Noah’s Nakedness Exposed: The Ancients Took Modesty Seriously •
Gen 9:18-27; Herodotus’ History 1:8-12
We are struck by the curse Noah pronounces on his grandson Canaan in Gen 9 for the actions of Canaan’s father Ham:
Gen 9:18-27 And the sons of Noah, that went forth of the ark, were Shem, and Ham, and Japheth: and Ham [is] the father of Canaan. 19 These [are] the three sons of Noah: and of them was the whole earth overspread. 20 And Noah began [to be] an husbandman, and he planted a vineyard: 21 And he drank of the wine, and was drunken; and he was uncovered within his tent. 22 And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brethren without. 23 And Shem and Japheth took a garment, and laid [it] upon both their shoulders, and went backward, and covered the nakedness of their father; and their faces [were] backward, and they saw not their father’s nakedness. 24 And Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done unto him. 25 And he said, Cursed [be] Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren. 26 And he said, Blessed [be] the LORD God of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant. 27 God shall enlarge Japheth, and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant. (KJV)
This odd story bothers us and raises our curiosity in a number of aspects, but for this Bible Bit we will set all these aside and simply point out another example of the ancients taking modesty seriously. Was exposure to another’s nudity, even if more or less casually and innocently, a transgression worthy of death?
Certainly God takes the matter seriously, regardless of Mesopotamian cultural norms or those of Moses and any other writers of Genesis. But we’d like to point out the possibility that society at large saw exposure with shock.
We’ll provide an example from the mid-500’s B.C.
The Greek historian Herodotus compiled his History in the middle to late portion of the B.C. 400’s, and is among the first historians of record where the historian attempts a neutral fact and neutral analysis-based account of events and reasons. His record of Greek history and Persian warfare and dominance in eastern international politics was written about 150 years following the Jewish return to Judah from Persian Babylon, and 100 years following the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem. Contemporary Biblical writers and characters of this 600 to 450 time period are Nebuchadnezzar II, Cyrus of Persia, Xerxes of Persia, Esther the queen and uncle Mordecai and their book account, the prophet Ezekiel and his book, the prophet Daniel and his book, Zerubbabel who governed Judah and oversaw rebuilding in Jerusalem, Ezra who followed and continued the work of Zerubbabel, and Nehemiah who continued the work of Ezra.
Herodotus provides an account of personal and political intrigue involving the king of Sardis, named Candaules, his close advisor and bodyguard, Gyges, and Candaules’ the king’s unnamed wife. According to Herodutus’ account of these mid-500s events, Candaules boasted to Gyges regarding his wife’s great beauty, and egged Gyges on in an attempt to get his friend to secretly view the naked body of the king’s wife as she prepared for bed. Candaules boasted and urged. Gyges was embarrassed by the idea and unwilling. In the end however, the powerful king placed his servant in position to view the naked woman.
The plan failed to keep Gyges’ viewpoint secret, and he was discovered and later cornered by the queen. She demanded a choice from Gyges: either kill himself or his close friend the king. Gyges made an unhappy decision and king Candaules was killed for his part in exposing his wife’s nakedness.
That punishment for “uncovering one’s nakedness” was a cultural norm, and not merely a personal reaction by Candaules’s wife and herself a politically-minded queen is provided by Herodotus. We have emphasized these statements below.
From Herodotus’ History, 1.8-12:
1.8 This Candaules, then, fell in love with his own wife, so much so that he believed her to be by far the most beautiful woman in the world; and believing this, he praised her beauty beyond measure to Gyges son of Dascylus, who was his favorite among his bodyguard; for it was to Gyges that he entrusted all his most important secrets. After a little while, Candaules, doomed to misfortune, spoke to Gyges thus: “Gyges, I do not think that you believe what I say about the beauty of my wife; men trust their ears less than their eyes: so you must see her naked.” Gyges protested loudly at this. “Master,” he said, “what an unsound suggestion, that I should see my mistress naked! When a woman’s clothes come off, she dispenses with her modesty, too. Men have long ago made wise rules from which one ought to learn; one of these is that one should mind one’s own business. As for me, I believe that your queen is the most beautiful of all women, and I ask you not to ask of me what is lawless.”
1.9 Speaking thus, Gyges resisted: for he was afraid that some evil would come of it for him. But this was Candaules’ answer: “Courage, Gyges! Do not be afraid of me, that I say this to test you, or of my wife, that you will have any harm from her. I will arrange it so that she shall never know that you have seen her. I will bring you into the chamber where she and I lie and conceal you behind the open door; and after I have entered, my wife too will come to bed. There is a chair standing near the entrance of the room: on this she will lay each article of her clothing as she takes it off, and you will be able to look upon her at your leisure. Then, when she moves from the chair to the bed, turning her back on you, be careful she does not see you going out through the doorway.”
1.10 As Gyges could not escape, he consented. Candaules, when he judged it to be time for bed, brought Gyges into the chamber; his wife followed presently, and when she had come in and was laying aside her garments, Gyges saw her; when she turned her back upon him to go to bed, he slipped from the room. The woman glimpsed him as he went out, and perceived what her husband had done. But though shamed, she did not cry out or let it be seen that she had perceived anything, for she meant to punish Candaules; since among the Lydians and most of the foreign peoples it is felt as a great shame that even a man be seen naked.
1.11 For the present she made no sign and kept quiet. But as soon as it was day, she prepared those of her household whom she saw were most faithful to her, and called Gyges. He, supposing that she knew nothing of what had been done, answered the summons; for he was used to attending the queen whenever she summoned him. When Gyges came, the lady addressed him thus: “Now, Gyges, you have two ways before you; decide which you will follow. You must either kill Candaules and take me and the throne of Lydia for your own, or be killed yourself now without more ado; that will prevent you from obeying all Candaules’ commands in the future and seeing what you should not see. One of you must die: either he, the contriver of this plot, or you, who have outraged all custom by looking on me uncovered.” Gyges stood awhile astonished at this; presently, he begged her not to compel him to such a choice. But when he could not deter her, and saw that dire necessity was truly upon him either to kill his master or himself be killed by others, he chose his own life. Then he asked: “Since you force me against my will to kill my master, I would like to know how we are to lay our hands on him.” She replied, “You shall come at him from the same place where he made you view me naked: attack him in his sleep.”
1.12 When they had prepared this plot, and night had fallen, Gyges followed the woman into the chamber (for Gyges was not released, nor was there any means of deliverance, but either he or Candaules must die). She gave him a dagger and hid him behind the same door; and presently he stole out and killed Candaules as he slept. Thus he made himself master of the king’s wife and sovereignty. He is mentioned in the iambic verses of Archilochus of Parus who lived about the same time.
Now the events of Noah’s drunken nakedness and the reaction by his three sons (and God) occurred many hundred years prior to even the ancient times of Herodotus and Persian-Greek wars. We suggest it nevertheless might illustrate a cultural norm of the ancients to view indecent exposure of the body with seriousness and punish those who offend this norm with maximum severity.
We won’t attempt here to specify the exact transgression of Noah’s son, but do take the view that it was no more egregious than simple viewing of exposure and laughing to his brothers about it. Bible Bits suggests that polite society of Noah’s time took this seriously, just as Greek society seems to have done in Herodotus’ time. In any event, God takes it seriously.
The text of Herodotus is from A. D. Godley. Cambridge. Harvard University Press. 1920.
Thanks to the Perseus Digital Library at Tufts University and Blue Letter Bible.
Blessings to you! And read the actual Bible for yourself! 🙂