“Noah, a man of the soil, proceeded to plant a vineyard. When he drank some of its wine, he became drunk and lay uncovered inside his tent. Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father’s nakedness and told his two brothers outside. But Shem and Japheth took a garment and laid it across their shoulders; then they walked in backward and covered their father’s nakedness. Their faces were turned the other way so that they would not see their father’s nakedness.

“When Noah awoke from his wine and found out what his youngest son had done to him, he said,

“‘Cursed be Canaan!
The lowest of slaves
will he be to his brothers.’

“He also said,
‘Blessed be the LORD, the God of Shem!
May Canaan be the slave of Shem.

“‘May God extend the territory of Japheth;
may Japheth live in the tents of Shem,
and may Canaan be his slave.’”

Who did Noah curse? What does the text say? It wasn’t Ham; it was Canaan who was cursed. If the names of Ham’s sons in Genesis 10:15-20 are by age, then Canaan was Ham’s youngest son, just as Ham was Noah’s youngest.

Why would Noah curse his grandson, rather than the son who actually sinned against him? Now that is the million-dollar question. It could have been three copying mistakes – ‘Canaan’ occurs three times in verses 25-27 – and it was actually Ham who was cursed. But given the devotion of Hebrew scribes to accurately copying the word of God, this theory doesn’t carry much weight. It is possible, but unlikely.

Assuming the text is correct, then, why did Noah curse Canaan rather than Ham? Was seeing his father naked serious enough to warrant such a curse? It is doubtful that merely seeing Noah naked was the main issue; rather, it was the pleasure that Ham took from his father’s humiliation. It wasn’t an event that a person should enjoy, as Habakkuk 2:15-16 states:

“Woe to him who gives drink to his neighbors,
pouring it from the wineskin till they are drunk,
so that he can gaze on their naked bodies.

“You will be filled with shame instead of glory.
Now it is your turn! Drink and be exposed!”

Even so, the punishment seems severe for the crime. Whenever God acts in a new way to redeem us, it seems that the first people to reject this way, or treat it with contempt, are dealt with severely. When God made His promise to Abraham, He asked Abraham to do the most difficult act a father could – to sacrifice his son. (This, however, was not a punishment; rather it was discipline, a testing of Abraham’s faith. It demonstrated the devoted relationship that should exist between God and any of us.) When God gave the Israelites the Law at Mount Sinai, Moses called those who were faithful to God, to kill those who had worshipped the golden calf idol: about 3,000 people. In the first days of the Christian church, Ananias and Sapphira they lied about their offering, and died on the spot.

God flooded the earth because of human sin. He spared only Noah, his sons and their wives. After this mercy, Noah would not be pleased about any sin, no matter what it was [1]. (However, it was Noah who got drunk, which provided the situation that Ham took advantage of. So Noah’s curse of Ham smacks of hypocrisy to a degree. [2]) Maybe that’s why his curse of Canaan was so severe. Perhaps it’s an issue of historical or cultural context that, thousands of years later, we don’t understand. Or perhaps Ham’s act was extremely evil – even by 21st century standards.

However, did you notice that the text stated, twice, that Ham was the father of Canaan? This is important, considering the historical context in which Genesis was traditionally written: the newly-freed nation of Israel is wandering through the Sinai scrub, having been told to displace – to kill – the inhabitants of the land of Canaan. These inhabitants are the Canaanites, the descendents of Ham’s youngest son.

We start to understand the importance of Canaan being cursed: the seed doesn’t fall far from the tree. The Israelites would have seen God’s command as the fruition of Canaan’s curse. God told Abraham, who lived some time after Noah, that the Canaanites were evil – prostitution, child sacrifice, and even bestiality were parts of their sacred religious rituals – and he was giving them 400 years to clean up their act. They hadn’t; and this was where Israel came into the picture.

So in the historical context, we can see the sense of the text’s focus on Canaan. But does that mean that Ham’s other three children, and Ham himself, got off without punishment? Canaan was singled out, but that doesn’t have to mean that the others weren’t included. The incident was written for a purpose – to show the Israelites why the Canaanites were to be killed and/or displaced – but that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t the way the event happened. Nonetheless, some aspects of this episode are still puzzling, and for now we concede to the mystery.


[1] The destruction of the Flood. Some think that the Flood wasn’t actually global, just located in the Ancient Near East. but if every land was once part of the supercontinent Pangaea, it makes a global flood easier to swallow – there’s just one (enormous) land. This doesn’t eliminate the possibility of a merely local flood, though; it’s another issue to consider. In support of a Pangaic Flood, see Genesis 10:25 – ‘in his [Peleg’s] time the earth was divided.’ Peleg was the great-great-great-grandson of Noah; born, let’s say, 350 years after the Flood: can we reasonably infer that this is a reference to continental split and drift?

[2] A curse was serious business. It wasn’t just wishing them ill: coming from someone with authority over them, the words actually played themselves out in reality.

copyright 2007 Troy Grisgonelle.