20 Noah was the first tiller of the soil. He planted a vineyard; 21 and he drank of the wine, and became drunk, and lay uncovered in his tent. 22 And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers outside. 23 Then Shem and Japheth took a garment, laid it upon both their shoulders, and walked backward and covered the nakedness of their father; their faces were turned away, and they did not see their father's nakedness. 24 When Noah awoke from his wine and knew what his youngest son had done to him, 25 he said, "Cursed be Canaan; a slave of slaves shall he be to his brothers." 26 He also said, "Blessed by the LORD my God be Shem; and let Canaan be his slave. 27 God enlarge Japheth, and let him dwell in the tents of Shem; and let Canaan be his slave." (Gen 9:20-27)
This passage seems to say Noah got drunk, passed out naked, was seen by his son Ham, and then cursed Ham's son Canaan. This is a curious story that doesn't seem to have much to do about God. It seems to have much to do about Noah's son seeing "the nakedness of their father." Let’s explore that phrase.
There have been four theories put forth on the meaning of this phrase. The first is simple: it means what it says. Ham saw his father naked and that was a terrible offence resulting in a curse placed on Ham’s son. The second theory is that this phrase is an idiom implying attempted castration – Ham was trying to overthrow Noah as the male head by emasculating him. The third theory is that Ham attempted an act of paternal incest with Noah. My own favored theory is the fourth: that Ham attempted maternal incest with his own mother, the “queen mother,” which was an attempt to position himself as head of the family. A son was conceived of that incestuous union: Canaan; so Noah cursed that son of incest.
The phrase is used elsewhere in Torah, which is where this fourth theory gets its basis:
20 Cursed be he who lies with his father's wife, because he has uncovered her who is his father's. (Dt 27:20)
7 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. 8 You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father's wife; it is your father's nakedness. ( Lev 18:7-8)
“The nakedness of the father” is the same as “the nakedness of the mother.” Furthermore:
9 You shall not uncover the nakedness of your sister, the daughter of your father or the daughter of your mother, whether born at home or born abroad. 10 You shall not uncover the nakedness of your son's daughter or of your daughter's daughter, for their nakedness is your own nakedness. 11 You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father's wife's daughter, begotten by your father, since she is your sister. 12 You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father's sister; she is your father's near kinswoman. 13 You shall not uncover the nakedness of your mother's sister, for she is your mother's near kinswoman. 14 You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father's brother, that is, you shall not approach his wife; she is your aunt. 15 You shall not uncover the nakedness of your daughter-in-law; she is your son's wife, you shall not uncover her nakedness. 16 You shall not uncover the nakedness of your brother's wife; she is your brother's nakedness. 17 You shall not uncover the nakedness of a woman and of her daughter, and you shall not take her son's daughter or her daughter's daughter to uncover her nakedness; they are your near kinswomen; it is wickedness. 18 And you shall not take a woman as a rival wife to her sister, uncovering her nakedness while her sister is yet alive. 19 "You shall not approach a woman to uncover her nakedness while she is in her menstrual uncleanness. 20 And you shall not lie carnally with your neighbor's wife, and defile yourself with her. (Lev 18:9-20)
It is fairly self-evident that “uncovering the nakedness” of a woman is an euphemism for sexual acts. Therefore, uncovering the nakedness of one’s mother is an idiom for maternal incest. Per the above quote from Lev 18:7, there are two equivalent idioms for maternal incest: uncovering the mother’s nakedness and uncovering the father’s nakedness.
Applying this understanding of the phrase to the Genesis narrative, it now seems Noah passed out drunk and Ham took advantage of that “lowering of the guard“ by laying with Noah’s wife, presumably Ham’s mother. Why would Ham do this? It is speculative, but reasonable to believe that Ham attempted to take the queen mother for his own, which in ancient Semitic cultures implied sovereignty. Shem and Japheth “covered their father’s nakedness,” implying they somehow undid what Ham did, restoring the sovereignty of Noah.
Furthermore, had Ham succeeded with his plan, the child of such a union would be the heir apparent; this is why Noah cursed Canaan, so that it would be clear that Canaan would be the servant, not the heir to Noah’s sovereignty. In fact, the above quote from Leviticus is prefaced by noting this maternal incest is common to the whole nation of Canaan, the descendants of Ham’s son:
And the LORD said to Moses, 2 "Say to the people of Israel, I am the LORD your God. 3 You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you dwelt, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you. You shall not walk in their statutes. 4 You shall do my ordinances and keep my statutes and walk in them. I am the LORD your God. 5 You shall therefore keep my statutes and my ordinances, by doing which a man shall live: I am the LORD. 6 "None of you shall approach any one near of kin to him to uncover nakedness. I am the LORD. 7 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. (Lev 18:1-7)
Canaan was the enemy of Israel and it was “the land of Canaan” that was to become the promised land of Israel. That the Canaanites practiced widespread incest, worst of all maternal incest, was the reason why God ordered the Israelites to slaughter them wholescale. They were a people of extreme deviancy. In Genesis 10, where the rise of nations from Noah’s sons is listed, we see that the land of Canaan ultimately included the notorious Sodom and Gomorrah, where Gen 19 implies rape was commonplace.
This story is primarily provided to show how the evil Canaanite culure came to be: By a desparate act of political intrigue carried out when Noah was so drunk that he dropped his guard. That simple act of drunkeness unintentionally resulted in an evil so great that it grew into into it's own country! We understand that drunkeness is an attack on our will, that we unintentionally do things while drunk that we would not do sober. Such drunkeness is, then, considered morally wrong (although a moderate degree of drinking is fine).
More interesting, though: note the first verse of our text above: Noah was the first tiller of the soil. This contradicts Gen 2:15, where Adam was the first tiller. We should conclude from this seeming contradiction a parallel between Adam and Noah. In Gen 2:15, God told Adam to till the ground and to keep it, that is, to guard it. Guard it from what? From the serpent, of course. Adam failed at that task; he let his guard down and the serpent, the devil, entered that first creation resulting in sin; in particular, an attack on Eve. Noah, was also a tiller and so, by parallel, was to guard something. What was he to guard? His wife; again, a woman was attacked. And sin abounded as the result, at the dawn of that second creation. What do we learn from this? As female gender is symbolic in Scripture of God's people, we learn that that we humans (typified by Adam and Noah) cannot defend God's people in the spiritual war; we cannot defend ourselves from sin. We know that only Jesus, the new Adam, can successfully defend us from evil.