Genesis 5-10 contains two of the most baffling stories in the Old Testament. Last week I explored how Bible Artists might might approach the Sons of God/Nephilim episode, taking into account the most popular interpretative approaches. This week, we turn to another opaque - and quite disturbing - episode on the other side of the Flood. In case you need a refresher, here it is:
Noah began to be a man of the soil, and he planted a vineyard. He drank of the wine and became drunk and lay uncovered in his tent. And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father and told his two brothers outside. Then Shem and Japheth took a garment, laid it on both their shoulders, and walked backward and covered the nakedness of their father. Their faces were turned backward, and they did not see their father's nakedness. When Noah awoke from his wine and knew what his youngest son had done to him, he said,
“Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be to his brothers.”
He also said,
“Blessed be the Lord, the God of Shem; and let Canaan be his servant. May God enlarge Japheth, and let him dwell in the tents of Shem, and let Canaan be his servant.” (Genesis 9:20-27 ESV)
Several adaptive questions are raised by this troubling family drama, but we'll focus on two: Why was Noah drunk? and What exactly did Ham do?
Why was Noah Drunk?
Traditionally, the Noah story was told in such a way as to highlight the righteousness of Noah and his family in contrast to the godless world destroyed in the Flood. In more recent years, it's become more common among evangelical preachers to relativize the righteousness attributed to Noah in Genesis 6:9. This is done in order to clarify that, like us, Noah was saved by grace and not by his own merit.
Being the last person alive and seeing your entire world destroyed would be horrifying, even if your neighbors sucked. One could easily forgive Noah if he accidentally over-medicated with a bit of wine after experiencing such a traumatic experience.
Usually, this simply amounts to a clarification that, although Noah was faithful, his ultimate salvation still came by God's grace. Sometimes, however, the push to downgrade Noah's righteousness is so extreme that he ends up getting depicted as almost indistinguishable from his peers, save for God's sovereign grace. When the latter approach is in effect, Noah's drunkenness in Genesis 9 is usually attributed to a pre-existing character flaw. And so this raises a question for potential adaptations: why was Noah drunk?
An Ongoing Vice
Usually when people attribute Noah's drunkenness to a sin predating the Flood, the motivation is theological. Showing that Noah was clearly sinful before the Flood eliminates the uncomfortable suggestion Noah's righteousness merited his salvation and it reinforces the doctrine of Total Depravity. Bible Artists who hold other views may not feel quite so much pressure to harmonize the Noah story with TULIP, but from an artistic standpoint, the Ongoing Vice approach does present some interesting dramatic possibilities.
As I noted in my exploration of Genesis 1-4, it can be difficult to convince an audience to invest emotionally in a completely innocent character. If God saves Noah out of a dissolute lifestyle before promising to deliver him from impending judgment, it could open up a more complex arc for his character. Noah may struggle to remain disciplined in building the Ark, feeling the pull to return back to his former lifestyle. His friends might scoff at his plans. And what would Noah think about God destroying a bunch of his former companions? When Noah finally gives into temptation after the Flood, the emotional weight may also be greater - after struggling with the temptation for so long, his final failure would feel quite sobering.
A Second Fall
Bible Artists who want to make Noah more or less faithful before the Flood may want to deemphasize the continuity of Noah's drunkenness with the past. By making drunkenness a new sin pattern that an essentially innocent man falls into, an adaptation will highlight the parallel between Noah and Adam. The Flood is essentially the deconstruction and recreation of the world, and so Noah's seizing the fruit of the vine and becoming drunk is fairly analogous to Adam seizing the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. And just as Adam's sin was soon followed by sin amongst his children, Noah's sin is a set up for the transgression of Canaan.
The story of the Flood is already tragic, but the fact so much destruction and death led to even more sin and brokenness makes the story of the Flood a true tragedy.
On the other end of the "Was Noah Righteous?" spectrum, there may be some Bible Artists who want to excuse Noah's drunkenness in order to maintain his status as upright. To do this, they need to find an alternative explanation for why he got drunk. I'm pretty sure I've heard some people suggest that Noah was unaware of how drunkenness worked or that the grapes he used to make wine were somehow more potent than what he was used to. I find those options rather uninteresting from a storytelling perspective. It might be interesting, however, for Noah to arrive at drunkenness as a result of grief. Being the last person alive and seeing your entire world destroyed would be horrifying, even if your neighbors sucked. One could easily forgive Noah if he accidentally over-medicated with a bit of wine after experiencing such a traumatic experience.
What exactly did Ham do?
When Ham looks at Noah's "nakedness", his son, Canaan, is met with pretty heavy curse. Commentators have proposed numerous explanations for this apparently disproportionate punishment. For a helpful exegetical evaluation of these different possibilities, I suggest checking out this episode from the Naked Bible Podcast. Here, however, I'm mainly going to look at the narrative potential for each approach.
The most straightforward reading is that Ham is just looking at his naked father, potentially laughing at him and inviting his brothers to do the same. The challenge for this approach is that Noah's response - cursing Ham's descendants to be slaves - is going to feel very heavy handed and may even make us feel sympathy for Ham, rather than distaste.
To avoid making Noah's response seem too harsh, this can't be an isolated act of disrespect. It needs to be the culmination of a pattern of contempt that Ham shows for Noah. If this is paired with the Ongoing Vice approach, then perhaps Ham has been doubting that Noah could really change his ways and is now gloating over his father's failure. Alternatively, if Noah's drunkenness is a result of his grief over the destruction of the earth, perhaps Ham is despising the weakness caused by his father's compassion.
A Homosexual Act
Some have understood Ham's sin as some form of incestuous homosexuality. This would probably be the most uncomfortable approach to depict - and also the most likely to draw fire in our current cultural context. Most importantly though, I feel like it's also hard to set up dramatically. How does an adaptation set this up? Have several scenes in which Ham peers creepily at his father? Perhaps Ham regularly practiced homosexuality with another man who was destroyed in the Flood and now he has no one else to be with, but to have him transfer that attraction to his aging father would still seem ridiculous.
The final (and probably most exegetically defensible) approach is to depict Ham's act as some form of usurpation. Sometimes in the Old Testament a man's "nakedness" is not his own body but rather the body of his wife. If that's the sense of "nakedness" here, then Ham is raping his mother in an attempt to show that he's the new man in charge of the family. This may seem very bizarre to modern readers, but the practice of seizing control by taking the wife or concubines of the reigning ruler has precedent in the Ancient Near East (cf. what Absalom does in 2 Samuel 16 or what Adonijah tries to do in 1 Kings 2). If that is how we're meant to interpret Ham's action, the reason Ham's son, Canaan, gets cursed is that he may in fact be the offspring of the union between Ham and his mother.
If this is the approach taken by an adaptation, it's important to make it clear that Ham isn't secretly attracted to his aging mother. This is a political move, and we should recognize that. When Ham boasts of what he has done to his brothers, we should see that its his way of telling them that's he is now the one who is in charge of their clan. Because the idea of usurpation by sleeping with the wife of the ruler is unfamiliar to most modern audiences, he will probably have to be fairly explicit about the motive and implication of his own actions. To reinforce this further, his brothers' response could involve some kind of physical struggle to subdue him and restore their father to his proper place.
Whatever approach is taken, this scene is going to be uncomfortable and that's okay. The story of the Flood is already tragic, but the fact so much destruction and death led to even more sin and brokenness makes the story of the Flood a true tragedy. What's most important then is that the audience feels the poignantly tragic nature of these events.