There is hardly an Old Testament passage more difficult to interpret than the curse on Canaan described in the closing verses of Genesis 9. Study readily reveals the diversified views prevailing among biblical students today; yet many persist in seeing only one possible interpretation of the story. This Scripture was the favorite text of Southern preachers during the Civil War, as they asserted the right of white men to enslave the Negro. Often used even today to defend segregation by earnest, Bible-loving Christians, it is the unrecognized source of the common saying, “A Negro is all right in his place,” by which is meant that his proper position is secondary to that of the white man.

The passage begins by mentioning the three sons of Noah in their usual order, Shem, Ham, and Japheth, of whom all men are regarded as descendants (vv. 18, 19). Difficulties in interpretation begin with verse 20. The King James Version reads, “And Noah began to be an husbandman, and he planted a vineyard,” which presents no problem to the English reader. However, he is immediately jolted by the Revised Standard Version, “Noah was the first tiller of the soil. He planted a vineyard.” This is in direct contradiction to the earlier passages in Genesis asserting that Adam was a gardener and Cain a farmer. Those who support this translation readily admit this but see the verse as coming from a different source. They claim that the Hebrew can allow no other translation. What are the facts? A literal rendering would be: “And Noah, the farmer, began and he planted a vineyard.” Before the flood, vineyards were probably in existence; but until this time, Noah apparently had not grown one himself. It is even possible that he cultivated vineyards before the flood. The Scripture does not settle this question but implies a new venture for Noah. He is called the farmer because some readers may conclude that he was only a navigator or carpenter by trade! His father, Lamech, was a farmer, and this was probably Noah’s occupation before his call to prepare for the flood (Gen. 5:29).

We are not told whether Noah was familiar with the effects of wine. Certainly he should have been. Jesus asserts that there was “eating and drinking” before the flood (Matt. 24:38), a phrase probably referring to the drinking of wine (cf. 1 Sam. 30:16; Matt. 11:18, 19). Perhaps the temptation to taste the product of his own labor was too strong for Noah and he soon became quite drunk, revealing that he was not accustomed to the habit. A man who gets drunk only once is not a drunkard. He emerges as a chastened man but not a drunkard, who is an addict.

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The scene that unfolds is a familiar one. Righteous Noah had been the means of God’s triumph over the forces of evil in the world. The wicked had been destroyed, and Noah and his family had been spared to build a new world. But the man who had weathered the ridicule of his neighbors and every storm of the flood could not meet the challenge of the time of peace. With the opportunity to start an ideal new society, Noah was found drunk in his tent.

Some commentators note that there is not a word of condemnation of Noah for his drunkenness; all the blame seems to fall on Ham. Yet one can hardly ignore verses 28 and 29 in the light of 6:9, where it is said Noah “walked with God.” In the previous chapter the same expression is used of Enoch, whose reward was translation to heaven. Would this have been Noah’s experience also if he had not sinned?

What was the sin of Ham? Some would suggest that verse 24 implies that he had committed some carnal act with his father. This interpretation is quite unfounded and reveals a lack of understanding of the Hebrew attitude toward nakedness. The modern world is influenced so strongly by the Greek glorification of the body that it is quite difficult for us to grasp the attitudes of the ancient Hebrews. In the Garden of Eden the fig leaves could not sufficiently cover the nakedness of Adam and Eve, and God clothed them with skins. When the prophets describe the horrors of exile, one of the most terrible is the enforced nakedness of the captives. During the late Maccabean age the pious Jews were greatly disturbed by the appearance in Jerusalem of a Greek gymnasium where naked men exercised.

What did Ham do to his father? He disgraced him by exposing his shame to the world. Ham could not have been blamed for stumbling on his drunken father, but he was blamed for reporting on his father’s condition. What his brothers did he should have done: he should have covered his father.

Noah’S Enlightenment

How did Noah know what Ham had done to him? Did Shem and Japheth tell him? This is doubtful, for had they done so they would have been guilty of exposing their brother’s shame, even as he had reported on their father. The Scripture implies that this knowledge came by intuition, presumably by divine enlightenment.

Some commentators emphasize that Noah was in a drunken stupor or in the midst of a terrible hangover when he uttered his famous words. The remarks of a man in such a condition should not be taken seriously, they observe. However, Noah seems to be well enough in command of himself to receive divine enlightenment. He is aware of what has happened, and this knowledge could have come only from Shem and Japheth or from intuition beyond himself. Thus it is evident that Noah was in command of all of his faculties when he uttered his oracle. Even had he not been, his words would have been taken seriously by the Hebrews. As S. R. Driver remarks in his Westminster Commentary on Genesis, “It was an ancient belief that a father’s curse or blessing was not merely the expression of an earnestly felt hope or wish, but that it exerted a real power in determining a child’s future.”

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More scholars are now suggesting that Genesis 9:20–27 is a unit independent of the other material around it. It is Palestinian in its scheme, whereas the other passages are more universal. The Shem, Ham, Japheth references are here replaced by a new trio: Shem, Japheth, Canaan. The latter are the inhabitants of Palestine rather than of the entire world.

Some see in 9:18 and 22 the hand of a redactor tying the more general list to the Palestinian one by claming that Ham is the father of Canaan, inserting the phrase into each of the verses. In the original story Canaan rather than Ham is the one who exposed his father. This theory solves two major problems at once. It explains why the offending son is called “the youngest” (RSV), for it is Canaan who is guilty rather than Ham; and it unties the knotty question that has always perplexed students of the Old Testament: Why was Canaan cursed for a sin in which he had no part, while Ham escaped unscathed?

Those who espouse this view consider that it solves all the problems of the passage. Shem represents Israel in the story, and Japheth the Philistines. Canaan is to be subservient to both the others because of his obvious involvement in immorality. This is an etiological story, contrived to justify what was already happening in Palestine, the subjection of the Canaanites by the Hebrews and the Philistines. It was originally told at the great festivals of Israel to encourage the conquest and to rationalize what had already been performed.

This interpretation is not without its problems, however. Von Rad admits that the use of the name Shem for Israel is “unusual, indeed singular, in the Old Testament” (Genesis, Westminster Press, 1961). He is under great duress also in attempting to prove that Japheth is to be equated with the Philistines. It is obvious that if Ham is permitted to remain in the passage, the references to Shem and Japheth are more easily explained.

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Conservative scholars explain the reference to Ham as the youngest son either by insisting upon the dubious translation “younger” or by contending that the familiar listing Shem, Ham, and Japheth (Gen. 6:10; 7:13; 9:18; 10:1) is not chronological. Some suggest that Shem and Ham are listed together because their descendants lived in close proximity. This writer suggests that the names were preserved by oral tradition for centuries, thus explaining their frequent repetition. The arrangement is euphonic rather than chronological. It was the form in which the names were preserved in the popular stories. The names are not arranged chronologically in Genesis 10: Japheth comes first (v. 2), then Ham (v. 6), and Shem last (v. 21). It is quite possible that Ham was the youngest son of Noah.

Why Curse Canaan?

The most perplexing task confronting the traditional interpretation of the passage is to give an adequate explanation for the curse’s falling upon Canaan rather than upon Ham. There are several approaches to this enigma, one being to regard the oracle of Noah as a prediction of a curse. Noah, given insight into the future of the nations, sees the consequences of Ham’s sin issuing in the fate of his son. With a father like Ham the son is doomed.

Another possibility is that the story of Ham’s sin was told for many years among the Semites and Hebrews. After the Hebrews settled in Palestine and became familiar with the Canaanites, they perceived that the sins of Ham were being fulfilled in Canaan. The consequences of Ham’s sins were being felt by his descendants in Palestine. Verses 25–27 were composed under divine guidance to express this fact in immortal poetry. The displeasure of Noah had fallen upon Canaan.

Were the Canaanites actual descendants of Ham? We know little about their origin, but it is certain that either ethnically or politically or both, they were descendants of Ham. Another thing is clear: they were not Negroes. The curse on Canaan in no way has a bearing upon the Negro-white problems of our times. Some expositors insist, however, that Noah’s curse must have fallen upon all of Ham’s descendants. Canaan was singled out by Noah; but obviously, they say, Ham himself must have been cursed if his son had such a blow, else God was not just. Therefore the Negro as Ham’s descendant must still bear the curse!

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Obvious objections to such a stand arise. First, although it is apparent that Ham bore blame for his sin, we do not know what that punishment was. Scripture is silent here, and conjecture is dangerous. Second, does this mean that the other Hamitic peoples—Egyptians, Libyans, South Arabians—also should serve the Indo-Europeans and Hebrews? In other words, should one white man enslave another white man? Few would contend for that. Thirdly, if in the times of ignorance God permitted such servitude, the implication of the New Testament would eliminate such a relationship for the Christian today.

The study of the closing verses of Genesis 9 is involved and complicated, and many of the issues will continue to be roundly debated. But one obvious conclusion can be made: This passage in no way relates to the present tensions between the races; when made to do so it has been misinterpreted and misapplied. It makes no reference to the Negro in any way. Whatever the reason, the curse of servitude was on Canaan, not Ham, and the modern Negro is not one of Canaan’s descendants. The use of the passage to foster racial superiority is an obvious attempt to prove by the Bible a position previously held for quite different reasons. The Bible should be studied in order to correct our attitudes and judge our prejudice, not to reconfirm our previous misconceptions.

Genesis 9:18 and 19 proclaims that all men are descended from Noah and thus have the same common ancestor. If all men belong to the same family, they should be able to live together in that one family in peace. May God help us in our time to find that way in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Clyde T. Francisco is John R. Sampey Professor of Old Testament at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. He holds the B.A. and D.D. degrees from the University of Richmond, and the Th.M. and Th.D. from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. His latest book is “Studies in Jeremiah.”

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