Copyright © 1980 by Dallas Theological Seminary. Cited with permission.
Studies in the Book of Genesis
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-
224 Bibliotheca Sacra-July-September 1980
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
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
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
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)
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
group of people as they deserved, to the ancestor and descendants
The Curse of Canaan 235
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
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
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
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
The Curse of Canaan 237
enslaved by others. This subjugation, effected through divine
intervention, is just: the moral abandon of Ham ran its course in
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
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
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
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
1966), p. 125.
5 Umberto Cassuto, From Noah to Abraham (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1964),
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),
14 Christ's first sign (John 2), changing water to wine, announces the age to
15 Sanhedrin 108a, 70a and b.
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-
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
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],
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
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]:
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),
60 Neiman, "The Date and Circumstances of the Cursing of Canaan," p. 131.
This material is cited with gracious permission from:
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3909 Swiss Ave.
Dallas, TX 75204