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Why did Noah curse Canaan instead of Ham?

video Noah curse Canaan audio

The unbiblical idea that Noah cursed Ham, and thereby all of Ham’s descendants, was used to justify the African slave trade, and is still used by some today to justify racism, prejudice, and discrimination against people of color. Let it be clearly said. Noah did not curse Ham. Noah did not curse all of Ham’s descendants. Rather, Noah only cursed Canaan, one of Ham’s sons, and through Canaan, all of Canaan’s descendants. Why and to what end? Please continue reading. What is abundantly clear, however, is that this account in Genesis 9 regarding Noah, Ham, and Canaan does not, in any way, support slavery or racism in any form.

After the flood, “God blessed Noah and his sons, saying to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth’” (Genesis 9:1). The men and their wives, under God’s blessing, began to do just that. Sometime later, Scripture relates an unhappy episode in Noah’s life involving Noah and his three sons. In the fallout of that incident, Noah’s grandson Canaan is said to be “cursed” (Genesis 9:25).

It all started when Noah planted a vineyard and used the grapes to make wine. He drank the wine, became drunk, and shamefully lay naked in his tent (Genesis 9:20–21). Noah’s youngest son Ham, identified as “the father of Canaan” in verse 22, saw his father’s condition and the fact that Noah was naked in his tent. Rather than keep the matter quiet or attempt to help his father, Ham told his two brothers the salacious news (Genesis 9:22). Ham’s response to his father’s sin shows somewhat of Ham’s character and disrespect for his father.

Shem and Japheth acted more nobly. They “took a garment and laid it across their shoulders; then they walked in backward and covered their father’s naked body. Their faces were turned the other way so that they would not see their father naked” (Genesis 9:23).

Later, Noah sobered up. He made some inquiries and “found out what his youngest son had done to him” (Genesis 9:24). This wording suggests that Ham did more than just see Noah’s nakedness. He did something, but just what is unknown. It’s useless to speculate. In any case, upon hearing the facts, Noah said something surprising: “Cursed be Canaan! The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers” (Genesis 9:25). He also praised the Lord at that time and pronounced a patriarchal, prophetic blessing on Shem and Japheth (verses 26–27). Twice more in that blessing, Noah declared that Canaan would be a slave to Shem and Japheth.

Of note is the fact that Noah did not curse Ham. The curse is pronounced on Canaan, Ham’s son, but nowhere does Noah directly curse Ham. It is significant, though, that the other two of Noah’s sons receive a blessing, but Ham does not. That omission resulted in the patriarchal blessing passing Ham by. This was no doubt intentional, given Ham’s behavior.

So, why did Noah curse Canaan when it was clearly Ham who acted inappropriately? Several theories have been put forward:

• There is an ellipsis in the text. When Genesis 9 speaks of Canaan, it is really “the father of Canaan” that is meant—the words the father of being understood. This theory relies on an insupportable assumption about the text.

• Canaan and Ham were both involved in the sin against Noah. This means that Canaan was present when Ham observed Noah’s nakedness. This theory adds to Scripture, however; the text never mentions Canaan’s whereabouts, but it does specify that it was Ham, Noah’s youngest son, who “had done [something] to him” (Genesis 9:24).

• Ham had been blessed by God (Genesis 9:1), and Noah refused to curse someone whom the Lord had blessed. In the same way, the prophet Balaam could not curse the Israelites. God had told Balaam, “You must not put a curse on those people, because they are blessed” (Numbers 22:12; cf. Numbers 23:20). So, Noah pronounces a curse on some of Ham’s descendants. Ham’s sin against his father brought a punishment through his son. Not all of Ham’s descendants were cursed; only those through Canaan. It’s possible that Canaan was chosen to bear the imprecation because he was already showing evidence that he shared his father’s character.

• The “curse” on Canaan is more of a prophecy. Noah learned of Ham’s sin and gave him the bad news that one line of his posterity would suffer. As a prophet of God, Noah foresaw that the Canaanites, in their wickedness, would deserve their fate (see Leviticus 18 for a list of future Canaanite sins). Ham’s punishment was to lack a fatherly blessing and to know that he was the ancestor of a doomed people group.

In Genesis 10, the descendants of Canaan are listed. They include the Sidonians, the Hittites, the Jebusites, the Amorites, and the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 10:15–19). Noah’s curse/prophecy came true during the time of Joshua. The Canaanites, descendants of Ham, were conquered by the Israelites, descendants of Shem. True to God’s Word, some of the Canaanites became slaves (Joshua 9:27; 17:12–13).

The inclusion of this sordid incident in the life of Noah is interesting. Out of all that Noah did after the flood, why is this episode the only one recorded? The answer lies in the events surrounding the writing of Genesis. Moses, the author of Genesis, was leading the Israelites toward the land of Canaan to take possession of it. The story of how Canaan came to be cursed was one justification of the conquest. God had pronounced doom upon these people long ago, and it was time for that prophecy to be fulfilled.

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Why did Noah curse Canaan instead of Ham?
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This page last updated: October 3, 2023