We read the following narrative in Genesis 9:20-29: Noah, a tiller of the soil, was the first to plant a vineyard. He drank of the wine and became drunk, “and he uncovered himself within his tent” וַיִּתְגַּל בְּתוֹךְ אָהֳלֹה (va-yitgal be-toch ohaloh). “Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father’s nakedness” וַיַּרְא חָם אֲבִי כְנַעַן אֵת עֶרְוַת אָבִיו (va-yar Cham avi Kenaan et irvat aviv) and told his two brothers outside… And he said, “Blessed be the LORD, the God of Shem; ‘let Canaan be a slave to them’ וִיהִי כְנַעַן עֶבֶד לָמוֹ (vi-hi Kenaan eved lamo). ‘May God enlarge Japheth’ יַפְתְּ אֱלֹהִים לְיֶפֶת (yaft Elohim le-Yefet), ‘and let him dwell in the tents of Shem’ וְיִשְׁכֹּן בְּאָהֳלֵי־שֵׁם (ve-yishkon be-ohale Shem); ‘and let Canaan be a slave to them.’ וִיהִי כְנַעַן עֶבֶד לָמוֹ (vi-hi Kenaan eved lamo).”
There are no Biblical names that do not carry some special significance, even when the original meaning of the name has been lost and it is no longer possible to know with any certainty what it originally meant. Let us take, for example, the name Japheth. In English it is just Japheth, but in Hebrew it means something: “expanded” or “enlarged.” So we read that God יַפְתְּ (yaft) “enlarged” the person named יֶפֶת (yefet) “enlarged” – Japheth.
It is not clear whether the offense was just seeing his father naked, making fun of him (Ex. 20:12), engaging in a homosexual rape (see Lev. 20:13), or perhaps sleeping with Noah’s wife. In Leviticus 20:11 to “uncover the nakedness of one’s father” means to sleep with his wife. One thing we do know for certain – Ham’s action was to be detested. This perplexing passage might be connected to the sexual perverseness that Israelite culture sometimes thought to be typical of the Canaanites, the descendants of Canaan (see Lev. 18:3-4, 24-30). The curse upon Ham’s son Canaan follows the ancient covenantal dynamic of corporate responsibility and explains to contemporary readers of the Torah the animosity that exists between Israelites and Canaanites. It also predicts by implication a bright shared future for Noah’s other sons שֵׁם (Shem) “Shem” and יֶפֶת (Yefet) “Japeth.”