If we are to believe the biblical narrative, there was a point in time when the future of the earth and its human inhabitants was in the hands – and genes – of three brothers. Their names were Shem, Ham and Japheth. They, along with their father, who was the donor of the male part of their genes, were the survivors of what we might call “the great flood” along with the unnamed wives of the four men. The Bible states this flood was universal, and that it was caused by the will of the Creator as a reaction to the dishonor shone Him by men. It appears that He sought to rearrange some things that had gotten “out of whack” as it is sometimes said. But our purpose is to peer a bit into the lives of the three brothers, particularly Ham. Hence, the name of this writing.
From a genetic perspective, the three sons of Noah were to be the fathers of the first generation of post-flood humans. So their genes mattered. They, in turn, had each received half of his DNA from Noah, the other half coming from Noah’s wife. Anyway, that was the biological starter kit for all humans in the future. Keep in mind that the DNA material of Noah and that of his wife had come down through the generations from Adam originally. The three brothers would subsequently pass on their genetic material in combination with that of their wives to their sons, many (all ?) of whom are named in the narrative. That’s the genetics part of the story. Genesis 9:18-19 summarizes this.
Insofar as the “hands” part is concerned, the brothers, in the company of their father, would make decisions and take actions that would also have significant consequences for the humans-to-come. Sometimes they would collaborate in making those decisions. Other times they would make decisions more or less independently of one another. Sometimes their wives were involved and sometimes not. Even the decisions their wives made without their husbands’ inputs might well influence the human race to come. All these categories of decisions would have future consequences.
It is no doubt true that Noah and his sons and the wives remembered the things they knew before the flood, but none of the billions of folks to be born later would have any knowledge of that had they not passed it on. They were in position to influence all of human behavior in the ages to come. There were no other human behavioral inputs. The future was “in their hands.”
We don’t know most of the details of what the family thought, but we do have strong clues that they went about living life as it came to them. They did what they did and that would become part and parcel of what happened after them. Among the things “they did” was to establish social order. Doubtless they carried over much of what they had previously known in terms of making the new order. At the same time, the flood had probably made an impression on them and influenced what they did as well. They might have even learned from the mistakes of their predecessors. Who knows?
So let’s get to the featured part of the narrative. For sake of reference, the narrative occurs in Genesis 9:20-27.
We cannot be at all sure of the number of years that had passed after the flood before this particular story took place. It must have been quite a few years because all the sons of all three of Noah’s sons had been born before the story began. In fact, it could be argued they had all had time to reach their adult status before this saga commenced. If that was the case, then Noah and his three sons and their families constituted a settlement of a fair number of persons. There were three sons and 16 grandsons and all the wives of everybody that had one and, probably, yet another generation by the time it commenced.
So Noah became engaged as a vintner. It seems he liked his own product, but I feel certain the rest of the family was familiar with his wine, as well. Anyway, on a particular occasion, Noah had a bit much to drink of his wine and lost his wits a bit. The text seems to imply that he passed out in his tent. He, at a minimum, became significantly “under the influence,” or he would have been aware of Ham’s visit. I don’t know why Ham went into the tent that day. I don’t know whether Noah regularly drank too much. What the text reveals is that Ham reported what he had seen in the tent to his two brothers – perhaps to other folks as well. Certainly he would have told his wife for example.
We don’t know exactly why the brothers, Shem and Japheth, responded to the situation as they did. At least we don’t have any information regarding the discussion the two of them had. They must have discussed the matter because the action they took strongly indicates a discussion between them. Furthermore, we have no information as to the tone of things when Ham informed them of what he had seen. What we do know is that when Shem and Japheth received the information, they reacted far differently to Noah’s situation than their brother had. Ham had gone to tell someone. Shem and Japheth went and tended to the needs of their father.
It’s not likely that Noah and his sons had passed some rules that forbade the drinking of wine. It is much more likely that its consumption was just fine with everyone in the camp (the whole world at the time). Perhaps there was some rule about nakedness. But Noah was in his own tent. He was not wandering around the camp in the nude. In that sense, it was none of Ham’s business. But, for some reason, Ham began to make it his business. It wasn’t anybody else’s business either. Certainly, based on their reaction, it was none of the business of the other two sons.
All we really know for sure is that Ham’s response to his discovery was to bear the tale of the event to his brothers. Rather than to carry the tale of the events to others, Shem and Japheth took a strongly contrasting course of action. They went into the tent backwards together. The apparent intent of that action was to avoid seeing their naked and unconscious father. It is not likely they were grossed out at the idea of seeing Noah naked. It is much more likely they did what they did because they respected their father and wanted nothing to do with further humiliating him.
Let’s keep in mind that Noah was the ultimate human authority in the camp. This meant that the level and scope of authority of each of his three sons was less than his. In fact, I might go so far as to say that each of the three of them exercised whatever civil authority he had at the pleasure of Noah. In terms of status, his was definitely superior to theirs. He was the father of the community as well as being the father of his own three sons.
Let’s look more closely at the difference between the actions of Ham and his brothers. The consequences of the actions taken can provide more insight about them for us. Noah definitely reacted to the situation when he awakened from his wine-induced sleep (v. 24). I’m sure it took a little while, but when his fog cleared and he had the information he needed, he took two kinds of action. First, he punished Ham for what he had done. Second, he blessed Shem. (This implies to me that Shem was being given credit for the robe covering event.) Japheth was included with Shem in the blessing. He had cooperated with Shem in covering Noah rather than to join in with Ham in the tale-bearing (probably ridicule) of their father. It might have gone either way for Japheth, but he, too, chose to honor his father’s dignity rather than to react to his father’s indignity with what looks like scorn.
Had Ham told his brothers about the situation and suggested they all three work together to protect their father, he would have not been in trouble when Noah woke up. Instead of working with his brothers to protect his father’s dignity, though, Ham apparently sought some advantage for himself. Perhaps he was embarrassed and wanted it to all go away. Perhaps he was out to “get” Noah. Perhaps he just didn’t know what to do. We cannot be sure of what motivated him. Whatever it was, there was some flaw in his judgment that induced him to take a negative course of action.
We really don’t know what thoughts Shem and Japheth had when the information came to them. Had there been friction between the brothers? We just do not know. What we do know is that they set out with different intent than had Ham. Their effort to cover the mistake of their father until he recovered his dignity is what mattered in terms of the consequences. I suggest the difference is that Ham dishonored his father while Shem and Japheth honored him. In dishonoring his father, Ham sought, by default, to reduce his father. By honoring their father, Shem and Japheth elevated the entire camp.
Even after Ham broke the trust of his father, Noah had mercy. His sentence was not on Ham himself. It was on his most distant relative. Some punishment had to be meted out. Dishonor doesn’t even know what it is unless there is a consequence. Remember that when Michal dishonored and despised her husband David, God closed up her womb so that she could not bear the heir to the throne. In contrast, Shem’s keeping of the trust of his father resulted in a reward for his honorable behavior. It was to his descendants that the Messiah would eventually be born. One of them was Abraham. One of them was David. Was it not a blessing to be one of them?
The Kingdom of God is a transgenerational phenomenon. As such, one of its properties is the role and dignity of the father, even when the father stumbles into a drunken slumber. That property is paired with the trust and honor given by the sons. That, in turn, makes a house strong. Dishonoring one’s father would seem to be a no-no in the Kingdom of God.