When Noah passed out drunk and naked… and how it justifies genocide and slavery

Must’ve been the hangover. Detail of “Noah Curses Ham and Canaan,” via Wikimedia Commons.

Reading one of the Bible’s oddest stories got me to thinking about the Bible’s “jealous god” and how this portrayal came to be. I’ll say more about that in an upcoming post. Right now I just want to tell the story and show how it’s been used to justify a surprising array of atrocities.

The story begins after the great flood has ended, and Noah and his family—including sons Shem, Ham, and Japheth—have come out of the ark to resume their lives. Here’s Genesis 9:20-27 (ESV):

Noah began to be a man of the soil, and he planted a vineyard. He drank of the wine and became drunk and lay uncovered in his tent. And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father and told his two brothers outside. Then Shem and Japheth took a garment, laid it on both their shoulders, and walked backward and covered the nakedness of their father. Their faces were turned backward, and they did not see their father’s nakedness. When Noah awoke from his wine and knew what his youngest son had done to him, he said,

“Cursed be Canaan;

a servant of servants shall he be to his brothers.”

He also said,

“Blessed be the Lord, the God of Shem;

and let Canaan be his servant.

May God enlarge Japheth,

and let him dwell in the tents of Shem,

and let Canaan be his servant.”

Moral of the story: Do not look at your dad’s junk. More importantly, don’t let your dad look at grandpa’s junk. Your future may depend on it. The NIV translates “servant of servants” in verse 26 as “the lowest of slaves.”

Some Bible commentators think the narrator is being reticent, that to receive such a curse Ham (and Canaan) must have done something more than just look at Noah, such as raping or castrating him. It doesn’t matter. That’s not the point of the story. Taken in context the meaning is clear enough. Traditionally, Moses was said to have written the first five books of the Bible before the wandering Israelites finally entered the promised land of… Canaan. This story was part of the justification for the dispossession and butchery of the Canaanite peoples that’s described in various Old Testamant books. For our purposes, it’s not important that these books were actually assembled centuries after the events they purport to describe; the point is that these stories served as nationalistic propaganda.

In other bizarre rationalizations based on the same story, Jewish and Muslim writers later interpreted the “Curse of Ham” as dark skin and slavery. Medieval European writers employed the story to justify serfdom, and American plantation owners enjoyed the comforting practicality of knowing their black slaves were “Sons of Ham.”

And in America’s home-grown religion, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Brigham Young cited the story when banning black men from the Mormon priesthood. His prohibition stood for many years until a later LDS president had a revelation in which God said he wanted to abandon his whites-only policy. So the Curse of Ham finally ran its course…

…in 1978.

Thus, genocide in the ancient world, serfdom in the medieval, and slavery and racism into modern times were all justified, in part, by the same story of a nude, passed-out drunk guy.

Say what you will about the logic, but that’s some potent junk.

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8 thoughts on “When Noah passed out drunk and naked… and how it justifies genocide and slavery

  1. I am currently in the midst of an ongoing debate with a christian regarding morality. This a very fun debate to say the least. Anyway, the basis of his argument, and all such Christian arguments, is that biblical ethics are the foundation of human morality, and that somehow Man would devolve into immoral apes without it. This of course is comical considering the brevity of actual grace displayed in the Bible, the frequent instances of genocide, racism, theft, and outright bigotry, and in comparison, the very moraline lives of such atheists as Neitzsche, Huxley, and Richard Dawkins.
    The method that you used in this article, of shedding light on the down-right immorality of theistic morality, is in my opinion the most effective method possible in ridding the world of such dangerous superstition because it obliterates the sole argument a creationist has in propounding that God is necessary for Mankind to coexist peaceably.

    • Thanks. Yes, I’ve been hearing that argument a lot: “You atheists have no basis for morality!” And they make a big deal of having an “absolute” basis. I remember this well from my Christian days… the idea that without some divine absolute, everything’s up for grabs. But the thing that really started to convince me that that wasn’t the case was the Bible’s own immorality. I began to see how the purported absolute standard was not only inconsistent, but also tends to inhibit the moral development of believers by chaining them to iron age ethics.

      • Ironically the atheistic basis for morality is the sole humanistic morality, and the Bible utilizes this morality, of course it must: it was written by man for man.But theistic morality undermines its predecessor by placing the worship of a particular God above the welfare of all humans. There is no difference between considering someone unworthy of life because they believe different than you, and considering them unworthy to live because the color of their skin. Theists often commit humanistic evils in their quixotic attempts to please an illusion. Wars are fought for an illusion. Children are murdered for an illusion. The atrocities are endless.

  2. Pingback: Is the Bible’s jealous god an accident of history? | Pretentious Ape

  3. What I’m curious about this story is whether it is also the sole or primary basis for why god picked the Hebrews as his chosen people? I once skimmed backwards through the Old Testament from the point where he got all cozy with Abraham and started clearly identifying Hebrews as his favoured people, and I couldn’t find anything other than Abraham being a descendant of Shem (admittedly, I was skimming pretty quickly though).

    Here’s some stuff from a “Jewish Encyclopedia” website (http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/13541-shem) that seems to reinforce this:

    “Shem is extolled by the Rabbis for his filial devotion in covering his father’s nakedness (Gen. ix. 23). Although his brother Japheth assisted in this praiseworthy act, it was Shem who suggested and began it, his brother not arriving on the scene until Shem was already on his way with the garment… Shem’s reward for this deed is seen in the fact that the Jews, his descendants, cover themselves with the ṭallit and phylacteries…”

    “Shem, as a priest, came to Jerusalem (with which Salem is identified by the Rabbis), of which city he became king, it being the proper place for the establishment of the cult of Yhwh… Shem, however, forfeited the priesthood by mentioning in his blessing Abraham’s name before that of God, so that God took his office from him and gave it to Abraham (Ned. 32b; Pirḳe R. El. xxvii.)…”

    “The people descended from Shem is thus the master people destined to “lord it” over Canaan, the slave people committing such dire atrocities as are hidden in the legend of Noah’s exposure. According to Budde, Japheth—which name means “beauty”—represents the Phenicians, while Canaan, signifying “lowness,” “vulgarity,” represents the aboriginal population of Palestine. Thus this triad would result: lordship (Shem), beauty (Japheth), and meanness (Canaan).”

    Hmmm, could that really be it — did the “dire atrocity” of some guy seeing his dad passed out naked in a tent and telling his brothers form the entire basis for god’s choosing of “his people”?

    • I don’t know that it was ever interpreted as the entire basis for God’s choice, since one of the themes of the Hebrew scriptures is the inscrutability of God’s will. (“I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” -Exodus 33:19.) That said, it certainly reinforces the idea that the Hebrews’ enemies had been cursed by God from ancient times because of ancient sins – so it provides some apparent justification for God’s choosing of Israel even if it wasn’t the entire basis for that choice. In all, it’s a very reassuring thing to believe if you’re wanting to take somebody’s land or treat them badly, or even if you’re just trying to reinforce a national identity after things have gone badly for your country. I also find it interesting because it’s another example of the idea that moral guilt can somehow be passed down through the generations, which of course is the notion behind original sin.

    • I don’t know that it was ever interpreted as the entire basis for God’s choice, since one of the themes of the Hebrew scriptures is the inscrutability of God’s will. (“I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” -Exodus 33:19.) That said, it certainly reinforces the idea that the Hebrews’ enemies had been cursed by God from ancient times because of ancient sins – so it provides some apparent justification for God’s choosing of Israel even if it wasn’t the entire basis for that choice. In all, it’s a very reassuring thing to believe if you’re wanting to take somebody’s land or treat them badly, or even if you’re just trying to reinforce a national identity after things have gone badly for your country. I also find it interesting because it’s another example of the idea that moral guilt can somehow be passed down through the generations, which of course is the notion behind original sin.

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