The sin of Ham in Genesis 9 continues to elicit comment, since it seems mysterious. We read in 9:21-23 that Noah uncovered himself inside (the covering of) his tent, that Ham (entered the privacy of Noah’s tent) and saw his father’s (not “Noah’s”, n.b.) nakedness, that Ham told his two brothers outside, and that the brothers walked backwards with a garment on their shoulders and covered their father’s (not “Noah’s”, n.b.) nakedness. When Noah awoke and learned what his youngest son (not “Ham,” n.b.) had done, he cursed Ham’s youngest son.
It seems clear that this passage is about authority. It is about how a son treats a father. One son sees his father naked and talks about it; the other sons cover their father’s nakedness. I have analyzed this entire passage at length here http://www.biblicalhorizons.com/biblical-horizons/no-96-the-sin-of-ham-and-the-curse-of-canaan-part-1/ together with the two succeeding issues.
Some are unsatisfied. There is a perennial suggestion that sex of some sort was involved. The justification for this is the use of “uncover nakedness” language in Leviticus 18 & 20 to denote sexual relations; including in one place “see nakedness” (Lev. 20:17) with the same sexual connotation. Since Ham saw his father’s nakedness, this means he sodomized his father, and then bragged about it. Or, since uncovering a man’s nakedness can refer to having sex with a man’s wife, then this means that Ham had sex with his own mother while his father slept.
It is certainly true that when a son assaults his father’s bed, generally having sex with a wife other than his own mother, that is a way of saying that the old man is weak and it’s time for the son to be put in charge. Reuben did this to Jacob, and Absalom to David. In both of those stories, however, the text is quite clear about what happened. To read the sin of Ham sexually it is necessary to import the sexual aspect without any direct evidence, and, perhaps importantly, to read back into this literary record language that is not introduced until much later in history, in the Biblical deposit of revelation.
The other two sons of Noah placed a garment on their father to cover his nakedness, “and their faces were backwards so that they did not see their father’s nakedness” (Gen. 9:23). Does this mean that their faces were turned away so that they did not sodomize Noah, or have sex with their mother? Clearly not. It means they did not look.
Much of this event has to do with rebellion against authority. Japheth and Shem hold up the garment on their shoulders (an action of exalting a person) and cover their father. The judgment placed on Canaan makes him a slave, not a ruler. Japheth and Shem, however, will have “tents,” like Noah.
What I’d like to add to my previous analysis is this: The passage opposes looking at the secrets of God with listening to the word of God. The eye is the organ of dominion, and that is why we do not worship through icons and images. The ear is the organ of submission. Noah, the human “elohim,” the junior godlike authority, the “father,” is in charge. He sees what his sons do and passes judgment; they do not “see” him and judge him. The Bible uses “elohim” for human rulers, and here in this story is it Noah who is like God: planting a garden, withdrawing from the scene, returning to find that sin has been committed, and passing judgment.
The situation is just like that in the Tabernacle. God is enthroned naked in the Holy of Holies, but the priests are never to see Him. When they move the Tabernacle, they unhook the Veil and carry it backwards to cover the Throne. When they set up the Tabernacle, they pull off the Veil carefully and walk forward and hook it up without looking. On the Day of Coverings (Lev. 16), when Aaron does go into the Holy of Holies, God wraps Himself in His cloud. God is not to be seen in His tent, but God does speak from His throne. The same is true of Noah: when he awakes, he speaks.
The situation is also true in human life. It is inappropriate for a son to see his father’s genitals. When a child is a baby, his parents will see him and bathe him, dress him, etc. When the child becomes self-conscious, the parents should not be looking any longer. And children do not want to look at their parents naked, and don’t like to think about their parents having sex. Gary DeMar commented to me once that when young he had gone to some Christian youth camp, and in the morning when all the other highschool boys were showering in the common shower, the main speaker at the camp, an older man, joined them. Gary said that it was much harder for him to listen to the man lecture thereafter.
When Ham entered Noah’s tent, he may have been spying, or he might have entered just without thinking. But when he glimpsed his father, he did not instantly avert his eyes and withdraw, keeping quiet. Rather he looked and then told his brothers. Did he snicker? Or was there some darker purpose in what he said? We are not told, and it is not important. The point is that he did not conceal what was an embarrassing situation but rather exposed it.
When we expose our secrets to someone, we give them power over us. That’s why we are careful when we do so, and so angry and humiliated when we are betrayed. And rightly so. If someone accidently finds out one of our secrets — “sees” our secret — and then tells others, that is an assault on us. There was no sin in Noah’s resting naked covered by his tent; the sin was in Ham’s exposing it and uncovering Noah from the covering of his tent.
The sexual interpretation of this story is a red herring that draws us away from its real, and very practical, meaning.