Three’s Company

The whole brouhaha over Prince Charles and the sexual peccadillo about which no one is allowed to write or speak has me thinking about Noah. Possibly you haven’t read the Bible lately — and why would you, even its most ardent readers call it the Good Book; no doubt you’re holding out for a Great Book. In any case, here’s how Noah starts.

First, divine beings are smitten by the beauty of ordinary mortal women and take them as their wives. Next, God — who’s very big on boundaries — reminds everyone that humans are mortal and sets their life span at 126 years. But do these mixed-marriage couples get it? No, they go ahead and have children, Nephilim, who are demi-gods by virtue of their parentage — in-between mortal and immortal. And, says the Bible, “They were the heroes of old, the men of renown.”

Followed immediately by “And God saw how great was man’s wickedness.” The only antecedent for “wickedness” being the hero-worship of demigods, one can only assume God meant man to revile them for being Middle Men. And when man doesn’t revile them but worships them instead, God gets so disgusted He sends the flood to destroy every living thing on earth — we’ll see who’s semi-mortal now! — except of course for Noah and his family, because Noah is a “righteous” man who can be trusted to put two and two together.

Which is what Noah mainly does. This is the “two of each unto the ark” part. (It follows the “three hundred cubits by fifty cubits by thirty cubits part.” In fact, this whole section is math, like in the movie The Hunt for Red October — “Your target is at 2000 meters, re-clock distance twenty miles.” It probably just seemed like forty days.)

Finally, the ark lands on Mt. Ararat and God decides “so long as the earth endures, seed-time and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.” Everything will be in two. Nothing in-between. That’s basically what the covenant represents: God promises not to send any more floods; humankind promises to eschew the middle.

All of which goes a long way towards explaining why the middle class is being squeezed out. Why mid-sized cars have given way to Mini-Coopers and Hummers. Why there’s trouble in the Middle East. (My advice: change the name to Mellow East. Problem solved.)

But wait, you ask, where’s the sex part?

At the end of the Noah story, in which God the Bible-writer turns out to be like Oliver Stone, the director — he never saw a point he couldn’t drive home harder.

“Noah, a man of the soil, was the first to plant a vineyards. He drank some of the wine, became drunk and lay naked inside his tent. When Ham, father of Canaan, saw his father naked, he told his two brothers outside. So Shem and Japheth took a cloak, put it on their shoulders and walked backwards and so covered their father’s naked body; their faces were turned away so they did not see their father naked. When Noah woke from his drunken sleep, he learnt what his youngest son had done to him, and said “Cursed be Canaan, slave of slaves shall he be to his brothers.”

Believe me, even actual religious scholars look at this and go “Huh?” The son sees his father naked, tells his brothers, and boom, his progeny is consigned to slavery, to be the slave of slaves? Even Prince Charles is only threatening a law-suit.

Some religious scholars point to the word “nakedness,” which, in this context, can mean specifically the genitals. From this, they conclude that Ham committed a sexual offense against Noah or Mrs. Noah or caught Noah out in one. Here’s my interpretation. To earn a curse that dire, Ham had to have seen — and worse, told! — something really, really bad. Less an impropriety, more an impiety.

Let’s review: 1) God’s cosmology boils down to two/two/two/two/two. 2) There are only two of anything and nothing in-between, nothing in the middle. 3) Noah is the earthly representative of this divine order.

For you to assess on the crackpot scale of one to ten, here’s today’s theory: Ham found Noah in a threesome, in-between two other partners.

Tammi Schneider responds to “Three’s Company”

Writing as a biblical scholar I can state with all honesty that Emily has done her homework. The end of Noah’s story is a bit confusing and I am not convinced that her take on it should be dismissed. I am a particular fan of Emily’s position on the middle in general (the missing chicken) and her interpretation is certainly one that works. For purposes of this exercise I will provide a few comments on the story from the position of someone who actually reads the bible for work.

One element that I would disagree with Emily about is that the book is only a “Good Book” and not a “Great” one. The Hebrew Bible is a GREAT book, the problem is that people are so convinced that every story is about ethics and morals and that the “heros” of the story, like Noah, Abraham, and Moses, to name only a few, are always the “good guys” that they miss some of the other elements of the story. When one actually reads the text carefully it becomes clear that some of the “good guys” are not so great, and almost all the human characters are horribly flawed, but why should that surprise us? Another major issue in the Hebrew Bible, especially in Genesis, is who is sleeping with whom. Read the book of Genesis and know that when men “take” women, your translation may imply “marriage” but the term in Hebrew usually carries more of a sense of “consummation” (wink wink) then anything having to do with a marriage license.

Emily is quite right about the beginning of the story of Noah. The only incident prior to Noah’s that could possibly lead up to the deity’s wrath over the situation is the arrival of these Nephilimcharacters. These characters are the descendants of the sons of gods cohabiting with the daughters of men. The discussion about the origin of the Nephilim is intertwined with the length of human life and thus what might be at issue is that gods, who at least in Mesopotamia live forever in stark contrast to humans, are sleeping around with humans, who have a limited life span. Genesis is particularly concerned with who sleeps together and the “problem” with these unions might be that there is mismatch in lifespans.

The Nephilim seem to be the cause for the deity’s decision to send the flood to wipe out everything on earth, with the exception of what Noah takes with him in the ark. Emily is correct that Noah is a “righteous” man but the biblical text qualifies it adding that he was “blameless in his age.” So, Noah may have been “righteous” but the text seems to be letting us know that everything is relative and he did not have much competition.

After the whole flood nightmare Noah becomes the first person to plant a vineyard. The Hebrew Bible has no problem with alcohol and drinking, in fact, most of the time it is a good thing. The problem seems to be excess. Noah had too much. This then leads to the nakedness situation.

The Hebrew Bible doesn’t have trouble with drinking, and it does not really even have trouble with sex, as long as the right people are doing it together at the right time in the right situation. This is where the problem with Noah seems to creep in, though Emily rightly notes that the text does not add anywhere that he actually has sex with anyone. What the Hebrew Bible does seem to have issues with is nakedness. Seldom is there an incident where a person is naked and it does not lead to trouble (just ask Bathsheba). Noah’s drunken state led him to be naked.

Where sex might be an issue is who is cursed in the situation. Ham, the one who “saw” and told his brothers about it, is not really cursed, his future descendant Canaan is. Canaan clearly becomes a problem for later Israel since Canaan’s descendants are in the land that the deity promises to the Israelites, creating a bit of a situation for the books of Joshua and Judges. Some scholars wonder what it was about the Canaanites that was so terrible that the deity demanded their extermination at the hand of the Israelites. One possibility is that the Canaanites were too sexually perverse, and many of the stories of Genesis are there to “prove” it. Other instances of their perversity are the stories about the cities of Sodom and Gemorrah (Genesis 19), and the rape of Dinah (Genesis 34).

As a fan of the middle of the road I love Emily’s treatment of the story and I am not convinced that anything included here “disproves” her take on it. In fact, I invite her take on this story:: much later in the Torah, in the book of Numbers (13:33) when Moses sends out scouts to check out the land, the scouts, with the exception of Joshua and Caleb, complain that the people in Canaan were Nephilim. They are also associated with some people called Anakites. Clearly the implication is that these people are very large, since the comparison is that the Israelites look like grasshoppers compared to them. The Anakites appear later as gigantic type of people but the Numbers reference is the last to the Nephilim themselves. The problem seems to be that if the Nephilim were wiped out in the flood how could they still be in Canaan in the book of Numbers? Current theory says that the Numbers reference seems not to designate semi-divine creatures but rather humans who are significantly larger than the Israelites thereby instilling great fear into the scouts, therefore the connection to the Anakites rather than the sons of gods. The reference to Nephilim in Numbers is thus more of a dramatic touch by the Israelite scouts to emphasize how difficult taking the land will be rather than a reference to the existence to these people that were the reason the flood was sent in the first place. What does the Crackpot theory say?

I’m on the Board of Visitors at Claremont Graduate University for which distinction I have to do absolutely nothing but appear once or twice a year at a meeting and be treated to a description of the work some of the faculty and/or graduate students are doing. One year, Tammi Schneider, an associate professor of religion at CGU, talked about her work excavating sites in Israel thought to be Philistine settlements. Her presentation was so vivid and engaging that ever since Iive been looking for an excuse to get her going on the subject of, well, almost anything. But since the Philistines were also known as “Nephilim”, Noah it is.

Stephen Mitchell responds to “Three’s Company”

Crackpot? Your theory seems entirely reasonable to me. As a matter of fact, the Tao Te Ching elucidates it perfectly in its 42nd chapter. I will add my comments within brackets.


The Tao gives birth to One.
[The Tao is ultimate reality. The One is God: adonai ekhad.]
One gives birth to Two.
[God separates the world into opposites, a cosmic havdalah.]
Two gives birth to Three.
[Because of this separation, all kinds of physical anomalies arise, including Noah’s fateful threesome.]
Three gives birth to all things.
[The threesome causes the cursing of Ham, which leads directly to slavery, the American Civil War and its aftermath, and the whole social quagmire that we presently find ourselves in.]
All things have their backs to the female
and stand facing the male.
[The imagination needn’t be stretched too far to see how perfectly this applies to the Noah story. If only Noah had had his back to the male and his front to the female, he would have been much less frustrated. Of course, he might have been too drunk to care. It’s hard when you start hitting the home-made stuff in order to escape the judgments of a very dangerous deity.]
When male and female combine,
all things achieve harmony.
[When the two become truly one, there’s nothing. All that’s left is life being lived through them. This is also called the Middle Way.]

Personally, I lack the belief gene, which is why I can scarcely believe my good fortune in claiming Stephen Mitchell as a friend. His translations of the Tao, Genesis, Rilke’s Duino Elegies (to name but a few) are characterized by language so beautiful yet simple and clear, it inspires even in me the belief that I’m reading the work’s original, authentic voice. His novels include The Frog Prince, an enchanting and profound illumination of what it means to engage in a loving relationship. His latest children’s book, The Wishing Bone, is cotton-brain-candy. Oh, and that’s not even mentioning Loving What Is, a book that details the life/work/practice of Stephen’s wife and (in this case) co-author, Byron Katie.

Rabbi Jen Krause responds to “Three’s Company”

Noah’s alleged ménage a trois gets an eight on the crackpot scale. Given the array of sexual escapades either alluded to or colorfully detailed throughout the Bible, imagining Noah in a drunken threesome is not entirely out of the question. As a matter of fact, the rabbis also conjectured that Noah was, to use an ancient term, gettin’ jiggy in that tent. Some say Ham forced Noah to have sex with him; others say Ham didn’t want his father producing any more offspring, and therefore purposely caught Noah in the act. The interruption, they contend, rendered Noah, incapable of Ð cough, cough Ð completing the transaction. And before all you Maxim men pass judgment on Noah’s performance, remember the guy was 600 years old, under the influence, and living before Viagra.

Here’s the flaw in the threesome theory: the Bible is a basically patriarchal narrative. If Noah had been engaging in said act, Ham would probably have been rewarded for telling the tale. After all, a threesome every guy’s fantasy, is it not? Too far-fetched? Okay, okay. Seriously, if the lesson lies in what Noah was doing in the tent, or with whom, we would likely be party to the details. And while it is true that creating rules around particular couplings is a recurring biblical theme, it simply does not appear to be central in this instance.

In this case, boundaries are crucial, but in a different way. We aren’t meant to focus on what Noah was doing in the tent, but rather that Ham made the private thing he saw Noah doing public. Whether this meant announcing that Noah was drunk, naked, and sleeping it off or drunk, naked, and not sleeping alone Ð it doesn’t matter. What matters is that Ham violated Noah’s privacy, exposed him in a moment of raw humanity, and diminished his dignity as a result.

On the contrary, Shem and Japheth understood that safeguarding their father’s dignity was a primary value. They were not interested in exploiting Noah’s exploits, just in making certain that no one else found him in flagrante. They knew that if they – or anyone else, for that matter – saw him in such a state, it would change the way he was seen forever.

In this age in which personal human screw-ups are must-see reality TV, we may need a refresher course in the connection between privacy and dignity. What role do we play in safeguarding the honor of others, whether they be family, friends, or the latest name on the crawl? Imagine yourself in a less than shimmering moment in your own life. Would you want someone else in your tent, and if so, would you want that person to tell all when he/she emerged?

The Mishnah teaches, “Let the honor of another be as dear to you as your own.” The story of drunken Noah and his sons reminds us of this practice. Because once the story’s out, it’s out. That is where there is no in-between.

Just in case you’re wondering, it doesn’t bother me that Jen Krause knows more than I. She’s a rabbi, ordained by Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in N.Y. She’s a featured speaker at the 92nd Second Street YM/YWHA, the Skirball Center for Adult Jewish Learning, the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan, just to name a few. She has her own monthly salon — “Oy Latte”, at Joe, a Greenwich Village coffee-house — in which she engages people in dialogue about the human struggle to create lives of purpose and meaning. Jen is also a founder and organizer of Lishmah, a day of Jewish learning in NYC, which drew 1,200 participants and more than 100 presenters from all walks of Jewish life in its inaugural year. She’s supposed to know more than I do… But where is it written that she should be funnier than I? (You can contact Jen at to find out)

Drawings by Sonic.

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