Family Sexual Secrets in Genesis
Key Passages:
Genesis 9:18-27, 38:1-10
By Bruce L. Gerig

Even as early as Genesis, there were family sexual secrets. One of the most enigmatic is found in the drunken Noah story, recorded in Gen 9:18-27. We read here that after the Flood Noah planted a vineyard. "[21] He drank some of the wine and became drunk, and he lay uncovered in his tent. [22] And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness [erwa] of his father, and told his two brothers outside. [23] Then Shem and Japheth took a garment ... and walked backward and covered the nakedness [erwa] of their father; their faces were turned away, and they did not see their father's nakedness [erwa]. [24] When Noah awoke from his wine and knew what his youngest son [ben] had done to him, [25] he said, 'Cursed be Canaan; lowest of slaves shall he be to his brothers.'" (NRSV) At first glance, the wrongdoing here seems to be Ham's looking upon his father's private parts. As Umberto Cassuto explains, Ham's looking on Noah's nakedness was "something disgusting, especially [as] an affront to the dignity of one's father," along with possibly some "unchaste talk." Since Ham's seeing is contrasted with his brother's not seeing, "Ham's sin consisted of seeing only."1

The only problem with this reading is that it leaves unanswered four very difficult questions: (1) Why is Canaan named so predominantly in this story (more than any other character)? (2) Why was Canaan cursed for something that Ham did? (3) How could Ham be called Noah's "youngest son," when he was actually the second-born of three sons? (4) Does not the wording "done to him" suggest something more than looking and talking? Cassuto notes many arguments that have been raised from earliest times against his view; but in the end he "supposes" that "had done" (v. 24) is only "a relic of ancient tradition" and holds that Ham was Noah's youngest son in spite of other references,2 that uniformly list Noah's sons in the customary birth order of "Shem, Ham, and Japheth" (Gen 5:32, 6:10, 7:13, 9:18, 10:1; 1 Chron 1:4). Such a feeble treatment of v. 24 will not do; in fact, this verse holds the key that unlocks the whole passage. As T.C. Mitchell (British Museum) notes, the phrase "his younger son" (KJV; but "youngest son" in most modern translations, cf. NEB, NIV, NRSV, REB, CEV, etc.) means literally "his son/grandson, the little [one]" (beno haqqatan) – suggesting "that Canaan did something not recorded which was worthy of cursing…"3 In fact, ben (Strong #1121) can mean "son, grandson, cousin, descendent, [even] daughter."4 No writer on this passage, to my knowledge, has noted Gen 31:27-28, where Laban rebukes Jacob, saying, "Why did you flee secretly and … not permit me to kiss my sons [bene] … farewell?" – a clear reference to Laban's grandsons (Jacob's sons); and, in fact, bene is translated as "grandchildren" in 31:55 in the NRSV, NIV and CEV. In the Noah story right from the start Canaan appears as a presence in and a part of the story, named 5 times throughout Gen 9:18-27, more than Ham (3 times) and even Noah (4 times). Also, the "little" or "young" one would hardly apply to Ham, since Noah was 600 years old when the Flood came (7:6, 9:28-29) and one would expect that his sons were up in years, as well. At least we know that Noah's three sons were all married when they entered the Ark (7:13) and that, before Canaan, Ham had begotten three other sons (10:6). Thus, a number of scholars have attributed the main insult here to Canaan.5 Ibn Ezra suggests, for example, that Ham saw and did not cover his father, but only made the matter known; and when Canaan overheard, he did something – we know not what.6 The key question here is not whether Ham's looking on his naked father was considered shameful and disgraceful, but whether the text suggests that there was more.

Holding that Canaan "did more" to Noah answers very easily, simply, and naturally most of the questions that have plagued interpreters of this passage – except for one: what did Canaan do (or mostly likely do) to his grandfather? It should be noted that there are three words for "naked" used in the OT: arom (Strong #6174), erom (#5903), and erwa (#6172) – the third one (found in this passage) "associated with sexuality"7 and referring especially to the genitals.8 It may be noted that the phrase "uncover nakedness [gala erwa]" is often used in the OT as a sexual euphemism indicating illicit sex or rape. This expression for sexual union is used throughout the incest prohibitions in Lev 18:1-18, 20:17-21,9 where, for example, we read: "If a man takes his sister, a daughter of his father or a daughter of his mother, and sees her nakedness, and she sees his nakedness, it is a disgrace, and they shall be cut off in the sight of their people; he has uncovered his sister's nakedness, he shall be subject to punishment." (20:17, NRSV) Notice the parallelism here between "seeing nakedness" and "uncovering nakedness," both inferring "having sex with." Because of a different context, "seeing" and "uncovered" in the Noah story do not prove that Ham had sex with Noah – but they do suggest some possible link between "nakedness" (erwa = genitals) and looking and sex in this story. Wold raises this interesting question also: how could Ham have known that his father was naked when he first entered the tent? Perhaps he only intended to speak to Noah or, if he knew his father had drunk a lot, to see if he needed assistance. No precedents can be found in ancient Near Eastern or Egyptian records showing that for a son simply to see his father naked was such a horrible thing or for placing a curse on someone other than the wrongdoer.10 In the Bible, we do have the incident where Lot's daughters get their father drunk (Gen 19:30-37), on two consecutive nights, so they can expose and manipulate his genitals to impregnate themselves (to get an heir); and no condemnation is passed on this indignity, in Genesis or elsewhere in the OT. Their motive, no doubt considered praiseworthy in ancient times, outweighed the insult done to their father. Further, in the Noah story, Wold holds that the verb asa ("to do, make") in v. 24 "implies physical rather than verbal action" and "is best understood in this concrete way."11

So what did Canaan do to Noah? Jewish rabbis have long pondered this. The Babylonian Talmud, in the tractate (section) Sanhedrin 70a (ca. 600 A.D.), records a debate between two 3rd-century rabbis – Rabbi Rab, who claimed that Noah was castrated to keep him from having a fourth son, and Rabbi Samuel, who claimed that Noah was raped, seeing a connection with seeing and raping in the Shechem / Dinah story (Gen 34:2).12 Castration? – Of course, any additional son(s) that Noah had would diminish the inheritance and influence of his first three sons and their families; this concern over inheritance was surely the primary motive in Onan's sexual misconduct (Gen 38:1-10). Graves and Patai note13 that some ancient Jewish rabbis held that, at the height of his drunkenness, Noah uncovered himself, whereupon Canaan, Ham's little son, entered the tent, mischievously looped a stout cord about his grandfather's genitals, drew it tight; and so unmanned him (so he could beget no more). When Ham entered the tent and saw what had happened, he reported it to Shem and Japheth, smiling as if it was a joke – but he received back their curses.14 Ham could hardly be blamed for simply seeing his father's nakedness, and Noah would never had laid such a grave curse upon Ham's son if he was innocent.15 If this view of the offense is true, it would not, however, have been actual castration of the testicles, which would have been very painful and even life-threatening without some medical attention at hand. Also, the theory of a plan hatched to prevent Noah from begetting any more children is weakened by the fact that Noah was over 600 years old when the drunken episode occurred (Gen 9:28-29) and apparently had a horde of grandchildren running around (10:2,6,22); he probably had little interest in siring more children himself.

Sexual abuse? – Since "nakedness" here points to the sexual parts, other writers have held that some grave sexual act was done to or with Noah. H. Winckler believed that it was pederasty, sex with the young Canaan. F.W. Basset held that Ham had sex with his mother, but this seems far-fetched.16 J. Edgar Brun suggested that Ham sodomized his father (like Osiris tried to do with Horus, in the Egyptian myth) so he could claim dominance over him and the right to rule the world. Whether Ham or Canaan, sodomizing the old man, using Noah "as a woman," would clearly dishonor the "dignity of the male" and threaten the authority of the head of the family.17 One can hardly imagine that it was lust that "attracted" Canaan to his old grandpa; more likely, his action stemmed from a profound disrespect, rebellious nature, and perhaps perverse curiosity. Increasingly, recent writers, including Anthony Phillips (1980), Thomas Schmidt (1995), Martti Nissinen (1998), Donald Wold (1998), and Robert Gagnon (2001), have viewed the main misdeed here as homosexual, incestuous rape.18 In the end, what Canaan did exactly to Noah we shall never know for sure – although "Canaan has done something" (Herman Gunkel),19 something probably repressed because it was "even more repulsive than mere looking" (Gerhard Von Rad),20 and all the clues most likely suggest that Noah was sexually assaulted (Martti Nissinen).21 In any case, this story would serve to as an etiological tale to point to the morally corrupt Canaanites, who would become known for their sexual sins, most notably the gang-raping horror at Sodom (Gen 19) and their incestuous practices, cult prostitutes and idolatrous worship (Lev 18, Deut 23:17-18). Later, the descendents of Shem (the Israelites) and of Japheth (the Philistines [E.A. Speiser], the Hittites [Bruce Vawter], or perhaps simply those nations who will share in the "tents" and blessings of Israel [Thomas Brodie]22) would subdue the Canaanites (Israel's enemies) as "slaves" (Gen 9:26-27). So, the first (probable) reference to homosexuality in the Bible sets the tone for most later references, which are condemned for their connection to violence or idolatry. Other (milder and loving) forms are not considered, that is, until we come to the Jonathan and David story.

If the drunken Noah story alludes to a homoerotic act, another story in Genesis that has long been connected to homosexuality, upon closer inspection clearly does not. In the Onan story (Gen 38:1-10), Er, Judah's eldest son, dies without giving his wife (Tamar) an heir; and so the patriarch instructs Onan, his second-born, to "Go in to your brother's wife and perform the duty of a brother-in-law to her; raise up offspring for your brother." (v. 8, NRSV) This practice, later codified in the Law of Moses (Deut 25:5-10), would become known as the "levirate" custom or law (from the Latin levir = "brother-in-law"). However, Onan, knowing that any such heir would cut into his inheritance, refuses to fulfill his sacred duty and honor his father's word. Although he lies with Tamar repeatedly, after his foreplay and games, instead of impregnating her, "he spilled his semen on the ground whenever he went in…" (v. 9, NRSV). Vawter observes that it was Onan's refusal to fulfill the sacred duty of a "redeemer," his selfishness and greed, his lack of love and loyalty to his brother and family, along with his hypocrisy and abuse of Tamar, that offended Yahweh and so brought about Onan's death (v. 10).23 If one looks up "onanism" today in a modern dictionary, one finds the meaning of either "masturbation" or "interrupted coitus," neither of which accurately describes Onan's sin. However, it must remembered that masturbation for many centuries was compared to abortion, since it was believed that the father's sperm contained the whole essence of life. Only in the 18th century did scientists come to recognize that a child owed something to both parents.24 Furthermore, masturbation and sodomy were linked as related "perversions," the former leading to the latter;25 and so the Onan story was used to condemn homoerotic acts. Of course, the Onan story has nothing to do with homosexuality. It is important to note here, however, how a biased, erroneous, and completely off-base interpretation of Scripture (as we have seen here) can persist in tradition, even down to present-day in some parts of the Christian Church. Also, the Onan story is instructive to see how the ancient Hebrews spoke and wrote about sex. The literal Hebrew in 38:9 reads "he wasted [it] to the ground"26 – which has been filled out in the NRSV. Even though there was a Hebrew word for "semen" (zera = "seed"), it has been omitted in this intimate context. While Hebrew sex talk can (and frequently does) touch on very intimate topics, it should also be noted that it often does so in a manner that is elusive, elliptical, and euphemistic in language. Not only coded terms but contextual clues become critical considerations in interpreting such passages.

FOOTNOTES:    1. Cassuto, p. 151-52.    2. Ibid., p. 149-70, esp. 152,164.   3.
Mitchell, T.C., "Ham," New Bible Dictionary, p. 450.     4. Brown, p. 119-22.    5. Including Pirke Rabbi Eliezer, xxiii; Zohar Hadash, Venice ed., 1663, p. 35b; and modern interpreters A. Dillmann and B. Vawter.    6. Cassuto, p. 153-54; Vawter, p. 139.    7. Bandstra & Verhey, "Sex; Sexuality," ISBE, IV(1988),433.    8. Strong, #6172.    9. Zobel, Hans-Jurgen, "galah…" TDOT, II(1975),479; Opperwall-Galluch, Nola J., "Uncover Nakedness," ISBE, IV,944.    10. Wold, p. 66-67,69.    11. Wold, p. 73.    12. Gagnon, p. 69.    13. Graves & Patai, p. 121.     14. Tanhuma Buber, Midrash Tanhuma, Gen 48-49 (before 4th cent. A.D.); Genesis Rabbah, 338-40 (compiled 5th cent.); and Pirke Rabbi Eliezer, ch. 23 (8th-9th cent.).    15. Graves & Patai, p. 121.     16. Westermann, p. 488.    17. Cf. Brun, in McNeill, p. 58-59; also Nissinen, p. 52-53.    18. Wold, p. 74; Gagnon, p. 68.    19. In Westermann, p. 488.    20. Von Rad, p. 137.    21. Nissinen, p. 52.    22. Brodie, p. 193.    23. Vawter, p. 395.    24. Tannahill, p. 345.    25. Eisenberg, Daniel, "Masturbation," EH, II,777.    26. Cf. Green, Gen 38.9.

Brodie, Thomas L., Genesis as Dialogue, 2001.
Brown, Francis, et al., The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon, 2000 ed.
Cassuto, U., A Commentary on the Book of Genesis, Part II: From Noah to Abraham, Genesis VI 9–XI 32, Hebrew 1949, English 1964.
Encyclopedia of Homosexuality, ed. by Waynes R. Dynes, et al., 2 vols., 1990.
Gagnon, Robert A.J., The Bible and Homosexual Practice, 2001. (homophobic)
Graves, Robert, and Raphael Patai, Hebrew Myths: The Book of Genesis, 2nd ed. 1964.
Green, Jay P., Sr., The Interlinear Bible, 2nd ed. 1986.
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, 4 vols., 1978-88.
McNeill, John J., The Church and the Homosexual, 1976.
New Bible Dictionary, ed. by J.D. Douglas, et al., 2nd ed. 1982.
Nissinen, Martti, Homoeroticism in the Biblical World, 1988.
Strong, James, "Hebrew and Chaldee Dictionary," in Abingdon's Strong's Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible…, 1890.
Tannahill, Reay, Sex in History, 1982.
Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, ed. by J Botterweck and H. Ringgren, English trans. 1974- .
Vawter, Bruce, On Genesis: A New Reading, 1977.
Von Rad, Gerhard, Genesis: A Commentary, German 9th ed. 1972, English 1972.
Westermann, Claus, Genesis 1-11: A Commentary, German 1974, English 1984.
Wold, Donald J., Out of Order; Homosexuality in the Bible and the Ancient Near East, 1998. (homophobic)

TRANSLATIONS: Contemporary English Version, 1995.    King James Version, 1611.    New English Bible, 2nd ed. 1970.    New International Version, 1978.    New Revised Standard Version, 1989.    Revised English Bible, 1989.


© 2005 Bruce L. Gerig

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