“[Noah] drank wine and became drunk, and uncovered himself inside his tent.  Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers outside.”  Gen. 9:21-22

No one knows for sure what happened in the tent that day, but there is certainly no lack of speculation.  Unfortunately, the moral of this story may vary depending on what you think or are taught concerning this.  I confess I do not know the answer, but can offer some potential explanations and their takeaways:

1) Ham acted illicitly in a sexual manner toward his father in some way;  Although this sounds terrible, we must resist the urge to water down what scripture may be telling us.  In this case we do not know for certain, but we cannot rule out the possibility. Alter’s commentary states this may be the case as “to see the nakedness of” in Gen. 9:22 frequently means “to copulate with”.

2)  Ham merely saw Noah naked but did not quickly avert his eyes.  According to Alter’s commentary this alone may have been taboo enough to earn the curse on his offspring.  This is questionable considering the whole of humanity was so wicked that God wiped them out with a flood.  What would have possibly been taboo at that point?  Though perhaps it was with righteous Noah. I suppose the takeaway would be to keep your eyes free from such things; after all, in only a few chapters, Lot’s daughters sleep with him while he is drunk!

3) It was nothing Ham did, but rather Ham’s reaction to Noah.  Telling his brothers about his father’s shameful state of drunkenness would be akin to gossip.  More symbolically taken, this can be a picture of exposing another’s shame.  This may have been curseworthy as it seems in direct opposition to God’s own actions of covering another’s shame – that of Adam, with clothing He made, as Adam could not effectively cover his own shame.  Noah’s other sons – Shem and Japheth, followed God’s lead then, and covered their father’s nakedness, and ultimately received additional blessings.

4) Ham castrated his father.  In Greek and Roman mythology, Uranus was castrated by his son Cronus – a story which may have its true origins in this story about Noah and Ham.  This is also a difficult teaching, as no one likes to think about such things.  However a stretch this interpretation may seem, consider this:  Noah, unlike all the men preceding him in Genesis chapter 5, has no more children after the first three. Notice the pattern repeated in the text of Gen. 5:3-5:31:

_________ lived ____ years and became the father of _________.  Then ________ lived ____ years afterward and had other sons and daughters.

From Adam to Lamech you can fill in the blanks, but for Noah you cannot.  Gen. 5:32 starts the pattern for Noah – he lives 500 years and has Shem, Ham and Japheth.  Then the entire flood story is laid out in chapters 6-9, and at the very end of chapter 9, in 9:28 the pattern appears to pick back up – but then simply ends with “and he (Noah) died.”  Additionally, if Ham had some specific anger or resentment directed toward Noah, coupled with a lack of fear for God, it is not a far stretch to consider that Ham thought he could thwart God’s command to multiply, thus preventing Noah from being able to fulfill what God commanded.  In turn, one can see how Noah may choose to curse the child of Ham, Canaan, if he was now prevented from having more children himself.

But why did Canaan get cursed?

In his Antiquities, Josephus tells us that Ham didn’t get cursed directly due to his ‘nearness in kin’ to Noah.  Some rabbis believe that Noah thought it best not to curse Ham since Ham, along with Shem and Japheth, were already blessed by God (See Gen. 9:1).

Alternately, many believe that Canaan was actually the perpetrator, thus directly earning the curse — and that Ham did not do anything to stop his son.  This itself is evidenced by Gen. 9:24, as it says “he knew what his youngest son had done to him.”  Who is the youngest son?  We assume Ham is by context – however the three sons are always listed as Shem, Ham and Japheth, which implies birth order.  The only grandson we know of is Canaan, which Noah may simply be referring to as ‘his youngest son.’