History in Cameo
And Noah woke from his wine, and learned what his younger son had done unto him.
And he said, Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren.
And he said, Blessed be the Lord God of Shem, and Canaan shall be his servant.
God shall enlarge Japheth, and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant.
THIS PROPHETIC statement is the climax of an incident which really begins in verse 20. Noah cultivated grapes for the first time and drank himself into a drunken stupor. In this condition he exposed his nakedness as he slept and was seen by Ham as he lay uncovered. The young man for some reason omitted to cover his father’s nakedness as he should have done, but went and reported it to his two brothers, Shem and Japheth. The latter discreetly averting their gaze, respectfully covered the old man’s nakedness. When Noah awoke, he soon found out what had taken place, and undoubtedly under inspiration – yet inspiration which did not ignore Noah’s own mental attitudes – pronounced judgment upon the offender and blessing upon the others.
It has always been a matter of controversy as to why Canaan rather than Ham should have been cursed. Canaan was Ham’s son, and was therefore grandson to Noah. Some people have supposed that the name Canaan was substituted for Ham by Jewish scribes who had particularly strong feelings against this branch of Ham’s family. Evidence for this is believed to be provided by some manuscripts of the Septuagint version and the Arabic versions, which have the words “Ham, the father of Canaan” instead of the word “Canaan” alone.
There is another explanation which seems to me more probable, and which if it is true, means that Noah really was cursing Ham. It is a common social custom among many primitive people to attribute the greatness of a son to the father, who then receives the honour for having raised such a worthy child. This is clearly reflected in Scripture where Saul seeks to honour David after the slaying of Goliath. He asks his general whose son the lad is (1 Samuel 17:55). This has always seemed to mean that he did not recognize David, which would seem very strange in view of David’s close associations with him. Undoubtedly Saul knew David well enough, but evidently he did not know who his father was. It was his father he was seeking to honour according to social custom. Also, a woman could not bless a worthy son’s father, but she could bless his mother thereby giving personal witness to his worthiness. This seems to be the background of the woman’s observation in Luke 11:27.
A man in blessing his own son was in fact blessing himself. This was true when Noah blessed Shem and Japheth. By the same token, however, if he had cursed Ham, the real offender, he would at the same time have been cursing himself. Quite logically, he could only pass judgment upon Ham by cursing Ham’s own son, which is what he therefore did.
Nevertheless, the curse which he pronounced for what seems really so mild an offense, was not perhaps as severe as we have made it out to be. It may be less honourable to be a servant than to be a master, though the Lord Jesus suggested that the opposite may really be the case. Yet it is true that the servant is not above his master, and in this sense may find himself in a less desirable position. In the case of Ham and his descendants history shows that they have rendered an extraordinary service to mankind from the point of view of the physical developments of civilization. All the earliest civilizations of note were founded and carried to their highest technical proficiency by Hamitic people. There is scarcely a basic technological invention which must not be attributed to them. As we shall show later, neither Shem nor Japheth made any significant contribution to the fundamental technology of civilization, in spite of all appearances to the contrary. This is a bold statement but it is not made in ignorance of the facts.
The phrase “servant of servants” does not normally (if ever) mean basest of servants but servant par excellence. The form of the phrase is common in Hebrew literature and always means that
which is highest: Lord of Lords, Song of Songs, Holy of Holies, and so forth. I think the judgment was not so much that they were to render such outstanding service to their brethren, but rather that they were to profit so little by it themselves. Japheth has been enlarged and most of this enlargement has been not only at the expense of Ham but because of a technical superiority which has resulted directly from building upon the basic foundation provided by the latter. There is historically little or no indication that Japheth would have achieved the technical superiority which he has if he had been left to his own devices.
The blessing of Shem was tied in a peculiar way to a covenant relationship with God, as indicated by the use of the extended term “Lord God”, which is a covenant title. However, by inspiration Noah was able to foretell that this covenant relationship would in some way be interrupted – so that Japheth would one day assume the responsibility which had been divinely appointed to Shem, adding this responsibility to one already apportioned.
Thus it has come about that the pioneering task of opening up the world, subduing it, and rendering it habitable, was first undertaken by the descendants of Ham. This seems to have been done under divine pressure, (15) for in a remarkably short time the children of Ham had established beachheads of settlement in every part of the world.
Centuries later, spreading at a more leisurely rate, Japheth settled slowly into the areas already opened up by Ham, in almost every case adopting the solutions, suited to local survival, which the predecessors had already worked out. Yet in all cases Japheth took with him a certain philosophizing tendency which acted to modify the somewhat materialistic culture which he was inheriting. In a few cases, as in the Indus Valley, Japheth almost obliterated the high civilization which Ham had established.
In the providence of God the Semitic people, represented in Israel, remained at the centre until their
16. The Hebrew of Genesis 11:9 is very forceful. The word “scattered” has almost the meaning of “splattered”. It implies violence. Hebrew tradition has it that it was only the family of Ham which was involved in the tower incident and the judgment which followed. This concords well with history, for neither Shem nor Japheth were scattered at this time, nor did either of them even have a word for “city” of their own. They were not disposed to city-building. On this point see Robert Eisler, “Loan Words in Semitic Languages Meaning ‘Town’,” Antiquity, Dec., 1939, No.52, p.449. In spite of the title of his paper, he is concerned with the Indo-Europeans also.
spiritual education had reached a certain point. They were then scattered among the nations and carried with them their pure monotheistic faith. But when they should have received their King, they failed to recognize Him, and their particular Kingdom was taken from them and the responsibility of its administration given to Japheth instead.
The enlargement of Japheth has continued to this day, an enlargement greatly accelerated geographically in the last few centuries ï¿½- frequently at the expense of the Hamites who first possessed the land. To a great extent this power of expansion at the expense of others has resulted from a far superior technology. However, this was not the consequence of any superior inventive genius on Japheth’s part. It is rather that Japhethites have looked upon man’s relationship to Nature as a “Me-it” relationship rather than an “I-Thou” relationship. This has permitted ï¿½ indeed encouraged ï¿½ experiment and exploitation in a way that never seems to have occurred to the Hamites. It has brought an unbelievable enlargement of man’s power and control over the forces of Nature.
This “enlargement” has also brought its own undesirable consequences. Perhaps this is because the spiritual responsibility taken over from Shem has never been completely undertaken by Japheth who received the commission. If Shem should be restored once more to the spiritual leadership of the nations, it may be that the service rendered by the family of Ham and its extension by Japheth will usher in a golden age of unbelievable promise.
This is all gross over-simplification. But it presents the picture in readily conceivable form. It remains to fill in sufficient detail to demonstrate that this view of history does have some concordance with the facts.