Many people have experienced a nightmare in which they find themselves in public half-dressed or even naked. They feel mortified over being so exposed and spend the rest of the dream desperately trying to cover themselves and escape the situation, hoping no one else has noticed.
Noah woke from his sleep to discover that the nightmare had really happened. He had always been conscious of living an upright life before God and men, and God had honored him accordingly (see Gen. 6:8–9). But Noah was human, and he fell prey to the temptation to misuse the fruit of the earth for which he had toiled and with which God had blessed him. In a moment of weakness, he consumed too much wine and fell into a drunken sleep, oblivious to the fact that his nakedness was shamefully exposed.
Noah’s sons responded to their father’s vulnerable state in radically different ways. Ham took delight in his father’s humiliation, drinking it in with his own eyes and then exposing it to others. Shem and Japheth chose an honorable course of action. They had heard God affirm the value of each human body as made in His image (vv. 5–6), so they found a way to protect their father’s dignity rather than further degrade it. They averted their eyes from Noah’s exposed body while carefully covering the nakedness that caused his shame.
While at first glance Noah’s reaction to the news seems vindictive, it turned out to be both fitting and prophetic. His response revealed a willingness to take seriously the offense given by his son. Ham had behaved shamefully and shame would become his lot in life. Shem and Japheth had honored their father, and in turn they would receive blessing and honor.