Notes on Genesis (xxxi) Noah gets drunk
‘So he drank of the wine and was drunk and naked in his house.’ (Gen 9:21)
The story of Noah getting drunk, being observed in his nakedness by his son Ham but having his modesty protected by his other sons Shem and Japeth, and on his return to sobriety cursing Ham’s son Canaan, is hard to fathom. That such a righteous man could get drunk was a problem for the Fathers; Theodoret suggests that he was the first person to make wine and hence unaware of its effects, while Ephrem argues that he would not have been able to have drunk wine for the preceding six years, and so was easily tipped over the edge. It is not clear why it is the son of Ham rather than Ham himself who was cursed; moreover, Ham is described as being Noah’s youngest son (9:24), thereby overthrowing the the pattern in Genesis of the youngest sibling being favoured, although elsewhere it is implied that he was not the youngest (9:18, 10:1). In such respects the story seems a little incoherent.
Yet in other ways it fits very neatly into the ongoing narrative of the Bible. Adam and Eve are given the job of tending and keeping a garden (Gen 2:15), and after leaving the garden Adam cultivates the ground (3:23); Cain is a tiller of the ground (4:2), and Noah a cultivator of the earth who plants a vineyard (9:20, Septuagint); the activities become steadily more complex. Ham’s conduct involved both seeing his father’s nakedness and doing something to him, presumably involving some sexual transgression (9:22, 24), and his descendants will be the Canaanites, enemies of the Chosen People as they occupy the Promised Land. Later in Genesis we hear of Lot’s daughters getting their father drunk and lying with him, the sons they conceived being named Moab and Ammon (19:30-38), who will also turn out to be enemies. In such ways the awkward story sits neatly within the deep structures of the narrative.