In Genesis 9 (facing Hebrew, NRSV), after God promises never to send another Flood to destroy all living things, our attention turns to Noah and his three sons, from whom “the whole earth was peopled” (9:19). After being reminded of their three names — “Shem, Ham, and Japheth” — which are repeated again and again, in that order, and being told of Ham’s son Caanan (surely, an unfortunate name from a biblical standpoint; 9:18), the text informs us that “Noah began” (וַיָּחֶל נֹחַ). As a man of the soil (אִישׁ הָאֲדָמָה, ish adamah, the latter term from the same cluster of Hebrew words that includes “Adam” and dam, blood), he planted a vineyard (9:20). The NRSV interprets this to mean that Noah is the first to plant a vineyard, and if that is the case, then perhaps we can excuse Noah’s drunken behavior as that of a person unacquainted with the ways of wine.
Let’s assume, though, that at some point in the 2000 years of human history, it occurred to one of the extremely long-lived (and presumably very bored) primal humans to cultivate wine. We do know, after all, that other trappings of civilization are known, including even such advanced arts as metalworking (4:22). If winemaking was a known skill, one with which Noah was well acquainted from the 600 years of his life prior to the Flood, then perhaps we can read “Noah began” more broadly: Noah began to rebuild the human world, and his first step was to make some wine. It is a promising beginning, perhaps betokening a celebration of their survival, or a ratification of their unique bond after inhabiting the ark for over six months.
But Noah takes this token of fellowship and hoards it all for himself. He drinks, and becomes drunk, and reaches such a point that he exposes himself in his tent. The unlucky Ham sees it, then tells his brothers about the unfortunate scene, leading them to cover up their father while studiously avoiding laying eyes on his nakedness. When Noah awakes, he curses the Canaan, the son of Ham, to be “a slave of slaves” (עֶבֶד עֲבָדִים), or as the NRSV puts it, “the lowest of slaves.” This passage, which was clearly intended to legitimate Israel’s conquest of Canaan, would go on to have an improbable afterlife as a prooftext for the African slave trade, as Ham later came to be seen as the father of the nations of Africa.
Even if the latter reading is a clear ideological forcing, the passage deals inescapably with a hierarchy among nations and peoples. This is what Noah is “beginning.” The first step is for Noah, as the father, to claim the beverage of fellowship all for himself. And when that assertion of authority has the unexpected side effect of humiliating him by exposing his nakedness, he creates a pecking order among his own sons. This fact is somewhat obscured by translations, which typically render Noah’s description of Ham (בְּנוֹ הַקָּטָן) as “his youngest son” (9:24). Yet prior to this, we had no reason to suspect that Ham was the youngest. The trio is always listed in an order that places Ham second, and he is the only one who is credited with having a son of his own — so if anything, we might guess that he is the oldest prior to Noah’s declaration.
More than that, in the many biblical genealogies that precede this passage, the norm has been for only the first son to be named, after which the text makes an indifferent gesture toward other sons and daughters. Among the patriarchs, only Adam and a descendent of Cain named Lamech have multiple named sons. In Adam’s case, the birth order is clearly specified. Lamech’s first two sons, Jabal and Jubal, are born to the same wife and could reasonably be assumed to be twins. Could Noah’s sons be triplets? Even leaving aside that speculation, they have been treated as equals up to this point, most often simply grouped together as unnamed “sons.”
Hence I suggest that Noah is not designating Ham as his youngest son, but — following other possible meanings for the adjectives qatan — as his smallest, most insigificant, most worthless son. I might even dare to translate it as “his shitheel son.” Noah’s assertion of paternal authority had backfired and lowered him in his sons’ eyes, and so he deflects that shame and thinks of the son in whose eyes he was most vividly diminished as himself small and worthless. What’s more, the very thing that seems to point toward equality with Noah — Ham’s status as father — is then twisted into a curse, as this son is no longer an heir but a hyperbolic “slave of slaves.”
What Noah “begins,” then, is the whole order of hierarchy and domination that had been wiped out by the Flood. Nothing in God’s behavior had pointed in this direction. Though there is a privilege granted to humanity over against the animals, in that humans can kill animals for food but not vice verse, there is no indication of any intra-human hierarchy in God’s covenant — all equally enjoy the benefits of a new food source and the assurance that no future Flood will wipe them out. The biblical author portrays hierarchy and domination as a human choice. And I think there is wisdom to be found in the biblical author’s decision to ground that curse, not in Noah’s lust for power and domination, but in his shame.