What was the sin of Noah’s son, Ham?

{9:18} And so the sons of Noah, who came out of the ark, were Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Now Ham himself is the father of Canaan.
{9:19} These three are the sons of Noah. And from these all the family of mankind was spread over the whole earth.
{9:20} And Noah, a good farmer, began to cultivate the land, and he planted a vineyard.
{9:21} And by drinking its wine, he became inebriated and was naked in his tent.
{9:22} Because of this, when Ham, the father of Canaan, had indeed seen the privates of his father to be naked, he reported it to his two brothers outside.
{9:23} And truly, Shem and Japheth put a cloak upon their arms, and, advancing backwards, covered the privates of their father. And their faces were turned away, so that they did not see their father’s manhood.
{9:24} Then Noah, awaking from the wine, when he had learned what his younger son had done to him,
{9:25} he said, “Cursed be Canaan, a servant of servants will he be to his brothers.”
{9:26} And he said: “Blessed be the Lord God of Shem, let Canaan be his servant.
{9:27} May God enlarge Japheth, and may he live in the tents of Shem, and let Canaan be his servant.”

What was the sin of Ham, that he would be cursed by his own father? Although some theologians have speculated that Ham committed one serious sexual sin or another, Sacred Scripture says only that Ham saw the nakedness of his father. Ham was immodest. He looked on his father’s nakedness, and next he spoke about it to his brothers; he was immodest in what he saw and in what he said.

But this passage is not merely about the immodesty of one man, Ham. It is about the people of whom he was the father, Canaan. Now a man can be a father in two ways, either by literally (by blood) or figuratively (by some similarity). And so Abraham is said to have many descendents, both literally, in the Hebrew people, and figuratively, by similarity in way of life, in his spiritual descendents (Mt 3:9; Lk 1:55; 19:9; Rom 4:16).

Therefore, this passage from Genesis is not merely about the particular sin of immodesty committed by Ham on one occasion. Rather, it is about all the many serious sexual sins committed by the people of Canaan. The sin of immodesty committed by Ham in this particular case is used by Scripture as an example in order to teach that immodesty is the beginning of all sexual sins.

Immodesty is the first step along a path that eventually leads to all the other, more serious, sexual sins. If someone is free from all sexual sins, he or she is also modest. Modesty protects against every kind of sexual sin. A person who perseveres in modesty in thought, word, and deed, in body and soul, cannot commit a sexual sin. All sexual sins are based upon immodesty.

More articles on sexual ethics here.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and Bible translator

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