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.


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