QUESTION: Why was Ham so severely punished for seeing his father naked (Gen. 9:18-27)?
The biblical passage you refer to has been interpreted in different ways, suggesting that it is indeed a difficult one. The main problem is defining the sin of Ham—what does the phrase he “saw his father’s nakedness” mean? The second problem is the severity of the punishment itself. Before I address these questions, let me summarize the different interpretations of the passage.
1. Inappropriate Sexual Act: Many interpreters have argued that this narrative is about Ham’s sexual misconduct. This is based on the phrases “to see his father’s nakedness,” “to uncover the nakedness of” someone. These same phrases are employed in Leviticus 20:17 (NASB) to designate sexual intercourse. So, some suggest that this is a case of paternal incest (homosexuality). Others have suggested that since the phrase “to see the father’s nakedness” could mean to have a sexual relationship with the father’s wife (cf. Lev. 18:14), Ham violated Noah’s wife.
Still others have argued that Ham castrated his father. This is based on the fact that the Bible describes what Ham did as “what his youngest son had done to him” and that nothing else is said about Noah having more children. These suggestions, however, ignore or explain away the immediate context of the story.
2. Contextual and Linguistic Considerations:What is occasionally overlooked is that the phrase “to uncover the nakedness” is not found in Genesis 9:18-27. What we find is a drunken Noah who, before falling unconscious, removed his clothes and was lying “uncovered inside his tent” (verse 21, NIV). According to Hebrew lexicons, the verb galah in this particular case means “to expose oneself.” Nothing in the context suggests that Ham uncovered his father. Therefore, that phrase should not be imported into the story to clarify Ham’s sin. This makes highly unlikely the suggestion of incest.
Second, the meaning of the phrase “to see the nakedness” should be determined by its immediate context. In Leviticus it designates heterosexual intercourse, never homosexual relations. This rules out the suggestion that Ham violated his father.
Third, in the narrative the verb “to see” is understood in a literal sense. We are told that Noah uncovered himself and Ham saw him. We are also told that his two brothers took precautions to avoid seeing their father naked. They “took a garment and laid it across their shoulders; then they walked in backward and covered their father’s nakedness” (verse 23, NIV). The text even adds, “their faces were turned the other way so that they would not see their father’s nakedness.” It is impossible to argue that the verb “to see” is used here figuratively. The brothers did all they could to avoid seeing what Ham had seen. This is the plain sense of the text, and it does not support any other interpretation.
3. The Sin of Ham: In the ancient Near East this would have been a serious matter. The obvious question is Why? In the case of Ham, the problem was not what he saw, but that he told others about it. These two actions, even if the first one may have been accidental (though the verb ra’ah, “to see,” could mean “to inspect, to look at”; [Gen. 11:5; Num. 21:8; cf. Gen. 6:2]), showed great disrespect for Noah and constituted a violation of the commandment to honor one’s parents. The narrative suggests that Ham dishonored and disgraced his father. The curse pronounced was an invocation to God, a request for justice. It was not intended to fix the fate of Canaan; but Ham’s son became the object of the curse, thus implying similarity of character. The head of the family was punished through communal responsibility based on family solidarity.
The narrative may sound somewhat strange, but it tells us something about family responsibilities and the need to avoid conflicts that may result in pain for parents, children, and even descendents.
The story also points to the need to be vigilant; because what takes place in the family as a social nucleus will have a negative or positive impact even on the nation. A family united in love and service to God and others will fulfill God’s intended purpose for it.