Stranger Thing #14 – The Curse of Canaan

When Noah awoke from his wine and knew what his youngest son had done to him, he said,
“Cursed be Canaan;
a servant of servants shall he be to his brothers.”

[Genesis 9:24-25 -ESV]

One of the most peculiar accounts in the early chapters of Genesis is Noah’s curse upon his grandson, Canaan. On the surface, it seems that Noah’s son, Ham, simply walked in on his drunk and naked father and experienced an awkward moment before going back outside to tell his older brothers.

When Noah awoke, he immediately knew something shameful had happened and commenced to calling down curses — not on Ham per se — but on one of Ham’s sons — Canaan.

Seems a little extreme for an honest mistake right? Even if Ham did dishonor his father, Noah, or made light of the situation, does that merit a curse from the patriarch of the family?

Unlikely … unless there is more to the story.

Once again, we must remember that every account in Holy Scripture is included for a reason, so we can be sure that this peculiar event, though strange, is significant to the overall narrative of redemptive history.

To establish the context, let us read the story once again.

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. Then Shem and Japheth took a garment, laid it on both their shoulders, and walked backward and covered the nakedness of their father. Their faces were turned backward, and they did not see their father’s nakedness. When Noah awoke from his wine and knew what his youngest son had done to him, he said,

“Cursed be Canaan;
a servant of servants shall he be to his brothers.”

He also said,

“Blessed be the LORD, the God of Shem;
and let Canaan be his servant.
May God enlarge Japheth,
and let him dwell in the tents of Shem,
and let Canaan be his servant.”
[Genesis 9:20-27]

My goal is to get to the heart of this strange account by answering some important questions. So here goes…

What is the significance of Noah’s drunkenness?

The first detail that immediately jumps out is Noah’s drunken stupor. Apparently Noah didn’t just get a little tipsy. He was hammered — so much so that he didn’t even bother to cover himself up in his tent but crashed naked on the bed.

One of the unique characteristics of God’s word is that it paints the heroes of the faith in real and living color, revealing both their good and bad. The Scripture does not embellish nor attempt to sugar coat the truth. We can often learn from the negative examples in the Bible as much as from the positive ones.

Yes, Noah was a man of faith, righteous in the sight of God, but also a man susceptible to the desires of the flesh. And this particular sin put Noah in a vulnerable situation and brought some devastating consequences to his family.

And just in case you wondered … the Bible has no prohibition against drinking wine or alcohol in general. Even Jesus turned water into vintage wine and was accused of being a glutton and a drunkard for associating with a rough crowd. But the Scriptures repeatedly and clearly classify drunkenness as a sin. [see Proverbs 23:20-21, Ephesians 5:18]

What is the significance of ‘uncovering’ a man’s nakedness?

The language in Genesis 9 is specific and intentional for a reason. Noah was drunk and uncovered, and although the Bible says that Ham simply “saw” his father’s nakedness, there is most likely more to the story.

When we examine God’s laws against sexual immorality in Leviticus, the phrase “uncovering his nakedness” is used consistently to convey the act of sexual intercourse, especially in prohibiting incest. Consider the following passages.

“None of you shall approach any one of his close relatives to uncover nakedness. I am the LORD. You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father, which is the nakedness of your mother; she is your mother, you shall not uncover her nakedness. You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father’s wife; it is your father’s nakedness.”

If a man lies with his father’s wife, he has uncovered his father’s nakedness; both of them shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them … If a man lies with his uncle’s wife, he has uncovered his uncle’s nakedness; they shall bear their sin; they shall die childless.”

[Leviticus 18:6-8, 20:11, 20]

When we read Genesis 9 in light of this specific Hebrew phrase, the picture begins to come into focus. Most likely, Ham did something more than simply see his naked father and then run tell his brothers for a good laugh. Based on what we know from Leviticus, for a man to commit incest with his own mother or even his step-mother, he has “uncovered his father’s nakedness,” and must be put to death.

Granted, there has been much conjecture among scholars concerning the nature of Ham’s sin. Some have proposed that Ham perhaps committed a perverse sexual act on his father, Noah, because of the fact that the Bible says Noah immediate knew what Ham “had done to him.” Some have even suggested that Ham castrated his father as an act of patriarchal rebellion (which I reject), and some simply read it as the basic dishonoring of Noah with no sexual act involved.

My personal opinion is that Ham’s sin was sexual in nature and that it most likely involved him committing a shameful act of incest with his own mother, while his drunken father lay there unconscious. Such a heinous and perverse act would have warranted Noah’s fury and explain why he pronounced such a serious curse.

What is the significance of Noah’s curse of Canaan, not Ham?

To make matters even more confusing, when Noah awakes from his drunken stupor to realize that Ham had done such a wicked thing, he pronounces a curse — not on Ham personally — but upon on Canaan, the fourth born son of Ham.

So why Canaan and not Ham? Why Canaan and not any other son or sons of Ham, such as Cush or Egypt?

This mystery is not easily answered.

The first matter is to determine if Canaan had even been born at this point. At the least a few years had passed since the family left the ark because Noah had time to plant a vineyard, yield grapes, and ferment wine. But even if this was several years removed from the flood, would that have given Ham and his wife enough time to produce four sons?

The truth is that we don’t know if Noah was pronouncing a curse on his grandson, Canaan, that was already born or if Noah was prophetically cursing one of Ham’s future descendants that had yet to be born.

Another interesting theory is that perhaps Canaan was the result of Ham’s incestuous act with his mother. Dr. Darrell Pursiful explains.

“If Ham’s crime is understood as maternal incest, it becomes possible to explain Canaan’s origin as the fruit of that union. This insight suddenly illuminates two aspects of the text left unanswered by those who propose that Ham sodomized his father, namely, why it was Canaan who was cursed, and why Ham is repeatedly identified as “the father of Canaan.” Canaan is cursed because his origin was a vile, taboo act on the part of his father; and Ham is identified as “the father of Canaan” (vv. 18, 20) because the narrator wishes to signal the reader that this narrative explains how Ham became “the father of Canaan.”


Canaan’s curse was that he and his descendants would be inferior and subject to both of his brothers — Japheth and Shem — and their descendants. Of course, Abraham, Isaac, and Israel would become direct descendants of Shem, whereas we learn in Genesis 10 that Canaan was the patriarch of all of the wicked people groups who settled in the Promise Land, such as Sidon (Phoenicians), the Jebusites, the Amorites, the Girgashites, the Hivites etc… [Genesis 10:15-17].

In other words, the primary enemies of God’s people, Israel, would be the direct descendants of Ham (Egypt) and more specifically, Canaan.

Interestingly enough, there is another familiar story of drunken incest in the Scriptures that result in the birth of two of Israel’s primary enemies. Lot’s own daughters got him drunk and shamefully uncovered his nakedness, which produced two sons — Ammon and Moab [Genesis 19:34-38].

Finally, it is also worth noting that both Egypt and Canaan are directly identified as the originators of the shameful acts of sexual perversion prohibited in Leviticus 18 and 20. In other words, like father … like son.

“You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you. You shall not walk in their statutes.”

[Leviticus 18:3]

I believe Canaan’s curse is so important because it provides the backstory behind the perpetual enmity between God’s people, Israel, and their worst enemies, the Canaanites. And sadly, the curse of Canaan became Israel’s own curse.

““Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, When you pass over the Jordan into the land of Canaan, then you shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you and destroy all their figured stones and destroy all their metal images and demolish all their high places. And you shall take possession of the land and settle in it, for I have given the land to you to possess it … But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you, then those of them whom you let remain shall be as barbs in your eyes and thorns in your sides, and they shall trouble you in the land where you dwell. And I will do to you as I thought to do to them.”

[Numbers 33:51-53, 55-56]

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