When we talk about the history of God's people, it's easy to go as far back as the sons of Jacob and then stop. After all, these were the twelve tribes of Israel. Or maybe we go as far back as Abraham and his son, Isaac, and stop there. After all, it's Abraham. If we go too far back beyond him, it's easy to get lost in a bunch of more minor characters that we know so very little about. There's an off-chance we may go back to Noah, but even in that case, we speak briefly of Noah and jump ahead to Abraham, then take off from there. That's a mistake.
Because there's something about God's people that must be learned from the story of Noah's three sons.
Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Three sons of one righteous man. We don't know much about these three. There's a somewhat thorough accounting of their descendants in the post-flood narrative, but even these culminate in the appearance of Abraham, several generations down from Shem. But there's something buried in all these names, and it starts with a drunken patriarch.
Most of us are familiar with the story of Noah becoming drunk after the flood. His son finds him totally plastered, naked, lying exposed for God and the whole world to see. Now, what's important to take note of is who finds Noah naked. It's not "his sons," as the story is often simplified. It's specifically Ham, only one of his sons. Ham then tells his brothers, Shem and Japheth, about their father's present condition. And it is Shem and Japheth who walk backward into the barn to cover their father's shame.
You've probably wondered why this story is in the Bible. Here is the world's one righteous man. He builds this enormous Ark, makes a spectacle of himself for years in preparation for this promised flood, lives on a boat for a good half a year or more with thousands of stinky, smelly animals, is given the promise of a rainbow...you'd think there wouldn't be much to gain from including this scene of his drunken nakedness in the narrative. But this story is not really about Noah at all. It's about his sons and, by extension, God's sons, God's people.
Ham notices his father's nakedness, then makes it public information by telling his brothers. Noah curses him, and Ham goes on to be the father of such nations as: Canaan, Babylon, Assyria. Sodom and Gomorrah. Even Nineveh is descended from Ham. Noah blesses his other two sons, those who were quietly gracious in covering his nakedness. Japheth becomes the patriarch of Tarshish and Cyprus. Shem becomes the great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather of Abraham and through Abraham, Israel.
So what does all of this mean? Not much unless you consider the rest of the story, the history of God's people yet to unfold. Think about all the nations that Israel struggled with over the course of its history. Canaan was living in the Promised Land, and Israel would have to defeat them in order to take possession of what was promised to them. When Israel turns its back on God, it comes under assault from Babylon and Assyria, at various points in history. Abraham's nephew, Lot, barely escapes the sinful Sodom before it is burned out by God. And the prophet Jonah struggles with his feelings about Nineveh. Over and over again, when God's people (the sons of Shem and Japheth) are found naked, it is the sons of Ham that expose them.
Some things never change.
And Japheth, who was only the uncle of Israel? Well, there's some debate over the exact location this place called Tarshish, but one theory tends to believe that Tarshish and Tarsus are in fact the same place, which means that Paul, the greatest missionary/apostle/evangelist of the New Testament? He's a descendant of Japheth, the other of Noah's blessed sons. And Cyprus is later where Barnabas is born.
If you're following along, then, the cursed son of Noah, Ham, becomes the father of the nations that are a thorn in the side of God's people. Throughout their history, they repeat the work of their father - exposing the nakedness of the righteous when they have turned away from God. Ham, one of the blessed sons, becomes the father of God's Old Testament people - the Israelites - and Japheth, the other blessed son, the father of God's New Testament people through the great missionaries (i.e. Paul and Barnabas). And they, too, repeat the work of their fathers, covering the nakedness of the righteous - in the Old Testament, with sacrifices; in the new, with the Gospel.
And all of a sudden, this strange little scene where the one righteous man in all creation is found drunk and naked by his sons doesn't seem so strange after all. It's the story of God's people.