Shem, Ham, and Japheth


Shem and Japheth were the strong and able ones who brought dignity back to their father, and gently restored both Ham and Noah to righteousness.

This is a theme the apostle Paul wrote extensively on, as he observed the needs of each faith community in the 1st century church. There were those who seemed not to understand the real depths of their own degradation, and others who, for whatever reason, pulled back from their coarser brothers and sisters, rather than lean in to help, encourage, exhort, and build up.

“We who are strong ought to put up with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves,” Paul had enjoined, in one of his letters. Each of us must please our neighbor for the good purpose of building up the neighbor. For Christ did not please himself.” No indeed! Jesus had taken upon Himself all the frailties and vulnerabilities of humankind in order to bring healing, redemption, and restoration. There was none too weak, too broken, too reviled, too sick for Jesus. He always, always leaned in.

It would have been easy, and understandable, for Shem and Japheth to pull away in disgust, to search for their mother, and lay the whole sordid affair out before her. They might have even laid blame and shame on her shoulders, “Where were you when this all happened?” they might have asked her, in self-righteous high dudgeon. “Don’t you keep track of father when he’s laid low?”

How is it, they might have demanded, that Ham had free access to father in his own tent, where you should have been too, with him? How is it that it was so easy for Ham to uncover father’s nakedness?

Or, they might have expected their mother to be the champion in their stead, to cover her husband herself, to find Ham and confront him, to lay down judgment and law in Noah’s place, or in theirs. They could have washed their hands of the squalor, priding themselves in having “handled it,” without themselves having to be sullied.

Many partners of alcoholics find themselves in this very predicament, trying to cover for their spouse (or father or mother, or brother or sister, or friend or lover), making excuses, cleaning up after them, apologizing for them, and in every way feeling responsible for them, their behavior, their condition, and their misery. Did Noah’s wife feel that way?

But her sons, with great compassion and empathy did not do this to her.

Be imitators of God, as beloved children,” Paul had written, in another of his letters, “and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” What Paul wrote next is eerily apt for Ham, “But fornication and impurity of any kind, or greed, must not even be mentioned among you, as is proper among saints. Entirely out of place is obscene, silly, and vulgar talk.” The very things that had so revolted his brothers.

We could spiritualize this lesson by weighing these brothers’ examples. Ham set the bad example, enjoying another’s exposure with eagerness to talk about it. Shem and Japheth set the good example, committed to covering over in love the sins and failings of another, refusing to even look, let alone leer.  We could get more specific, thinking about what motivates one brother to perverse lusts, and the other brothers to chaste protectiveness, and examine the motivations of our own hearts. We might even whittle our pencils to a fine point, coming up with long lists of righteousness and wretchedness.

Yet truly, the foundation appears to be a simple one: the motivations of the heart, when filled with love for God and others, is moved with a noble compassion. When filled with selfishness and self-centeredness, it seems there is a warping effect which contorts the heart to darkness.


Shem, Ham, and Japheth | James Tissot [Public domain]

Published by Joanne Guarnieri Hagemeyer

Speaker and Author Bible Teacher and partner with Ancient Voices, Sacred Stories

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