The Curse on Canaan

What is the curse on Canaan?

We read about this curse in Genesis 9:

Then Noah began farming and planted a vineyard.  He drank of the wine and became drunk, and uncovered himself inside his tent.  Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers outside.  But Shem and Japheth took a garment and laid it upon both their shoulders and walked backward and covered the nakedness of their father; and their faces were turned away, so that they did not see their father’s nakedness.  When Noah awoke from his wine, he knew what his youngest son had done to him.  So he said, “Cursed be Canaan; A servant of servants He shall be to his brothers.” (Genesis 9:20-25)


Why did Noah get drunk?  Was it intentional?

The text does not say.  It is possible that his inexperience with farming and vineyards led him to drink too much, and he became drunk without intending to do so.


Why did he uncover himself?

This too is not stated.  The text says: He drank of the wine and became drunk, and uncovered himself inside his tent. (Genesis 9:21)


Who were the sons of Ham?

This is given us in the next chapter.  The sons of Ham were Cush and Mizraim and Put and Canaan. (Genesis 10:6)


What did Canaan do which brought upon him Noah’s curse?

The text does not state this.


What was Ham’s sin?

This too is unclear.  At the very least, he disrespected his father by seeing his father’s nakedness and failing to cover him.  Shem and Japheth are commended for covering their father and for doing even this in such a way (i.e. walking backward) that they did not see his naked body.


It seems then that Ham was the guilty party.  Why was Canaan cursed?

This is a difficult question to answer.  Here are some suggestions:

“Ham was punished in one of his sons because he had sinned against his father, and he was punished in that particular son, because Canaan most strongly reproduced Ham’s sensual character.  Vos, Biblical Theology, 57.

Why is Canaan cursed and not Ham? Ham is punished in this son because he followed most decidedly the example of his father’s impiety and wickedness. To this view we are led:  (1) By the whole doctrine of Scripture concerning the visitation of the guilt of the fathers on the children. (2) By Gen. 15:16, ‘In the fourth generation they shall come hither again: for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet full.’ According to this the curse on Canaan can only be realized on him when his own iniquity has been fully matured. (3) By what is reported in Genesis concerning the moral depravity of Sodom and Gomorrah, which in the development of the sinful germ inherent in the race had outrun all others, and were therefore before all others overtaken by punishment. (4) By Leviticus 18 and the parallel passages, where the Canaanites appear as a nation of abominations which the land rejects; and by what ancient writers report regarding the deep corruption of the Phœnicians and Carthaginians.  Groves

What Noah said hereupon, was by a spirit of prophecy. He told his sons (as Jacob his, Gen. 49:1) what should befall them in the latter days. Jacob, in blessing Joseph’s sons, is said to bless Joseph. Genesis 48:15, 16. So Noah here, in cursing Canaan the son, did in effect curse Ham the father. Here the iniquity of the father was visited upon the son. Probably Canaan was wicked like Ham. And no marvel that the children’s teeth are set on edge, when they eat of the same sour grapes of sin that their fathers ate of before them. Ezek. 18:2. The curse of Canaan was a curse to Ham; for usually when the children are made to suffer for their fathers’ sins, the fathers are made to smart in the children’s sufferings. And though Ham and all his posterity might be cursed, yet Moses mentions Canaan only; to comfort the people of Israel, that were going to possess the land of Canaan. He shows that the inhabitants of it were a cursed people, that the Israelites might invade them with more courage, having this curse, as old as Noah, to fight for them; which might stand them in no small stead, considering that Noah’s curse was God’s curse; and that those whom God curses, are cursed indeed.  Henry


What is the truth here?

The resolution to this problem is to note the author’s real intent.  His point here is to set forth the character of the sons as prophetic of the future lot of the nations they represent.  Hence, the account of Noah’s nakedness, Ham’s sin, and Canaan’s part in this sin is highly abbreviated, so the author can quickly get to the part of Noah’s blessing and cursing.  This was the author’s real focus.  If the author were writing a newspaper account of this event, we would fault him for leaving out key details, but that is not the author’s intent.  This is history written to make a theological point, and the theology given us here is a prophecy of Israel’s future relationship with the Canaanites.


What peoples are represented in the line of Shem?



What peoples are represented in the line of Japheth?



What peoples are represented in the line of Ham?


Now, I think it will aid us in forming a proper judgment on this subject, if we look to those oracles of inspired truth, by whose verdict, all questions of right and wrong must finally be determined. And what saith the Scripture? The condition of the African race is itself a direct fulfilment of prophecy, and whatever objections may be made to the assertion, it is the result of the order of God’s providence, and it exists in pursuance of God’s decree, not a secret, but an expressed decree. I say it is the result of God’s own appointment, proclaimed in the curse upon Canaan, “Cursed be Canaan, a servant of servants shall he be.” The history of that race has been but the story of the fulfilment of this prophecy. The Shemitic race the sons of Shem, subdued the children of Canaan, and were in turn subdued by the sons of Japhet, and Canaan became, and has ever since been a servant of servants. This, however, is no apology for cruelty or outrage.

The sons of Canaan are men, and entitled therefore to all the exercise of the moral attributes of manhood, and observe how the precepts of the gospel of Christ, as expounded by his apostles, harmonize with the law and the prophets. Think you the apostles were not the friends of Christian liberty? They periled life and all that men hold dear in temporal interest to promote the emancipation of the race from the greatest of all bondage. They proclaimed the same gospel to rich and poor, to bond and free. They dealt with all alike. They opened no royal road to heaven. They pointed out the same strait gate and the same narrow way to the prince and the peasant, to the master and the servant. They taught all men, whatever their station in life, to seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and when that was gained, they knew the gospel would do the rest. But they never declaimed against forms of government, or social institutions. They distinctly recognized the opposite relations of master and servant, and they gave to each station its appropriate counsel. Masters give to your servants that which is just and right—servants obey your masters. Masters, be the servants of Christ—servants, be the freemen of the Lord Jesus! This was done, not in the spirit of base subserviency to a public opinion which they dared not resist, but it was done in submission to the order of God’s providence in the economy of the gospel. I say, therefore, that all interference by church courts with this question of slavery, is impertinent and unseemly. It is not done after the model of apostolic example. The office of the church is to send the gospel to all men, to publish it to masters and servants alike, and in God’s name to call upon all men, everywhere to repent, and to adorn the relations they sustain in life by a godly, and therefore a loving walk and conversation. But, I protest against the notion, held by many Christian people, I admit, but all the more pernicious for that very reason, that this question of slavery is to be judged in a disjointed or abstract form. It must be left where God has put it. I am no friend of slavery because I thus speak. I should rejoice, were it God’s will, if there were not a bondman on all this wide earth, but so long as the Bible teaches me, that the very existence of servitude in the descendants of Canaan is the result of God’s appointment and a fulfilment of God’s prophecy, I cannot strike hands with that infidel philanthropy which ignores the conservatism of divine revelation, and rushes madly into a wild, reckless, and profligate career of extravagance and folly. I am aware of the objections which will readily suggest themselves against the view I have reluctantly expressed. Let me only say, that the objector must first settle one principle in his mind before he can be prepared to argue upon this or any other similar subject. The principle is this: God’s decrees never annul human responsibility. Admit that the sons of Canaan are doomed by the appointment of God to servitude, or to inferiority, and you do not thereby apologize for the acts of oppression and outrage by which a system may be disgraced. God will hold every man accountable for every act of cruelty committed against another without respect to condition or colour. All those accidents of slavery must give way before the power of gospel truth and love, and eventually they will. Every precept of the religion of Christ teaches us that kindness and gentleness are the first laws of humanity, when even partially restored to the image of God. Do what you can, therefore, to elevate the sons of Canaan. Give them all the advantages of education. Treat them with Christian kindness and courtesy, and you have discharged your duty to them as fellow-men, but as to removing the distinction by which God has separated the race from the sons of Japhet, the mere idea is an idle dream of fond fanaticism. I say, therefore, the mere existence of negro-slavery in the United States, is no valid objection against the antagonism of the stone kingdom to systems of monarchical and ecclesiastical tyranny. The abuses of slavery are things which the perpetrators must settle with their God. On the contrary, the fact, that the population of this republic is a Japhetic race, is another confirmation of the truth of this interpretation, because no other, in accordance with God’s decree promulged to Noah, could hold the reigns of a government that shall eventually control the nations. It would be quite as just and quite as modest to arraign the allotments of Providence in regard to the descendants of Abraham, as it is to cavil at the decree of God respecting the sons of Canaan. I go even farther, I say, it would be just as consistent, and even more consistent with the dictates of that blank reason which rejects the light of revelation, to cavil at the decree of God, in consequence of which a corrupt nature has been entailed on the posterity of Adam, involving the whole race in all the untold miseries which sin has brought upon the world. And yet, let men cavil, the providence of God in the very existence of sorrow and death is constantly confirming the justice of that mysterious decree. I hold these views to be parallel, and they illustrate not only the connection, but the philosophical necessity of that tendency to Atheism which characterizes all the rampant philanthropy of the age.

Joseph F. Berg, The Stone and the Image, Or, the American Republic, the Bane and Ruin of Despotism: An Exposition of the Fifth Kingdom of Daniel’s Prophecy and of the Great Wonder in Heaven of the Apocalypse (Philadelphia: Higgins & Perkinpine, 1856), 30–35.