Studies in Genesis I-XI: Unveiling the Course of the Race (18)

Scripture: Genesis 9:18–29

For simplicity, sobriety and straightforwardness the Holy Scriptures have no peer among all the books which the centuries have produced.

Here in language which also children can understand God tells through the inspired writers the story of his dealings with the sons of men. Repeatedly we marvel at the brevity and restraint with which the facts arc related. This does at times irritate us, until we remember that we arc reading a God-given account. Time after time we want the writer to tell us much more, so that our irrepressible curiosity may be somewhat satisfied. But God will not have his message lost in a contemplation of details which might well tempt our minds to wander away from the truth which we ought to learn. What amazes us most of all, however, is the honesty which characterizes these accounts. The Bible knows no plaster-of-Paris saints. In the context of God’s rich grace it speaks about the sins of God’s people as well as about their faith and good works.

Often Scripture paints with words in a manner for which much later, Rembrandt’s paintings became famous. That renowned Dutch artist so distributed light and shade in his compositions (the “chiaroscura” effect) that the viewer’s attention is at once riveted on the central feature.

Also in this brief section of Genesis there is a central feature to be remembered. It is not, as some have claimed, the drunkenness of Noah. Nor should we dwell too long on the fearful sin of Ham. Even the curse pronounced on Canaan is subsidiary to the main message. All these elements, indeed, are part of the story. But the focus is on the triumph of God’s grace, a grace which certainly does not obscure or obliterate His judgment upon sin and sinners, but which, nonetheless, in this dark world, brings salvation. Also this section shows that God does not forget his promises. It points far beyond the days of Noah and his sons to the ingathering of many people into the tents of Shem where the name of the Lord God is known and praised. Noah, in language far richer in content and consolation than he could surmise, prophesies the Pentecostal age.

Sin manifested

Clearly the sacred writer begins another story here. We have been instructed concerning the marvellous deliverance of Noah and those with him in the ark. To this was added the great and gracious self-revelation of the Lord to those who were spared. As they enter that strange new world God meets them not only with demands but also with promises. And these promises, which will make life livable for humanity despite every danger, are signi.6ed and sealed covenantally to the patriarch and his descendants.

It comes as no surprise that the three sons are again mentioned by name at this point. From them shall descend all the future inhabitants of the world. Moses deems it necessary to remind us in a single phrase of God’s faithfulness, for he adds: of these was the whole earth overspread. It reminds us of the efficacy of God’s blessing. From so small a family have sprung all tribes and peoples and nations. Not for a moment may the believer, as he reads God’s Word, forget the unity of the human race. Yet the opening verse contains an element of surprise. One son of one of the sons is singled out for mention. This will be repeated for emphasis a few verses later. It will prepare us for an understanding of what is to follow.

With a few bold strokes of the pen the writer sketches the background.

We are told that Noah began to be a husbandman (a farmer). Just when he took up this occupation is not related. But surely all those reconstructions of man’s past which depict him as a wandering hunter who didn’t know the rudiments of agriculture are contradicted by Scripture. As Adam was called to dress the garden and keep it and his son tilled the fields outside of Paradise, so Noah not too long after the flood engaged in the same calling. He also planted a vineyard. On this there has been much speculation. Was this the first time the vine was cultivated? If not, did men and therefore likely Noah also know how to make wine before the Hood came? Calvin writes that “it does not appear . . . probable that the fruit of the vine, which excels all others, should have remained neglected and unprofitable.” Others urge that this was a new experiment; hence Noah should not be faulted over-much for the degradation into which he plunged himself. The Bible, however, leaves the matter of the origin of wine making unsettled.

What we do read is that he drank and was drunken and was uncovered.

In the light of the few details given in the passage we may conclude that this episode took place some, perhaps, several decades after the flood. This we know from the fact that in Genesis 10 Canaan is indicated as the last or youngest son of Ham, all of whose children were also born after the flood. Nor is it likely, in view of the judgment pronounced on Canaan, that Noah’s grandson was at this time a very young child. What ought to be observed is the fact that Noah, called a righteous man and perfect in his generations and one who walked with God (6:9), could and did fall into a grievous sin. Even the wondrous deliverance which he experienced was not in itself a safeguard against temptation. God here offers no explanation of or excuse for his sin, undoubtedly also for the purpose of warning his children in every generation against intemperance and self-indulgence.

What aggravates the situation is, first of all, the fact that Noah now lay uncovered (i.e., naked) in his tent. The word used here indicates that he uncovered himself. It will not do to argue that the patriarch should not be held fully responsible, since the act was performed while in a stupor. Yet Scripture does not allow for such an argumentation. We need not read into the text more than the words allow. Thus to depict Noah as now manifesting a disgraceful licentiousness which was long kept hidden is unjustifiable. This, the world which delights in picturing the saints of God in lurid colors, would like to have us believe. Yet the warning implied is as stringent as it is striking. One sin, unless restrained by God and repented of without delay, inevitably produces many more.

Even more, Noah’s sin becomes the occasion for the brutalization of Ham’s character as this is manifested in a conduct most unbecoming to a son and most severely punished by God Himself. How deeply this must grieve the patriarch, when after a while he learns of his son’s disrespect and must speak the revelation of God concerning the future of his descendants. Those who suppose that Noah went scot-free in his sin know next to nothing of the dealings of the Lord with his erring children. He sends as chastisements the remembrance of their transgressions together with the consequences of these upon their children and children’s children, to keep them humble before his face.

The sin of this younger son of Noah is that of filial disrespect. It breaks out in a most degenerate form, and that while surely the penalties inflicted by the Lord upon evildoers at the time of the deluge cannot have been entirely erased from his mind. He, too, knows of the corruption and violence, with its lack of restraint which caused the first world to be laid waste. Yet this does not deter him from indulging in sin. His is the sin, first of all, of gross disrespect for his father through whom the world including Ham is spared by divine appointment. He sees his father lying in a drunken stupor. Yet this does not alarm or alert him to the fearful power which sin seeks to exert in the life of mankind. Instead, he allows his unclean heart and feelings to feed upon it. This is evident from the text. “He saw” is not to be understood as accidental and harmless seeing but rather as a looking at with a degree of satisfaction or delight. No measures are thought of or taken by him to hide the transgression of his father. Instead, he goes out of the tent to tell his two brothers all about it. Here the seeds of an inclination to immorality sprout into deed. The corruption of the old world which seems to have been hidden in the heart for a time now manifests itself in the heinous behavior of Ham.

God had, indeed, at the time of establishing his covenant with Noah and his family imposed restraints upon several of the consequences of sin. This sovereign act, intended to make room for the development of the human race and insure the coming of the promised Savior, included a large measure of compassion (cf. 8:21b). Yet it did not effectuate a radical change within man’s heart. Sin soon breaks out again in vicious forms—drunkenness, lack of filial love and respect, and immorality. What mankind needs is the grace which changes from within.

Sin repudiated

Now the sacred writer turns his attention to the response of the hvo brothers, Shem and Japheth.

Although by this time the human race has already multiplied considerably, we can understand why the family stays so close together. Spreading out upon the face of the earth is as yet neither desirable nor necessary. Likely, even with their growing families, the sons of Noah live in close proximity to the tent of their father and work along with him. Those who object that it seems so improbable that all three sons are in the immediate neighborhood of their father’s tent fail to view the situation which prevailed after the flood, realistically.

While Ham announces his disgraceful pleasure in the fall of his father, the two brothers rebuke him first of all with their silence. Instead of being amused, they demonstrate their fear of sin as well as their respect for the father to whom under God they owe so much. Perhaps Ham thinks that his brothers will be willing to join him in making mockery of Noah. But here something of the dispositions of men’s minds and hearts, in their radical divergence from each other into good and evil, shows itself.

Both the piety and the modesty of the two brothers is indicated. They desire above all else, in this shameful situation into which their father has plunged himself, to retrieve something of his dignity. Thus they “took a garment . . . and covered the nakedness of their father.” In some detail this is sketched in a passage which contains few details. It seems that the Holy Spirit intends this as an example for all generations. For not only do they attempt to cover the nakedness and therefore the sin of their father; they take every precaution lest they fall into a sin similar to that. of Ham. The garment which they take they place upon both their shoulders and thereupon walk backward and with their faces . . . backward. Herc we discern a delicacy in dealing with sin and temptation to sin which has become a rare commodity in our day. It seems clear that Shem and Japheth are deeply grieved and wounded by what has transpired. Both the shameless prostration of their father within his tent and the ridicule to which their brother exposes him stab their sensitive souls. Theirs is still a world exposed to the debilitating and destructive power of sin. Not for a moment may those who know the Lord and his will give it place in their lives.

Sin condemned

Sin, according to Scripture, is always punished; virtue never goes without a reward. This is because the Lord hates evil, and delights in the good.. The destiny of men and nations is not the result of chance or fate or the working out of some inexorable natural law. God Himself is ruler and judge. He makes known His will and announces it through those whom he chooses to publish His message.

We read that “Noah awoke from his wine.”

Here we find no mitigation of his transgression. Neither do we read of any sorrow and godly repentance on his part. Some exercise themselves unduly about any lack of reference to this. Yet we do well to remember that Scripture does not aim at describing all kinds of conversion experiences. Even when at times these are rehearsed, the few details which are provided remain subsidiary to the great and gracious self-revelation of God. Yet there is no reason to suppose that this is lacking with Noah. The words which he is about to speak give evidence of restraint. He does not utter his reproaches in the heat of anger but in the spirit of prophecy.

It is related that he knew what Ham had done unto him. By what means he attained to this knowledge seems to be quite immaterial to the story. We do not have to suppose that God revealed it to him in some special manner, although this is not impossible. Hardly would Shem and Japheth have spoken about this to their father. Everything in their demeanor shown when told about Noah’s condition argues against this. Some have suggested that the patriarch may have had some recollection of taking off his garment; others that the robe had been placed upon him in a strange fashion; still others that it was perhaps another garment than the one which had fallen in disarray on the ground. What is important is that Noah knew.

What follows is without doubt prophecy. Any attempt to reduce its import and importance does violence to the text. Here we do not find a man who tries to exonerate himself by. pronouncing guilt upon another; much less one who speaks in anger. Yet the penalty pronounced is severe. Calvin suggests that it filled the heart of the patriarch with grief. He comments:

“For he (i.e., Noah) saw him (i.e., Ham) miraculously preserved amongst a few, and having a place among the flower of the human race. Now, therefore, when, with his own mouth, he is compelled to separate him from the Church of God, he doubtless would grievously bewail the malediction of his son.”

Here nothing is read into the story that Scripture would disallow. For surely if we as parents mourn the grievous sins of our sons and daughters, how much more would not Noah, whose righteousness and godly fear are extolled in God’s Word, feel in his heart the wounds;which are to be inflicted upon some of the descendants of Ham?

The words of Noah at this point begin with a curse. This is a malediction spoken not directly upon Ham but upon Canaan as the son of Ham. That we have here a prophecy is plain to all who take Scripture seriously. Hardly is there a parent who lives in the fear of God who would dare to lay such a heavy burden not only upon a sinful son but upon his descendants in their generations. We find here a delineation of the future which the three main branches of humanity will experience. God is putting Canaan and his descendants under a just judgment. It concerns their servitude. Canaan is singled out first from his brethren, that is, the other sons of Ham. To them he is to be a servant of servants, the Hebrew way of expressing the most abject kind of servility and slavery. In the following verses the socio-political relationship of this branch of the human family to the descendants of Shem and Japheth is indicated in milder language. This distinction alerts us to the fact that Noah isn’t simply repeating himself.

At once the question arises in the minds of the readers: Why is Canaan punished instead of Ham? To this no answer is directly supplied by the text. Some have suggested that the name crept into the text by some copyist’s error. For this there is no ground whatever. Others suggest that Noah already saw in Canaan, indistinction from the other sons of Ham, strong evidences of the same sins which marked his own son. That the Canaanites in the days of Moses were guilty of the grossest forms of immorality cannot be disputed. But to conclude, therefore, that the sacred writer is simply reading back his own situation into that of the past does violence to everything the Bible says about its own inspiration, reliability and accuracy. To adopt such a position denies the character of predictive prophecy. We are far safer, if we simply apply here the basic principles of Scripture concerning God’s judgments. Although he visits the sins of the fathers upon their children and grandchildren, we know that his judgments are true and righteous altogether. He does not punish the innocent.

But why isn’t Ham specifically included in this judgment? Some early commentators have opined that, since God had bestowed such signal honor on Ham in sparing him at the time of the flood, his curse was transferred to his son. But this, too, is an illegitimate conjecture. Noah’s son, even though calloused by his sin, undoubtedly felt himself directly involved in the condemnation of his own son. It may well be that he felt this more deeply than he would have some direct penalty on his own person. Now at least Ham, as well as the others who heard this prophecy, was reminded of the fearfulness of sin. Like a fatal cancer it invades not simply an individual but the family in its generations.

We may want to inquire further into when and how this prophecy has been fulfilled. By this time it should be clear—also in the light of Genesis 10 which records the table of the nations—that Noah’s prophecy gives no warrant for enslaving the black races. Whether this branch of the human race descended from Ham will have to be considered in connection with the next section of Genesis. Here mention is made specifically of the Canaanites, and of them and their lot we read much in the Old Testament. That they became accursed because of their moral impurity is clearly taught in Genesis 15:16; 19:15; Lev. 18 and 20; Deuteronomy 20:17ff. Already in Abraham’s days the measure of their iniquity was full. Under Joshua who brought Israel into the promised land the hand of the Lord fell heavily upon these peoples.

But already we have paused too long at this part of Noah’s prophecy. Much more glorious is that which follows.

Great blessings are assured to Shem. Here the patriarch praises Jehovah as the God of the covenant. In this family he will fulfill his promises of salvation. Thus this passage prepares us for the call of Abraham and all that follows in the sacred record. Indeed, the specific blessings are not stated. Yet from the name ascribed by Noah to the Lord we know that far more is implied than merely the blessings of religion in a general sense. Nor is the knowledge of the one true God a discovery or achievement of Shem. God, by the prophetic word of the patriarch, binds himself in faithfulness to this son and his descendants.

Also the future glory of Japheth in his descend. ants is sketched. Cod Himself will enlarge him in his family, a rich blessing in accordance with the mandate to replenish and fill up the earth given not only to Adam and Eve in the beginning, but also to Noah and his sons after the flood. What is foretold is the greatness implied already in the name Japheth, which means “to be open” or as here “to cause to be open:’ This family to a far larger extent than the other two branches of humanity will fill up the earth. But to this an even greater favor is attached. For although his sons will scatter themselves abroad and grow into mighty nations, they shall in the course of history come to experience the rich spiritual favors of Shem’s descendants. In the tents of Shem they will find their spiritual home. Like wild olive branches which grow luxuriantly they shall be grafted into the true olive tree and bear fruit (Rom. 11:17–26, esp. 24).

Much, indeed, still lay in the midst of the future for Noah and his sons. It is the nature of true prophecy to speak often in broad, general terms, awaiting some later occasion for filling in details to instruct the generations to come. But here already, long before the scattering abroad of the peoples, God opens up perspectives which find their glorious fulfillment in Jesus Christ who sent his Spirit on the day of Pentecost and by whom the nations are again gathered as one flock under one Shepherd. In this fold they shall come to know and delight themselves in the name of the one true God.

With this the book of the generations of Noah closes.

He, like all the patriarchs before the flood with the lone exception of Enoch, dies. For three hundred and fifty years he lives in the new world to which God has brought him through the waters of the flood. He sees his sons and his sons’ sons to several generations. But he passes away, having seen and believed and greeted the promise of the Lord only from afar. God’s people one after another die, but God and his work go on from generation to generation until all is accomplished. This is the meaning of history. It is his story, the story which his saints will rehearse in glory to his praise.


1 -The Bible has much to say about strong drink. Indeed, it praises the fruit of the vine as an excellent gift of the Creator (Ps. 104:15 etc.). The Hebrews were not tee-totallers. Yet frequently strong warnings are sounded against abusing this gift. Denunciations against drunkeness abound in the Old Testament, while Paul includes it in his catalogue with all manner of shameful evils (cf. Provo 23:20; 15a. 5: 11, 22: 28:1–7; Luke 21:34; Rom. 13:13; I Cor. 5:11; 6: 10; Gal. 5:21: Eph. 5:18; I Thess. 5:7,8). Drunkards, so we learn, cannot inherit the kingdom of God.

2 – On Ham as the youngest son. Both Septuagint and Vulgate translate this as “younger.” The original simply has: his young (or—little) son. The Hebrew does not distinguish between comparative and superlative, as do our western languages. When a comparison is intended, as here, it uses the appropriate adjective. in Genesis 10:21 Shem is called the “old” brother of Japheth: thus either “elder” or “eldest.” This creates some difficulties in trying to ascertain the precise order of birth of Noah’s three sons. By no means always does the Bible give the names of sons and descendants in chronological order. Cf. Aalders: Het boek Genesis (J . H. Kok. 1933), pp. 253, 254 ; Leupold: Genesis (Baker, 1950), vol. I. p. 348; Keil and Delitzsch: Pentateuch (Eerdmans, 1949), vol. I, p. 156.

3 – On Noah’s knowing what his son had done unto him. Some modern commentators are not satisfied that final disrespect together with delight in gazing on his father’s nakedness constituted Ham’s sin. They would insist that some specific act was done to Noah, perhaps fully uncovering his father when the robe slipped lower than it should or even engaging in the sin of sodomy. Yet the word had done as employed in Scripture need not be pressed so far. If more was involved than has been indicated above in the outline, the sacred writer under the Spirit’s guidance wants to keep this hidden from us.

4 – On what happens when scholars allow themselves to be trapped by problems of their own making, as these arise from their own presuppositions with respect to Scripture and its contents, we call attention to the way in which John Skinner in his Genesis, I.C.C. series (Chas. Scribner’s Sons, 1910) treats this passage, pp. 181–187. His knowledge of language, customs, etc., deserves our admiration. His conclusions at almost every point are at sharp variance with what a simple, straightforward and believing reading of the Bible discovers. He insists on completely divorcing this account from the deluge-section, attributing it to a source (i.e., author) who knew nothing of that event. Everywhere he suggests that there are unresolved contradictions in these early chapters of Genesis. He considers that this “is more probable . . . as an independent legend, originating among Palestinian surroundings” (p. 183), so that it cannot he attributed to Moses who never set foot there. He finds that he can hardly unravel the “origin and significance of this remarkable narrative,” since it must be approached from “two distinct points of view.” The one aspect of it is a kind of “culture-myth,” to explain the development of tillage with a warning “against the moral dangers attending this new step in human development, and the degeneration to which it may lead.” On the other hand this cultural motive “is crossed by an ethnographic problem, which is still more difficult to unravel” (p. 186).

5 – Here as in many other passages we face the issue of God’s justice as manifest in his judgments upon the sons of men. An excellent study, which might have been mentioned earlier and deserves careful reading (alas, it appears only in the Holland language), is that of C. Brillenburg Wurth: Schuld en Straf in het licht van de Bijbelse verkondiging (Bosch en Keuning, 1963). We quote only one passage, dealing with personal responsibility and the solidarity of the race:

“First, then, the social aspect of human guilt is certainly one of concern. It is indeed not superfluous to bear in mind that the actual source of sin is to be sought in the heart of individual man. What Marx did by attributing evil in our society to the socioeconomic conditions in which we live deserves to be repudiated unconditionally by Christian ethics. It would work havoc with the moral sense of guilt, if a man could so easily roll his personal responsibility and guilt on society. No, society could never be sinful and guilty, if we as individuals are not sinful and guilty. And yet sin and guilt are realities not only in the life of an individual. The individual lives in relationships and constitutes part of a greater whole, indeed of the whole of humanity. With it he is bound in solidarity. There is an interdependence between him and the community. He influences the community, and the community influences him. That holds in every respect, also in respect to sin. The sin of the individual, which proceeds from his sinful heart and from the corrupt inclination of that heart, thereupon objectifies itself not only in his personal conduct but also in the conduct of the community in which he lives. Supra-personal sinful relationships arise, moral perversions in societal spheres and in society as a whole.” pp. 46, 47. Cf. also the last two chapters: on “Guilt,” pp. 118–134, and on “Punishment,” pp. 135–153.

The study deals also with such issues as visiting the sins of parents upon their children, something which we in our highly-individualized and individualistic society don’t seem to grasp and which Christian clanroom and pulpit so frequently seem to ignore. How much more circumspectly Christian parents would conduct themselves in living with and nurturing their children from the beginning, if these Biblical realities spoke more personally and directly to them. Cf. also J. Van Andel: Van Adam tot Abraham (J. H. Kok, 1913), esp. on “Sin and Punishment,” pp. 36–50 and into the next chapter.

6 – The significance of names in these early chapters of Genesis has been discussed earlier. Some make much of the name Canaan from “to stoop” or “submit”; hence the submissive or subjugated one. That there seems to be a play on words is dear. However. this should not receive too much weight, lest we fall into the trap of those who find here all kinds of “aetiological legends,” stories intended to explain the origin of various aspects of man’s life and history. On such an approach little remains of the Biblical view of divine inspiration. We would add here a comment or Keil and Delitzsch, op. cit., p. 157: “Canaan does not signify lowland, nor was it transferred, as many maintain. from the land to its inhabitants; it was first of all tile name of the father of the tribe, from whom it was transferred to his descendants, and eventually to the land of which they took possession.”

7 -A few comments on the nature and scope of blessing/curse may be helpful. Keil writes as follows:

“Moreover, it is true of the blessing and curse of Noah, as of all prophetic utterances, that they are fulfilled with regard to the nations and families in question as a whole. but do not predict. like all irresistible fate, the unalterable destiny of every individual; on the contrary. they leave room for freedom of personal decision. and no more cut off the individuals in the accursed race from the possibility of conversion, or close the way of salvation against the penitent, than they secure the individuals of the family blessed against the possibility of falling from a state of grace, and actually losing the blessing,” op. cit., p. 160.

8 – On the Canaanites as servant of servants, cf. some illuminating comments by Aalders, op. cit., pp. 256, 257. This is not intended in an absolutistic sense. Yet tIle servitude did become very real. He calls attention to Cush, Mizraim (Egypt) and put in Genesis 10. In political power and geographical extent they were certainly quite insignificant, when compared with some of the mighty empires which soon arose along the Nile and in the Mesopotamian valley. Also before Israel entered the promised land the Canaanites were politically subject for a long time to Egypt. Cf. also the conquest of these peoples by Israel.

9 -Calvin says something surprising about Japheth. He comments: “In the Hebrew words (enlarge) and (Japheth) there is an elegant allusion. For the root of the word is pathah which, among the Hebrews, signifies to entice with smooth words, or to allure in one direction or another. Here, however, nearly all commentators take it as signifying to enlarge . . . But I rather approve the other version, ‘God shall gently bring back, or incline Japheth.’” Even this renowned commentator, whose work in Biblical exposition has seldom been equaled can occasionally read into a text something which likely isn’t there at all.


1 – Why in all the three hundred fifty years of Noah’s life after the flood do you suppose that only this “happening” is recorded?

2 – In which order would you arrange the sons of Noah by age? State your reasons.

3 – Review what the Bible has to say about wine. Should Christians today be tee-totallers? Should the church adopt this as its stand? What do you think of the argument that since many parents freely imbibe, the younger generation should not be faulted for taking to drugs, especially the milder ones?

4 – Is all nakedness shameful? Is the state of dress and undress, as it varies among the peoples of the earth, simply a cultural and therefore “morally indifferent” matter?

5 -Discuss in some detail why the fifth commandment is so highly praised and strongly urged in Scripture. Do you think children today are less respectful of parents than a generation or two ago?

6 – How would you explain that one sin, when not repented of at once, involves a person in many more sins?

7 – Is there evidence, both from the past and now, that drunkenness usually begets immodesty and immorality? When is a person drunk? Should this be regarded as a violation punishable by the state? If so, why and how?

8 – Is getting drunk a sin or a disease? Can you prove your point?

9 – What docs it mean to bless God? Can we in any sense add to his perfections or to his delight?

10 – What is the significance of the name Jehovah (LORD) in the blessing upon Shem? How long did the knowledge of the true God continue among his descendants?

11 – How docs this passage point forward to Abraham’s call and to the day of Pentecost?

12– Can you illustrate how God visits the sins of parents upon the children in our day? Does this impair personal responsibility? Which do you think are some of the most prevalent sins and weaknesses of Christian parents today?