126 Noah's Sons and the Curse on Canaan
This episode looks carefully at Noah's sons and a rather perplexing incident that happens between Noah and his sons that results in a curse being placed on a descendent of one of those sons. As a result a disturbing fable has developed from this story that for centuries was given as justification for the enslavement of people of colour. This was used by many to justify the mistreatment of people for a very long time. Eventually there was a change and slavery was abolished. Join us as we conclude chapter 9.
Noah’s Sons and the Curse on Canaan.
18 The sons of Noah who came out of the boat with their father were Shem, Ham, and Japheth. (Ham is the father of Canaan.) 19 From these three sons of Noah came all the people who now populate the earth.
This is further evidence that the flood was universal. Only Ham has a descendant listed here. The birth order of the sons is interesting. Ham is the youngest (9:24). Shem was older than Japheth (10:21). Some translations refer to Japhet as the elder but they are in the minority. The order seems to be Shem, Japheth and Ham. It is curious they are usually mentioned as Shem, Ham and Japheth. Shem seems to have beenborn in Noah’s 500th year (5:32) and would have been about 100 years old at the flood.
20 After the flood, Noah began to cultivate the ground, and he planted a vineyard. 21 One day he drank some wine he had made, and he became drunk and lay naked (Hb. er-wat) inside his tent.
We have no indication of how much time elapsed after the flood to when this event occurred. There is no expected prohibition on wine or drunkenness in this account which is a surprise. Instead, nakedness becomes the focus of the narrative. This is probably because this story reminds the writer of Adam and Eve’s nakedness. Nakedness is more than a lack of clothing as evidenced by the story of the fall of man.
22 Ham, the father of Canaan, saw that his father was naked and went outside and told his brothers. 23 Then Shem and Japheth took a robe, held it over their shoulders, and backed into the tent to cover their father. As they did this, they looked the other way so they would not see him naked.
What was his motivation for telling his older brothers? Why did he not correct the situation? Some suggest that this account is actually accusing Ham of having sex with his father and thus the severity of the curse. This explanation is based on the idea of “uncovering someone’s nakedness (Hb. er-wat)” as used in the KJV (Leviticus 18:7-20) as a euphemism for sexual relationship as the NLT expresses the matter. However, Adam and Eve’s nakedness (Hb. erom) had more to do with the spiritual and emotional consequences of rebellion against God rather than sexuality.
There is a great difference in the respect these two brothers had for their father as compared to Ham. This difference in respect for parents is often true for siblings. Deuteronomy 27:16 states it is a sin to treat parents with contempt.
24 When Noah woke up from his stupor, he learned what Ham, his youngest son, had done. 25 Then he cursed Canaan, the son of Ham:“May Canaan be cursed! May he be the lowest of servants to his relatives. 26 Then Noah said, “May the LORD, the God of Shem, be blessed, and may Canaan be his servant! 27 May God expand the territory of Japheth! May Japheth share the prosperity of Shem and may Canaan be his servant.”
Why was Ham not cursed? Was Canaan already born and Noah understood the character of this particular grandson? The story is 1000 years old when it is written down and it retrospect it was clear the curse fell on one of Ham’s sons, Canaan.
Slave owners used this cursing passage to justify their use of black African slaves (supposedly Ham) in England, the West Indies and the Southern United States. The anti-slavery groups were reluctant to use the Bible to support their reform because the evidence from the Bible seemed to support slavery (Leviticus 25:44–46; Ephesians 6:5-9; Colossians 3:22-25). Notice there are more instruction to slaves than to wives, husbands, and children together in Colossians.
There is no evidence that the descendants of Ham are exclusively black people. This record states that theCanaanites and the Egyptians are his descendants (9:20-27; 10:6-20; Lev 18:3, 24-26; Psalm 105:23, 27; 106:22). The land of Ham does not mean the land of Canaan. Only Canaan out of Ham’s 4 children, Cush, Mizraim, Put, and Canaan, was cursed. Canaan’s territory extended from Gerar in the south to Sidon in the north and as far east as Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 10:19). Israel would later leave Egypt in the Exodus and eventually displace the Canaanites. Cush would settle in southern Arabia and Mesopotamia (10:7-12), Mizraim in Egypt and Philistia (10:13-14; Deuteronomy 2:23) and Put west of Egypt (Nahum 3:9). Thus, the demography of the sons suggests that the other three rather than Canaan were likely to be dark skinned.
28 Noah lived another 350 years after the great flood. 29 He lived 950 years, and then he died.
Noah lived longer than Adam (930) and only Jared (962) and Methuselah (969) lived longer than Noah (950).
One of the benefits of these histories in Genesis is being reminded that there are consequences, sometimes far-reaching consequences, to our choices and actions. The bible knows no delay in making good choices. It has a continuing call for making the right choice now! Delay means that bad choices have the possibility of ruin. If only Eve and Adam had made the right choice at the moment of temptation to stay loyal to God. If only David had made an instant decision to refuse the lust of his eyes when seeing Bathsheba. If only Ahab had decided to follow the God Elijah revealed at the moment of decision.
Ian Hartley, November 2022