Bibliotheca Sacra 137 (1980) 223-40.

          Copyright © 1980 by Dallas Theological Seminary.  Cited with permission.

 

 

 

                                   Studies in the Book of Genesis

                                                     Part 1:

 

 

                         The Curse of Canaan

 

 

                                                 Allen P. Ross

 

 

The bizarre little story in Genesis 9:18-27 about Noah's

drunkenness and exposure along with the resultant cursing of

Canaan has perplexed students of Genesis for some time. Why

does Noah, the spiritual giant of the Flood, appear in such a bad

light? What exactly did Ham do to Noah? Who is Canaan and why

should he be cursed for something he did not do? Although

problems like these preoccupy much of the study of this passage,

their solutions are tied to the more basic question of the purpose

of the account in the theological argument of Genesis.

Genesis, the book of beginnings, is primarily concerned with

tracing the development of God's program of blessing. The bless-

ing is pronounced on God's creation, but sin (with its subsequent

curse) brought deterioration and decay. After the Flood there is a

new beginning with a renewal of the decrees of blessing, but once

again corruption and rebellion leave the human race alienated

and scattered across the face of the earth. Against this backdrop

God began His program of blessing again, promising blessing to

those obedient in faith and cursing to those who rebel. The rest of

the book explains how this blessing developed: God's chosen

people would become a great nation and inherit the land of Ca-

aan. So throughout Genesis the motifs of blessing and cursing

occur again and again in connection with those who are chosen

and those who are not.

An important foundation for these motifs is found in the

oracle of Noah. Ham's impropriety toward the nakedness of his

father prompted an oracle with far-reaching implications. Ca-

 

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224                 Bibliotheca Sacra-July-September 1980

 

naan was cursed; but Shem, the ancestor of Israel, and Japheth

were blessed. It seems almost incredible that a relatively minor

event would have such major repercussions. But consistently in

the narratives of Genesis, one finds that the fate of both men

and nations is determined by occurrences that seem trivial and

commonplace. The main characters of these stories acted on

natural impulse in their own interests, but the narrator is con-

cerned with the greater significance of their actions. Thus it

becomes evident that out of the virtues and vices of Noah's sons

come the virtues and vices of the families of the world.1

The purpose of this section in Genesis, then, is to portray the

characteristics of the three branches of the human race in rela-

tion to blessing and cursing. In pronouncing the oracle, Noah

discerned the traits of his sons and, in a moment of insight,

determined that the attributes of their descendants were em-

bodied in their personalities.2 Because these sons were pri-

mogenitors of the families of the earth, the narrator is more

interested in the greater meaning of the oracle with respect to

tribes and nations in his day than with the children of Shem,

Ham, and Japheth.3

Shem, the ancestor of the Shemites to whom the Hebrews

belonged, acted in good taste and was blessed with the possession

of the knowledge of the true God, Yahweh. Japheth, the ancestor

of the far-flung northern tribes which include the Hellenic

peoples,4 also acted properly and thus shared in the blessing of

Shem and was promised geographical expansion. In contrast,

Ham, represented most clearly to Israel by the Egyptians and

Canaanites, acted wrongly in violating sexual customs regarded

as sacred and as a result had one line of his descendants cursed

with subjugation.5

So the oracle of Noah, far from being concerned simply with

the fortunes of the immediate family, actually pertains to vast

movements of ancient peoples.6  Portraying their tendencies as

originating in individual ancestors, the book of beginnings an-

ticipates the expected destinies of these tribes and nations. Vos

fittingly notes that it occurred at a time when no event could fail to

influence history.7

 

The Prologue (Gen. 9:18-19)

 

Genesis 9:18-19 provides not only an introduction to this

narrative but also a literary bridge between the Flood narrative



The Curse of Canaan                                     225

 

and the table of nations. The reader of Genesis is already familiar

with the listing of the main characters of this story: Noah and his

three sons Shem, Ham, and Japheth (5:32; 6:10; 7:13; 9:1; and

later in 10:1). But in this passage two qualifications are supplied.

They were the sons of Noah who came out of the ark, and they

were the progenitors from whom all the nations of the earth

originated. The first description connects the characters to

the Flood account, and the second relates them to the table of

nations.

Of greater significance for the present narrative, however, is

the circumstantial clause in verse 18, "Now Ham was the father of

Canaan. " Many have thought that this is a primary example of a

redactor's attempt to harmonize the deed of Ham and the curse of

Canaan portions of this narrative.8  If that were the case, it could

have been done more effectively without leaving such a rough

trace. The point of this clause seems rather to show the connection

of Canaan with Ham. However, far from being merely a genealogi-

cal note, which would be superfluous in view of chapter 10, the

narrative is tracing the beginnings of the family and shows that

Ham, acting as he did, revealed himself as the true father of

Canaan.9 The immediate transfer of the reference to Canaan

would call to the Israelite mind a number of unfavorable images

about these people they knew, for anyone familiar with the

Canaanites would see the same tendencies in their ancestor from

this decisive beginning. So this little additional note anticipates

the proper direction in the story.

 

The Event (Gen. 9:20-23)

 

NOAH'S BEHAVIOR

The behavior of Noah after the Flood provided the occasion

for the violation of Ham. Noah then acted so differently from

before the Flood that some commentators have suggested that a

different person is in view here.10  But the text simply presents one

person. The man who watched in righteousness over a wicked

world then planted a vineyard, became drunk, and lay naked in

his tent. Or, as Francisco said it, "With the opportunity to start an

ideal society Noah was found drunk in his tent."11

This deterioration of character seems to be consistent with

the thematic arrangement of at least the early portion of Genesis,

if not all of the book. Each major section of the book has the

heading tOdl;OT hl.,xe, commonly translated "these are the genera-



226                 Bibliotheca Sacra - July-September 1980

 

tions of."  The narratives that follow each heading provide the

particulars about the person, telling what became of him and his

descendants. In each case there is a deterioration from beginning

to end. In fact the entire Book of Genesis presents the same

pattern: The book begins with man (Adam) in the garden under

the blessing of God, but ends with a man (Joseph) in a coffin in

Egypt. The tOdl;OT of Noah began in 6:9 with the note that Noah

was righteous and blameless before the LORD, and ended in

9:18-27 with Noah in a degraded condition. But it was a low

experience from which God would bring brighter prospects in

the future.

Noah, described as a "man of the soil" (9:20), began by plant-

ing a vineyard. This epithet (hmAdAxEhA wyxi) is probably designed to say

more than that he was a human farmer. In view of the fact that he

is presented as the patriarch of the survivors of the Flood, Noah

would be considered as the master of the earth, or as Rashi

understood it, the lord of the earth.12

The two verbs (fF.ayiva ... lH,y.Ava) in the sentence are best taken as

a verbal hendiadys, "he proceeded to plant" a vineyard. Whether

he was the first man in history to have done so is not stated, but

he was the first to do so after the Flood. The head of the only family

of the earth then produced the vine from the ground that previ-

ously produced minimal sustenance amid thorns.

The antediluvian narratives represent various beginnings,

none of which appear particularly virtuous. Besides Noah's be-

ginning in viticulture, the first "hunter" is mentioned in 10:8.

Nimrod was the first (lHehe) "to be a mighty warrior on the earth."

And in 11:6, concerning the activities of Babel, the text reads,

"they have begun (Ml.AHiha) to do this." The use of the same verb in

all these passages provides an ominous note to the stories.

The planting of the vineyard, however, appears to be for Noah

a step forward from the cursed ground. Since Lamech, Noah's

father, toiled under the curse,13 he hoped that his son would be

able to bring about some comfort (5:29) and so he called him

Noah, which means "comfort." Perhaps Noah hoped that cheer

and comfort would come from this new venture.

The vine in the Bible is considered noble. The psalmist de-

scribed the vine as God's provision, stating that it "gladdens the

heart of man" (104:15). A parable in Judges has a vine saying,

"Should I give up my wine, which cheers both gods and men?"

(9:13). Not only did the fruit of the vine alleviate the pain of the

cursed, but also it is the symbol of coming bliss in the Messianic



The Curse of Canaan                                     227

 

age. Zechariah 8:12 and Isaiah 25:6 describe the future age by

employing this idea.14

But while it may be that wine alleviates to some degree the

painful toil of the ground, the Old Testament often warns of the

moral dangers attending this new step in human development.

Those taking strong vows were prohibited from drinking wine

(Num. 6); and those assuming responsible positions of rulership

were given the proverbial instruction that strong drink is not for

kings, but for those about to die (Prov. 31:4-5).

The story of Noah shows the degrading effects of the wine -

drunkenness and nakedness. No blame is attached in this telling

of the event, but it is difficult to ignore the prophetic oracles that

use nakedness and drunkenness quite forcefully. Habakkuk, for

one, announced, "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" (2:15). Jeremiah also used the imag-

ery for shame and susceptibility to violation and exploitation,

lamenting, "You will be drunk and stripped naked" (Lam. 4:21).

Since the prophets view drunkenness and nakedness as

signs of weakness and susceptibility to shameful destruction,

many have condemned Noah's activities. The Talmud records

that Noah was to be considered righteous only when compared

with his wicked generation.15  All that Rashi would say was that

Noah degraded himself by not planting something else.16  Most

commentators at least view it as an ironic contrast in Noah's

character17 if not an activity that is in actual disharmony with the

picture of the man given earlier.18

On the other hand there have been many who have attempted

to exonerate Noah in one way or another. Medieval Jews took it in

an idealistic way, saying that Noah planted the vine in order to

understand sin in a better way and thus to be able to warn the

world of its effects.19 Various scholars have tried to free Noah from

blame by viewing the passage as an "inventor saga."20  Noah, the

inventor of wine, was overpowered by the unsuspected force of the

fruit and experienced the degradation of the discovery.21

Cohen takes the exoneration a step further. Observing that

the motif of wine in the ancient world was associated with sexual-

ity, he argues that Noah was attempting to maintain his procrea-

tive ability to obey the new commission to populate the earth. To

substantiate his view, Cohen drew on the analogy of Lot with his

daughters (Gen. 19:30-38) and David with Uriah and Bathsheba

(2 Sam. 11:12-13), since wine was used in each case to promote



228                 Bibliotheca Sacra - July-September 1980

 

sexual activity.22  Cohen acclaims the old man for playing the role

so well.

It cannot be denied that wine has been used in connection

with sex. However, Cohen's theory, no matter how fascinating,

must be rejected as a highly speculative interpretation. It is more

plausible to proceed on clear evidence and to take a normal,

sensible approach. Later biblical allusions show drunkenness

and nakedness to be shameful weaknesses, often used figura-

tively for susceptibility before enemies. Noah is thus not pre-

sented in a good light.

In view of this, it appears that along with the primary intent

of the narrative to set the stage for the oracle, the passage also

presents a polemic against pagan mythology.23 The old world saw

Armenia as the original home of wine, but Egyptian literature

attributed the invention of wine to the god Osiris, and Greek

literature attributed it to Dionysius. The Genesis account, by

contrast, considers the beginning of wine and its effect on man as

less than divine. It has the trappings of depravity. Cursing and

slavery, rather than festive joy, proceed from its introduction into

the world. Any nation delighting in the vices of wine and naked-

ness, this polemic implies, is already in slavery.

 

HAM'S VIOLATION

 

Noah's condition prompted the sin of his son Ham. Ham, who

again is said to be the father of Canaan, "saw his father's naked-

ness and told his two brothers outside" (9:22). They in response

carefully came in and covered the old man. When Noah learned

what Ham had done to him, he cursed Canaan but he blessed

Shem and Japheth.

What did Ham do that was serious enough to warrant such a

response? One answer is that Ham did nothing at all to deserve

such a blistering curse. Many writers believe that two traditions

have been pieced together here, one about Ham and another

about Canaan. Rice asserts, "All the tensions of Gen. 9:18-27 are

resolved when it is recognized that this passage contains two

parallel but different traditions of Noah's family."24 In fact he

states that no interpretation that considers the story to be a unity

can do justice to the text. But it must be noted in passing that

positing two traditions in no way solves the tension; instead it

raises another. If the parts of the story were from two irreconcil-

able traditions, what caused them to be united? To assert that

two differing accounts were used does not do justice to the final,

 



The Curse of Canaan                                     229

 

fixed form of the text. The event was obviously understood to be

the basis of the oracle which follows in 9:24-27.

Some commentators attempt to reconstruct what took place.

Figart suggests that Ham and his brothers came to see Noah, and

that Ham went in alone, discovered his father's condition, and

reported it to his brothers who remedied the situation. Figart's

point is that there was no sin by Ham.25 He suggests that Canaan,

the youngest, must have been responsible for the deed that in-

curred the curse.

But it seems clear enough that the story is contrasting Ham,

the father of Canaan, with Shem and Japheth regarding seeing or

not seeing the nakedness. The oracle curses Ham's descendant,

but blesses the descendants of Shem and Japheth. If Canaan

rather than Ham were the guilty one, why was Ham not included

in the blessing? Shufelt, suggesting also that Canaan was the

violator, reckons that Ham was reckless.26  But it seems that the

narrative is placing the violation on Ham.

Many theories have been put forward concerning this viola-

tion of Ham. Several writers have felt that the expression "he saw

his nakedness" is a euphemism for a gross violation. Cassuto

speculates that the pre-Torah account may have been uglier but

was reduced to minimal proportions.27  Greek and Semitic stories

occasionally tell how castration was used to prevent procreation

in order to seize the power to populate the earth.28 The Talmud

records that this view was considered by the Rabbis: "Rab and

Samuel [differ], one maintaining that he castrated him, and the

other that he abused him sexually."29 The only possible textual

evidence to support such a crime would come from Genesis 9:24,

which says that Noah "found out what his youngest son had done

to him. " But the remedy for Ham's "deed" is the covering of Noah's

nakedness. How would throwing the garment over him without

looking undo such a deed and merit the blessing?

Bassett presents a view based on the idiomatic use of the

words "uncover the nakedness."30 He suggests that Ham engaged

in sexual intercourse with Noah's wife, and that Canaan was

cursed because he was the fruit of that union. He attempts to

show that to "see another's nakedness" is the same as sexual

intercourse, and that a later redactor who missed the idiomatic

meaning added the words in 9:23.

But the evidence for this interpretation is minimal. The ex-

pression hvAr;f, hxArA is used in Scripture for shameful exposure,

mostly of a woman or as a figure of a city in shameful punishment,



230                 Bibliotheca Sacra - July-September 1980

 

exposed and defenseless. This is quite different from the idiom

used for sexual violation,     hvAr;f, hlAGA, "he uncovered the nakedness."

It is this construction that is used throughout Leviticus 18 and 20

to describe the evil sexual conduct of the Canaanites. Leviticus

20:17 is the only occurrence where hxArA is used, but even that is in

a parallel construction with hlAGA , explaining the incident. This one

usage cannot be made to support Bassett's claim of an idiomatic

force meaning sexual intercourse.

According to Genesis 9 Noah uncovered himself (the stem is

reflexive). If there had been any occurrence of sexual violation,

one would expect the idiom to say, "Ham uncovered his father's

nakedness.” Moreover, Rice observes that if Ham had committed

incest with his mother, he would not likely have told his two

brothers, nor would the Torah pass over such an inauspicious

beginning for the detested Canaanites (see Gen. 19:30-38).31

So there is no clear evidence that Ham actually did anything

other than see the nakedness of his uncovered father. To the

writer of the narrative this was apparently serious enough to

incur the oracle on Canaan (who might be openly guilty in their

customs of what Ham had been suspected of doing).

It is difficult for someone living in the modern world to un-

derstand the modesty and discretion of privacy called for in an-

cient morality.32 Nakedness in the Old Testament was from the

beginning a thing of shame for fallen man. As a result of the Fall,

the eyes of Adam and Eve were opened, and, knowing they were

naked, they covered themselves. To them as sinners the state of

nakedness was both undignified and vulnerable.33 The covering of

nakedness was a sound instinct for it provided a boundary for

fallen human relations.

Nakedness thereafter represented the loss of human and

social dignity. To be exposed meant to be unprotected; this can be

seen by the fact that the horrors of the Exile are couched in the

image of shameful nakedness (Hab. 3:13; Lam. 1:8; 4:21). To see

someone uncovered was to bring dishonor and to gain advantage

for potential exploitation.

By mentioning that Ham entered and saw his father's

nakedness the text wishes to impress that seeing is the disgust-

ing thing. Ham's frivolous looking, a moral flaw, represents the

first step in the abandonment of a moral code. Moreover this

violation of a boundary destroyed the honor of Noah.

There seems to be a taboo in the Old Testament against such

"looking" that suggests an overstepping of the set limits by iden-



The Curse of Canaan                                     231

 

tification with the object seen (Gen. 19:26; Exod. 33:20; Judg.

13:22; 1 Sam. 6:19). Ham desecrated a natural and sacred barrier

by seeing his father's nakedness. His going out to tell his brothers

about it without thinking to cover the naked man aggravated the

unfilial act.35

Within the boundaries of honor, seeing the nakedness was

considered shameful and impious. The action of Ham was an

affront to the dignity of his father. It was a transgression of sexual

morality against filial piety36 Because of this breach of domestic

propriety, Ham could expect nothing less than the oracle against

his own family honor.37

 

SHEM'S AND JAPHETH'S REVERENCE

Shem and Japheth acted to preserve the honor of their father

by covering him with the garment (Gen. 9:23). The impression is

that Ham completed the nakedness by bringing the garment out

to his brothers.

The text is very careful to state that the brothers did not see

their father's nakedness. Their approach was cautious, their

backs turned to Noah with the garments on their shoulders. In

contrast to the brevity of the narrative as a whole this verse draws

out the story in great detail in order to dramatize their sensitivity

and piety. The point cannot be missed--this is the antithesis of

the hubris of Ham.

 

The Oracle (Gen. 9:24-27)

 

With the brief notice that Noah knew what his youngest son38

had done to him, the narrative bridges the event and the oracle.

The verb fdayA would suggest either that Noah found out what had

transpired or that he knew intuitively. Jacob suggests that "the

different ways of his sons must have been known to him."39 Cer-

tainly Noah knew enough to deliver the oracle, as Jacob much

later had such knowledge about his sons (Gen. 49).

The essence of the oracle is the cursing of Canaan: "Cursed be

Canaan! The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers." Even

when the blessings are declared for the brothers, the theme of

Canaan's servitude is repeated both times.

The very idea of someone cursing another raises certain

questions as to the nature of the activity. Scharbert points out

that (a) the curse was the reaction of someone to the misbehavior

of another in order to keep vigorously aloof from that one and his



232                 Bibliotheca Sacra - July-September 1980

 

deed; (b) the one cursed was a subordinate who by the cursing

would be removed from the community relationship in which he

had enjoyed security, justice, and success; (c) the curse was no

personal vendetta but was used to defend sacral, social, and

national regulations and customs; and (d) the curse was effected

by divine intervention.40

In the ancient world the curse was only as powerful as the one

making it. Anyone could imprecate, but imprecation was the

strongest when supernatural powers were invoked .41 The Torah

had no magical ideas such as sorcery and divination (Exod.

22:17-18). The curse found its way into Israel as part of an oath to

protect its institutions. One who committed a serious transgres-

sion against covenant stipulations was delivered up to misfor-

tune, the activation of which was Yahweh's (Deut. 28; Josh. 6:26;

1 Sam. 26:19).

So the curse was a means of seeing that the will of Yahweh

was executed in divine judgment on anyone profaning what was

sacred. It is an expression of faith in the just rule of God, for one

who curses has no other resource. The word had no power in itself

unless Yahweh performed it.42  Thus it was in every sense an

oracle. God Himself would place the ban on the individual, thus

bringing about a paralysis of movement or other capabilities

normally associated with a blessing.43

In this passage the honor of Noah and the sanctity of the

family, one of God's earliest institutions, are treated lightly and in

effect desecrated. Noah, the man of the earth, pronounced the

oracle of cursing. It is right, and Yahweh will fulfill it.

The second part of verse 25 specifies the result of the curse--

abject slavery. This meant certain subjugation, loss of freedom for

autonomous rule, and reduction to bondage.44  A victor in war

would gain dominion over the subjugated people so that they

might be used as he pleased. However, in the Old Testament

slaves were to be treated favorably, protected by law, and even

freed in the sabbatical year (Exod. 21:2, 20).

But Noah was not content to give a simple pronouncement of

Canaan's slavery. By using the superlative genitive MydibAfE db,f,

("servant of servants"), he declared that the one who is cursed is to

be in the most abject slavery. Canaan would serve his "brothers"

(normally understood to refer to Shem and Japheth since the

main idea of the curse is repeated in the next lines).

The fact that Canaan, and not Ham, received the curse has

prompted various explanations. Of course there are those, as



The Curse of Canaan                         233

 

already discussed, who posit separate traditions and see two

distinct stories that were later fused into a single account. Others

have found reason for excusing Ham on the basis of the blessing

in 9:1. Not only would it be unusual for a person to curse what

God had blessed, but also one would not normally curse his own

son.45  While this may partially explain Noah's choice, it cannot be

the whole explanation.

Kidner sees the principle of talionic justice in the passage.

For Ham's breach of family, his own family would falter and that

through the youngest.46  But is it right to curse one for the action

of another?

The Torah does incorporate this measure-for-measure judg-

ment from one generation to another, but in such cases the one

judged is receiving what he deserves. A visitation of the sins of the

fathers on later generations will be on those who hate Yahweh

(Exod. 20:4). A later generation may be judged for the sin of an

ancestor if they are of like mind and deed. Otherwise they may

simply bear the fruit of some ancestor's sin.

It is unlikely that Canaan was picked out for cursing just

because he was the youngest son of Ham. On the contrary, the

Torah, which shows that God deals justly with all men, suggests

that Noah saw in him the evil traits that marked his father Ham.

The text has prepared the reader for this by twice pointing out

that Ham was the father of Canaan. Even though the oracle would

weigh heavily on Ham as he saw his family marred, it was directed

to his descendants who retained the traits.

In this regard it must be clarified that Canaan the people, not

the man, are in view for the fulfillment of the oracle. The names

Canaan, Shem, and Japheth all represent the people who were

considered their descendants. So by this extension the oracle

predicts the curse on the Canaanites and is much wider than a

son's being cursed for his father, although the oracle springs from

that incident in the family. Therefore the oracle is a prophetic

announcement concerning the future nations. To the Hebrew

mind, the Canaanites were the most natural embodiment of

Ham.47 Everything they did in their pagan existence was sym-

bolized in the attitude of Ham. From the moment the patriarchs

entered the land, these tribes were there with their corrupting

influence (Gen. 13:18; 15:16; 18:32; 19; 38).

The Torah warned the people of the Exodus about the wick-

edness of the Canaanites in terms that call to mind the violation of

Ham (Lev. 18:2-6). There follows a lengthy listing of such vile



234                 Bibliotheca Sacra - July-September 1980

 

practices of the Canaanites (18:7-23) that the text must employ

euphemisms to represent their deeds ("nakedness" alone is used

twenty-four times). Because of these sins the Canaanites were

defiled and were to be driven out before the Israelites.

The constant references to "nakedness" and "uncovering"

and even "seeing" in this passage, designating the people of Ca-

naan as a people enslaved sexually, clearly reminds the reader of

the action of Ham, the father of Canaan. No Israelite who knew

the culture of the Canaanites could read the story of their ances-

tor Canaan without making the connection. But these descen-

dants of Ham had advanced far beyond his violation. The attitude

that led to the deed of Ham came to full fruition in them.

Archaeology has graphically illustrated just how debased

these people were. Bright writes, "Canaanite religion presents us

with no pretty picture .... Numerous debasing practices, includ-

ing sacred prostitution, homosexuality, and various orgias-

tic rites, were prevalent."48 Wright and Filson add that "the amaz-

ing thing about the gods, as they were conceived in Canaan, is

that they had no moral character whatever. In fact, their conduct

was on a much lower level than that of society as a whole, if we can

judge from ancient codes of law.... Worship of these gods car-

ried with it some of the most demoralizing practices then in

existence."49 Albright appropriately adds to this observation.

 

It was fortunate for the future of monotheism that the Israelites of

the conquest were a wild folk, endowed with primitive energy and

ruthless will to exist, since the resulting decimation of the Canaan-

ites prevented the complete fusion of the two kindred folk which

would almost inevitably have depressed Yahwistic standards to a

point where recovery was impossible. Thus, the Canaanites, with

their orgiastic nature worship, their cult of fertility in the form of

serpent symbols and sensuous nudity, and their gross mythology,

were replaced by Israel, with its nomadic simplicity and purity of life,

its lofty monotheism, and its severe code of ethics.50

 

So the text is informing the reader that the Canaanite people,

known for their shameless depravity in sexual matters and pos-

ing a continual threat to Israel's purity, found their actual and

characteristic beginning in Ham. Yet these descendants were not

cursed because of what Ham did; they were cursed because they

acted exactly as their ancestor had. That moral abandon is fully

developed in the Canaanites. The oracle announces the curse for

this.

In actual fact Noah was supplicating God to deal with each

group of people as they deserved, to the ancestor and descendants



The Curse of Canaan                                     235

 

alike. Since this request was in harmony with God's will for the

preservation of moral purity, He granted it.51  If the request had

not been in harmony, Noah's curse would have had no result.

Canaan, then, is the prototype of the population that suc-

cumbed to enervating influences and was doomed by its vices to

enslavement at the hands of hardier and more virtuous races.52

Because Ham, the "father" of Canaan, had desecrated the honor

of his father by seeing his uncovered nakedness, this divine and

prophetic oracle is pronounced on the people who would be

known for their immorality in a shameful way, a trait discernible

in this little story in the history of beginnings.

The blessing aspect is given to Shem, but the wording is

unexpected: "Blessed be the LORD [Yahweh], the God of Shem."

The emphasis on the possession of God by his name is

strengthened in this line in a subtle way. Delitzsch says, "Yahweh

makes himself a name in becoming the God of Shem, and thus

entwines His name with that of Shem, which means ‘name.’53

By blessing one's God, the man himself is blessed. The idea is

that Shem will ascribe his good fortune to Yahweh his God, for his

advantage is not personal merit; his portion is Yahweh.54 The

great line of blessing will be continued through Shem from Noah

to Abram, the man of promise.

Here again, however, the point of the oracle looks to the

descendants. It would then be clear to Israel, who found them-

selves in such a personal, covenantal relationship with Yahweh,

that they were the heirs of this blessing.

The announcement of Japheth's share in the blessing of

Shem is strengthened by the play on his name "Japheth" (tp,Ya),

from the verb "to enlarge." Here too the descendants are in mind,

for they will expand and spread out in the world. The second part

of this verse is the resultant wish that Japheth will dwell in the

tents of Shem. This is most likely an expression of the prospect of

peaceful cohabitation.55 Certainly the prospect of this unification

is based on the harmony of the ancestors in the story. As a partner

in covering up Noah, Japheth's descendants are granted alliance

with Shem in the subjugation of Canaan.

The church fathers saw this as the first sign of the grafting in

of the Gentiles in spiritual blessings, but later revelation speaks

more of that. All that can be said of Genesis 9:27 in the oracle is

that peaceful tenting of Japheth with Shem was a step toward

that further ideal blessing.



236                 Bibliotheca Sacra - July-September 1980

 

The Epilogue (Gen. 9:28-29)

 

The narrative, as well as the tOdl;OT, ends with verses 28 and

29 supplying the final note of the genealogy of Noah, the last name

on the table of Genesis 5. A new tOdl;OT begins in chapter 10.

The essential part of this narrative is most certainly the

oracle, and the dominant feature of that oracle is the cursing of

the Canaanites.55  They are doomed to perpetual slavery because

they followed in the moral abandon of their distant ancestor.

Their subjugation would be contrasted by the blessing on the

others: Shem has spiritual blessings by virtue of knowing

Yahweh; Japheth has temporal blessings with the prospect of

participation with Shem.

The curse narrative of Genesis 9 immediately precedes the

listing of the families and their descendants in Genesis 10; if

there were any question as to whom the narrator had in mind, the

lines could be traced immediately.

Japheth, whose expansion was already anticipated in the

oracle, represented the people who dominated the great northern

frontier from the Aegean Sea to the highlands of Iran and north-

ward to the steppes beyond the shores of the Black Sea. Those

best known to the writer were the Hellenic peoples of the Aegean

coastlands.57

Shem also is pictured as expanding, dwelling in tents. The

oracle looks beyond the ancestor to his descendants, among

whom were the Hebrews. It would be difficult to understand the

narrator's assuming Yahweh to be covenanted with any other

people. The possession of the blessing would be at the expense of

the Canaanites whom Israel would subjugate, thus actualizing

the oracle.

Canaan represents the tribes of the Canaanites who were

considered to be ethnically related to the other Hamites, but were

singled out for judgment because of their perverse activities. The

curse announced that they would be enslaved by other tribes, a

subjugation normally accomplished through warfare.

On the whole, this brief passage expresses the recoiling of

Israelite morality at the licentious habits engendered by a civiliza-

tion that through the enjoyment and abuse of wine had deterior-

ated into an orgiastic people to whom nothing was sacred. In

telling the story, the writer stigmatizes the distasteful practices of

these pagans.58



The Curse of Canaan                                     237

 

Being enslaved by their vices, the Canaanites were to be

enslaved by others. This subjugation, effected through divine

intervention, is just: the moral abandon of Ham ran its course in

his descendants.

It is not possible to take the oracle as an etiology, answering

the questions as to why the Canaanites had sunk so low, or why

they were enslaved by others.59  At no time in the history of Israel

was there a complete subjugation of Canaan. Many cities were

conquered, and at times Canaanites were enslaved, but Israel

failed to accomplish her task. These Canaanites survived until

the final colony at Carthage was destroyed in 146 B.C. by the

Romans. So there was really no time in the history of Israel to fit a

retrospective view demanded by an etiology.

Rather, the oracle states a futuristic view in broad, general

terms. It is a sweeping oracle announcing in part and imprecat-

ing in part the fate of the families descending from these indi-

viduals. It is broad enough to include massive migrations of

people in the second millennium as well as individual wars and

later subjugations.

The intended realization, according to the design of the writ-

er, would be the period of the conquest. Israel was called to

conquer the Canaanites. At the same time as the Israelite wars

against the Canaanites (down through the battle of Taanach),

waves of Sea Peoples began to sweep through the land against the

Hittites, Canaanites, and Egyptians. Neiman states, "The Greeks

and the Israelites, willy-nilly, were allies against the Canaanites

and the Hittites during the great world conflict which came down

through the historical memory of many peoples by many different

names."60

In their invasions these people from the north sought to

annex the coastland territory and make homes for themselves.

Israel felt herself in the strongest moral contrast to the Canaan-

ites (as Shem had felt to Ham). Any help from the Japhethites

would be welcomed. Such a spirit of tolerance toward the Gentiles

would not have been possible in the later period of Israel's history.

Thus the curse oracle would have originated at a time before the

Conquest, when the Canaanites were still formidable enemies.

In all probability the event and its oracle were recorded to

remind the Israelites of the nature and origin of the Canaanites,

to warn them about such abominations, and to justify their

subjugation and dispossession through holy warfare. Israel re-

ceived the blessing, but Canaan received the curse.



238                 Bibliotheca Sacra - July-September 1980

 

Notes

1 John Peter Lange, A Commentary on the Holy Scriptures, 25 vols., vol. 1:

Genesis (reprint ed., Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1960), p. 336.

2 Arthur C. Custance attempts to classify the characteristics of the major races

in connection with this oracle (Noah's Three Sons [Grand Rapids: Zondervan

Publishing House, 1975], p. 43). It seems to this writer that much of the discus-

sion goes beyond the evidence.

3 The second oracle in Genesis based on the character traits of sons comes at the

end of the patriarchal material (Gen. 49).

4 David Neiman, "The Date and Circumstances of the Cursing of Canaan," in

Biblical Motifs, ed. Alexander Altmann (Cambridge: Harvard University Press,

1966), p. 125.

5 Umberto Cassuto, From Noah to Abraham (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1964),

p. 149.

6 Robert Brow, "The Curse of Ham - Capsule of Ancient History," Christianity

Today, October 26, 1973, p. 10.

7 Gerhardus Vos, Old and New Testament Biblical Theology (Grand Rapids:

Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1954), p. 35.

8 August Dillmann, Genesis, 2 vols. (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1897), 1:302;

John Skinner, Genesis, International Critical Commentary (Edinburgh: T. & T.

Clark, 1930), p. 182.

9 B. Jacob, The First Book of the Bible, Genesis (New York: KTAV Publishing

House, 1974), p. 68.

10 Skinner, Genesis, p. 181.

11 Clyde T. Francisco, "The Curse on Canaan," Christianity Today, April 24,

1964, p. 8.

12 Rabbi Abraham Ben Isaiah and Rabbi Benjamin Sharfmen, The Pentateuch

and Rashi's Commentary: Genesis (New York: S. S. and R. Publishing Co., 1949),

p. 84.

13 The terms used in the passage reflect the description in Genesis 3.

14 Christ's first sign (John 2), changing water to wine, announces the age to

come.

15 Sanhedrin 108a, 70a and b.

16 Isaiah and Sharfmen, Genesis, p'. 85.

17 H. C. Leupold presents Noah as the seasoned man of God brought down by a

simple temptation (Exposition of Genesis, 2 vols. [Grand Rapids: Baker Book

House, 1942], 1:345).

18 Gerhard vein Rad, Genesis (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1972), p. 133.

See also Skinner, Genesis, p. 183.

19 Zohar, 1:248.

20 D. C. Allen The Legend of Noah (Urbana, IL: Mini Books, 1963), p. 73.

21 This view was proposed by Origen and Chrysostom earlier.

22 H. H. Cohen, The Drunkenness of Noah (Alabama: University of Alabama

Press, 1974), pp. 3-8.

23 Cassuto, From Noah to Abraham, p. 160.

24 Gene Rice, "The Curse That Never Was (Genesis 9:18-27)," Journal of Reli-

gious Thought 29 (1972): 5-6.

25 Thomas O. Figart, A Biblical Perspective on the Race Problem (Grand

Rapids: Baker Book House, 1973), pp. 55-58.

26 J. Ernest Shufelt, "Noah's Curse and Blessing, Gen. 9:18-27," Concordia

Theological Journal 17 (1946) :739.

27 The Torah found the account repulsive, Israelite conscience found it shock-

ing, and it was not right to attribute such an act to Noah (Cassuto, From Noah to

Abraham, pp. 1.50-52).



The Curse of Canaan                                     239

 

28 According to Philo Byblius, a legend among the Canaanites said El Kronos

used a knife to prevent his father from begetting children.

29 Sanhedrin 70a. The Midrash here also tries to explain the problem by saying

that a lion took a swipe at Noah on leaving the ark and destroyed him sexually, and

that Ham discovered it.

30 F. W. Bassett, "Noah's Nakedness and the Curse on Canaan: A Case of

Incest?" Vetus Testamentum 21 (1971) :232.

31 Rice, "The Curse That Never Was," p. 12.

32 Francisco, "The Curse on Canaan," p. 9.

33 John A. Bailey, "Initiation and the Primal Woman in Gilgamesh and Genesis

2-3,"  Journal of Biblical Literature 89 (1970) :149.

34 Cassuto, From Noah to Abraham, p. 151.

35 Calvin wrote, "Ham alone eagerly seizes the occasion of ridiculing and in-

veighing against his father; just as perverse men are wont to catch at occasions of

offence in others, which may serve as a pretext for indulgence in sin" (Commen-

taries on the First Book of Moses Called Genesis, 2 vols. [Grand Rapids: Wm. B.

Eerdmans Publishing Co., 19481, 1:302).

36 Kidner sees this as the reverse of the fifth commandment, which makes the

national destiny pivot on the same point - a call to uphold God's delegated

authority (Derek Kidner, Genesis [Chicago: Inter-Varsity Press, 1967], p. 103).

37 This idea of "seeing the nakedness" as a gross violation of honor is also related

by Herodotus in the story of Gyges, who when seeing the nakedness of Candaules'

wife - which Herodotus said was a shame among the Lydians - either had to kill

Candaules or be killed himself (Herodotus 1:8).

38 It seems to this writer that the listing of "Shem, Ham and Japheth" is not

chronological. According to Genesis 9:24 Ham is the youngest of the three, and

according to 10:21 Shem is the older brother of Japheth. So the proper order

would be Shem, Japheth, and Ham. (However, the New International Version's

translation of 10:21 suggests that Japheth was the older brother of Shem, in

which case the order would be Japheth, Shem, and Ham. But either way Ham is

still the youngest.)

39 Jacob, Genesis, p. 68.

40 Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, s.v. by Josef Scharbert, 1:408-12.

41 Herbert Chanan Brichto, The Problem of "Curse" in the Hebrew Bible

(Philadelphia: Society of Biblical Literature and Exegesis, 1963), p. 217.

42 In Scripture the "word" is seen as the cosmic power of the Creator God (Walter

Eichrodt, Theology of the Old Testament [Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1967],

1:173; 2:69).

43 Brichto, The Problem of "Curse," p. 217.

44 Edwin M. Yamauchi, "Slaves of God,"  Bulletin of the Evangelical Theological

Society 9 (1966) :36-39.

45 Jacob, Genesis, p. 68. In Genesis 27 the patriarch Jacob could not change

the blessing he had given.

46 Kidner, Genesis, p. 104.

47 Dillmann, Genesis, p. 305.

48 John Bright, A History of Israel (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1959), p. 108.

49 George E. Wright and Floyd V. Filson, The Westminster Historical Atlas to the

Bible (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1945), p. 36.

50 William F. Albright, From the Stone Age to Christianity (Garden City, NY:

Doubleday & Co., 1964), p. 214.

51 Cassuto, From Noah to Abraham, p. 154.

52 Skinner, Genesis, p. 185.

53 F. Delitzsch, A New Commentary on Genesis (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark,

1888), p. 296.



240                             Bibliotheca Sacra - July-September 1980

 

54 Von Rad, Genesis, p. 133.

55 For a brief discussion of the use of tents, see John P. Brown, "Peace Sym-

bolism in Ancient Military Vocabulary," Vetus Testamentum 21 (1971): 20-23. J.

Hoftijzer presents the view that it represents forcible dispossession of someone as,

for example, in 1 Chronicles 5:10; Job 11:14; 18:15; and Psalm 78:55 ("Some

Remarks to the Table of Noah's Drunkenness," Old Testament Studies 1211958]:

22-27).

56 Figart correctly affirms that "there is not one archaeologist, anthropologist,

or Biblical scholar who has ever associated the Canaanites with Negroid stock.

Canaan is listed in Genesis 10:15-19 as the father of eleven tribes, all Caucasoid

with no Negro characteristics" (A Biblical Perspective on the Race Problem, p. 55).

57 Neiman, "The Date and Circumstances of the Cursing of Canaan," p. 126.

58 Speiser, Genesis, p. 63.

59 Herman Gunkel, Genesis (Gottingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 1902),

p. 70.

60 Neiman, "The Date and Circumstances of the Cursing of Canaan," p. 131.

 

 

 

This material is cited with gracious permission from:

Dallas Theological Seminary

            3909 Swiss Ave.

            Dallas, TX   75204

            www.dts.edu

Please report any errors to Ted Hildebrandt at:  thildebrandt@gordon.edu