Genesis 9:21 says, “He [Noah] drank of the wine and became drunk, and uncovered himself inside his tent.” After Noah uncovers himself in his tent, Genesis 9:22 says, “Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers outside.” What was the nakedness of Noah? And what was Ham’s sin? Genesis 9:24 says, “When Noah awoke from his wine, he knew what his youngest son had done to him.” There is a thought that Canaan (Ham’s son) was involved with what happen in this event; he was the one who Noah cursed and not Ham.1
The event was the reaction from Noah being drunk; however, Moses (the author of Genesis) did not emphasize the guilt of Noah, but rather the sin of Ham. Some have suggested various types of evil that took place within Noah’s tent. While the language employed might leave room for certain sexual sins (cf. Leviticus18).2 Another view on what may have been the sin of Ham was that Ham did nothing to preserve the dignity of his father by looking at Noah’s nakedness. The lengths to which Shem and Japheth went in order not to see their father seemed to show their respect for their father where Ham did not.3 Since the details are not given in Genesis, we are left to use other Bible passages to determine the possible events, but the sin was so bad that Noah curse Canaan; Canaan became only the third being to be cursed; the serpent was first (Gen. 3:14, and Cain was the second (Gen. 4:11).4
As mentioned above, there are several possibilities of what could have happened in Noah’s tent. There are three possible sins that Ham may have been guilty of; voyeurism, castration, or paternal incest.5 The statement, “to uncover nakedness” leads to the idea of paternal incest but not homosexual sexual intercourse.6 The Hebrew wording doesn’t use the word that leads to homosexual intercourse, but to heterosexual intercourse.7 Taking the full account of the nuance of the biblical idiom, the statement that Ham “saw his father s nakedness” implies relations with Noah’s wife, presumably Hams mother. This is supported by the fact that the imagery of the vineyard and wine is associated only with heterosexual intercourse in the Bible; i.e. Lot and his daughters (Gen. 19:30-38), the David-Uriah-Bathsheba affair (2 Samuel 11), or the Song of Songs (Songs 1:2, 4;2:4; 4:10; 5:1; 7:9; 8:2).8 The argument for paternal incest and Ham having sexual intercourse with his mother offers the idea that Canaan is the fruit of that union. This insight shows two aspects of the text left unanswered: why Canaan is cursed, and why Ham is repeatedly identified as “the father of Canaan.” Canaan is cursed because his origin was a vile, taboo act on the part of his father. Ham is repeatedly, and apparently superfluously, identified as “the father of Canaan” because Moses wishes to signal the reader that this narrative explains how Ham became “the father of Canaan.” 9
Any and all discussions on the “nakedness of Noah” and what was Ham’s sin in Genesis 9 will be open-ended because we truly do not know what might have happened. We can use other Bible passages to try to determine; we can even use Hebrew words/grammar and even Near Eastern and Middle Eastern culture to try to determine the events but at the end, we do not know. The possible reason for this being in Genesis could point to the reason the Canaanites became the slaves of the Israelites with Joshua conquered the land.
1 John J. Davis, Paradise to Prison: Studies in Genesis. (Salem, WI: Sheffield Publishing Co., 1998), 128.
2 Bob Deffinbaugh, “The Nakedness of Noah and the Cursing of Canaan (Genesis 9:18-10:32),” Bible.org, May 11, 2004. https://bible.org/seriespage/nakedness-noah-and-cursing-canaan-genesis-918-1032
4 John J. Davis, Paradise to Prison: Studies in Genesis. (Salem, WI: Sheffield Publishing Co., 1998), 128.
5 John Bergsma, Noah’s Nakedness and The Curse of Canaan (Genesis 9:20-27), (Steubenville, OH: Franciscan University of Steubenville). PDF e-book.