When I finished the first draft of my book about moral psychology in Genesis, I realized that examining why most of the characters do the wrong thing was not enough. I needed an ongoing argument about why humans find it so hard to take the high road out of Eden. Now I am doing more research and rewriting my book.
Meanwhile, here is an essay from my first version. The Torah portion this week is Noach (the Hebrew for “Noah”). Many people know about the flood and Noah’s ark, but not everyone knows what Noah did after the waters dried up and he let the animals out.
Drinking and Incest
Noah begins by following all of God’s directions; then he sees God drown all life on land. After the devastation of the worldwide flood, one might expect Noah’s first crop to be a plant that can produce food in a single growing season. Instead, the Torah says:
Noah has to plan his drunkenness. A grapevine cutting or rootstock must grow for about two years before it produces any grapes. After that Noah has to wait while the grapes he crushes ferment into wine.
The Torah does not report Noah’s feelings, but he might be haunted by the deaths of everyone he knew outside his own immediate family. (God told him to take only seven humans with him in the ark: his wife, his three sons, and his sons’ wives.) Noah might have nightmares about children drowning. He might even question the morality of his own behavior, and feel guilty for not trying to change God’s mind about flooding the world.
Noah’s attempt to escape into an altered state of consciousness, or unconsciousness, is understandable. But his drunkenness subverts his ability to defend himself against incest.
And [Noah] drank some of the wine, and he became drunk, and vayitgal in the middle of his tent. And Cham, the father of Canaan, saw the ervah of his father and he told his two brothers outside. (Genesis 9:20-22)
vayitgal (וַיִּתְגַּל) = he uncovered himself, exposed himself. (The hitpael form of the verb galah, גָּלָה = uncover, reveal.)
ervah (עֶרְוָה) = nakedness.
A modern reader might wonder what is so bad about lying down naked in the privacy of your own tent—even if one of your sons barges in and sees you. But in the Torah, to “uncover the nakedness” of someone is a euphemism for a sexual act. The fifteen incest laws in the book of Leviticus use the same words for “uncover” and “nakedness” as the passage above. The first law covers any kind of incest:
Nobody may come close to any blood-relation of his flesh legalot ervah. I am God. (Genesis 18:6)
legalot (לְגַלּוֹת) = to uncover. (A piel form of the verb galah.)
The next law begins as if it is prohibiting a son from copulating with his father, then corrects itself to a heterosexual formula:
The ervah of your father, or the ervah of your mother lo tegaleih; she is your mother, lo tegaleih her ervah. (Leviticus 18:7)
lo tegaleih (לֺא תְגַלֵּה) = you must not uncover. (lo = not + a piel form of the verb galah.)
The incest laws are phrased in terms of a male perpetrator “uncovering” a passive female. Noah is not entirely a passive victim; the Torah says he uncovers himself. Only then does his son Cham take advantage of the opportunity.
Then Cham tells his brothers what just happened—an indication that his motive is to degrade his father in their eyes, not to seek sexual satisfaction outside his marriage.
Modern scholars have pointed out that this story of incest provides propaganda that denigrates both Egypt and Canaan, which are listed as descendants of Cham right after the Noah story.1 Similarly, the introduction to first list of incest laws in Leviticus is:
You must not do as it is done in the land of Egypt, where you dwelt; and you must not do as it is done in the land of Canaan, where I am bringing you. You must not follow their decrees. (Leviticus 18:3)
When Noah wakes up and realizes what happened, he lashes out and curses “his youngest son”, who is called Canaan rather than Cham in the actual curse (probably an interpolation from another source):
Cursed be Canaan!
A slave of slaves
He will be to his brothers. (Genesis 9:25)
Neither Noah nor his son Cham have learned anything from Cain’s question, “Am I my brother’s protector?” The whole human race after the flood consists of eight individuals in the same family. They all count as brothers, for ethical purposes, and the story of Cain and Abel makes it clear that each one is responsible for protecting the others. But Noah abandons responsibility for his family by deliberately drinking himself into a stupor, and Cham takes advantage of a chance to demean his father.
Noah pursues his own escape from trauma through inebriation, but he does not pay attention to the effects of trauma on his family. Perhaps on his good days he offers a few words of comfort to his wife, his sons, his daughters-in-law. But he either does not notice or does not address Cham’s anger. Trapped in his own misery, Noah drinks and carelessly exposes himself.
Maybe he undresses because it is hot inside his tent. (Cham, חָם = hot.) But then his hot-headed son named Cham comes in.
Noah’s feeling of guilty despair is understandable. But his self-absorption subverts his ability to recognize and address his son Cham’s problem.
While Noah is guilty of neglect, Cham is guilty of abuse. Forcing a sexual act that the “partner” would avoid if he were sober is unethical because the perpetrator does not treat the victim as a fellow human being with rights and feelings. Most human cultures also maintain that incest is unethical. After the deed, Cham publicly dishonors his father, another ethical failure.2
What makes it hard for him to do the right thing and protect Noah instead of raping and degrading him? Cham is hot with anger that the world was destroyed, just as Cain was hot with anger that his offering was not accepted. Neither man can take out his anger on the actual perpetrator, God. So just as Cain vents his anger on Abel, Cham vents his anger on Noah. He can blame his father for following directions and enabling God to drown the world.
Cham’s angry resentment prevents him from feeling empathy for the old man. It also prevents him from stopping to think about whether raping and telling is good or evil.
Then Noah becomes guilty of uttering the curse against Cham (or Canaan). A father’s blessing or curse has power in the book of Genesis. By cursing Cham/Canaan, Noah dooms him and his descendants to enslavement—and also introduces slavery into the reborn world.3
Until this point, Noah has been submissive, following God’s instructions without question, making no effort to save any human or animal God has not mentioned, and figuring out that the extra animals God ordered could be used in a burnt offering to appease God.4
The Torah does not give us a clue about Noah’s attitude toward his own family until he wakes and realizes what Cham has done. Then he lashes out with a curse, an act of revenge for his humiliation. He does not stop to mull over the long-term effects of his curse.5
Naturally the trauma of witnessing mass destruction can breed negative emotions including guilt, despair, and anger. These emotions can all subvert our ability to make good moral choices, especially if, like Cain, we do not recognize them as beasts crouching outside our doors.
Yet Cham’s brothers Sheim and Yefet, who also witnessed the destruction of their world, choose a modest act of kindness after Cham tells them about Noah’s shame.
And Sheim and Yefet took a cloak and placed it over their shoulders and walked backward, and they covered the erveh of their father, [which] they did not see. (Genesis 9:23)
Even when we suffer from trauma, we owe it to our family members to stop ourselves from hurting them, and find acts of kindness we can do instead.
- Genesis 10:6.
- Dishonoring a parent was serious wrongdoing in ancient Israelite culture. The ten commandments require honoring parents in both Exodus 20:12 and Deuteronomy 5:16, and Leviticus 20:9 says anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.
- Tikva Frymer-Kensky, Reading the Women of the Bible, Schocken Books, New York, 2002, p. 205.
- Genesis 7:23, 8:20-21.
- For the author of this part of Noah’s story, the curse probably served as a justification for the conquest of Canaan by the Israelites many centuries later.