Why did Noah curse Canaan?


In Genesis 9 we read the story of Noah being found drunk and naked, by his son Ham. Ham went to tell his brothers about this and their reaction was to cover their father discreetly. When Noah wakes up and hear of Ham’s behaviour, he curses Ham’s son Canaan (verses 18-27).

It’s not easy to read the story with a “ancient mind” – in other words, we don’t precisely understand the social issues associated to this story. If a friend became drunk and took his clothes off today, we’d probably laugh about it, but in ancient Hebrew times, nakedness was still strongly associated to shame (see Genesis 3:7 & 21). Maybe a good comparison today would be uploading a video of your wife, naked, drunk and swearing, to YouTube and sending the link to all the church elders. Ham has said to his brothers, “Oy! Lads! Look at this! *guffaw guffaw*.” The brothers are shocked and treat Noah with appropriate respect where Ham has dishonoured his father greatly. So this is the context for Noah’s reaction.

Next, it seems that Noah’s reaction is borne out of anger. The bible reports a lot of things that it does not condone, David’s adultery being a classic example. Noah cursed Canaan, but we should not necessarily infer that this was an appropriate or proportionate response to the offence. In fact we already know that Noah is in a bad place, because the bible explicitly discourages drunkenness (perhaps for this very reason). So we can try to understand why Noah cursed Canaan without this then instructing us that we ought to behave similarly.

Generational angst might have been on Noah’s mind. We know that God later said (in Exodus 20:5-6), “I… am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.” The emphasis here is not that God is in any way vindictive, but that successive generations live with the consequences of the sin (or righteousness) of previous generations. Although what Noah says may be read as a curse, to me it reads more like a prophecy: i.e. If this is the kind of man that Ham is, then these are the inevitable consequences for his children. You reap what you sow. Ironically by bypassing Ham, Noah has avoided the embarrassment of indirectly blaming himself for his own son’s (Ham’s) sin. Then when Noah goes on to bless his other sons, he is by analogy giving himself a pat on the back!

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