Why Noah Cursed Canaan
And Noah began to be an husbandman, and he
planted a vineyard:
And he drank of the wine, and was drunken; and he
was uncovered within his tent.
And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness
of his father, and told his two brethren without.
And Shem and Japheth took a garment, and laid it upon
both their shoulders, and went backward, and covered the nakedness of their father; and their faces were backward, and they saw not their father’s nakedness.
And Noah awoke from his wine, and knew 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 Shern; 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.
THE STORY appears in Genesis 9:20-27. Noah, apparently, cultivated a vineyard and whether intentionally or accidentally ended up with an intoxicating drink. Like many others in this condition, he had removed his clothes because of the sensation of overheating which results from the dilation of the veins at the surface of the skin. Drunkenness and nakedness have been closely associated throughout history. In a drunken stupor the old man lay indecently exposed and his son Ham “saw his nakedness” (verse 22) .
Some people believe that this phrase means more than appears on the surface and that on the basis of Leviticus chapters 18 and 19, the implication is that homosexuality was involved. On the other hand, Ham’s immediate behaviour seems to tell against this, for he would hardly proceed to tell his two
brothers outside (verse 22) if he had committed such a terrible offense against his father. Moreover, the behaviour of Shem and Japhetd in taking a garment and carefully covering the nakedness of their father with their faces averted so that “they saw not their father’s nakedness” (verse 23 suggests that in both instances the words mean simply what they say.
Later on, Noah awoke and somehow found out what his younger son had done. Like many others who have lost their own self-esteem and are angry at themselves, Noah became enraged against his son. But he did not curse him; he cursed his grandson according to verse 25. And herein seems to, lie the injustice, and the widespread conviction that the text is in error. Shem and Japheth are blessed, Ham is ignored and a grandson, Canaan, who can surely have had no responsible part in Ham’s misbehaviour, suffers the full brunt of his grandfather’s anger. (1)
Several explanations have been offered as to why, when Noah had thus been wronged by Ham, he pronounced a curse upon Canaan instead. I should like to suggest a reason which seems to have been overlooked.
In Exodus 20:5, God declared that He would “visit the iniquities of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generations. . . .” There is nothing arbitrary, barbaric, or even surprising about this. The sins of the fathers are reflected in the behaviour of their children, and these children in their turn pay the penalty. What is surprising, however, is that men will distort the truth and make it a falsehood of the most malicious kind. It soon comes to mean that a child is not to be blamed for his sins – his environment and his heredity being held chiefly responsible.We say easily enough, “It is our fathers who are to be blamed, the generation which educated us. We are simply the children of our own age.” Thus, even today a more sympathetic view is being taken of Adolf Hitler and some would even try to picture him as a child who was wronged and might otherwise have been a hero. And in any case he is not to be blamed for what he did.
Curiously enough, this inverted process of reasoning is exactly what the Israelites applied to Exodus 20:5. By the time of Jeremiah they were saying, “The fathers have eaten sour
1. Paul Hershon, in his Rabbinical Commentary on Genesis (Hodder and Stoughton, 1885, p.54) quotes a passage in which the child Canaan is said to have first seen Noah uncovered, and then to have told his father Ham about it.
grapes and the children’s teeth are set on edge” (Jeremiah 31: 29) . In other words, it was not the children’s misdoings which had brought all these misfortunes upon them. It was all their fathers’ fault! But the Lord said in effect to Jeremiah, “You must correct this; it is quite wrong. Tell them that ‘every one shall die for his own sin; every man that eateth sour grapes, his own teeth shall be set on edge'” (Jeremiah 31:30).
It might be thought that this would have settled the matter and straightened things out once for all. But in the course of time, the truth was again distorted in another way and people came to interpret this to mean that any misfortune which overtook a man was due to his own sinfulness. Not unnaturally, this had the effect of destroying all sympathy, for a man who was in trouble or sickness was simply receiving his just deserts. It served him right.
This is what created the peculiar problem for the disciples when they were brought face to face with a man born blind in John 9:1ff. It seems doubtful if it was sympathy that made them question the Lord about his case, but rather a kind of theological curiosity. Here was a man who had suffered a great misfortune. He had been born blind. But since he was born blind, it seemed impossible to attribute the fault to the man himself. On the other hand, Jeremiah had made it clear that Exodus 20:5 did not mean that it was his parents’ fault. So they asked, “Who did sin, this man or his parents?” Their question reflected their attitude towards suffering. The Lord, however, while not denying the truth of the implications in their question, nevertheless pointed out that in this instance the blind man was a privileged person who providentially was permitted to show forth the glory of God. There are at least three reasons why people suffer: because of the wickedness of their parents, because of their own sinfulness, or simply for the glory of God.
Now, in other cultures than our own, and for reasons which are not always clear, it is customary to attach the blame for a man’s failings upon his parents. But by the same token, it is also customary to give them the credit for his successes. This principle is recognized by most of us, in fact, but mostly without explicit formulation. In these other cultures, both ancient and modern, the principle has been publicly recognized.
It is an attitude which is quite remarkably reflected in Scripture. Perhaps the clearest illustration is to be found in the story of Saul and David, I Samuel 17: 50-58. In this instance,
David had performed a deed of great national importance by destroying Goliath. David himself was no stranger to Saul for he had on many occasions played his harp to quiet the king’s distracted spirit. Yet we find that when Saul saw David go forth against Goliath (verse 55) he said to Abner, the captain of his hosts, “Abner, whose son is this youth?” And although Abner must certainly have known David by name, he replied, “As thy soul liveth, O King, I cannot tell.”
This has always seemed a strange remark both for the king and his commanding officer to have made. But the explanation lies in a proper understanding of the social significance of verse 58. “And Saul said unto him, Whose son art thou, young man? And David answered, I am the son of thy servant Jesse, the Bethlehemite.” This is simply an occasion upon which, following the social custom of his own day, Saul sought to give credit where credit was due, namely, to the father. Because David was Jesse’s son, Jesse was to receive recognition.
Another illustration will be found in I Kings 11:9-12:
And the Lord was angry with Solomon, because his heart was turned from the Lord God of Israel which had appeared unto him twice, and had commanded him concerning this thing, that he should not go after other gods: but he kept not that which the Lord commanded.
Wherefore the Lord said unto Solomon, Forasmuch as this is done of thee and thou hast not kept my covenant and my statutes, which I have commanded thee, I will surely rend the kingdom from thee and will give it to thy servant.
Notwithstanding in thy days I will not do it for David thy father’s sake: but I will rend it out of the hand of thy son.
This is a beautiful example, because it is so specific in statement. Solomon was to be punished: but he could not be punished personally without bringing discredit on David his father, and this the Lord was not willing to do. The only way in which Solomon could be punished appropriately without injuring David’s name was therefore to punish Solomon’s son.
In the New Testament we find another instance. It is quite obvious that while a man can publicly seek to give credit to the father of a worthy son, a woman could not discreetly make reference to the father in complimentary terms for fear of being misunderstood. She therefore refers instead to the son’s mother who rightly shares in the worthiness of her children. This fact is reflected clearly in Luke 11:27, where we read of a woman who suddenly perceiving the true greatness of the Lord Jesus
Christ, cried out in spontaneous admiration, “Blessed is the womb that bare Thee and the breasts which Thou hast sucked.”
When we apply this principle to the story given in Genesis 9:20-97, the significance of the cursing of Canaan rather than Ham at once becomes clear. But because the principle has not been applied by commentators, the apparent injustice of Noah has puzzled people at least since the beginning of the Christian era when the commentators began to take notice of it. It appears that Jewish rabbis had access to a copy of the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament, made in the third century B.C. by the Jews in Alexandria and which appears to form the basis of a number of quotations in the New Testament from the Old Testament) in which the name “Canaan” was replaced by the name “Ham.” It is proposed by some authorities that this was the original reading and that the text was tampered with by Hebrew scribes who wished to add to the degradation of the Canaanites by showing that they were the subjects of a divine curse.
However, it is quite possible to explain the text exactly as it is, as a reflection of the social custom which we have been considering above. To begin with, there may have been a reason for Ham’s behaviour, other than mere disrespectfulness.
Without becoming involved in the technicalities of genetics, it is possible that Ham may himself have been a mulatto. in fact, his name means “dark” and perhaps refers to the colour of his skin. This condition may have been derived through his mother, Noah’s wife, and if we suppose that Ham had himself married a mulatto woman, it is possible to account for the preservation of the negroid stock over the disaster of the Flood. (2) It seems most likely that Ham had seen the darkness of his mother’s body, for example when being nursed. But he may never have seen the whiteness of his father’s body.
When Charles Darwin visited the Tierra del Fuegans during the Voyage of the Beagle, he remarks how interested the natives were in the colour of his skin. Naturally his face and his hands were bronzed by exposure to the weather after the long voyage, but when he rolled up a sleeve and bared his arm, to use his own words, “they expressed the liveliest surprise and admiration at its whiteness.” (3)
2. See Chapter 2.
3. The Darwin Reader, Scribners, New York, 1956, extract dated as of Dec. 17, 1832, paragraph 10.
The same may have been true in the case of Ham and his father. His own body and that of Noah’s wife being quite dark, he may have gone away reflecting upon the difference and forgetting his filial duty. In fact, this could conceivably be the reason he went to tell his brothers, for he may have supposed that they would be as surprised at this discovery as he was himself.
If this was the case, it may be argued that this was a small offense to receive such a pronounced judgment. But it is not at all certain that the form of the curse was as severe as it appears to be. That his posterity were to be servants, yes — but the Hebrew can just as readily be translated “servants par excellence.” This actually is more likely, for we have in Hebrew plenty of instances of the superlatively excellent expressed in this manner, involving the reduplication of the key word as “Holy of holies,” “Lord of Lords,” etc. But where we find in Hebrew a comparable phrase in which the author is referring to that which is superlatively base (as in Daniel 4:17), the Hebrew uses an entirely different form of construction. In other words, wherever Hebrew employs a reduplication of a word, the concept intended is one of “excellence,” much as in English we may say “very, very good.” But while we may also say “very, very bad,” the Hebrew evidently does not adopt this, but depends upon another form of construction. In short, what we are saying is that the phrase ”servant of servants” may have meant that his descendants would perform a great service to their brethren. The judgment, in so far as it was a judgment, lies in the fact that they rendered this service to others and bcnefitted little themselves.
However, the point is not essential to this essay, and in any case, it is the subject of two extended studies appearing as other Doorway Papers. (5) What is important to note is that Noah could not pronounce judgment of any kind upon his own son, Ham, the actual offender, without passing judgment upon himself, for society held him, the father, responsible for his son’s behaviour.
4. Compare: God of Gods (Daniel 2:47); Holy of Holies (Hebrews 9:3); King of Kings (Revelation 19:16); Heaven of Heavens (Nehemiah 9:6); Hebrew of Hebrews (Philippians 3:5); Lord of Lords (Revelation 19:16); Song of Songs (Song of Solomon 1:1); Age of Ages (Ephesians 3:21). Note: the references in the New Testament are either quotations from the Old Testament, or are Hebrew thoughts expressed in Greek. In any case, it is clear that the highest, not the lowest, is intended by the writer.
5. Custance, Arthur, Part I, “The Part Played by Shem, Ham and Japheth in Subsequent World History” and Part IV, “The Technology of the Hamitic People”, both in Noah’s Three Sons: History in Three Dimensions, vol.1 in The Doorway Papers Series.
To punish Ham, then, he must of necessity pronounce a curse upon Canaan, Ham’s son.
On the other hand, when it came to blessing, the situation was very different. In pronouncing a benediction upon Shem and Japheth, he was, in fact, doing himself an honour! Such is human nature – and such is probably the explanation of this otherwise puzzling incident.