When people hear the name Noah, that is what they imagine. They picture an enormous wooden boat, animals marching two by two, a cataclysmic flood, and a promise-infused rainbow. It’s the story that many of us have heard since childhood, and the story for which Noah will forever be remembered.
However, Genesis contains a second story about Noah, a story that is less known and very strange. It appears in chapter 9, after Noah and his family have safely disembarked from the ark. As they settle into their news lives Noah plants a vineyard, and one day he becomes drunk off the wine. What happens next is an odd interaction between him and his three sons:
When [Noah] drank some of its wine, he became drunk and lay uncovered inside his tent. Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father naked and told his two brothers outside. But Shem and Japheth took a garment and laid it across their shoulders; then they walked in backward and covered their father’s naked body. Their faces were turned the other way so that they would not see their father naked. (21-23)
After Noah awakes and realizes what his sons have done, he curses Ham and blesses Shem and Japheth.
And that is the end of the story.
I’ll be honest–I have always thought this story was super weird, so I had never given much thought to its significance. It wasn’t until a friend mentioned the story in a recent conversation that I decided to give it a second look. Since then, I have been blown away by the implications of this short passage.
The sin of Ham
In case you’re wondering what on earth Noah’s nakedness has to do with gossip, take a look at the story again. Notice Ham’s response to his father’s nakedness in verse 22: Ham “saw his father naked and told his two brothers outside.”
Although it is unclear what is meant by Noah’s nakedness, the Hebrew phrase is a common one that connotes shame. Somehow, in some way, Noah was shaming himself. He sinned in a manner that exposed himself to shame.
And Ham’s response was to spread that shame around.
Ham’s brothers, on the other hand, had a different response. Shem and Japheth knew their father would wake up, realize what he had done, and be filled with shame, so they responded with mercy and grace. Rather than heap shame upon shame, they did all they could to guard his dignity and cover his shame. And for that, they were blessed.
What does this strange story mean?
The story of Noah’s nakedness is a lesson about moral failure and shame, but it’s also about how to respond. When a fellow believer sins and brings shame upon themselves, we can respond in two ways: like Ham, and spread the news around, or like Shem and Japheth, quietly guarding their dignity and imparting restorative grace.
This aspect of restoration is important, because shame and devastation can be compounded in an earnest desire to bring a sin to light. And this mistake is understandable. 1 John 1:7 tells us, “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.” Sin clings to darkness and hiddenness, so freedom from sin can only be had in the light.
There is certainly a time for light.
But there is also a time for covering.
Covering is different from hiding. Covering comes after the sin has come to light, and this distinction matters. I have watched as well-intentioned Christians “exposed sin” in a manner and scope that increased the shame of another. In the interest of bringing sin to light, shame was heaped upon shame. All under the name of “transparency” or “communication”, believers have been subjected to experiences that echoed Christ’s humiliation on the cross. They were laid bare, stripped of honor, displayed for all to see and gawk at.
What they needed in that moment was not added humiliation, but the covering that comes from holy compassion. Following Jesus’ crucifixion, Joseph of Arimathea wrapped him in clean linen and treated his broken body with dignity. Quite literally, Joseph covered Jesus. Likewise, when a repentant sinner has crucified her own flesh, bringing her brokenness to light and enduring the shame of that moment, shouldn’t our response be like that of Joseph, rather than the callous crowd?
Light does not necessitate a second crucifixion. Christ already took care of that. What we can do is follow God’s example of covering.
God has been covering our shame since the creation of humanity. In Genesis 3 God covers the shame of Adam and Eve in a clear foreshadowing of the perfect covering we have in Christ. And in Jesus, we are liberated from both the power of sin, and the shame that accompanies it. In Christ we have his righteousness, his dignity, and his honor.
In view of God’s mercy, shouldn’t we also “cover the shame” of those who have been broken, humiliated, and crushed by sin? Shouldn’t we seek to restore one another’s honor and dignity, just as God did for us? This doesn’t mean hiding a sin away, but it doesn’t mean crucifying the sinner either.
When a person has repented, it is time for care, for covering, for restoration.
The story of Noah presents each one of us with an important question: which brother will you be?
When a friend succumbs to sin, will you go and tell others? Or will you guard her reputation?
When a friend repents of sin, will you increase her shame through gossip, or honor your sister in Christ through discretion?
When a pastor is exposed for a moral failure, will you chatter about it among your fellow church members, or “cover” his shame by holding your tongue?
The sin of Ham continues in our churches today. It continues in the form of gossip, as well as poorly executed church discipline. While there is indeed a time for light, let us also remember that there is a time for covering. It is how we love one another, honor the image of God in one another, and restore one another following the shame and devastation of human sin.
Which brother will you be?