Noah becoming drunk is a little out of character with the Noah that we were introduced to before the Flood, who was perfect in his generation and who did all that the Lord commanded him. The Flood changed the geography and climate of the world. Winter and summer and cold and heat were introduced. Before the Flood, the entire earth was temperate or tropical in climate – archaeologists have found hippopotamus fossils and tropical plant fossils at the North Pole. The Flood introduced the Ice Age. It is not unlikely that fruit that was harvested and stored in the same way as before the Flood resulted in a different outcome after the Flood.
I believe that Noah did not realize that his grape harvest would ferment and become wine which, if drunk, would cause intoxication. This is the first mention of wine in the Bible, and Noah might have been the inadvertent discoverer of it.
Ham found his father intoxicated and uncovered in his tent, and did two things which showed dishonor to his father: he looked on his father’s nakedness. He filled up his eyes with his father’s sin, weakness, falling short. He focused his attention on it, on the negative. And, he told of it to others. I believe he might have even repeated the tale with mocking or laughter. He dishonored his father in the sight of others.
Shem and Japheth, in contrast (contrast is a teaching tool of Torah), refused to look on their father’s nakedness. They averted their faces and did not focus their attention on his sin or weakness. And, they covered their father’s nakedness. They did not tell it, but they covered it.
“He who covers a transgression seeks love, but he who repeats a matter separates friends.” Pro 17:9
“And above all things, have fervent love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins.” 1 Pet 4:8
Ham acted out of pride, maybe rebellion, maybe envy, maybe even a little hatred. Shem and Japheth acted out of love. Noah blessed Shem and Japheth for their love, but did not bless Ham for his insolence and dishonor.
Now if Ham had done the transgression, why was Canaan cursed, and not Ham? Ham had been previously blessed by God (Gen 9:1), and I do not believe that Noah was willing to curse that which God had blessed. I also further believe, that the traits which Ham displayed in his treatment of his father in this incident, were passed on to his sons. Children imitate their fathers – it is a spiritual law which God enacted for our blessing, so that righteous fathers would have righteous sons.
Perhaps Noah saw (perhaps by revelation from the Lord) in Canaan the most fertile soil for rebellion and every evil thing. In any case, we see from this passage that words that fathers speak over their children become prophecies which carry the weight of “Thus saith the Lord.” Fathers have a strict command from the Lord to raise up their children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, to not provoke them to wrath by unjust and unloving fathering.
This is the passage previous generations used to justify enslaving the African people, since Africans are descended from Ham. There are several problems with that interpretation. The Bible contains teaching for proper treatment of slaves, because slaves were a part of life (it still is in this day and age in some parts of the world – the Sciptures, as the Word of God, speaks to all cultures and all nations at all times, not just to one culture at one time). But the Bible never commands anyone to enslave anyone else. Slavery is not a command.
Also, the curse was on Canaan, not on Ham. The eventual destruction of Canaan as a nation was carried out by Israel, and then again by the Egyptians, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, and the Romans in subsequent generations. They were continually conquered as a people until they were destroyed from the face of the earth – long before the Europeans began enslaving Africans. Using the Bible as a justification for enslaving other human beings was unregenerate man’s way of deceiving themselves into thinking that what they knew was wrong, was somehow right. It is truly regenerated men and women, from a foundation of true Biblical interpretation, who worked mightily to bring the institution of slavery crashing to the ground.
What is the service that Canaan provided for Shem and Japheth? It is the belief of many biblical historians that the Canaanites, who were the same people as the Phoenicians, discovered or perfected many useful sciences and arts which greatly served the descendants of Shem and Japheth – commerce, navigation, exploration, establishing outposts and the beginnings of civilization in some of the farthest reaches of the earth, bringing goods from the far corners of the earth so that Shem and Japheth could benefit from them – all these things the Phoenicians accomplished and perfected. When their service was finished, the people mentioned above destroyed them from the face of the earth. Israel (from Shem) destroyed them from the heartland of the Holy Land. Alexander the Great (from Japheth) destroyed Tyre, the greatest Canaanite city on the coast of the Holy Land where they had been pushed by Israel, and the Romans (from Japheth) destroyed Carthage on the northern coast of Africa, the greatest Canaanite city outside of their homeland. The Romans eventually seized all the Phoenician mines, trading centers and routes, and enfolded their enterprises into her own.