Do you like to read biographies or autobiographies?1 Many people do. You can learn a lot about people this way. However, maybe you’ve had this experience: You’re reading a biography when all of a sudden you turn the page and discover a grinning skeleton lurking in the closet of someone you admire. American columnist Russell Baker said, “The biographer’s problem is that he never knows enough. The autobiographer’s problem is that he knows too much.” But when God writes a story, He knows everything about everybody and always tells the truth. He does this for our own good (Rom 15:4).2
In Genesis 9:18-29, the history of Noah and his family moves from rainbows (9:12-17) to shadows. Paul Harvey would say, “Here, we learn ‘the rest of the story.’” Yet, one of many reasons I am convinced the Bible is God’s Word is because its authors never covers up the sins of the saints.3 They refuse to pull punches; instead, they flat-out tell it like it is! This reality should encourage you and me. If great men and women of God committed sin and God still used them, He can use you and me as well. We need to be honest and acknowledge that Christians are far from perfect but God always uses us in spite of ourselves. In the verses that follow, God gives us three warnings. If we heed these warnings, we will be grateful that we listened. But if we ignore these warnings, we will live to regret our negligence.
[The first warning is found in 9:18-21…]
1. Beware of failure after great victory (9:18-21). In 9:18a, Moses again (cf. 5:32; 6:10; 7:13) lists Noah’s three sons (“Shem and Ham and Japheth”) because the narrative is now especially concerned with them. Then we come to a parenthetical clause in 9:18b. Moses writes, “…and Ham was the father of Canaan.” This phrase was not haphazardly thrown in. On the contrary, it has great relevance because it anticipates the rest of the story. Verse 19 states that the whole earth was populated from Noah’s three sons. [They are carrying out God’s commission to “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth,” 9:1.]
Everything seems to be going along just fine when all of a sudden in 9:20-21, we read these tragic words: “Then Noah began farming and planted a vineyard. He drank of the wine and became drunk, and uncovered himself inside his tent.”4 Sometime after leaving the ark, Noah took up farming like his father Lamech (5:28-29). He then planted a vineyard and made some fine wine. Now as you may know, this process does not occur overnight. After planting his vineyard, Noah had to wait until the grapes were ready for fruit bearing, which usually takes three to five years. He then had to harvest a crop, gather it, and extract the juice from the grapes. Finally, he had to allow the grape juice time to ferment into wine. This reminds me of an unforgettable commercial I used to see when I was a little boy. The legendary Orson Welles is endorsing Paul Masson’s Emerald Dry. On this particular commercial, he turns down a stereo, and then compares a good wine to a Beethoven symphony. At the end, he intones, “We shall sell no wine before its time.” Whenever I think of this episode, I imagine Noah as an Orson Welles like character knocking back his own fine wine. The point that I’m trying to make is this: There were quite a few steps that led to Noah’s drunken stupor.
Some scholars make a gracious but desperate attempt to excuse Noah’s behavior. It is argued that Noah did not really know what would happen to him by drinking all this wine. This is special pleading. Noah was a wise and discerning man. Undoubtedly, before the flood, plenty of people got drunk (cf. 6:5). Noah was far from naïve. On the contrary, this great man of God sinned with his eyes wide open.
This leads to an important excurse on the subject of alcohol. Before I begin to discuss this topic, it is important to acknowledge that most people have strong opinions on the use of alcohol. But the real issue is not what you think or what I think. The issue is what does God think? Ultimately, His opinion is the only one that matters. So I will limit our discussion to, what does the Bible have to say about alcohol?
Surprisingly, the Bible speaks a whole lot about alcohol. The word “wine” occurs over 200 times in our English translations. Even more surprisingly to some of you is the fact that the Bible holds alcohol in high regard. The following list provides the biblical basis for alcohol.5
But the Bible also warns about the dangers of wine. The following list demonstrates this.
We must understand that alcohol is a problem in our culture6 but we must understand what the Bible teaches. The Christian faith is about tension. Most of us would like for the world to be black and white. Clear-cut. No gray. But gray is a biblical color. Let me ask you a few questions: Is money evil? Is food evil? Is travel evil? Is exercise evil? Of course, the answer to all of these questions is, “NO!” It’s all a matter of how these gifts from God are used. With alcohol and all of these other areas, the Bible calls for moderation. As my dad used to tell me, “Moderation in all things, Keith.” If we do not use moderation, it is too easy for any good thing to gain control over us, which will be detrimental to our life, our family, and our ministry.
So what is the conclusion in this matter? Three important principles should suffice.
Now back to our story. After Noah became drunk he “uncovered himself inside his tent.” The Hebrew word translated “uncovered” (galah) means “to be disgracefully exposed.”7 Now this certainly complicates matters. Noah evidently felt warm because of the effect of the alcohol, took off his clothes, and then passed out in his tent. Alcohol is a depressant. It “loosens” people up because it depresses their self-control, their wisdom, their balance, and judgment. Noah became drunk and careless. He did the normal pass-out routine for drunkenness and in the process discarded his robe. So he is lying in his own room sprawled out naked on the floor or possibly on his sleeping area.
Moses is drawing our attention back to the first few chapters of Genesis. In 2:8, God planted a garden for man to enjoy. Here, Noah plants a vineyard (9:20). Moses also establishes parallels between Noah’s disgrace (he took of the fruit of his orchard and became naked) and that of Adam and Eve (who took of the fruit of the garden and saw that they were naked).8 In pointing out the similarities of Noah and Adam, Moses wants to show us that even after being saved from the flood, man’s enjoyment of God’s good gifts could not be sustained. Noah, like Adam, sinned, and the effects of that sin were to be felt in the generations of sons and daughters to follow. As in Genesis 3, the effect of Noah’s sin is seen in his “nakedness” (9:22; cf. 2:25; 3:7).9
When Noah and his family were introduced for the first time, Moses wrote, “Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his time; Noah walked with God” (Gen 6:9). In the New Testament, Noah was called a “preacher of righteousness” (2 Pet 2:5). He is also included in the hall of faith of Hebrews 11. Noah was a great man of God. If Noah can sin, anyone can sin. This includes you and me. But the point of this story and the whole of Genesis is not merely that anyone can fall but that everybody does (Rom 3:10-12).10
The time when most Christians fall is on the heels of a great victory. Man’s tendency is to ease up when the conflict lessens.11 If it happened to Noah, it could happen to you. Whenever you feel like things are going especially well, beware. Stay humble. The apostle Paul says, “Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed that he does not fall” (1 Cor 10:12). We are very vulnerable people. Every Christian is capable of committing even the most heinous of sins. This is why we so desperately require the accountability of a local church and a small group of believers.
This account also serves as a reminder that it is possible for seasoned saints to stumble in the sunset years of their lives. Moses sinned late in his life by striking a rock and taking some of God’s glory to Himself; as a result, he was not permitted to enter to Promised Land. David sinned with Bathsheeba when he was in his fifties. Solomon departed from the will of God when he was old. Past successes do not provide power for future victory.12 The Bible teaches again and again that godly people can be tripped up before the finish line.13 T he former president of Multnomah Bible College, Dr. Joe Aldrich, has said, “The enemy will wait forty years, if necessary, to set a trap for you.” I confess this scares the daylights out of me!
This means we must recognize that the greatest of all believers have weaknesses. The Christian is not a super saint. He is an ordinary person saved by grace. The people of God are upheld by God’s grace. If we are different it is because of the powerful support of God. If we are not upheld we can fall away at any moment. The only thing that makes us different is that we are sustained by God’s mercy. If God should let us go we could slip badly. Who can say what we would do if God lets us go?14
Noah’s sin reminds us that anyone can stumble into sin. But it also illustrates that when we fall, we usually take someone else with us. Remember those three-legged races at picnics? When you fall down, your partner does too—there’s no such thing as sinning alone.15 No man lives unto himself and no man dies unto himself—and no man sins unto himself.16
[God warns us to beware of failure after great victory. Now he warns us to…]
2. Beware of gloating over the misfortune of others (9:22-23). In 9:22, we read that “Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness17 of his father, and told his two brothers outside.” Apparently Ham’s gaze was not a mere harmless notice or an accidental glance. The verb “saw” has such force that some say it means “he gazed with satisfaction.” After observing his father’s nakedness, Ham told his brothers outside. The word “told” means “to boldly announce with delight.” Ham gloated over his father’s shame. Ham’s heart was intent on mocking his father and undermining his authority as a man of God. He did nothing to preserve his father’s dignity. To the contrary, Ham probably encouraged Shem and Japheth to go into the tent to see this spectacle for themselves.18
How do you respond to the sins and failings of others? With delight? With a sense of superiority? By spreading the story (see Prov 17:9; Gal 6:1-2)? Sadly, most people are far-sighted when it comes to sin—they see others’, not their own! Many of us love to hear about the demise of others. Now we would never be so brazen to admit it, but it’s true. The flesh loves to hear about the latest scandal (e.g., a marriage on the rocks, an affair, a fallen Christian). Yet, the Lord wants us to grieve when other believers fall into sin. How people respond to the sin and embarrassment of others is an indication of their own character.19
In 9:23, we read of a contrast: “But Shem and Japheth took a garment and laid it upon both their shoulders and walked backward and covered the nakedness of their father; and their faces were turned away, so that they did not see their father’s nakedness.” Contrary to Ham, Shem and Japheth covered Noah’s nakedness. They laid “a garment”20 across their shoulders. They walked in backward and covered Noah. They turned their faces from his nakedness. They honored their father and won the approval and blessing of God. The significance of the contrast between the actions of the sons is seen from the author’s account of the fall in Genesis 3. In covering their father’s nakedness, Shem and Japheth were like Adam and Eve (3:7) and God (3:21) who did not look on man’s nakedness but covered it with coats of skin (cf. 2:25).21 They are a living illustration of 1 Peter 4:8, “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins” (cf. Prov 10:12; 12:16; 17:9).
How did Noah feel when he awoke from his drunken stupor and realized what he had done? Did he sit on the edge of his bed, head in his hands, retching with nausea and guilt? As his mind raced back over the last few hours and how he could have gotten into such a condition, did the words of God’s covenant come back to his mind (9:9)? What else could he do but just trust in the compassion of a gracious and merciful God?22
[We are warned by God to beware of failure after great victory and gloating over the misfortune of others. We are also warned to…]
3. Beware of the long-term consequences of sin (9:24-29). In 9:24, Moses writes: “When Noah awoke from his wine, he knew what his youngest son had done to him.” Noah was no doubt ashamed of what he had done. He was also likely surprised to find himself covered with a garment. Naturally, he must have wondered what happened in the tent while he was asleep. The logical thing would be to speak to Japheth, his firstborn; and he and Shem must have told him what Ham had done.
In response to what he learned, Noah said, “Cursed23 be Canaan;24 a servant of servants He shall be to his brothers.” Now this is bizarre. Who is “Canaan”? Canaan is the son of Ham, Noah’s grandson (9:18b). Why does the curse fall on Canaan? It seems that Noah is prophesying that Canaan is already cursed because he is Ham’s son.25 He is saying, Canaan, you are cursed because Ham is your dad. It is also a warning to Ham that his son is going to treat him like he treated his father. Ham dishonored Noah, and fatherhood in general, so Canaan is cursed by having Ham as his father. The story of history is pretty stunning: One day one son dishonored his dad; as a result, our society has been obliterated with rebellion.
Many are cursed because of their fathers and many men turn out like their fathers. Yet, a little boy wants more than anything to be just like his dad. In our day and age, that’s either a good thing or a bad thing. Men love your children and esteem fatherhood. Be a godly example they can look to.
As the youngest son wrongs his father, so the curse will fall on his youngest son, who presumably inherits his moral decadence (Lev 18:3; Deut 9:3). In addition to the Canaanites, Ham’s descendants include some if Israel’s most bitter enemies: Egypt, Philistia, Assyria, and Babylon (see 10:6-13).26 Ham’s indiscretion towards his father may easily be seen as a type of the later behavior of the Egyptians and Canaanites. Noah’s curse on Canaan thus represents God’s sentence on the sins of the Canaanites, which their forefather Ham had exemplified.
When God says that He “visits the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me” (Exod 20:5b), He means it! For example, Abraham lied to Pharaoh about Sarah. Isaac ended up in the same circumstances and told a lie about his wife, Rebecca; Jacob ended up being a liar and had twelve sons, ten of whom deceived him with lies. There you have it: four generations are affected because of the sin of one of the parents.
In 9:26-27, Noah says, “He also said, ‘Blessed be the LORD,27 the God of Shem; and let Canaan be his servant. May God enlarge Japheth, and let him dwell in the tents of Shem;28 and let Canaan be his servant.’”29 Noah is given a conviction that salvation and blessing will come through the line of Shem. In due course, Jesus would be a Jew, a Semite, and a descendant in the line of Shem through whom the entire human race will be blessed.30 Japheth31 is to have extended territory. His line will not lead to the Messiah but there is a blessing in store for him. He had protected Noah and will find protection himself. The language is picturesque. Japheth lives in the tents of Shem. One person is pictured as taking shelter with another. In the course of history salvation would come through a Semite—Jesus. Then an abundance of Gentiles would come to salvation through a Jewish Savior. The people of Japheth were enlarged in their population and in their territory, but there was more involved here than territorial expansion. The Gospel would come through a Semitic Savior, and when He came salvation would be for all people everywhere. Many of the people of Japheth around the Mediterranean area would “take shelter” in this Semitic Savior.32 The Semitic people will be the channel—the cradle, as it were—the conduit out of which the whole of mankind will have a blessing.33
Genesis 9 ends with a summary of Noah’s subsequent life. Like his forebears in chapter 5, Noah lived to an advanced age (950). Like Enoch, he had “walked with God” (5:21, 23; 6:9) earlier in his life. If Noah had not fallen away after the flood, perhaps God would have taken him away as he did Enoch (5:24). But in Noah’s case that was not to be. Like his other ancestors in Genesis 5, Noah died (9:29).34 And though the sin was never repeated, the memory must have cast a cloud to the end.35
As I close I want to talk to those that may feel like Noah or Ham. If Satan has won a battle in your life, don’t let him win a second battle. Don’t buy into the lie that it’s too late for you to repent. Satan has three lies that he pawns off on gullible believers. The first is that sin doesn’t really matter. “Just do it once, and God will forgive you, and you can control the consequences.” Then, when we have fallen, he comes up with a second lie, “You’ve blown it so badly there’s no use standing up. In fact, if you receive forgiveness today you might commit the same sin tomorrow, so why bother?” And once he has you there, he has a third lie too: “Now look what you’ve done. You’ve gone too far. You’ve committed too many sins and hurt too many people. Just learn to cope with your sins because God doesn’t want to hear from you anymore; you’re too wretched to be forgiven.” And when the Devil has convinced you that there is no way back, you are stuck with the curse, and so are your children. But God wants to bring you back today so that He can minimize the consequences of sin you have already committed. He says to you, “I want to put My arms around you again. I will blot out your sin. You can walk before Me in purity and holiness.”36
1 Copyright © 2005 Keith R. Krell. All rights reserved. All Scripture quotations, unless indicated, are taken from the New American Standard Bible, © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1975, 1977, and 1995 by The Lockman Foundation, and are used by permission.
2 Adapted and revised from Warren W. Wiersbe, Be Basic: Genesis 1-11 (Wheaton, IL: Victor, 1998), 123.
3 Michael Eaton, Preaching Through the Bible: Genesis 1-11 (Kent, England: Sovereign World, 1997), 141-142.
4 Some of the commentators have interpreted the action of Ham (Gen 9:22-23) as a homosexual act for two reasons. In the first place, it is claimed that the expression “to see the nakedness” is a euphemistic term for a sexual act (cf. Lev 18:6-19). And, second, it is said in 9:24 that Noah knew what his youngest son “had done to him,” and the verb seems to refer to an act, not simply a look. However, 9:22 does not say Ham “uncovered” the nakedness of his father. According to the text, Noah “uncovered himself”; Ham merely “saw” his father naked. Furthermore, the Hebrew verb asah (“to do”) carries too general a sense to draw the conclusion that Ham had to have done more than look on his father’s nakedness and tell his brothers. The point of the text is that Ham had no respect for his father. Rather than covering his father up, he told his brothers. Noah then gave an oracle that Ham’s descendants, who would be characterized by the same moral abandonment, would be cursed.
7 Waltke writes, “This should be translated Noah ‘exposed himself’ (cf. Hab 2:15; Lam 4:21). Bruce K. Waltke, Genesis: A Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), 148. See also HALOT, Elelctronic Ed.
8 John H. Sailhamer, The Pentateuch as Narrative (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992), 120; Kenneth A. Matthews, Genesis 1:1-11:2, Vol. 1 (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1996), 418.
9 John H. Sailhamer, Genesis: EBC (Grand Rapids: Zondervan), Electronic ed.
10 James Montgomery Boice, Genesis 1-11 Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1982 ), 396-397.
11 R. Kent Hughes, Genesis: Beginning & Blessing (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2004), 151.
12 Boice, Genesis 1-11, 396.
13 Erwin W. Lutzer, When A Good Man Falls (Wheaton: Victor, 1985), 36.
14 Eaton, Genesis 1-11, 142.
15 Lutzer, When A Good Man Falls, 38.
16 Lutzer, When A Good Man Falls, 40.
17 See Allen P. Ross, “The Curse of Canaan,” Bibliotheca Sacra 137:547 (July-September 1980): 230.
18 A warning speaks to what Ham has done. Proverbs 30:17: “The eye that mocks a father, that scorns obedience to a mother, will be pecked out by the ravens of the valley, will be eaten by the vultures.”
19 Wiersbe, Be Basic, 125.
20 Interestingly, the word translated “garment” has the Hebrew definite article (“the”) on it. The article may simply indicate that the garment is definite and vivid in the mind of the narrator, but it could refer instead to Noah’s garment. Did Ham bring it out when he told his brothers? See NET Study Bible.
21 Sailhamer, Genesis, Electronic ed.
22 Anne Graham Lotz, God’s Story (Nashville: Word, 1999 ), 232.
23 Prior to Noah’s cursing of Canaan, only God has issued a curse against anyone or against anything (cf. the deceitful serpent [Gen 3:14]; the ground [3:17; 5:29; 8:21]; and the murderous Cain [4:11]). Thus, here, Noah, in essence, takes on himself a prerogative of God.
24 Kaiser writes, “One of the saddest moments in the history of interpretation was when advocates of slavery decided to use this text as a justification for their inhuman treatment of dark-skinned people. It was asserted that this divine prophecy given by Noah after the flood legitimized slavery for a group of people who had been cursed perpetually. Supporters of slavery argued that the Arabic version of Genesis 9:25 reads ‘Cursed be the father of Canaan’ instead of ‘Cursed be Canaan.’ A vehement allegiance to the misapplication of this text has continued among some groups to the present day. But the oppression of blacks by whites cannot be justified from this story.” Walter C. Kaiser, Hard Sayings of the Bible (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1997 ), Electronic ed. Arnold writes, “Some have wrongly used this curse in 9:25 to argue that certain ethic groups are superior to others. Groups like the Ku Klux Klan have based their racist ideologies on this passage, and have even argued that slavery is God’s plan for inferior races. But this is totally wrong, and does an injustice to biblical truth. Noah’s curse is not a matter of ethnicity, but of justice against that Canaanite nation that would become the most wicked people on the ancient Near East. The Canaanites and the Israelites were both descendants of Shem, and there can be no question that this passage is not condemning any race to an inferior position among the peoples of the earth. Any attempt to use 9:24-27 in this way is anti-Christian, and is a re-erecting of what God has demolished.” Bill T. Arnold, Encountering the Book of Genesis (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), 61-62.
25 It is possible that Canaan participated in his father’s sin in some way, although the text does not state this. It may be an example of a mirroring punishment (i.e., As Ham, Noah’s youngest son, sinned against his father, so Canaan, Ham’s youngest son, was punished).
26 Waltke, Genesis, 150; Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 1-15: WBC (Waco, TX: Word, 1987), 201.
27 Waltke notes, “Noah uses God’s personal name, ‘Lord’ for his covenant relationship with Shem, but he uses ‘God’ for his transcendence over the Japhethites.” Waltke, Genesis, 151.
28 This does not mean that Japheth would actually live in the tents of Shem, but rather that he would have close “fellowship with Shem.” This is in contrast with those who “dwell in the tents of the wicked” (Ps 84:10).
29 Kaiser writes, “Still, there may well have been an element of ‘mirroring’ punishment here, especially if Canaan was to exhibit the outworkings of the tendencies already present in Ham’s failure to cover Noah’s nakedness. Finally, it is a matter of historical record that the Canaanites were notoriously deviant in their sexual behavior. Almost everywhere the archaeologist’s spade has dug in that part of the world there have been fertility symbols accompanying texts explicit enough to make many a modern pornographic dealer seem a mere beginner in the trade of deviant sexuality. Sodom left its name for the vice these people practiced. Even the Romans, so depraved in their own practices, were shocked by the behavior of the Phoenicians at the colony of Carthage (the last vestige of the Canaanite race). Why was this story included in the biblical narrative? It tells the reader that unless there was some moral change in the Canaanites, they were slated for removal from their land. That God is long-suffering and slow to anger is attested by the fact that this judgment did not fall on that group of descendants until the time of Joshua’s conquest of Canaan. It is impossible to date Noah’s times, but it is known that Joshua lived around 1400 b.c. At a minimum this would mean that the grace of God was extended to the Canaanites for several millennia. Surely God was most generous with these people, giving more than adequate time for sinners to repent.” Kaiser, Hard Sayings of the Bible, Electronic ed.
30 Eaton, Genesis 1-11, 143.
31 The name “Japheth” is thought to mean “to enlarge” or “to make wide.” Cassuto writes, “Both the ancients and the moderns have explained this word in the sense of ‘make wide’ on the basis of Aramaic usage…and this appears to be the correct interpretation.” U. Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Genesis (Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, 1964), 168-169.
32 Eaton, Genesis 1-11, 144.
33 Francis A. Schaeffer, Genesis in Space and Time (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1972), 149.
34 Ronald F. Youngblood, The Book of Genesis (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1991), 123.
35 W.H. Griffith Thomas, The Pentateuch (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1985), 39.
36 Lutzer, When A Good Man Falls, 41.