This week, the Torah portion is titled Noah. It runs from Genesis 6:9-11:32, and I’ve chosen to focus specifically on the story in Genesis 9:20-27:

“And Noah began to be a farmer, and he planted a vineyard. Then he drank of the wine and was drunk, and became uncovered in his tent. And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers outside. But Shem and Japheth took a garment, laid it on both their shoulders, and went backward and covered the nakedness of their father. Their faces were turned away, and they did not see their father’s nakedness. So Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done to him. Then he said:

‘Cursed be Canaan;
A servant of servants
He shall be to his brethren.’

And he said:

‘Blessed be the Lord,
The God of Shem,
And may Canaan be his servant.
May God enlarge Japheth,
And may he dwell in the tents of Shem;
And may Canaan be his servant.'”

This is a passage that’s chock-full of drama, questions and subtext, and even though I’ve found, upon research and reflection, that I can’t give a definitive answer as to what exactly happened, I can do a little study on it and lay out the options.

So there’re 3 questions that stand out to me when I look at this passage:

  1. What does it mean when it says that Ham saw his father’s nakedness?
  2. Why did this warrant him (or rather, his son, Canaan) being cursed?
  3. Does Scripture give us any indication as to how this curse was realised?

Concerning question 1, there are two possible understandings. The first is literal, i.e. Ham veritably saw Noah uncovered while he was drunk in his tent, and went and told his brothers. But this begs the question: is such an act enough to justify a curse on one’s offspring? An Eastern person (such as myself) would say yes, and find support for it through Scripture, beginning with the 5th Commandment:

  • “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long upon the land which the Lord your God is giving you.” (Exodus 20:12)
  • “The eye that mocks his father, and scorns obedience to his mother, the ravens of the valley will pick it out, and the young eagles will eat it.” (Proverbs 30:17)
  • “‘Cursed is the one who treats his father or his mother with contempt.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen!’” (Deuteronomy 27:16)

When Genesis 9:22 says that Ham told his brothers about their father, the word used is וַיַּגֵּד (wayageidh), which means to declare, proclaim, report – i.e. to make known in an open and public way. Thus in shaming his father by informing others of his condition, Ham’s actions could’ve been enough, Biblically, to warrant a serious curse.

… The second possibility is more disturbing, but can also be supported through Scripture: that is, Ham seeing Noah’s nakedness is a euphemism for him violating his father while he was drunk.

In Leviticus 20:17, seeing a person’s nakedness means having physical relations with them, while in Genesis 42:9-12, Joseph accuses his brothers of coming to see the nakedness of the land of Egypt (i.e. they were there to spy out and plunder it, which is why he repeatedly framed them as thieves to test them).

This connotation of rape is found in verses like Ezekiel 16:37 and Lamentations 1:8 as well, when the prophets speak of Jerusalem being humiliated and pillaged by the surrounding nations. … Lamentations 1:8 even says that all who honoured Jerusalem now despised her because they’d seen her nakedness – and this is reminiscent of Amnon’s hatred of Tamar once he forced her in 2 Samuel 13:15.

This interpretation lends a devastating shade to verse 24, which says that Noah woke up and knew what his son had done to him, and it makes complete sense of why Noah cursed Ham’s descendants: he’d committed an unspeakable sin and proceeded to tell his brothers about it, and this warranted generational condemnation.

… Of course, we can’t know for sure which interpretation is the correct one, so I leave it up to the reader to decide which he/she prefers. But the second question then presents itself: why Canaan? Why didn’t Noah curse Ham?

The Midrash Rabba gives us several possible answers. The first, according to Rabbi Judah, is because God blessed Noah and his sons previously in Genesis 9:1 – and what God has blessed, no man can curse, so Noah cursed one of Ham’s sons instead. I find this to be an acceptable explanation, and add my own thought that if this was the case, then Noah possibly specifically selected Canaan through a spirit of prophecy.

The second possibility, according to Rabbi Nehemiah, is that Canaan was the one who saw Noah in the first place and told his father, so the curse rightfully fell on him as the instigator of events. And the third option, which I admit I’m not disposed to readily accept for various reasons, even though it’s curiously pat (not least because it makes the potential picture even worse than it already is), is that in violating his father, Ham took away Noah’s ability to have a fourth son – so in return, Noah cursed Ham’s fourth son as punishment, with Canaan being the son in question according to the birth order recorded in Genesis 10:6.

… Whatever the truth, I think it should be clear at this point that the Bible is not a tame book, discreet as it may well be at times concerning the betidings of a saint; but the question is, why would such a story be recorded in Scripture at all? … What purpose does it serve?

The answer to this, I believe, lies in the significance of the curse itself, which one can begin to discern from Genesis 10:6-20,

“The sons of Ham were Cush, Mizraim, Put, and Canaan. … Canaan begot Sidon his firstborn, and Heth; the Jebusite, the Amorite, and the Girgashite; the Hivite, the Arkite, and the Sinite; the Arvadite, the Zemarite, and the Hamathite. Afterward the families of the Canaanites were dispersed. And the border of the Canaanites was from Sidon as you go toward Gerar, as far as Gaza; then as you go toward Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, and Zeboiim, as far as Lasha. These were the sons of Ham, according to their families, according to their languages, in their lands and in their nations.”

If you look at the following map, you’ll see the distribution of the various tribes which came from the sons of Shem, Ham and Japheth, including Canaan (click on the picture to get a bigger view, then click once more to reach full size):

As you can see, the majority of the sons of Canaan were concentrated especially in the land of Canaan. And in the 10th generation after Noah, more than 367 years after the Flood, God made a covenant with Abram, a descendant of Shem, in Genesis 15:18-21, saying:

“To your descendants I have given this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the River Euphrates—the Kenites, the Kenezzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites.”

While in Genesis 15:13-16, He explains:

“Know certainly that your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, and will serve them, and they will afflict them four hundred years. … But in the fourth generation they shall return here, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.”

This prophecy foretells the slavery of the Hebrew people in Egypt and their return to Canaan 400 years later (Exodus 12:40-41 says 430 years, to be exact), and states why things would unfold this way: God intended to judge the descendants of Canaan for their wickedness by giving their land to the children of Shem through the line of Abraham – but He would not do so until their iniquity had reached a degree that warranted it.

So I believe this is the purpose of Genesis 9:20-27 – it tells us the originating circumstances which allowed Canaan to eventually become the inheritance of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

Because Ham sinned against his father, a particular lineage of his descendants was cursed (even though that curse took at least 837 years, from the time of Noah until Israel entered the Promised Land, to be realised) – and almost midway through that 800 year-period, God ratified the curse by promising Abram that in a few more centuries, the culture of Canaan would become wicked enough to invite judgement, whereupon his descendants would take over their land.

… This is far from being the arbitrary, unjust act of triumphalist robbery that so many people make the conquering of Canaan out to be. When we look at passages like Deuteronomy 18:9-14Leviticus 18 and Leviticus 20:1-23, we see that for over 800 years, the people of Canaan were free to do whatever they wanted – and they chose to build a society that, among other things, worshipped demonic gods and idols, practised witchcraft and child sacrifice, and indulged in gross immorality like incest and bestiality. And they couldn’t claim ignorance as an excuse – their very own forefather, Ham, had survived God’s judgement of the world as one of the last 8 people on the Ark; they knew what sin was and what the consequences would be if they pursued it.

So when you really look at what the Scripture says, an unexpected picture emerges: God knew what the Canaanites would become, yet He didn’t short-change them. He allowed the offspring of His own friend (see Isaiah 41:8) to wait several centuries – even suffer slavery – just so another group of people wouldn’t be prematurely judged, and unjustifiably removed from their land. He didn’t say, “I might as well remove you now, since you’re going to be an incredibly evil people anyhow”; He gave them a full allotment of time (too full, if you were to ask the Hebrews) to fulfil their own destiny, and they did.

For at least 400 years, the people of Canaan could’ve repented and changed their ways while God waited for them and the Israelites groaned in Egypt. But they didn’t. Instead, they got worse and worse until their cup of wickedness was totally full. … Never let it be said, therefore, that God is not patient and longsuffering. Just as He sacrificed His own Son to save the world, He allowed Israel, His firstborn (Exodus 4:22) to live in bondage so the Canaanites could have their chance. And the fact they squandered it, in the end, is nobody’s fault but their own.

When the 400 years were up, God brought the Hebrews out of Egypt and instructed them:

“When the Lord your God brings you into the land which you go to possess, and has cast out many nations before you, the Hittites and the Girgashites and the Amorites and the Canaanites and the Perizzites and the Hivites and the Jebusites, seven nations greater and mightier than you, and when the Lord your God delivers them over to you, you shall conquer them and utterly destroy them. You shall make no covenant with them nor show mercy to them. Nor shall you make marriages with them. You shall not give your daughter to their son, nor take their daughter for your son. For they will turn your sons away from following Me, to serve other gods; so the anger of the Lord will be aroused against you and destroy you suddenly. But thus you shall deal with them: you shall destroy their altars, and break down their sacred pillars, and cut down their wooden images, and burn their carved images with fire.” (Deuteronomy 7:1-5)

God never told Israel to act out aggressively against any nation that they chose. He never gave them carte blanche to carry out indiscriminate genocide (as, say, the religion of Islam does with its followers) – He named 7 particular nations that He wanted to see purged from the land of Canaan, and He commanded His people to do it in a clearly defined context of judgement. Moreover, He gave them sanction to fulfil the curse of Noah on Ham’s other Canaanite descendants who were not part of those 7 tribes:

“And as for your male and female slaves whom you may have—from the nations that are around you, from them you may buy male and female slaves. Moreover you may buy the children of the strangers who dwell among you, and their families who are with you, which they beget in your land; and they shall become your property. And you may take them as an inheritance for your children after you, to inherit them as a possession; they shall be your permanent slaves. But regarding your brethren, the children of Israel, you shall not rule over one another with rigor.” (Leviticus 25:44-46)

People often say that the Bible condones slavery, but it actually doesn’t (Deuteronomy 23:15-16, in fact, mandates the well-treatment of escaped slaves). Slavery was allowed in Israel under very specific conditions, and those conditions were directly related to Noah’s curse on Canaan. This is why God told the Israelites to take slaves from the nations around them, apart from the ones they were supposed to destroy (see, also, Deuteronomy 20:10-18) – these were Canaanites who’d already been placed under a curse of perpetual servitude, and had been given much time and opportunity to avoid their fate… but they refused.

As Proverbs 26:2 says, a curse without cause shall not alight – but as far as Canaan was concerned, there was ample cause: the things that happened to these people were the direct result of their own sin as well as their forefather’s, and those who survived God’s judgement would now have to become slaves at the hands of a people who, for 400 years, endured the yoke of slavery for their sake.

And at this point, I’d like to note the redemptive element that was present even in this judgement… for God repeatedly told the Israelites, in the Torah, to remember that they’d been slaves in Egypt – which means He didn’t place masters over the Canaanites who would simply be unjust and cruel to them, but a people who knew, intimately, what it meant to be a slave, and would therefore be able to show compassion in their ownership.

This is a parallel of how Christ became human to know what it’s like for us, and will then return to serve as the perfect King and Judge over the world. It is also prophetic, I believe, of how the saints who suffer now, living in an unrighteous world while God is exercising patience, will in the end rule over it – but with holy empathy and humility, even as a rod of iron is given into their hands.

This is a completely different model to how kings and governors are made in the world, and it shows the mercy of God working, even in the face of suffering and great delay, to produce leaders who will rule after His own heart. It’s why the Scriptures say that those who want to be first must be last, and those who want to be the greatest must first be servant to all.

… If you ask me, the balance and purposefulness of His ways in all this – the sheer ability of God to marry graciousness with justice even in the painfully undesirable circumstances of a corrupted world – are incredible to contemplate.

So when you put the entire picture together, you realise that the Bible has been grossly misunderstood for a very long time. The truth is, Scripture cannot be taken to justify slavery in general, much less the slavery of, say, the African American people (who were not Canaanites) – which has been one of the chief ways in which “the curse of Ham” has been historically misused.

Also, God is not a homicidal, capricious maniac who told His followers to behave likewise. Rather, He was patient, bore long with sinners, was faithful to fulfil a just curse that was spoken by one of His chosen saints, and showed restraint and mercy even when He finally issued the command for judgement: He ordered the destruction of the absolute worst Canaanites, but allowed the rest to live under the hand of masters who were instructed to treat them with moral guidelines; while those who decided to repent and put their faith in Him – like Rahab – were fully welcomed as Israelites.

… And finally, lest people say that Noah brought the whole thing on himself for getting drunk in the first place, I want to make one last point about Genesis 9:20-27 before I close.

Over the years, I’ve heard a lot of people say (or insinuate) some very uncharitable things about Noah because of his drunkenness, and honestly, my main reaction when I hear them doing it is to think, “Give the guy a break.”

I mean, this was a man who’d had his life completely destroyed: he was 600 years old when the Flood came, which means he would’ve had a lot of time to build a life worth losing, and he lost it all in one fell swoop; apart from his immediate family, all the people he knew were dead (he probably heard their dying screams and desperate banging on the Ark when the waters came); and when he emerged, the world around him was devastated beyond recognition – he and the 7 other individuals with him were literally the last human beings on earth, and they had to rebuild everything from scratch.

So Noah survived an apocalyptic cataclysm – the veritable end of the world – by cooping himself up with his family in a giant floating menagerie for a full 1 year and 17 days. … I don’t think anyone can fathom the kind of impact that will have on a person’s psyche, and if this man whom God called righteous and perfect in his generations succumbed to the urge to dull the trauma of what he experienced with alcohol afterwards – who am I to impugn him for it?

So… yeah.

Now I’ve got that off my chest, I want to end by putting up the links to CMI’s Q&As on Noah’s Ark and Noah’s Flood here, for your convenience. Many commonly asked questions about the subject are addressed in these pages (e.g. how did all the animals fit on the Ark? What kind of evidence do we have that the Flood really happened? etc.), and I highly recommend them to anyone who wants to know how the story of Noah could’ve been logically, scientifically and/or logistically possible according to the Bible.

And there you have my take on Genesis 9:20-27. Shalom again, and I hope this post provided some edification to you the reader. … See y’all next week, when we look at Abram on his journey to becoming Abraham.