The Legacy of Autonomy

18 The sons of Noah who went forth from the ark were Shem, Ham, and Japheth. (Ham was the father of Canaan.) 19 These three were the sons of Noah, and from these the people of the whole earth were dispersed.

20 Noah began to be a man of the soil, and he planted a vineyard. 21 He drank of the wine and became drunk and 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 backward, 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;
    a servant of servants shall he be to his brothers.”

26 He also said,

“Blessed be the Lord, the God of Shem;
    and let Canaan be his servant.
27 May God enlarge Japheth,
    and let him dwell in the tents of Shem,
    and let Canaan be his servant.”

28 After the flood Noah lived 350 years. 29 All the days of Noah were 950 years, and he died. Genesis 9:18-29 ESV

God has pronounced His blessing upon Noah and his family. He has issued His mandate to multiply and fill the earth. And He has communicated His covenant commitment to never use a worldwide flood to destroy mankind again.

At this point, Noah’s three sons “went forth from the ark” (Genesis 9:18 ESV). They left the safety of the ark behind because they had a new assignment. No longer were they to seek refuge in the massive boat they had helped their father build. The floodwaters had receded and the threat of death had passed. Now, they were to obey the Lord’s command to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth (Genesis 1:28).

There is a hint of irony in the statement that these three young men “went forth,” because it doesn’t appear that they went very far. Even their father appears to have stayed within close proximity of the ark’s final resting place. But Moses relates that from the three sons of Noah, “the people of the whole earth were dispersed” (Genesis 9:19 ESV). The Hebrew word translated as “dispersed” is נָפַץ (nāp̄aṣ) and it was used to refer to something that smashed and its pieces abruptly scattered. It conveys the idea that these “people” did not disperse willingly but were forced to do so by God. God had commanded Noah and his sons to “fill the earth.” And yet, we read that Noah “began to be a man of the soil, and he planted a vineyard” (Genesis 9:20 ESV).

Why did Moses feel this detail was pertinent to the story? Of course, it becomes painfully clear that the fruit of Noah’s vineyard eventually produced the wine with which he became drunk. But there seems to be more to the story than that. Noah made an executive decision and chose to settle down and become a farmer. There is nothing inherently wrong with his career choice, but nowhere in the passage does Noah receive a directive from God to become a farmer. This appears to be an autonomous decision on Noah’s part. Perhaps he wanted to ensure that he and his family would have enough food to eat. One of the consequences of the flood was that all vegetation had been destroyed. So, it made sense that Noah would see farming as a viable and logical pursuit in the denuded post-flood landscape. But Moses’ choice of words is significant. He states that Noah “began to be a man of the soil.” The Hebrew word for “soil” is אֲדָמָה (‘ăḏāmâ), the very same word used for the “ground” from which God had formed Adam. And it’s important to note that, when God cursed Adam, He stated:

“…cursed is the ground (‘ăḏāmâ) because of you;
    in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
    and you shall eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your face
    you shall eat bread,
till you return to the ground (‘ăḏāmâ),
    for out of it you were taken;
for you are dust,
    and to dust you shall return.” – Genesis 2:17-19 ESV

In his decision to become a farmer, Noah had chosen to embrace the curse. He had returned to the ground from which Adam had been formed. In a sense, he had returned to his roots. But that ground had been cursed by God. It would produce fruit, but only through hard work and accompanied by thorns and thistles. Noah had chosen the difficult path. He had decided to feed his family by working the cursed ground rather than enjoying the “clean” animals that God had graciously provided.

It’s important to recall what God told Noah immediately after releasing him from the ark.

“Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you. And as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything.” – Genesis 9:3 ESV

God had expanded man’s diet by providing the “clean” creatures as a food source. Noah had been instructed by God to place seven pairs of these animals on the ark and, now, in the post-flood world, they would have needed Noah’s care and protection. So, it would have made more sense for Noah to become a keeper of flocks and herds. And it shouldn’t be overlooked that Noah chose the career path of Cain. Chapter four revealed that “Cain was a worker of the ground” (Genesis 4:2 ESV), while his brother Abel “was a keeper of sheep.” 

Again, there is nothing about sheepherding that makes it more righteous than farming. The question is whether Noah was following the will of God in his choice of profession. And the context tends to indicate that Noah’s decision was not according to God’s will because it produced bad “fruit” that would have long-term implications for mankind.

Noah planted a vineyard and then waited for his first harvest. This process would have taken time, and while Noah waited for the vines to grow and the eventual grapes to ripen, he was failing to fulfill God’s mandate to “fill the earth.” And rather than disperse, Noah’s sons stayed right by his side. They created a little commune in which to live. There is mention of Noah’s grapes, but no word regarding Noah’s grandchildren.

And in time, Noah harvested the fruit of his labors. He turned his first season of ripened grapes into wine, and then drank himself drunk.

He drank of the wine and became drunk and lay uncovered in his tent. – Genesis 9:21 ESV

Over the centuries, there has been a lot of speculation as to what this verse actually means. What exactly happened that fateful day? Moses simply states that, in his drunken stupor, Noah left himself uncovered in his tent, and his son, Ham, saw him in this compromised state. There are those who suggest that Ham committed an immoral act with his father. They make this determination based on the phrase, “Ham…saw the nakedness of his father” (Genesis 9:22 ESV). There were occasions when those words were used to refer to immoral acts. But there is nothing in the context of Genesis 9 to suggest that Ham committed a homosexual act with his father. There is also nothing that would support another purely speculative conclusion that Ham committed incest with his mother. The most logical explanation for what happened is that Ham, a grown man who would have been 100-years-old at the time, walked into his father’s tent and saw him lying drunk and naked. But rather than show his father respect by covering his nakedness, Ham decided to have fun at his father’s expense.

“Literally, the ancient Hebrew says that Ham “told with delight” what he saw in his father’s tent. He determined to mock his father and underminine his authority as a man of God. ” – Guzik, David. “Study Guide for Genesis 9.” Blue Letter Bible. 21 Feb, 2017. Web. 3 Jan, 2022. <;

Ham shamed his father. He maliciously maligned the patriarch of the family in front of his two brothers. And these two sons, rather than joining Ham in his ridicule of their father, choose to salvage their father’s dignity by covering his sin.

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 backward, and they did not see their father’s nakedness. – Genesis 9:23 ESV

Notice the emphasis on their refusal to see their father’s nakedness. This seems to eliminate any thought that this phrase carries hidden meaning. They simply chose to respect their father’s privacy and maintain his dignity, while he was in a compromised state. And when Noah eventually sobered up, he discovered Ham had done and was incensed. Moses states that Noah “learned what Ham, his youngest son, had done” (Genesis 9:24 ESV) and immediately leveled a curse against Ham’s son.

“Cursed be Canaan;
    a servant of servants shall he be to his brothers.” – Genesis 9:25 ESV

As retribution against Ham, Noah pronounced a curse upon his own grandson. This action by Noah does not suggest that God was punishing Canaan for his father’s sin. Noah was unwittingly declaring a prophetic declaration that the sin of Ham would be passed down to his future generations. Ham’s propensity for wickedness would be inherited by his progeny.

For Moses’ original audience, the mention of Canaan would have been a sobering reminder of the Canaanites who had occupied the land of promise. These people were particularly wicked and immoral, and they proved to be a constant source of temptation and trials for the Israelites as they attempted to occupy the land given to them by God. The descendants of Ham would be cursed to live in constant opposition to the descendants of Shem and Japheth. And Noah prophesied about this ongoing state of internecine conflict.

“Blessed be the Lord, the God of Shem;
    and let Canaan be his servant.
May God enlarge Japheth,
    and let him dwell in the tents of Shem,
    and let Canaan be his servant.” – Genesis 9:26-27 ESV

But all of this could have easily been prevented. Had Noah not made the fateful decision to settle down and plant a vineyard, no grapes would have grown, no wine would have been made, and no drunkenness would have taken place. Had Noah followed the path of Abel and become “a keeper of sheep” (Genesis 4:2 ESV), none of this would have happened. But even in Noah, the man who walked with God, we see a post-fall propensity for doing things his own way. He had spent years faithfully constructing an ark and now he was ready to settle down and enjoy the “fruits” of his labors. But the flood had not cleansed the curse God had placed on the ground. This new Adam (āḏām) would find the soil (‘ăḏāmâ) just as difficult to cultivate as the first Adam. And the fruit it produced would be accompanied by difficulties and heartache.

From this point forward, the Genesis account will display mankind’s consistent trajectory away from God. The temptation to “be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:5 ESV), will grow stronger with each passing generation. And even the righteous and blameless Noah proved to be a man who struggled with a desire to live life on his own terms. After the flood, Noah would live an additional 350 years and then die. He would experience the very fate that God had prescribed for Adam and his descendants.

“By the sweat of your brow
    will you have food to eat
until you return to the ground
    from which you were made.
For you were made from dust,
    and to dust you will return.” – Genesis 3:19 NLT

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