I think we’ve all fundamentally misunderstood the point of the story of Noah. We’re hellbent on making the patriarchs in Genesis look like bad sinners, probably for two reasons: to make God seem better and to make men seem worse to support doctrines of original sin and total depravity. I don’t think this is warranted by the text of Genesis at all, and I’ll spend this post suggesting a new reading of the story of Noah and suggesting what Ham’s sin really was.
Notice that Noah is called a righteous man before the Flood. Noah has been faithful to God in contrast with the surrounding culture made up of violent pagans who cut covenant deals with fallen angels. Noah, because of his righteousness, was made a new Adam, who was cast out of the Garden because of his unrighteousness (Ezekiel 28). St. Peter points out that Noah was a prophet, a preacher of righteousness. Prophets act, create, or proclaim prophetic messages that call the world to repentance before Yahweh judges them when he judges the current creative order. The Ark was a prophetic act that called the world to repentance, pointing out the coming day of the Lord.
First, a little review: Adam was supposed to follow the four rivers of Eden from the top of a mountain in Eden, cultivating the ground and protecting his wife, to make Eden cover the whole of the earth. When he took from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, he was performing a coup, becoming king of the world before his time (on knowledge of good and evil as a king’s tool: Gen 2:9; Deut 1:39, 30:11-20; 2 Samuel 14:17; 1 Kings 3:6-9; Isaiah 7:14-16; Hebrews 5:14). Because of his rebellion, Adam would start to cultivate the ground by the sweat of his brow, and the ground, as a mediator of God’s curse on man, would produce thorns and thistles as a witness against him.
When Noah was born, his father Lamech said that he would bring rest to the world from the curse. When God looked at the world and found that nobody would water it, he watered it himself by bringing down a Flood that would water the whole earth. It is easy enough to note that the Flood is an act of decreation: the boundaries between the outer and deeper levels of water were broken, the boundary between land and sea was broken, and ‘adam was killed by the waters. The receding of the Flood, then, was an act of Creation: the Spirit-breath hovered over the waters, and the Flood started to recede, the birds brought back vegetation from the land, and the land-water distinction came back as Noah and his family (the last living ‘adams of the world) entered into the new creation. Here, the new Adam emerges into the new Creation with his family created by his seed rather than from his side. Thorns are a symbol of Gentiles in the Bible, so Noah gave the ground rest because the Flood wiped away all of the thistles from the land so he could cultivate it easily.
Where Adam tried to become a king prematurely, Noah waited until God appointed him. Water in the Bible can both drown and exalt: the world around him was drowned by the water but Noah was exalted into a king by the water. As Noah came off the Ark, he built both a tabernacle-house-tent and a vineyard. The vineyard would have taken time to sprout, so Noah waited while the earth became mature enough whereas Adam tried to shortchange the whole procedure. This is where people think that Noah sinned; rather, I suggest that this is where Noah was actually being the most righteous. Noah took from the vineyard and made wine, drinking it in his tabernacle-tent. My friend Seraphim says that the Hebrew that we get “drunk” from could simply mean “satisfied”, so we know that Noah drank enough wine to be satisfied. This is important because wine is the drink of kings, a drink of the Sabbath rest. This is Noah enjoying his Sabbath rest in a tent – a picture of the kingdom Adam was supposed to have in his Garden, a Sabbath rest with wine and his wife. (Tangent: Noah, the king, was given the permission to take the life of anybody who took a life. This explains St. Paul’s remark in Romans 13 about the government’s ability to wield the sword: any whom God appoints king has power of the sword to take life as a measure of their embodying the image of God.)
Ham’s sin, then, was an act of rebellion against the new leader of the community. He enters his father’s Sabbath rest, sees him without his robe (remembering that robes in Genesis symbolize authority and identity), and tells his brothers. He hopes to organize a coup and take Noah’s robe: “See, brothers, he has laid aside the garment of his authority. Let us take it together!” The other brothers refuse, going in backwards while drapping the garment over their shoulders. James Jordan suggests that shoulders are a symbol of strength or pillars, so the fact that both need to shoulder the responsibility of re-investing authority into their father suggests that they know that they aren’t strong enough to bear the responsibility yet and must mature into the role.