What Shall We Do With the Drunken Sailor?

Genesis 9:18-29
Some of us might be wondering why I am preaching on this scandalous text. Why not rather skip it, and go on to something less provocative, like the genealogies of chapter ten. The answer is, “Read the rest of the sermon before you make up your mind.” “ALL Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.” All Scripture means this Scripture as well. This passage of Scripture is useful for us. If we think that we should ignore it, then we really do not have a high enough view of Scripture. There are many things about this passage that are mysterious. I hope to clear up some of these mysteries without giving offense.

Our passage starts out by making a point about the three sons of Noah. ALL of humanity comes from Noah. This is explicitly stated in verse 19: “the people of the whole earth were dispersed from these.” There is no people group on earth that did not come from Noah and his three sons. This contradicts directly what many people think about humanity. Many people think that not everyone came from Adam and Noah. They deny the unity of the human race. Scripture is very clear about the implications of the unity of the human race. Just as we all sinned in Adam, as Romans 5 says, so also Jesus Christ redeemed a new humanity for Himself. But if humanity is not unified in its origin, then Christ could not have died for the sins of the world. Christ died for people who had sinned in Adam. Christ was a “federal head,” just as Adam was. A federal head means someone that represents other people, much like a representative in our government. The decision a representative makes is the decision that the people who elected the representative make. So also, when Adam sinned, he made that decision for the entire human race. So also, when Christ obeyed, He obeyed for the new human race that is to be found in Christ by faith. If all humanity did not come from one man, then this kind of representation would be impossible. This kind of representation is vital for understanding the incident in Noah’s tent, because Moses is asking this question, “Did sin survive the Flood?” The answer, of course, is “yes.” Therefore, sin will be passed on to all of Noah’s descendents. We all sinned in Adam, and we all sinned in Noah.

Moses asks the question whether Noah is really that man that Lamech hoped he would be. You remember in Genesis 5:29, Lamech says about Noah, “Our of the ground that the Lord has cursed this one shall bring us relief from our work and from the painful toil of our hands.” Lamech hoped that Noah would be the one to reverse the curse that God had placed on the ground, and on Adam for his sin. Lamech hoped that Noah would be the seed to crush the head of the serpent. This story proves that Noah was not that man, and that another would be needed.

And now we come to the story itself. Now we have to see a few things first before we get to the story. First, Noah is a new Adam. Picture Noah in a brand new creation. He was the progenitor of the entire human race. Adam was tempted by eating, and Noah would be tempted by drinking. Notice the similarity in the two stories of Adam’s fall and Noah’s fall. Both involve a realization of nakedness. Both involve a covering of that nakedness. Both stories have a curse and a blessing attached to it. Both involve a kind of knowledge. The story here is a second Fall story. We must understand that in order to see its significance for us.

It says that Noah became a man of the soil. He was a farmer. Furthermore, he planted a vineyard. After the fruit had matured, Noah made wine from the grapes, and drank too much. We do not know how much he drank, whether he was extremely drunk, or only mildly so. It does not matter much. The point is that Noah drank enough to become sleepy. We know this, because of verse 24, which says that Noah awoke. Wine does tend to make a person sleepy. And in verse 21, we see that Noah was in his own tent, and lay uncovered. We do not know whether Noah intentionally uncovered himself, or whether it was an accident caused by his falling asleep.

Along comes Ham. Perhaps he wanted to talk to his father about something. He might have come upon his father by accident. But it was what he did after he saw his father that was important. The fundamental problem with what Ham did was that he dishonored his father. He disobeyed the fifth commandment, which says “Honor your father and your mother.” He is guilty of not loving his neighbor as himself. For “love covers over a multitude of transgressions.” Instead of covering up his father, or leaving immediately, which would have been less honoring, but at least no one would know about it, Ham does the most dishonoring thing imaginable. He tells the whole world (which at that time consisted of his brothers) about his father’s shame. It is important to realize also that Ham was not a juvenile delinquent at this time. Most likely, he was 80 or 90 years old. Ham knew exactly what he was doing. He deliberately told his brothers about their father, probably with scorn and derision. At this point, Shem and Japheth give each other “the look.” They realized instantly what their brother was up to. They knew that Ham knew what he was doing. Nakedness was a very shameful thing in that culture, as in ours, although that sense of shame seems to be eroding in our culture, given what people wear nowadays. But nakedness was a very shameful thing in that time period.

Shem and Japheth then decide to do the most honorable thing that they could do. They cover their father’s shame. Now, the Hebrew says “Shem and Japheth took the garment.” It was not just any old garment that they took. They took the very garment that had been clothing Noah before, and which Ham had taken out of the tent to show to his brothers. It was that very cloth that Shem and Japheth took to cover their father. Notice how carefully they accomplish this task. They walked backward, with the garment on their shoulders, and their faces were turned away such that they did not see their father’s nakedness. What infinite pains they took to honor their father! They wanted to make sure that there would be no mistakes.

Noah wakes up and somehow finds out about what Ham did to him. Probably his sons told him, or maybe their wives. But he did find out. Probably Ham thought that Noah would not find out. Sin loves the cover of darkness. But ironically, it is Ham’s sin that is uncovered and laid out for all to see. It is Ham’s sin that winds up naked and exposed. Truth always wants to come to the light. Truth has nothing to hide. But sin will be found out, even if it thinks it will not be found out. On judgment day, there will be many people whose sins will be recounted to them, to their utter and eternal shame. They thought that they got away with it. But they did not, because God sees all. Perhaps that is the best answer as to how Noah found out about what Ham had done: God told him.

Noah curses Ham and blesses Shem and Japheth. Three times Noah says, “Let Canaan be their servant.” Now, we must set this passage in its appropriate context. Noah is NOT saying that the Negroid race will be cursed forever, and thus this passage justifies slavery. This passage is not talking about Africans here. This passage is talking about the Canaanites. Notice that Ham is not cursed, but rather Canaan, his youngest son. Because Ham dishonored his father, Ham’s son would receive the consequences. Probably Noah saw already the tendencies in Canaan, his grandson that were so like his father Ham. Like father, like son. Moses is thinking here of the inhabitants of the promised land. Let’s not forget that Moses is writing this to the generation that is about to go into the promised land. So, Moses is here talking about the inhabitants of Canaan, NOT all the descendents of Ham, which would include Africa.

Noah blesses Japheth by using a word play. The word “enlarge” sounds just like the name “Japheth.” Noah blesses here the territory of Japheth. Ultimately, the promise is fulfilled when the Gentiles are brought into the kingdom. Letting Japheth dwell in the tents of Shem is what happened when the Gentiles were brought into the kingdom of God, when Jesus broke down the barrier between the two. There is now therefore, no Jew or Greek, for all are one in Christ Jesus.

Going back to our possible reaction to this story. If we feel uncomfortable about this story, I suggest that we see our discomfort in a new way. If we are embarrassed about the nakedness of Noah, let us remember that without God’s covering us with the righteousness of Jesus Christ, we are naked and ashamed. We are in Noah’s position. We next have to realize that Jesus suffered this same shame on the cross. Most pictures we see of Christ on the cross have a loin-cloth for the sake of modesty. Most likely, Jesus was completely naked on the cross. The soldiers divided up Jesus’ clothing amongst themselves. Jesus took wine-vinegar on the cross. Those who were of the seed of the serpent said, “Let God deliver Him, if He delight in Him.” They scorned him, even as Ham scorned his father. But those upon whom God had mercy said, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” The scene of Noah is replayed at the cross. But it was our nakedness, and our shame, and our sin, that Jesus took upon Himself. Most of us tend to think of the cross as a piece of jewelry. In the first century, if someone were to wear a cross as a piece of jewelry, that would be like someone today wearing a sign that says, “Enron rules.” It is difficult to think of an example today, because our society has lost most of its sense of shame. The call for us to realize our nakedness, and fly to the only person who can clothe us: Jesus. Jesus can clothe us in the righteousness that He earned, taking our sin upon Himself. That makes us right with God. We need that. Without it, we are naked before the wrath of Almighty God. We have only a fearful expectation of judgment. We can only try to hide in the midst of the trees, and say to the mountains, “Fall on us,” but it will do us no good. God’s wrath will find us out. Our sin will be exposed. Are we covered?

For those of us who are covered by the righteousness of Jesus Christ, there are several implications for our lives that can be gleaned from this text. The first is that the seed of the serpent and the seed of the woman exist in us simultaneously. You see, both Ham and Shem came from Noah. They are both present in Noah. So it is with us. Although our sinful nature has received its death blow when we became converted to Jesus, still that seed of the serpent thrashes around in its death throws, trying to make us disobey God’s Word. It is inside us that this battle is raging. What we want is for our sinful nature to be the servant of servants. We want it to cow-tow to the Holy Spirit who resides in us. We want eventually for our sinful nature to be driven out altogether, just as the Israelites were supposed to do to the Canaanites. It is spiritual warfare. This warfare exists. It does not matter how experienced we are in the Christian life, this battle rages on. Indeed, for mature Christians, there is more temptation. It is all too easy to think that we have arrived, that there are no more battles left to fight. Then we let down our guard. Then we fall prey to gossip, or slander, or covetousness, or greed, or any number of things. We can even justify these sins in our own minds by thinking that they are not as bad as the sins of youth, whatever those are. Let us not do that. Let us keep pressing on toward the prize, for which God has called us heavenward in Christ Jesus. We have not already attained the prize. We ONLY attain that prize when we are with the Lord.

Let me say just a quick word about alcohol, for it is in the text. The Bible is exceptionally clear about four things having to do with alcohol. The first is that alcohol is not intrinsically evil. Jesus would not have turned water into wine, the Psalms would not say “Wine gladdens the heart of man, and is a gift of God,” and Paul would not have told Timothy to drink some wine for his stomach, if wine were evil in and of itself. The Bible is clear about this. The second thing that is that drunkenness is a sin. It occurs in nearly every one of the lists in the “sin” lists of the NT. Proverbs has much to say about being wary of the wine “biting like a serpent.” Paul says that he will not be mastered by anything. The Bible is very clear about this. The third thing the Bible is very clear about is that it is very easy to abuse this gift from God. Wine is very good at loosing one’s control of oneself. It is very easy to keep on drinking. It is just here that wine can be so dangerous. We have to remember that abusing one of God’s gifts is a double slap in God’s face. Not only are we sinning by losing control of ourselves (and this usually leads to other sins), but we are taking something that God made good and twisting it to our own destruction. That is a slap in God’s face. The fourth thing that the Bible is very clear about is the context of drinking. If one is to drink, one must be aware of the “weaker brother syndrome.” This is what Paul talks about in 1 Corinthians, when he is talking about food sacrificed to idols. He says that the food is not intrinsically evil. But if he makes one of his brothers stumble, then he has abused the privilege of Christian freedom. So, Paul says that if by eating he will make his brother stumble, then he will never eat meat again. That was a pretty remarkable statement of Paul’s, considering that all the meat in the marketplace had been sacrificed to an idol. You could not get any other kind of meat. The principle works the same way with alcohol. If we are in the presence of a recovering alcoholic, or in the presence of someone whose conscience tells them they should not drink, or in the presence of someone who thinks that alcohol is intrinsically evil, then we should not drink. However, those of us who think that drinking is intrinsically evil should not judge those who drink in moderation, especially if they are conscientious about how and when they drink. Neither the weaker brother nor the stronger brother should judge the other. Christian love is the rule here.

So, to sum up, we should ask ourselves, “Do we honor our parents?” Do we cover up their faults and blemishes, or do we publish them to the whole world? Or well, maybe, just to the church? Love covers over a multitude of transgressions. Maybe our parents were not the most godly parents on the face of the planet. We are still to put their deeds in the most charitable light that we can. We must honor what they have done right, and forgive them what they have done wrong. Ultimately, that is honoring father and mother. That is being like Shem and Japheth. Let us cover over their sins with a garment of forgiveness, for God has done the same for us.

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9 Comments

  1. John Dekker said,

    May 28, 2006 at 6:43 am

    Well, I like your statement that “we do not know how much Noah drank,” but I’d go further, and suggest that there’s no evidence in the text that he was drunk at all. The Hebrew word doesn’t have to mean this – neither does the fact that he went to sleep; even that he was naked doesn’t suggest any wrongdoing, since he was in his tent.

    Most of us tend to think of the cross as a piece of jewelry.

    Yeah, given that it’s so cool to wear execution devices arounf one’s next, I’m thinking about getting an electric chair necklace.

  2. John Dekker said,

    May 28, 2006 at 6:45 am

    Oops – “around one’s neck”.

    Yes, that would be obscene, wouldn’t it?

  3. Mr. Baggins said,

    May 28, 2006 at 4:46 pm

    John, thanks for commenting. Unfortunately for your position, the word “shakar” is translated “become drunk” in ALL the major lexicons of Hebrew, including BDB, KB, TWOT, NIDOTTE, and even Lust-Eynikel’s LXX lexicon. I checked about ten major translations, and they all translate it “became drunk,” or something very similar. I’m afraid your position is not tenable.

  4. John Dekker said,

    May 28, 2006 at 7:39 pm

    Well, perhaps you’re right. I was going along with Walter Brown in his article “Noah: Sot or Saint?” (in The Way of Wisdom, Packer and Soderlund, eds).

    Genesis 43:34 would have similar ambiguity – “drank freely” (NIV), “were merry” (NKJV).

  5. Mr. Baggins said,

    May 29, 2006 at 9:25 am

    John, I did read that very interesting article. I wasn’t convinced by it. No one seems to have followed him in that interpretation. I think that the structure of the passage as a second Fall story (Adam sins by eating, Noah by drinking) would point in the other direction.

  6. May 2, 2008 at 2:33 pm

    [...] son of Noah did not honor Noah, the curse came upon Ham’s son. The punishment fits the crime. See here for my sermon on the passage. __________________ Rev. Lane Keister Teaching Elder, PCA, North [...]

  7. Heidi said,

    August 10, 2009 at 7:13 am

    This was incredibly wonderful to read and understand in a way I had never understood this narrative before — how it ties into Adam and Christ, to the curse that is visited from the fathers on the children and the promised blessing of God that is the answer to this world’s terrible evil. It’s interesting how all the types of Christ also contain these ‘negative’ symbols that point away from themselves and to another.

    I also thought of how Christ, who is indeed the one who brings relief to our toil, said that he would drink of the fruit of the vine with us in the kingdom that He ushered in.

    Thanks much: I know this story in a much richer way now.

  8. Frank Quijada said,

    December 31, 2009 at 3:19 am

    Hi Pr. Lane,
    I take it you dont believe in the “Ham commits incestual homosexuality” theory? Are there compelling exegetical reasons? Im pretty sure your aware of the arguments; i just think that the “incest” theory is very comvincing.I would luv to hear your reasons seeing that your a studied man, and a full time one at that! Thank you for this blog. BTW, your commentary on Ephesians is excellent! Been waiting since forever!
    frank

  9. greenbaggins said,

    December 31, 2009 at 8:45 am

    Well, Frank, the phrase “uncover someone’s nakedness” CAN refer to committing a sexual act with someone. However, the contextual flow of the passage is against it, since the solution to the immediate problem is draping something over Noah. This would not be the case had Ham committed incest with Noah. This suggests that the problem was simply that Noah got naked after he got drunk, and that Ham was ridiculing his father for it.


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