This past Sunday night I preached the story of Noah, passed out, drunk, and his son Ham. What an awkward story that is. Probably not one you learned in Sunday School! Where is the flannelgraph board story for this? “Here’s Noah and his family leaving the ark… Here’s Noah and his family offering sacrifices at the altar… Here’s the tent where Noah is asleep in a drunken stupor.”
But all is not what it seems. Or so I asserted in my Sunday evening sermon, but I don’t feel I did a very good job in proving it. Mostly because of how I dealt with Genesis 9:20 and the issue of Noah beginning to be “an husbandman” – a man of the soil. I said that Noah was the first man to grow a vineyard, but when you read the verse in English, your reaction may be something like, “Huh? Where’s that in the verse?” That’s because it’s a Hebrew thing – I won’t bore you with the details.
But there’s more, and I’ll share it with you, dear reader, so I can try to restore Noah’s reputation. Not that his “drunkenness” is the main point of the story at all, but, still, it is interesting and hopefully will make you think about the story a little more. (A great help to me in this was the chapter titled “Noah: Sot or Saint?,” by Noah E. Brown, in a book called The Way of Wisdom, ed. J.I. Packer and Sven K. Soderlund. Any page numbers below are from that book.)
Let me put all my cards on the table: I don’t believe that Noah sinned in verse 21. Here are three reasons why.
First, verse 20 says that Noah was the first vineyard-grower. This means that “vines, wine, and drinking were new for Noah, and [that] his experience with them and his resultant drunkenness would not have been something he could have predicted” (38). There had been no-one before him to find out what would happen if fresh wine was left out for a while and fermented, and so Noah should not be condemned.
Second, we need to examine the Hebrew word translated “and was drunken.” This sounds like Noah drank a lot of wine and got wasted. But this is not necessarily the case. The word translated “and was drunken” can be used to describe something positive. In Song of Songs 5:1, the husband describes the delights of marital intimacy with his wife. Then “an unknown speaker” exhorts others to “eat, O friends; drink, yea, drink abundantly [in other words, “drink to the full”; “give yourself over to pleasure with your spouse”], O beloved.” So here the word translated “drink abundantly” is used “to describe a good, positive, and fulfilling activity” (43). This simply shows that when used to describe Noah’s drinking it is not necessarily negative.
In Haggai 1:6, a verse you may well have heard preached before, God tells Israel, “Ye have sown much, and bring in little; ye eat, but ye have not enough; ye drink, but ye are not filled with drink; ye clothe you, but there is none warm; and he that earneth wages earneth wages to put it into a bag with holes.” Here, being “filled with drink” is seen as something positive, like eating and being full, or like being warm (43). But God withheld this from Israel because they were not putting Him first. If they had put Him first, He would have blessed them with enough wine to be “filled with drink.” Again, this is a positive use of the word.
Because of these uses of the word in the Hebrew Bible, we don’t have to assume that Noah, back in Genesis 9, got drunk. Rather, it could simply be that “he drank from the wine, and he became fully content,” or “was [satisfied to the point of] sleep” (44).
Rather than showing the curse of sin, Noah’s drinking wine and being satisfied in this story shows the blessing of God (37). God had just blessed Noah and his sons in 9:1, and had promised not to curse the ground any further in 8:21. And here, just after God blessed him, Noah succeeds in growing grapes out the ground; this shows that, in spite of the curse, God would bless man’s efforts to grow crops on this new earth (53).
Further, the fruit of the vine is shown to be a wonderful blessing from the hand of God. In Psalm 104, the psalmist praises God for His continuous work in His world. Verses 14-15 say this: “He causeth the grass to grow for the cattle, and herb for the service of man: that he may bring forth food out of the earth; And wine that maketh glad the heart of man, and oil to make his face to shine, and bread which strengtheneth man’s heart.” How good God is to refresh our hearts with food and drink – gifts that come out of the cursed ground, and yet are used to give us joy!
So Noah, relaxing in his tent, “drank to full contentment” on the blessings of God, “celebrating God’s good gift” (53).
But there’s a third reason why we shouldn’t condemn Noah in Genesis 9:21. He was “uncovered within his tent.” Having been satisfied with the blessings of God, warmed by his wine, he lay down to sleep in his tent without any clothes on. Is this sinful? Hardly! The text points out that Noah was in the privacy of “his tent.” As one commentator put it, “If a man cannot get naked in the privacy of his own tent, where, pray tell, could he get naked?” (54) Noah’s nakedness was not “an issue” for Noah, but for “the sons” in the following verses (49).
For these three reasons, I believe that Noah was not drunk in this story. Of course, I would not stake my life on this or confront those who disagree with me in righteous indignation, veins standing out on my forehead. However, I think this is the best interpretation of the story in the latter part of Genesis 9: Noah was innocently and righteously enjoying the blessings of God in the fruit of the vine. He was not a plastered patriarch, but a satisfied saint.