Let Him Dwell in the Tents of Shem (Gen 9:18-29)

Author’s Note: I am preaching through Genesis on Wednesday nights. Here I will present edited notes in blog form. You can listen to the sermon below and download it here. May God be glorified and His people edified. Comments below if you like.

All Scripture is inspired by God — literally breathed out by God. That’s what we read in 2 Timothy 3:16. It’s all His word, and it’s all profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness. And if we are to be consistent with a biblical worldview we have to realize that is true. We cannot pick and choose the parts of the Bible we like, the teachings we like. And we have to realize even the parts of Scripture which live us scratching our heads are still profitable and instructive and glorifying to God.

So with that said, let’s talk about that time in Genesis 9:18-29 when Noah got drunk and naked.

To be sure, this isn’t one of those stories we eagerly teach our children in Sunday School. Even adult Sunday School curriculums skip over this passage. Preachers skip it. We’re quick to talk about the ark, then skip to the Tower of Babel, but we don’t pay much attention to what comes in between.

Nevertheless, this passage is just as much God’s word as John 3:16, and we do ourselves a great disservice if we neglect them, because this episode in Noah’s life and its aftermath point us to something wonderful, something bigger… ultimately the salvation afforded those who trust in Jesus. So as the book of Genesis has been so good to us these past few months, we come tonight for more of God’s revelation. Let’s read. Genesis 9:18-29…

Now the sons of Noah who came out of the ark were Shem and Ham and Japheth; and Ham was the father of Canaan. These three were the sons of Noah, and from these the whole earth was populated.

Then Noah began farming and planted a vineyard. He drank of the wine and became drunk, and uncovered himself inside his tent. Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers outside. But Shem and Japheth took a garment and laid it upon both their shoulders and walked backward and covered the nakedness of their father; and their faces were turned away, so that they did not see their father’s nakedness. When Noah awoke from his wine, he knew what his youngest son had done to him. So he said,

“Cursed be Canaan;
A servant of servants
He shall be to his brothers.”

He also said,

“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.”

Noah lived three hundred and fifty years after the flood. So all the days of Noah were nine hundred and fifty years, and he died.

The flood and the ark are now in the past, God having instructed Noah to carry out human government on the earth, God having made a covenant with Noah to never again destroy the earth by flood. Noah’s sons and their wives, then, begin repopulating the earth, obeying the command God gave in verse seven, “Be fruitful and multiply; populate the earth abundantly and multiply in it.” Now, in verses 18-19 we see it’s so far, so good on that front.

It is noteworthy, though, in verse 18 where the three sons of Noah are once again named — Shem, Ham, and Japheth — that it’s also said that Ham was the father of Canaan. Canaan, we’re going to see in 10:6, being probably the youngest of Ham’s four sons… Canaan being the ancestor of the Canaanites, the wicked inhabitants of the land God would promise to Abraham, and to his descendants of promise, the nation of Israel.  So while Noah’s sons and being fruitful and multiplying, the mention of Canaan’s name — as Moses records this for the Israelites — is a foreshadowing to them, and to us, of bad news to come.

And indeed, in verse 20 things begin going downhill.

We first see, though, that Noah began farming. At least that’s how the New American Standard puts it. More literally we should read this as man of the soil… Noah became a man of the soil. Noah, being the patriarch of the survivors of the Flood, was in a way the master of the earth — in much the same way Adam was originally.

And like Adam, Noah was also a sinner. When Adam sinned in the garden he died spiritually, guaranteeing he would die physically. Adam took on a sinful nature passed down to all his progeny. And though Noah was a righteous man and a preacher of righteousness in a world bent on only evil continually, a world filled with violence, Noah, too, had a sinful nature. A sinful nature which made its way onto the ark, a sinful nature which also walked off that ark.

It is true Noah had found favor with God. It is true God had shown Noah grace. Even so, the life of faith is one which must be walked on guard, understanding that the devil is like a roaring lion walking about, seeking whom he may devour. This man of the soil, then, Noah, did become a farmer. He planted a vineyard, which there is absolutely nothing wrong with. The problems come with how sinners use good things to sin. We must always guard ourselves against using that which is good for sin. And, well, Noah let down his guard.

Living in the pre-Flood world, dominated by evil, Noah probably felt the necessity to always be on guard against sin. But in the post-Flood world, he may have relaxed, thinking peace and victory were all he would know from then on. And sin was crouching at the door, and its desire was for him.

Verse 21: “He drank of the wine and became drunk, and uncovered himself in his tent.”

Now at this point in God’s revelation to His people — from creation until this point — there had been no specific prohibition against drunkenness. In fact, this is the first use of wine in the Bible. Still, it’s clear from the text this was a shameful act and not in line with God’s desires. Noah didn’t exhibit self-control, which is timelessly one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit. And it is certainly was not the type of behavior we would expect from someone who was a righteous man, blameless in his time, as is said of Noah, one who walked with God.

But whenever we think about Noah we’ve got to think of him like a second Adam. Not the last Adam, a description used of Jesus in 1 Corinthians, but a second Adam. When he came out into a new world, just like Adam, he became a farmer who worked the ground. Just like Adam, he has this fruit and he reaches out and partakes of the fruit in such a way it wasn’t supposed to be done. He sins and becomes drunk.

And the next thing you know, just like Adam, he was naked.

When Adam and Eve took the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil they realized they were naked and were ashamed, so they raced to cover themselves with clothes made of leaves. Now Noah sinned, and he was shamed. So there is a bit of deja vu going on here, a repetition of Genesis 3. Noah comes out of the ark and does the same thing, essentially, as Adam and Eve did.

Which just goes to show us the Flood may have destroyed the world, but it didn’t destroy sin. Adam sinned and fell, but sin wasn’t put away by the Flood. Noah comes out so as to begin a new world that wouldn’t become undone like the one God had just destroyed. But Noah sinned, just like Adam. As one commentator bluntly puts it, “With the opportunity to start an ideal society, Noah was found drunk in his tent.”

Pretty much.

Adam sinned and fell, but sin wasn’t put away by the Flood. Noah comes out so as to begin a new world that wouldn’t become undone like the one God had just destroyed. But Noah, too, sinned, just like Adam. And we all sin and we all fall. If we were in Noah’s situation we would have sinned, too. In fact, we do sin all the time.

To go back to something we talked about back in our study of Genesis 3, as Augustine put it, we are in our natural state, non posse non peccare — not able to not sin. We take on the nature of our father Adam, and we sin and fall. And as we see, Adam’s fall has had a tremendously negative impact on his descendants. So also the fall of Noah had a negative impact on his descendants.

What happened next is that Ham, one of Noah’s sons (probably the youngest), came into the tent and saw his father drunk, unconscious, and naked on the floor of his tent.

We don’t know why Ham went into his father’s tent. We don’t know if he knew his father would be in there. It’s likely Ham lived some distance away from his father at this point, since Ham had multiple children of his own, who themselves were perhaps adults at this point. This may have been as many as 100 years after the Flood. We can’t know for sure. We also don’t know if Ham knew beforehand that his father was drunk.

But something not made clear to us in our English translations is the sense of the Hebrew word translated saw.

To read it in English makes it sound as if Ham just went in and accidentally happened upon his dad in this drunken state and then he went out. And then all of the sudden we read he’s in trouble, and it doesn’t make sense. But in the Hebrew, this particular word for saw carries the sense of gazing. Ham didn’t just see his father and leave, but he stayed for a while. Ham gazed upon his father in his shame.

There is an impression, and implication, from the Hebrew words used that Ham gazed at his father in an immoral way, that perhaps he looked at him for a while and enjoyed it. We’ll see in a couple of minutes why I believe that to be the case.

Ham did eventually leave the tent, but instead of keeping his father’s shame to himself, he went and blabbed about it to his brothers, Shem and Japheth. Perhaps Ham was happy about his father’s shame, perhaps he secretly resented his father’s authority and was happy to see him brought down a notch. To go tell his brothers, then, was to go and make fun of his father. He goes and tells them about this in a way which indicates he enjoyed what he saw. It was an attack on his father’s honor.

And what is worse than personal sin? Perhaps the delight of finding out someone else’s sin and reveling in that sin with others… to others. That’s what Ham was doing. Instead of helping restore his father from shame, he went and made it more public. Shem and Japheth, meanwhile, did not respond like their brother. Verse 23…

But Shem and Japheth took a garment and laid it upon both their shoulders and walked backward and covered the nakedness of their father; and their faces were turned away, so that they did not see their father’s nakedness.

Rather than enjoying their father’s shame, they were grieved by it… and by Ham’s response to it. Unlike Ham, they sought to remove the indignity from their father. They had the right reaction. When we see someone — particularly a brother or sister in Christ — sin, our first response should be to lovingly confront them, try to restore them, and remove the indignity, because their sin not only brings a reproach upon them, but upon our Heavenly Father and the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.

When we see sin we can either seek to maximize the short-term, fleshly fulfillment it gives, ignoring the ramifications, or we can say, “No! This shame stops with me! I’m not telling anyone else. I’m going to try and put an end to this indignity.”

But looking at the bigger picture, just as Noah’s sin showed us the Flood didn’t destroy sin, Ham’s sin shows us that the Flood didn’t destroy the seed of the serpent. Back in Genesis 3:13 after the sin of Adam and Eve, God cursed the serpent for what he did in the garden, and said there would be enmity between the seed of the serpent and the seed of the woman. Eventually one from the serpent would bruise the woman’s seed on the heel, but the woman’s seed would crush the head of the serpent.

All of the book of Genesis and all of the Bible is a search, a wait, a longing for the eventual One who would be the Head Crusher… the One who reverse the effects of sin and of death and restore all things. Lest you read about the Flood and think that perhaps the effects of sin and the serpent and his seed were done in, we see in Ham that that is not true. Just as there came an ungodly line of descendants from Adam through his son Cain, so too there came an ungodly line of descendants from Noah through his son Ham.

Ham did not follow after God, but followed after the seed of the serpent.

Well, Noah wakes up. He sobers up. And somehow he finds out what his son Ham did, and what his other sons, Shem and Japheth, did. And then he says this… 24-27…

When Noah awoke from his wine, he knew what his youngest son had done to him. So he said,

“Cursed be Canaan;
A servant of servants
He shall be to his brothers.”

He also said,

“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.”

Noah had sinned, but he was still a man of God. Peter knew Noah had sinned after the flood and the ark, and he still called him a “preacher of righteousness” in 2 Peter 2:5. The man who was drunk with wine was now filled with the Spirit and prophesying the words of God. And he says, “Cursed be Canaan, a servant of servants he shall be to his brothers.”

There have been some in the church history, particularly over the past 300 years, who used this verse to justify slavery and the subjugation and segregation of Africans and African-Americans. It is thought that as the population multiplied that the African peoples descended from Ham, so some justify their racism with this passage. Some have said they should be “servants of servants,” slaves, subjugated, third and fourth class people. This verse has been used to justify much evil, even evil in the name of God, by slave owners and people who view Africans and African-Americans in general as inferior. But that is not in the slightest what this verse is talking about.

Noah comes to his son Ham and says, “Cursed be Canaan.” Canaan being the youngest of Ham’s sons, Noah singling him out, saying he is the one to be cursed.

But Noah’s curse is actually more of a prophecy. Noah is saying Canaan will follow in the way of his father Ham, and indeed, the descendants of all four of Ham’s sons proved to be trouble going forward. Canaan, though, in particular.

We know this is the case from Leviticus 18, where Moses tells the Israelites when they go into the land they are not to follow in the way of who? The Canaanites. Leviticus 18:7 says they were not to uncover the nakedness of their fathers, like the Canaanites did. Nor were they to uncover the nakedness of their mothers, or any number of other relatives Moses lists in that chapter. Uncovering one’s nakedness was a euphemism for sexual immorality, and it was something the Canaanites practiced all the time. They were not to sacrifice their children to the Canaanite god Molech. They were not to practice homosexuality or bestiality, like the Canaanites did.

The bottom line is that they were God’s people, and they were not to be in any way like the people of Canaan, the son of Ham.

That’s what this verse is talking about. Canaan followed in the way of their father Ham and was a sexually immoral nation. And at the end of Leviticus 18 Moses said that because of their sin, the land was going to vomit Canaan out of the land. Which happened, of course, by the power of God — when Israel conquered the Promised Land.

But God also added the same land would also vomit Israel out of the land should they did the same… and unfortunately they would. Israel was God’s tool to judge the sin of Canaan, just like in the future the Assyrians and Babylonians would be used to judge the sin of Israel.

Noah continued and said…

He also said,

“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.”

Notice this. Noah curses his sons, but he doesn’t bless Shem. He blesses the LORD, Yahweh, the God of Shem. This tells us something about Shem.

It tells us Shem worshiped the LORD. Shem was a godly man. Just as Ham would carry on an ungodly line from Noah, Shem would carry on a godly line, the line of the woman from Genesis 3, the line of the One who would come and some day crush the head of the serpent. From the line of Shem would come Eber, from which the word Hebrews comes. The Jews would come from Shem. Israel would come from Shem. Thus, the Savior God promised who would defeat sin and death would come from Shem. So the Lord is recognized in verse 26 as the God of Shem, just as later He would be the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and then David, who would carry on the line of promise.

Noah also says, “May God enlarge Japheth.” Japheth’s name meant enlarge, so it’s as if Noah is saying, “May God enlarge Enlarge.” The line of Japheth would spread out, and from his line many great nations would come Persia, the Greeks, the Romans, Europeans… We come from the line of Japheth.

But notice that Japheth is enlarge, but he says, “Let him dwell in the tents of Shem.” The question then becomes, “How can this line of Japheth spread out, enlarge, and at the same time dwell within the tents of Shem?”

The answer is found in what the tents of Shem are as Scripture unfolds, as there is revelation from God. Remember, this is a prophecy. John says, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” Literally, “pitched His tent among us.” Jesus Christ, a descendant of Shem, the Son of YHWH, the God of Shem… it is in His tent the children of Japheth will be gathered together. It is in His tent we will find peace, find relief from our wanderings, find salvation.

Jesus was speaking to Jews in the book of John when He said He had sheep not of this fold — as in, not the sons of Shem. Not Hebrews. Not Jews. Those other sheep He was talking about are the sons of Japheth, Gentiles, spread across the earth.

“Salvation is from the Jews,” said Jesus to the Samaritan woman in John 4:22. The way of salvation for the sons of Japheth, then, came through Shem, so that they could be gathered into the tents of Shem.

That is how we come to salvation, and we see this played out in the book of Acts. In Acts 9, Paul, a Jew, a son of Shem, comes to salvation through Jesus Christ. In Acts 8, an Ethiopian eunuch comes to salvation through Jesus Christ, even though he was a son of Ham. In Acts 10, Cornelius, the Roman centurion, a son of Japheth, comes to salvation through the son of Shem, Jesus Christ, Yahweh in human flesh.

What Noah is prophesying, beloved, is that the only place to find blessing is within the tents of Shem… by abiding in the Lord Jesus Christ.

As for Canaan being the servant of his brothers, Shem (the Jews) and Japheth (the Gentiles who come to Christ, dwelling in the tents of Shem), there will come a day when those who refuse to repent, those who revel in dishonoring God, will lose all they do have and it shall be handed over to the godly — just as the Israelites plundered the Egyptians, so shall those who are in Christ inherit all things, including all things left over from those who have been judged by Christ upon His return.

Noah lived three hundred and fifty years after the flood. So all the days of Noah were nine hundred and fifty years, and he died.

This is the conclusion of the story about the Flood.

Practically, we can take away from this sad episode with his sons the reality that moral issues are presented here as an occasion for other sins. Drunkenness, nakedness, and moral laxity are all here in these verses presented as things which lead to shame, and to other sins. On the contrary, in the rest of the books of Moses we find that sobriety, modesty, and honor are to be practiced, treasured, and taught.

But even deeper, looking at these last two verses, it’s as if they are included just to verify what we already know: Noah was not the answer. He was not the head crusher. As if to prove sin is still here, that the Flood didn’t wash it away, Noah dies at age 950. When this flood story starts there is evil on the earth, and the flood comes and destroys the evil.  But the flood does not destroy sin, or the serpent’s seed, or death.

So we are still left longing for the answer to our question: Who will be the Head Crusher? Who will save us from disease? Who will save us from death? Who will reverse what Adam has wrought, and Noah has amen’ed by his sin? Who will save us from what our sin has wrought, our death?

And the answer is that the Who is the Lord, the God of Shem. He is in control of history and He would save His people from their sins through His Son. The promises of Noah are thus fulfilled in Jesus Christ, through Whom God will gather people from every tribe, tongue, and nation into the tent of His Son for relief forever and ever and ever.

May we be on guard against all sin and pursue holiness before our holy God. But let us at the same time realize we ourselves, like Noah, are sinners, and our righteousness, just as Noah’s was (and is today), is found by the grace of God in His Son Jesus. So may we dwell in the tents of Shem. May we pursue Jesus, and be found in Him.

Father, thank You for being a God of mercy, not giving us what we deserve, and a God of grace, giving us so much we do not deserve. We praise You, for You are perfect in goodness, perfect in strength, perfect in justice, perfect in love. We confess to You we are no better than the worst sinner. We are no closer to being able to achieve salvation on our own than anyone. We are utterly dependent upon You. And so to You we come. We pray that by Your grace we might be found in Christ, and being so found, that we might live our lives with obedient faith in Him, submissive to His good lordship, to the praise of Your glory. We ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

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