Sexual Assault: What Happens in Noah's Tent?

Sexual Assault: What Happens in Noah's Tent?

Sexual assault.

It’s hard, sometimes, to prove it happened.

Emotions run high. Memory highlights some details, and, thus, leaves out others. Often, alcohol is involved.

So, that’s the setting Torah uses for a little teaching story.

It takes place right after the flood. When the waters have washed away human evil. Leaving eight good people alive. “Good” people — so we hope.

Noah, a man of the soil, began to plant a vineyard. He drank of the wine and got drunk; he became exposed inside his tent. Ham, father of Canaan saw his father’s nakedness and told his two brothers outside. Shem and Japheth took the cloak, placed it on both their shoulders, walked backwards and covered their fathers nakedness. Their faces [looked] backwards and they did not see their father’s nakedness. Noah awakened from his wine and knew what his youngest son did to him. He said, “Cursed be Canaan; a slave of slaves he’ll be to his brothers” (Gen. 9:20-25; translation mine).

What a story! Deliberately ambiguous. Definitely provocative. So, my students asked a lot of questions.

What happens inside Noah’s tent? Why is the text so vague about the details? Why does the story call Ham the “father of Canaan”? What exactly does Ham tell his brothers? If Shem and Japheth are walking backwards and looking away, then how do they know the cloak falls anywhere near Noah? Isn’t Ham, not Canaan, Noah’s youngest son? If so, what action by Ham does Noah become aware of? If Ham does something wrong, then why does Noah curse Canaan?

Obviously, my students said, Canaan is a major player in this story. He is involved in something terrible. But he is only a young boy. Assume he is conceived when his parents leave the ark. Just as Noah starts his vineyard. He plants in that first spring season. Waits three years as his grapes mature, then another month as they ferment. Finally, Noah enjoys (?) a night of blackout drinking.

At age three, Canaan is more likely to be a victim than a perpetrator.

Something happens inside Noah’s tent. Between two people, it seems. Whatever it is, Ham sees it. And he tells his older brothers.

Suppose Ham took advantage of his father. Its seems unlikely he would brag about it.  (Unless, of course, Ham is drinking, too.) Thus, Ham probably reports something else to his brothers. Something involving Canaan. Maybe, a sexual assault.

But brothers Shem and Japheth do not want to hear. Or see. Instead, they look away. They cover it up.

(The image of the brothers randomly dropping the cloak without looking, my students said, is ridiculous. Thus, the text screams, “Read me as a metaphor!”)

Maybe Shem and Japheth say, “Don’t worry about it, Ham. Dad’s been under a lot of stress. He isn’t himself. He didn’t know what he was doing. His binge drinking won’t become a habit. So, we’ll watch him. It’s okay, Ham, really it is.”

But no, Ham might think. It is not okay. My son is not safe around his grandfather. I was a fool to think my older brothers would understand. They haven’t become parents themselves yet.

Noah wakes from his stupor.  Confused, hung over, unable to recall hours or even days of events. Somehow he finds out what happened. Maybe Ham confronts him. (Of course!) “You committed a sexual assault, Dad. Everyone knows. I told them.”

But Noah does not own up. Nor does he apologize. Or say, “Help me get sober, son.” Instead, he becomes angry, defensive. It’s Canaan’s fault. “What was he doing wandering unsupervised around the family tents? He must have climbed right into my bed. Or maybe he made the whole thing up. Told you a story from his imagination. And you, so naive, believed him and re-told it. What a nasty child he is! Sexualized, lying, and still so young! Curse him!”

And thus evil returns. Right after the flood. Not just with the drunken mistake. But with Noah’s refusal to take responsibility. Instead, Noah blames the victim.

Victim-blaming. It’s topsy-turvy. Crime-enabling. Destructive. Dangerous. And it’s alive and well in today’s discussions of sexual assault.

At least, that’s how my students see it.

Thank you to students in the Midrash class at Vancouver School of  Theology.

  1. Yes. My nephew committed suicide. A promising 27 year old computer master at Princton graduate school. He wrote a 40 page suicide note saying he was repeatedly raped at 3 years old and couldn’t take the Darkness anymore. I am the only family member willing to discuss this, suspicious of both my dear father and brother. Complete denial. And now , I am hated. It is something you dont dare talk about. My job is to love myself and love the Truth and pray for salvation, because the Darkness is Dark, and I dont like it. I am the Light, and I will be very Bright.

  2. I’m sorry to read about your nephew, his, your, and your family’s pain and loss.

    I hope Torah helps. It’s not always comforting; it takes a pretty unflinching view of people.

    Somehow, the book of Bereisheet-Genesis ends with family healing. Blessings to you.

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