Genesis 9:20 Noah, a man of the soil, was the first to plant a vineyard. 21 He drank some of the wine and became drunk, and he lay uncovered in his tent. 22 And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers outside. 23 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 away, and they did not see their father’s nakedness. 24 When Noah awoke from his wine and knew what his youngest son had done to him, 25 he said, “Cursed be Canaan; lowest of slaves shall he be to his brothers.” 26 He also said, “Blessed by the Lord my God be Shem; and let Canaan be his slave. 27 May God make space for Japheth, and let him live in the tents of Shem; and let Canaan be his slave.”
Let me get this straight. Noah gets drunk on wine and passes out naked. His son Ham finds him this way and tells his two brothers Shem and Japheth about it. Shem and Japheth walk – backwards – into Noah’s tent to cover him. Noah wakes up and curses Canaan, Ham’s son, despite the fact Canaan wasn’t part of the story.
Well, maybe not. It’s true that, most of the time, we take the bible at face value. It means what it says. But there are times when ancient stories like this aren’t intended to be fact-based news reports, but have a more symbolic purpose. I believe this is one of those stories of biblical folklore.
Names in the bible can represent individual persons or entire tribes of people. One of the 12 sons of Jacob was called “Judah”. Judah’s descendants would become the tribe of Judah. Same can be said of Israel or Benjamin or others. Some of my bible resources suggest that our passage for today was less an account of historical events, but more a tale of folklore explaining why the tribe of Canaan lived as slaves.
We have similar stories in our own culture. There is the story of a young George Washington chopping down a cherry tree. Didn’t happen. Betsy Ross didn’t design and sew the first American flag. Paul Revere did not ride through towns yelling “The British are coming!”. These stories are romantic folklore, not facts. Doesn’t mean they have no value. They’re just not fact-based news accounts the way we would understand that today.
Heavenly Father, there are many kinds of literature included in our modern day bible – and they all have value. Give us grace to wrestle with passages that may confuse us, receiving the blessings present therein. We ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.