what is being seen in the text,”[17]  Likewise, the parallel to Leviticus 20:17 and Genesis 19:30-38 is also fundamental to the interpretation, which completely divorces the previous three views from the subject matter and the Biblical data which includes places like Ezekiel 16:35-37; 22:10; 23:10, 18 and 29.  The view that asserts that Ham simply uncovered his father’s nakedness falls apart in light of the numerous passages that refer to this as sexual intercourse.  Heiser continues with his textual criticism, saying, “In Hebrew, what gets translated “his tent here is oholo (ָא ֳה  לה) should be translated “her tent” because we have the noun ohel with a suffix (third feminine singular suffix), which is the ‘h’… oholo.  This is a third feminine singular suffix on the noun.  It should be translated “her tent.”[18]  In addition to this, “since the possession of a man’s wife is seen also as an effort to supplant the man himself,”[19] then it only makes sense considering these details that Ham went into his mother’s tent, which was in Noah’s tent because “If you’re nomadic and patriarchal, you have a big tent and it’s divided into compartments,”[20] and had sexual intercourse with his mother so he could supplant his father’s position of authority.  Noah then cursed Ham’s son, which means he cursed his progeny, forever cutting his family line off from the inheritance his father procured.

Footnotes:

[1] Bassett, Frederick W. 1971. “Noah’s nakedness and the curse of Canaan: a case of incest?.” Vetus Testamentum 21, no. 2: 233. ATLASerials, Religion Collection, EBSCOhost (accessed June 20, 2017).

[2] Michael Heiser, “Noah’s Nakedness, the Sin of Ham, and the Curse of Canaan,” The Naked Bible Podcast, Episode 159, (Podcast PDF Transcript), 4, May 20, 2017, accessed June 20, 2017, http://www.nakedbiblepodcast.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/NB-159-Transcript.pdf

[3] Brad Embry, “The ‘Naked Narrative’ from Noah to Leviticus: Reassessing Voyeurism in the Account of Noah’s Nakedness in Genesis 9.22-24,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, Vol 35, Issue 4, (May 26, 2011), pp. 418.  Accessed June 20, 2017, http://journals.sagepub.com.ezproxy.liberty.edu/doi/pdf/10.1177/0309089210386345

[4] Satlow, Michael L. “Jewish Constructions of Nakedness in Late Antiquity.” Journal of Biblical Literature 116, no. 3 (1997): 431, http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.liberty.edu/stable/pdf/3266667.pdf?refreqid=excelsior%3A51dbbb4315badb046a68c897bf66a461

[5] Ibid., 433.

[6] ibid. 433.

[7] Ibid., 437-438.

[8] Ibid., 438.

[9] Bassett, Frederick W. “Noah’s Nakedness and the Curse of Canaan, a Case of Incest?” Vetus Testamentum 21, no. 2 (1971): 236. http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.liberty.edu/stable/pdf/1517286.pdf?refreqid=excelsior%3A8a8454150c11291c30e3a16510127687

[10] Michael Heiser, “Noah’s Nakedness, the Sin of Ham, and the Curse of Canaan,” The Naked Bible Podcast, Episode 159, (Podcast PDF Transcript), 3, May 20, 2017, accessed June 20, 2017, http://www.nakedbiblepodcast.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/NB-159-Transcript.pdf

[11] Ibid., 3.

[12] Bassett, Frederick W. 1971. “Noah’s nakedness and the curse of Canaan: a case of incest?.” Vetus Testamentum 21, no. 2: 233. ATLASerials, Religion Collection, EBSCOhost (accessed June 20, 2017).

[13] Brad Embry, “The ‘Naked Narrative’ from Noah to Leviticus: Reassessing Voyeurism in the Account of Noah’s Nakedness in Genesis 9.22-24,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, Vol 35, Issue 4, (May 26, 2011), pp. 419.  Accessed June 20, 2017, http://journals.sagepub.com.ezproxy.liberty.edu/doi/pdf/10.1177/0309089210386345

[14] Ibid., 419.

[15] Bassett, Frederick W. 1971. “Noah’s nakedness and the curse of Canaan: a case of incest?.” Vetus Testamentum 21, no. 2: 233. ATLASerials, Religion Collection, EBSCOhost (accessed June 20, 2017).

[16] Ibid., 235.

[17] Michael Heiser, “Noah’s Nakedness, the Sin of Ham, and the Curse of Canaan,” The Naked Bible Podcast, Episode 159, (Podcast PDF Transcript), 5, May 20, 2017, accessed June 20, 2017, http://www.nakedbiblepodcast.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/NB-159-Transcript.pdf

[18] Michael Heiser, “Noah’s Nakedness, the Sin of Ham, and the Curse of Canaan,” The Naked Bible Podcast, Episode 159, (Podcast PDF Transcript), 10, May 20, 2017, accessed June 20, 2017, http://www.nakedbiblepodcast.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/NB-159-Transcript.pdf

[19] Bassett, Frederick W. 1971. “Noah’s nakedness and the curse of Canaan: a case of incest?.” Vetus Testamentum 21, no. 2: 236. ATLASerials, Religion Collection, EBSCOhost (accessed June 20, 2017).

[20] Michael Heiser, “Noah’s Nakedness, the Sin of Ham, and the Curse of Canaan,” The Naked Bible Podcast, Episode 159, (Podcast PDF Transcript), 11, May 20, 2017, accessed June 20, 2017, http://www.nakedbiblepodcast.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/NB-159-Transcript.pdf