Noah’s Sin, Ham’s Sin, And The Curse Of Canaan

"Drunken Noah" (Michelangelo - Sistine Chapel)

"Noah began to be a man of the soil, and he planted a vineyard. He drank of the wine and became drunk and lay uncovered in his tent. And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father and told his two brothers outside." (Genesis 9:20-22 ESV)

There are quite a few things that we can learn from this singular incident recorded about Noah’s life after the Flood. First, it is noteworthy that this incident is the only thing that we read about Noah after he builds his altar to the Lord and makes his sacrifices upon it. Verse 28 tells us that he lived another 350 years after the Flood, yet this is the sole incident that the Word of God records during that entire time. What a powerful reminder of how our sins so often carry a legacy that remains far after we would have ever imagined they would. We should always remember that the indiscretions that we give into during a brief moment of passion can bring lingering and lasting consequences. When we are in Christ, our sins are forgiven and our eternal Salvation is not forfeited, but there are many times that our sinful behaviors carry unintended repercussions that can cause us great sorrow for a long time.

Sin Is Still A Problem

Lest we think that the judgment of the Flood remedied the problem of sin and changed the hearts of men- turning them from their sinful ways- this passage records not one but two offenses. Noah, who had been called “a just man” and “perfect in his generations” (Gen. 6:9), drinks the wine of his vineyard to the point of passing out in a drunken stupor. Regardless of how close God’s people walk with Him, no matter how long they serve Him in this world, until we put off this flesh and dwell forever in His presence in the age to come, we remain susceptible to the temptations of sin. Why? Because sin comes from the heart of man. Sin comes from the desires of the flesh which we are never separated from during this life.

In addition to Noah’s drunkenness, we are also told of his son Ham’s impropriety. Ham saw his father’s nakedness and told his two brothers (verse 22).

What Exactly Was Ham’s Sin?

There has been much speculation about what it was specifically that Ham did that would be sinful in this matter. All sorts of immoral, lewd, and perverted misdeeds have been suggested in order to explain where Ham went wrong. Personally, I think that it reflects more on the twisted imaginations of the commentators who read such innuendos into the text rather than bringing clarity to the narrative. I see no reason to surmise that anything else happened other than what the Bible says happened: Ham saw his father naked, passed out in drunkenness, and he went and told Shem and Japheth about it. So what was the problem with what he did?

It has always been the practice of the unrepentant to mock and ridicule the people of God when they fall into temptation. They rejoice and revel in the failures of those who seek to live a godly life and obey the Lord. Accusations of “hypocrisy” are hurled, even today, by those of the world whenever a servant of the Lord stumbles in their walk with Christ. Shem and Japheth sought to cover up their father’s shame, they wanted to uphold his integrity even in his moment of weakness. They knew that they were not beyond temptation themselves and, rather than joining in with Ham’s celebration of their godly father’s missteps, they reverently covered Noah’s nakedness and refused to look upon his humiliation. Sadly, just as it was a member of Noah’s own family who was quick to delight in his disobedience, it is so often those in our own “family” of the Body of Christ who are the first to run and tell others of our indiscretions rather than helping us put our garments back on.

Why Was Canaan Cursed?

"Noah Cursing Canaan" (Gustave Doré)

"And Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done unto him. And he said, Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren." (Genesis 9:24-25)

It seems a little confusing at first glance that Noah, after he awakes from his sleep and learns what was done to him by Ham, proceeds to pronounce a curse on Canaan, Ham’s son. Why should Canaan be punished for the sins of his father? I think that there are two reasons that the Bible records this the way that it does:

1.) It Was A Prophecy More Than A “Curse”

Noah does not say anything along the lines of, “Because of what was done to me: cursed be Canaan…”

His words are meant to be interpreted as prophetic rather than punitive. Like father, like son – the old saying goes, and that is the point being made here. Canaan and his descendants after him would be guilty of displaying this same attitude toward God’s people and would, therefore, earn the curse of God upon themselves, as well. Rather than humble themselves before the hand of God and turn to Him in repentance, the Canaanites would make it a habit to mock, scorn, and defy the children of Israel as they later would enter into the land of Canaan. In reality, they were guilty of mocking God Himself because it was not the ability of the people of God that was ridiculed, but the ability of God to act on their behalf. It is really the same thing today when the skeptic mocks and ridicules the Christian: he is not attacking the person himself so much as he is disparaging God’s ability to move in that person’s life.

2.) Relevance

The second reason that the passage records the curse upon Canaan is for the very simple fact that the Book of Genesis was originally written by Moses, to the children of Israel, as they were preparing to move into the land that God had promised them – namely, Canaan. We are not told how the Lord dealt with Ham for what he had done because, frankly, it was not relevant for the Israelites to know, nor is it really any of our concern. Ham’s name is not mentioned in chapter 9 apart from the statement that he was the father of Canaan. Ham was of no relevance to the children of Israel, but Canaan sure was! It was crucial for them to know that they were dealing with an enemy that bore the curse and judgment of God upon them.

 

21 responses

  1. Regarding Ham, I have always thought it had to do with honoring one’s parent. I think it would have been one thing to accidently see his dad unclothed and then either quickly walk away or shield his eyes while covering him up. Instead, he dishonored his dad by leaving him uncovered and then went and talked about it (gossip). His brothers honored their dad by shielding their eyes and covering up their dad. Anyway, that’s my take on how I’ve understood it (don’t know if I’m right or wrong).

    Boy is it a good point that when a Christian is mocked, it is really disparaging God. That’s something I’ve never thought about but it’s true.

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  2. Ham was certainly guilty of dishonoring his father in what he did, and his actions would definitely be a violation of the commandment given later in the Law of Moses to honor one’s father and mother. But I think that his rebellion went beyond a simple irreverence toward a parent.

    More than just the human father of the brothers: Shem, Ham, and Japheth, Noah was really the spiritual “head of household”, as well. Until Genesis 9:8, we do not see any instance where God deals directly with anyone in the family other than Noah himself. Noah is the vessel through whom God is working and, with that position, is an expectation that his sons should reverence him, not only as their earthly dad, but as the mouthpiece by which God is speaking to them. Noah is their priest before God, so to speak, and I believe that Ham’s froward attitude is in defiance to Noah as the man of God, even more so than it is toward Noah as his earthly father. It is on this basis that I believe there is a connection between Ham’s sin and the sins of the Canaanites (upon whom Noah speaks his prophetic curse) who would come later.

    You brought up a really good point about if Ham had accidentally seen his father naked and how he could have responded appropriately. I don’t think that the idea is that Ham caught a brief, accidental glimpse. Nor do I believe that the sin was in just looking upon his father’s nakedness itself (as obviously unseemly as such in and of itself would be). This is why I contend that it is what that nakedness represented (i.e., the falling into sin and exposure of shame) and the inappropriate response (i.e., he didn’t avert his eyes nor did he attempt to cover his dad’s shame, but he quickly ran to tell everybody else about it!) that brought the Lord’s displeasure upon Ham.

    Some really great points, Tishrei, thank you!

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  3. those are some helpful tips…wow..i was so confused.it really helped

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  4. Thank you so much for visiting and sharing your comments. God bless you!

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  5. I am incredulous to think an entire race is cursed just because a son saw his father naked. Surely Noah has seen Ham naked in bringing him up at some stage. And as we know when parents get older and more infirm, their children start to see them naked. What you are saying is that as a result of this simple mistake, all of Canaan’s children are cursed and enslaved. I don’t buy it.

    What I do find more believable is that something quite horrible happened and due to the way the bible story has been handed down, this has been lost along the way in all the telling and re-telling that went on before the oral history was eventually committed to paper. And I would go so far as to speculate that Ham actually defiled his father. This sort of action may well justify such a reaction from Noah. It would also explain why it was lost from the oral history due to the tastelessness of the act.

    Also, the reason why Noah could not curse Ham directly, is that God blessed Ham after the trip in the Ark. So Noah couldn’t curse Ham -that would be sacreligious – but he COULD curse his offspring.

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  6. Peter,

    Thank you for visiting and sharing your comments.

    I agree with what you said about it being implausible that the race of Canaan was cursed simply because Ham happened to see his father, Noah, naked. I honestly do not think that this is the point of what we are being told here at all. Ham saw the nakedness of his father, moreover, he saw him passed out in drunkenness. The idea isn’t that he accidentally happened to catch a glimpse of his father while he was bathing, no, he beheld Noah in a state of disgrace (consider how nakedness is indicative of shame and guilt in the Book of Genesis, such as Adam’s realization that he is naked in Genesis 3:10, after he rebels against God ). Even the simple act of seeing this was not the problem, but the fact that he went and told his two brothers about it. He reveled in his father’s moment of disgrace rather than seeking to cover his shame and protect his dignity.

    Your suggestion is that perhaps a euphemism is being used here to delicately relate a much more horrendous deed. It is possible that the expression saw his nakedness might be employed instead of something harsher and cruder. But that would not seem to be in keeping with the integrity of the narrative. If I may be so blunt, the terms knew his wife (Gen. 4:1) and lie with me (Gen. 39:7) are used in the very same book. Even the expression he took her and went in unto her (Gen. 38:2) are used, as well. I would propose that it is pretty clear what these expressions are referring to. If there was a defilement made against Noah by Ham, why would not something along these lines be written in regards to the incident we are considering here? Does it seem likely that the writer would be so ambiguous in telling us about what happened?

    You raised the possibility that perhaps the darker nature of what actually happened was lost over time, leaving Moses ignorant of the details when he set the incident down in the Book of Genesis. Knowing human nature, and the dynamics of oral history, it would seem to me that the details would have grown more sordid and nefarious over time, not less. Mankind’s fascination with the sensational would have certainly not allowed such a perverse and lurid tale to lose the aspect of Ham actually defiling his father, would it? No, storytellers most likely would have even embellished upon it and turned it into something even more grotesque. Oral history storytellers were the cinematographers of their day, so to speak, and I believe it would be hard to surmise from watching the movies that are being made today that there is an aversion to the tasteless when stories are told. It seems if anything, tastelessness is gratuitously added, even at the expense of the continuity of the story being related. Additionally, to speculate that Moses wrote the Book of Genesis not being privy to all of the facts of what he is writing is to call into question the verbal inspiration of Scripture entirely, a whole different matter altogether.

    Finally, in regards to Canaan being “cursed”, I believe it is a matter of relevance. I am of the opinion that Noah probably had some choice words for his son Ham when he awoke from his stupor, but it was what he said about Canaan that was of importance to the children of Israel about to enter the Land of Promise. We are told repeatedly about how Ham is the father of Canaan (Gen. 9:18, 22), it seems that this point is being driven home. The topic of importance to the children of Israel was that Canaan and his offspring were a cursed people. If Noah’s “curse” upon Canaan was being arbitrarily made against any son of Ham (presumably because he was unable to directly pronounce judgment against Ham), why was Canaan chosen? Why not Cush, Mizraim, or Put? Wouldn’t it make sense that all of his sons would be equally cursed if this were the case?

    You may be correct in your assessment of the events we are told about here, but it seems very problematic to me. I believe that the significance of Ham’s actions is his mockery of the fall of his godly father. To me, this seems to be what all of the details are spelling out for us. I thank you again so much for taking the time to share your insights on this and thanks for reading what I’ve had to say :)

    In Christ,

    Loren

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  7. The context of occasion was that God destroyed most of mankind because of an endemic of sin especially when the genetic line of mankind was in danger by the rise of the Nephilim
    The sin of Ham must be interpreted in the context and light of the written word. The key to its interpretation lies in Lev 20:11. The act of discovering the the nakedness of his father alludes to a sexual act with his father’s wife. Canaan the son of Ham could be the offspring of this sinful act. The sin’s of the father’s are passed down to the third and fourth generations that was the reason Canaaan both in tendency, genetic lineage and culture defied God which Noah’s understanding of the sin’s nature prophesied about. It is noteworthy to realise that it was in the land of Canaan wher the post flood giants/Nephilim were living.

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  8. Ashmeed,

    Thank you so much for reading this and taking the time to share your thoughts concerning it!

    The interpretation that you are suggesting, while certainly intriguing, seems problematic based on what the Scripture says. First of all, I would contend that the contamination of the line of mankind resulting in the Flood was not a genetic threat, but a spiritual. Genesis 6:5 tells us that “The wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (click here for my entry concerning this passage).

    Next, I do agree that the sin of Ham should be interpreted in the context and light of the Word of God. I disagree, however, that Leviticus 20:11 is the key:

    “And the man that lieth with his father’s wife hath uncovered his father’s nakedness: both of them shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.”

    While “lying” with the wife of one’s father would definitely “uncover his nakedness”, I believe it is a fallacious conclusion to surmise that this is what Ham did. Yes, Leviticus employs the expression “uncover nakedness” euphemistically for sexual relations (particularly in passages such as Lev. 18:6-18); but Genesis 9:21-22 makes it clear that Noah literally exposed his own nakedness when he got drunk and passed out. Ham did not “uncover Noah’s nakedness”, Noah did. The literal recovering of Noah in Verse 23 would make the idea of taking an allegorical interpretation even more inconceivable (could Ham’s brothers “reverse” the act of Ham committing incest with their mother?)

    As I wrote in this post, I feel that what we are being told is about dishonoring and exposing the disgrace of Noah. To conclude anything of a sexual nature is to read into this something that the writer is simply not telling us. I acknowledge that, for a lot of people, tales of sordid lewdness and mutated giants might be more “entertaining”, but I believe that the details of the narrative are a little more mundane. Fortunately, however, they are by the same token much more relevant for our own learning and edification.

    Thanks again, Ashmeed, for visiting and sharing your comments. I hope you do so again :)

    In Christ,

    Loren

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  9. Loren,

    Several times you have noted what YOU think the account was about. Ashmeed lovingly gave a more correct rendering of what ought to be believed.

    Yes, you asserted that mankinds sin was spiritual (isn’t it always?) yet the Hebrew word tamim (KJV, “perfect”) in Gen9:1 clarifies Ashmeed’s point that yes, God, needed to preserve the bloodline of Christ. All other lines had been tarnished either directly or indirectly by the fallen angels and their progeny.

    Ham ‘did it’ with his mother when he knew he could get away with it . . . when his father became drunk! She became pregnant with Ham’s child . . . Canaan.

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  10. Mark,

    Thanks for taking the time to share your comments on this post!

    To be completely candid with you, I really feel that I have probably dedicated far more time to addressing disputations over this particular subject than anyone would deem prudent. Honestly, I really don’t have any more to add. You insinuated that I am applying a subjective interpretation to the topic (by “noting what I think the account is about”), but to that I would lovingly suggest that your own interpretation calls for a far greater deal of speculation and supposition. My entire premise for my own particular view is actually quite the contrary.

    As Occam’s Razor dictates: The simplest explanation is usually the correct one. In light of this, we both should ask if a more complex, allegorical explanation is necessary with regard to Ham’s sin. My interpretation is simply to take the direct, literal meaning behind the narrative. Does this not suffice? As I have addressed previously, if the writer is alluding to something else, why does he not say so? There is certainly no aversion to spelling out the other lewd sexual misconduct in the Book of Genesis (e.g., the men of Sodom propositioning the angelic visitors of Lot, the incestuous perversion of the daughters of Lot, the rape of Dinah), why would this instance be different? If a sexual act between Ham and his mother is the intended meaning, why are we not told so?

    Thanks again for sharing your thoughts about this. You assert that your interpretation is the more correct, I would assert that it is merely the more sensational. I believe that mine is backed up by the whole counsel of Scripture. I suppose we must agree to disagree.

    In Christ,

    Loren

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  11. is there any truth dat there was any sex involved on b half of ham being gay, i blive i once read a commentary about dat.

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  12. I had to reply to say thank you! This blog post helped me see a reasonable explanation where my imagination failed to produce one.

    I agree with you – I do not see any explicit sexual misconduct going here either.

    It is very tempting in our fallen world to add to or minimalize the scriptures to get them to “fit” into what makes sense to us. Sometimes, the scriptures just aren’t going to make complete sense. That is a hard thing to accept, but it is also the beauty of this God-breathed tome of work… we love a good mystery!

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  13. Thank you so much, I am glad that you enjoyed this post :)

    “It is very tempting in our fallen world to add to or minimalize the scriptures to get them to “fit” into what makes sense to us”

    Absolutely. Sometimes an interpretation seems to reveal more about the person making the interpretation than it does about what the particular passage is actually saying. It is definitely important for us to understand that God has not filled in all of the blanks for us (though we wish He had). Some things are, as you aptly put it, a mystery. Nevertheless, the diligent and prayerful study of God’s Word is a fruitful pursuit that will lead the sincere seeker and the humble of heart to unparalleled spiritual growth and a greater knowledge of the Lord. It is most unfortunate when the power and majesty of Scripture is sieved through the filter of a mind so defiled that the beauty of this God-breathed tome is viewed as something grotesque.

    Thank you so much for taking the time to share your thoughtful insights on this; may the Lord richly bless you :)

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  14. Recently heard a discourse on honor by Rabbi Daniel Lapine where he referred to this passage. Rabbi Dan mentioned that Ham was concerned with his inheritance and the prospect of Noah having more children and his part and Hispanic brother’s part being deminished. One way to ensure the certainty of them getting no less than thirty percent each, was if Noah didn’t have anymore children.So, Rabbi Dan said that Ham took the opportunity of his father’s drunkenness to secure his inheritance by castrating his father Noah. In my years I have never heard this before, because Rabbi Dan’s plain and consistent teaching of ancient Jewish tradition I can give more credence to what he said than to the other speculation and conjecture. Rabbi Daniel. Lapine has a national TV program called “Ancient Jewish Wisdom” and is an national speaker.

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  15. Sorry, the word ‘his’ was transliterated ‘hispanic’ by the text-entry system of my hand-held device.

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  16. Thank you for reading this article and taking the time to share your thoughts :)

    I am not familiar with Rabbi Daniel Lapine and, to be honest, I, too, have never heard this interpretation of Genesis 9. Admittedly, the conclusions concerning this passage that I have shared here do call for a certain amount of speculation and interpretation, as does any commentary about any passage of Scripture. In my opinion, the most sound approach to Biblical interpretation, the approach that I take on this website, is to prayerfully and thoughtfully evaluate each verse and passage of Scripture by comparing it to its context and to the balance of the Bible. Before any conclusion is reached, we do well to ask ourselves: is this interpretation supported by what we know from other parts of the Bible? Does this interpretation complement or contradict the rest of the chapter in which the passage appears, or book, or the entire Bible itself? And, finally, does the conclusion reached find enough evidential support in the text itself?

    With these questions in mind, the conclusions you have cited are, in my opinion, unsupported by the rest of Scripture and are wholly without merit. It seems inconsistent that, if the actions of Ham were of such a violent nature, we would have been told as much. Looking at other events recorded in Genesis, such as the violence perpetrated by Simeon and Levi in Chapter 34, we see that no words are minced and no euphemisms employed; we are told quite plainly what the brothers did to Hamor and Shechem! If Ham had gone so far as to castrate his own father in genesis 9, it seems very unlikely that the writer of Genesis would simply tell us that he “saw his father’s nakedness.”

    You state that you are satisfied with the explanation given based on your confidence in the individual from whom you heard it. If this interpretation really makes the most sense to you, (and since this entire issue is really not that crucial in the grand scheme of things), then I certainly won’t try to talk you out of it. But, as a sidenote, I would strongly caution you to check any teaching or Biblical interpretation for yourself before you accept it (including anything you read on this website). Regardless of how convincing, persuasive, or agreeable a message might sound; no matter how much trust we might have in the messenger himself — we do well to bear in mind that all preachers and Bible teachers are fallible human beings. Sometimes, we all get it wrong. I urge you to please prayerfully consider any and all Biblical teachings before accepting them based solely on your faith in the one giving the message.

    May the Lord richly bless your study of His Word :)

    To God goes all glory. In service to Him,

    Loren

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  17. Thank you for the discussion, and your very careful responses to the more speculative comments. I was reading Genesis, and thought it was an oddly-short orphaned section about Noah’s homelife. I didn’t see the issue with casual nakedness in the home (despite being American) – so I figured it was some kind of mocking/disrespect issue – but that seemed fairly light crime for a multi-generational pronouncement of doom!
    I greatly appreciated you taking the interpretationa little deeper, into Noah’s role as a Holy man, which essentially made Ham’s sin an issue of mocking the Lord. In that light, it certainly carries alot more weight in the chapter!

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  18. Thank you so much, Robert, for reading this and sharing your thoughts :)

    I am glad you found this article helpful; God bless you!

    Loren

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  19. [...] story: Why were the Canaanites cursed for Ham’s sin? I don’t really know. I did find an interesting blog entry that helped, though. The curse is more of a prophecy than an actual curse, and anything Moses did [...]

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  20. This has been an incredible read for me. I don’t usually even take the time to read comments as I was just after a bit of scripture to quote to begin with.
    I must say Loren, I truly appreciate how grounded you stayed throughout all your replies and I found myself going up and down with every comment. My flesh wanted to believe the sensational and then I would quickly feel grounded again by your replies back, Loren.
    Your replies seemed to have God’s peace all around them. Amazing how quickly the flesh wants to sensationalize the messages we absorb as truth. We do tend toward the juicy gossip. Thank you for keeping the integrity of the scriptures in tact and me on track!!! :)

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  21. Hi CJ,

    Thank you so much for taking the time to share your encouraging feedback :)

    To be honest, I often struggle with investing the time and effort into responding to some of the comments I receive. Many of the folks who post their views have obviously reached their own conclusions and are not very likely to change their minds. That’s okay, but it can be tempting for me to refrain from spending the hour or two which it often takes to give a careful answer when it will likely have no impact whatsoever on the individual to whom I am responding. I believe, however, that if giving those answers can help someone else who will later read the comments, then it is well worth it.

    Your comment was a wonderful blessing which reminded me of these things. May the Lord richly bless you and thank you so much again!

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