Posted by: chuckbumgardner | April 14, 2008

Ham’s Sin Against Noah

In an intriguing article, John Sietze Bergsma and Scott Walker Hahn argue that Ham’s sin against Noah in Genesis 9:20-27 was neither voyeurism, nor castration, nor paternal incest (solutions which have been proposed by various scholars), but instead was the sin of maternal incest.  An interesting treatment in its use of OT backgrounds, OT intertextuality, and literary criticism.  And, I think, a viable solution to a difficult passage.  Bergsma and Hahn provide this concluding summary:

In the review of the various interpretive options for Gen 9:20–27 above, it has been seen that the voyeurist position, which understands Ham’s deed as nothing more than looking, fails to explain the gravity of Ham’s sin or the cursing of Canaan. The castration view suffers from a lack of textual support. The currently popular paternal-incest interpretation has much to commend it, but in almost every case the evidence marshaled for this view actually better suits the maternal-incest theory. The heuristic strengths of the maternal-incest interpretation are manifold: it explains (1) the gravity of Ham’s sin, (2) the rationale for the cursing of Canaan rather than Ham, (3) Ham’s motivation for committing his offense, (4) the repetition of “Ham, the father of Canaan,” and (5) the sexually charged language of the passage. In addition, biblical and ancient Near Eastern analogues for Ham’s crime are easy to find, and the related passages of the Pentateuch fit together more elegantly on this interpretation.

John Sietze Bergsma and Scott Walker Hahn, “Noah’s Nakedness and the Curse on Canaan (Genesis 9:20-27),” Journal of Biblical Literature 124/1 (2005): 39-40.

You can read the entire article here.



  1. As much as I respect Scott Hahn, I also believe that he is wrong about this one. I’ll mention two major reasons.

    First, I cannot find that it is the opinion of any of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church that Ham raped his mother. Perhaps I have not dug deeply enough, but St. Augustine certainly discusses this episode in Genesis with absolutely no reference to Ham raping anyone. For St. Augustine an understanding of this mysterious episode in Scripture is not that simple or that pat. He sees a mystical significance in the story of Noah’s drunkeness that alludes to the Passion. (See longer quote below.) “And so, too, the planting of the vine by Noah, and his intoxication by its fruit, and his nakedness while he slept, and the other things done at that time, and recorded, are all of them pregnant with prophetic meanings, and veiled in mysteries. ” (St. Augustine, City of God, Book XVI, Ch.1) I find it unlikely that Scott Hahn has come to a new discovery in the second millenium that the early Church Fathers, themselves steeped in Scripture, were apparently unable to see.

    Secondly, I find it unlikely that Noah’s mother, who must have been of a similar age as Noah would have conceived at an advanced age. Noah is mentioned in Gen. 7, 11 as being 600 years old when the flood began. If Noah’s wife could have been fertile at 600, why did she appear to have stopped bearing children by her own husband? None other than Shem, Ham and Japheth are mentioned in Gen. 10:1 at Noah’s death. “These are the generations of the sons of Noah, Shem Ham and Japheth.” Additionally, only about 140 years after Noah’s death, Abraham admits that he finds it hard to believe that Sarah could bear a child at age 90 (Gen. 17:17). So it seems hard to imagine that Noah’s wife, who apparently had only three grown sons and no small children, (unless she unnaturally abandoned them when the floods came) would have born a child conceived by rape at an advanced age of about 600.

    (St. Augustine, City of God, Book XVI, Ch. 2:
    [I]But the wicked brother is, in the person of his son (i.e., his work), the boy, or slave, of his good brothers, when good men make a skillful use of bad men, either for the exercise of their patience or for their advancement in wisdom. For the apostle testifies that there are some who preach Christ from no pure motives; “but,” says he, “whether in pretence or in truth, Christ is preached; and I therein do rejoice, yea, and will rejoice.” Philippians 1:18 For it is Christ Himself who planted the vine of which the prophet says, “The vine of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel;” Isaiah 5:7 and He drinks of its wine, whether we thus understand that cup of which He says, “Can ye drink of the cup that I shall drink of?” Matthew 20:22 and, “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me,” Matthew 26:39 by which He obviously means His passion. Or, as wine is the fruit of the vine, we may prefer to understand that from this vine, that is to say, from the race of Israel, He has assumed flesh and blood that He might suffer; “and he was drunken,” that is, He suffered; “and was naked,” that is, His weakness appeared in His suffering, as the apostle says, “though He was crucified through weakness.” 2 Corinthians 13:4 Wherefore the same apostle says, “The weakness of God is stronger than men; and the foolishness of God is wiser than men.” 1 Corinthians 1:25 And when to the expression “he was naked” Scripture adds “in his house,” it elegantly intimates that Jesus was to suffer the cross and death at the hands of His own household, His own kith and kin, the Jews. This passion of Christ is only externally and verbally professed by the reprobate, for what they profess, they do not understand. But the elect hold in the inner man this so great mystery, and honor inwardly in the heart this weakness and foolishness of God. And of this there is a figure in Ham going out to proclaim his father’s nakedness; while Shem and Japheth, to cover or honor it, went in, that is to say, did it inwardly.

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