I used to worry a little about Noah back in my I-don’t-drink-because-I-might-offend-someone days. What was up with that drunken episode in Genesis 9? I wasn’t comfortable with my favorite Bible character in the tarnished hero role. The first time I noticed Noah’s antediluvian bender on the pages of scripture, it felt like reading in the news that Billy Graham had gotten a DUI.
Well into his retirement centuries, Noah discovered a new hobby. He planted the very first vineyard and grew the very first cultivated grapes. One thing led to another and he ended up discovering fermentation. And so Noah became the first drinker of the first wine. How could he possibly have known his limit?
I imagine that Noah got tipsy enough on his new invention to think, “This is good stuff! I think I’ll drink more.” Sloppy, falling down drunkenness followed, and somewhere in the process there was a wild dance of flinging off robes and wraps and sandals. And then—uncovered—Noah slept it off. It’s a disturbing picture. For the squeamish, it may be helpful to note that, as far as we know, Noah never did that again. But Noah’s intoxication is not the point of the story. In fact, Noah isn’t the main character in this story at all. His sons are.
Noah’s middle son, Ham, entered the scene and immediately became aware that his father was, shall we say, indisposed. Naked as the pair of jaybirds on the ark. The focus of Noah’s shame wasn’t his drunkenness at all. It was his nakedness. This wasn’t Eden, therefore the dress code called for clothes.
Then Ham did something that—on the surface—made sense. He looked at his father. There are no adverbs to describe how he looked; it just says he looked. Whenever I read this passage now, I instinctively avert my eyes. I don’t look. Drunk old man with no clothes on, no thank you. I have a shadowy sense of Noah’s snoring presence inside the dark recesses of his tent, but I have the decency not to look. But Ham did. He looked and then he told. He went to his brothers and told them what he saw. This simple act incurred his father’s wrath. I used to feel sorry for Ham because I was never quite sure why he got in so much trouble. Noah was the one who got drunk and took his clothes off after all. Ham just reported what he saw.
Shem and Japeth, Noah’s two other sons, listened to Ham and took a garment—think folds of heavy fabric or more likely animal skin, almost like a curtain—laid it across their shoulders from behind, walked backwards into the tent, careful not to look, and laid it over their father. When he woke, Noah cursed Ham and he commended Shem and Japeth.
I think this might be how it all went down:
Ham lifts the flap of his father’s tent and enters (door knocking hadn’t been invented yet). He calls out a greeting to Noah and, as his eyes adjust to the dark, he hears a heavy snore. Ham mutters under his breath:
“Sleeping in the middle of the day! All Dad cares about now are those stupid grapes. He leaves all the real work for us. Mainly for me.”
The sour smell of wine nearly knocks him over. Then he takes note of his father’s condition. He doesn’t recognize inebriation—how could he when it had never occurred before?—he just sees Noah sprawling there au naturale. I don’t know if he went so far as to sneer or snicker, but I can guess he didn’t consider giving his father the benefit of the doubt or offering him any assistance. He runs and finds his brothers. He tattles. Rats out his own father.
Did Shem and Japeth scold their middle brother for being disrespectful? Did they have a conference to determine the best course of action? I don’t know. But they didn’t look and they didn’t tell. They gently, gingerly covered the problem and walked away from it. Ham took it upon himself to observe his father’s fault and commented about that fault to others. Shem and Japeth took great pains to avoid looking at the very same fault. They not only didn’t comment, they did their father the favor of covering his shame.
Sometimes the stories in the Bible can leave me detached, my imagination hovering somewhere over a Middle Eastern hillside in pre-history. I trivialize the familiar stories, whittling men like Noah down until he is nothing more than a hand-carved wooden doll in a wooden ark, a child’s toy rather than a real man.
But this story disturbs me. It trespasses into scenes from my own life. I know what it’s like to be Noah, to feel the pain of exposure when others are less than gracious with my naked faults. And I know what it’s like to be Ham, to stumble into the tents of people who uncover their humanness and unwittingly offer me a scandalous glimpse. I am privy to the weak moments of my friends, my leaders, and my family. I watch others mess up. I see them fall. Haven’t we all, like voyeurs, peeked at the bare-naked sin of others? I recognize it, of course, because it looks like mine. The nakedness I see may be subtle and socially acceptable, but it is just that: nakedness. Human beings made vulnerable by exposed sin. And what do I do? Do I look and tell like Ham, or, like Shem and Japeth, do I walk backwards with a covering?
I admit I have an insidious tendency to look and to tell. I am Ham. Looking makes me feel superior. Telling makes me feel wise. I hate gossip, but I figure out ways to do it anyway; sharing “prayer requests” or “concerns.” Or I just don’t stop my mouth until my tongue becomes the flamethrower James warns us about. But that’s just the tip of the tent flap. Look inside my life and you’ll see more than this. You’ll see enough unclothed sin to fill a centerfold. It turns out that I, a pathological un-coverer, am in desperate need of a covering myself.
I’m thankful this story is more than a cautionary tale about gossiping. Much more. It tells me the gospel. God doesn’t just cover my sin; he blankets my shame with a thick quilt of grace. He walks backward toward me and lays it over me. Then something really miraculous happens. The grace-cloak becomes a royal robe, and I become downright regal. This covering gives me a flint-like determination to become a Shem or a Japeth, to cease being a Ham. That’s what grace does. It gives substance to our resolves, the very resolves that, in failing them, lead us back to the keen awareness of our need of grace. I want to walk backwards toward others, to carry the covering of God’s grace on my shoulders to them because I have been the recipient of that grace.
I know there will be days when I am once again a Ham, when I forget to be a Shem or a Japeth. But when that happens, I know my Lord will come into my tent and cover me just like Noah’s sons covered him.
And so, I raise a glass—just one—to Noah: “Cheers, my brother. And thank you, thank you so very much.”
Genesis 9:20: “Noah, a man of the soil, was the first to plant a vineyard.” (HCS)